Gavin's Perspective

By Keith Kloor | August 4, 2010 12:25 pm

UPDATE: Gavin Schmidt has won kudos from skeptics in the comments below, who appreciate his participation in the thread and his responses to their questions.

There are two high-profile protagonists in the climate science community that are increasingly squaring off: Judith Curry and Gavin Schmidt. In an interview here yesterday, Curry elaborated on her most recent testy exchange with Schmidt over at Real Climate, as well as some of her by now well-known concerns about climate science.

Schmidt, unsurprisingly, has a different take on his exchange with Curry. He also questions the issues Curry has seized on and the charges she has leveled broadly at the climate science community. Schmidt addressed these and other matters, such as the politicization of climate science, in an email exchange with me last night and this morning.

KK. Can you identify issues where you agree with Judith Curry and where you disagree?

GS. I have absolutely no argument with Judy on any number of a dozen issues. We both agree that climate is a fascinating subject well deserving of the attention of the brightest minds around. We both agree that Feynman is a great role model. We agree that sustainability is indeed the overriding need and this involves much more than climate change – encompassing water resources, fisheries management, traditional kinds of air pollution, habitat loss etc. Climate change is going to play an ever bigger role in those issues as the century progresses but it will never be the only problem we have to deal with. Finding win-win solutions for both climate and these other problems are obviously preferable to being forced to choose one thing over another and climate scientists can certainly play a role in finding those solutions. I also absolutely agree that we should aim to depoliticize climate science.

I go to meetings and workshops and write papers with scientists across a wide range of the sub-disciplines, and in every single case I see scientists doing exactly what Judith (and I) think they should be doing. Looking into the issues, pinning down the questions, deciding what needs to be done to make progress. I don’t see any of this supposed ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘power politics’ she thinks are infecting the field. I just don’t recognise that in the work that is actually being done. For instance, I was part of a review paper with Phil Jones on high resolution paleo-climate records (Jones et al, 2009) and that was exemplary in the care that was paid to real issues and questions in the field.

Where I think we disagree is in what drives the politicisation and rancour. In my opinion it has very little to do with anything specific related to particular scientists or papers or how people treated Steve McIntyre. Instead, it is something that has happened to many fine scientists through no fault of their own, mainly because something got traction – Ben Santer, Steve Schnieder, Mike Mann, Phil Jones, have all had horrendous and untrue things said about them mainly because it was useful for some people to do that in order to discredit science and scientists. But if it hadn’t been them, it would have been someone else, and next year it will be. When people turn reasonable questions about science into excuses for personal abuse, it poisons the debate and makes it almost impossible to resolve things in an efficient manner. How can people have a dialog with someone who thinks that every word they say is a lie? Every time people throw around terms like fraud, corruption and crime without any basis, it just makes reasonable discussion harder. This is the hallmark of political rhetoric, not science, and blaming scientists for the state of affairs is completely backwards.

KK. In making her criticisms, should Judith consider a different approach and/or a different venue? What about you? Is there anything you think you can do differently that might facilitate a more constructive dialogue?

GS. There is a big difference in expectations for mainstream scientists who comment in the blogosphere. Like it or not, there are not very many who do so (and we could discuss why that is). Given the existing polarisation and politicization, this means that any individual voice is likely going to be imbued with more significance and get more attention than it necessarily deserves. In those circumstances, people need to be well prepared, know what it is they want to say, and make sure they say it clearly. That wasn’t always evident last weekend. There are also some strategic issues – linear conversations in one spot, perhaps on quieter blogs, are almost always more satisfying than sprawling multi-blog threaded conversations with multiple people, some of whom are posting very different things in different places. Playing games should be avoided at all costs. All of this is easier to handle if you have your own space which allows you to set the agenda and the tone, so if Judy wants to do more in this medium, she should certainly think about that. It’s not hard. But she should remember that as a good scientist, expectations will be higher and that she will be held to a higher standard than some less well known bloggers. There is a greater responsibility there.

Can we do something differently? I don’t know. We can always try and be more understanding of people’s points, but it helps a lot if they are made clearly rather than obliquely. Drive-by postings are not conducive to a nuanced discussion because too much gets said in-between times. We can always improve moderation – we deleted many comments that went too far in criticising posters (including Judy) rather than their arguments, but this is always hard when there is a lot of traffic, and over-moderation gets criticised just as much. If I can offer one observation that might help, it would be this – once you start to have an online presence in a field like this, it is inevitable that people will misunderstand and misrepresent you. You will be accused of thinking things you would actually find abhorrent and acting in ways that would be anathema. But it is important to remember that this has very little to do with you. You will end up as a some kind of symbol, and while people might talk about someone with your name and your place of work, it helps to think of them as an internet doppelganger.

KK. There is this perception of Real Climate as intolerant of dissenting opinions. Do you see any value in allowing occasional guests posts from climate scientists who have been critical of any tenets of mainstream climate science? If so, who would you consider as good candidates?

GS. It’s a convenient argument for some people to claim we don’t tolerate dissent. They don’t even need to try to engage. But it doesn’t stack up if you actually read any of the threads – lot’s of people disagree with us on many issues. Where we draw the line is with comments that turn methodological issues into personal ones, misrepresent us or insist that we or scientific colleagues are frauds, or that just bring up tired old contrarian talking points over and again. We don’t apologise for that, and I think are threads are more focused for it. If people don’t like it they don’t need to read. One issue is that RC is seen as the voice of the mainstream, and so that becomes a draw for all sorts of people. It’s a bit of a misperception – we don’t consult with anyone else before posting and we do not claim to speak for anyone other than us. Our main purpose is to talk about what real scientists are talking about and thinking, giving context to what people are talking about. I generally don’t find that the critics have much to add to that, but I suppose it could happen. None of them have ever suggested any such post. One possibility might be to support people like Roy Spencer when he takes on (as he did last week) people that erroneously insist that the greenhouse effect does not exist.

KK: I want to return to something you said at the outset, that you “absolutely agree that we should aim to depoliticize climate science.” How would you propose to do that? And I’m assuming you think that all sides–including members of the climate science community–should work towards this. How would you go about depoliticizing climate science?

GS: Well, let’s be clear about what we are talking about. We can’t make the political decisions about what to do about climate change (how to mitigate, how to adapt) go away. And we have to remember that the overwhelming majority of scientists working in this field are just trying to do their jobs as best they can, following where the data and understanding are leading them. I don’t see any politicisation in how the community does science and gets grants. So what I am referring to the fact that a few very select issues in the science have become political flash points. Studies in those fields have become lightning rods for very partisan and unpleasant campaigns, and Senators, Congressmen, lawyers and Attorneys-General have piled on to make political hay out of it, without any regard for the underlying issues. Really, no one is making policy decisions based on 15th Century tree rings!

One of the more worrying trends over the last few years has been the extent to which the rejection of climate science has become more party political in the US. I think this is very worrying – whereas 5 years ago you had Sherwood Bohlert (the Republican head of the House Science Committee), John McCain and Olympia Snowe in the Senate talking sensibly about the issue, this is something that is happening less often today. This has a number of causes which climate scientists can’t do much about, but it certainly fuels some of the rancor.

I think we can do a much better job in one or two key areas. First, we need to continue to stress that climate change is a multi-faceted problem – it doesn’t just involve CO2, but also CH4, ozone, black carbon and other aerosols. It isn’t caused by a single activity – cars and planes yes, but also power stations, deforestation, and agriculture. But with that complexity, and the inevitable intertwining of policies that affect climate with those that effect energy, public health and water resources, come opportunities. This is where I think the climate science community has not played its full role.

Take the ‘forcings’ diagram in the summary for policymakers in IPCC AR4 (Fig SPM 2). This shows the estimated contributions to the 1750-2000 radiative forcing from different constituents in the atmosphere. There is a lot of good science in there, but why do we think it is useful for policy makers? The decisions they make affect many of those constituents at once – sometimes with a net effect on climate that might be opposite to what was originally thought, and climate scientists have basically left it to the policy makers to work it out for themselves. So I think the second thing we should do is to provide more policy-specific science. We should be quantifying the consequences – not only for climate, but also for smog, congestion, public health etc. What impact would moving to plug-in hybrids have? You need to work out how the electricity is produced, but it turns out that reductions in ozone and black carbon make a big contribution to reducing climate forcing on top of the efficiency savings.

These co-benefits can bring along sometimes unexpected allies which often cross party lines – for instance, Inhofe has sponsored legislation to reduce black carbon effects.

Basically, though it sounds paradoxical, by getting more involved with policies, the climate science community can have less to do with politics. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking about CO2 – that would be irresponsible, but continuing to be clearer about the complexities can help get the conversations out of the rut.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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