Debating How to Debate Severe Weather

By Keith Kloor | October 26, 2011 11:32 pm

The Planet 3.0 post I was praising the other day has generated an interesting thread, especially this exchange, which starts with a great question from one commenter:

Can I ask, particularly of those who are professionally immersed in this, does the difficulty in talking about extreme events stem from a genuine lack of knowledge and understanding about the science or is it predominantly an issue of articulation, the problem of parcelling up the concepts into language, perhaps for ourselves as much as for others?

I know this is to some extent a false dichotomy and maybe the better question to ask would be “˜to what extent does the way in which we attempt to parcel up our understanding of the science into language impact on that understanding?’

William Connolley responds:

The problem is that extreme events, being extreme, don’t fit statistical analysis well. So if you look at, say, simple global surface T, you can do statistical analysis to show that yes, it is increasing and yes, it is significant. Doing the same with extreme events is much harder.

One argument (which I’d push) is that the correct response is not to use the extreme events. We don’t need them to demonstrate GW. But people do like to use them for “oh look how bad it will be”.

I really admire the way the conversation is taking place over there. It’s unreasonable to expect every thread to shine. But so far, so good!

Those who feel they can constructively contribute to this discussion should participate in that thread.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change
  • Dan Moutal

    I still say you should apply for an invite… hint hint:)

  • Keith Kloor

    I don’t mind being moderated. It’s a useful check on my ugly side. 

  • EdG

    #2. Me too.

  • Tom Fuller

    I ain’t going back over there, but Connelly’s comment makes sense. And I’m no fan of his.

  • huxley

    But I can hardly read a paragraph from Curry about an actual scientific question without finding gobsmackingly sophomoric mistakes.

    Michael Tobis

    Having never retracted or softened the above statement — much less supported it — I assume Dr. Tobis stands by it, since he was called out several times.

    Given that Dr. Curry is a Professor and Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgie Institute of Technology, Dr. Tobis’s claim is libel, or close to it, of Dr. Curry’s professional reputation.

    Now I’m not in favor of chasing after people with lawsuits based on blog comments, but that comment was quite an ugly and false thing for Dr. Tobis to say. If Keith Kloor moderated Dr. Tobis for ugliness or by Dr. Tobis’s metric, “truth-seeking,” that comment should never have appeared.

    It’s hard for me to conclude that Dr. Tobis is anything other than a hypocrite and a highly partisan advocate for climate change. I won’t go anywhere near his blog.

  • Stu

    Huxley @4

    I don’t see the point of bringing this up now. If there’s a sensible conversation on climate change happening somewhere in blogland, why not support it? We all know the litany by now, who said what and who did what to whom. It’s unproductive to keep on going over the same things. I’m tired of this strategy to totally delegitemise someone based on a single comment that they may have made somewhere.  It derails the topic, since we end up talking about this other horrible thing the person did/said, it closes down debate. 

    Yes, people do need to watch what they’re saying on the internet… a comment is forever. But everyone has something worthwhile or sensible to say at one point or another, if not generally. So lets stick to the conversation of the moment, imo. 

  • William M. Connolley

    @H: mt’s statement seems quite uncontroversial to me. for an example, but there are far more.

    @Keith: if I’d known you were going to pull my humble comment out I’d have wasted time over phrasing it carefully. What I’d add is: we don’t need extreme events to demonstrate the reality of GW. But arguably (in the case of floods for example) it is the extreme events that will cause the bulk of the damage (at least for that type of event). So we still need to understand them, and try to predict their stats. And (if you assume that the bulk of the damage comes from extremes (which contrary to my first is indeed arguable: you could argue that most damage will come from ecological problems, which could come from the mean)) that explains why people talk about them a lot.

  • Keith Kloor

    Stu (6)

    Very well said. I’m so annoyed by this tactic, which is used to score points or, as you said, derail a conversation, by both sides. My frustration boiled over in the green heretic thread due to this.

    WC: The editor in me likes to curate, so when I see notable exchanges or comments in threads, I like to highlight them, if nothing else than to remind people of the value of smart blog conversation. 

  • hunter

    So once again the AGW community has to redefine words and terms in order to push their beliefs.
    For the idea that extreme weather is not important to the issue of GW, I would suggest that it is actually the only issue. If the impact of GW is not significant on weather, then who should care? If the weather does not change to make crops fail more, or to make storms destroy more, then who should give a rat’s behind?
    And certainly who should, if the great GW is not going to have much impact, support shaking down the world for literally trillions of dollars?
    This never ending focus on defining the terms of the problem in order to sell it better is a tacit admission that the actual claims of the AGW community are incorrect. The need to do this implies strongly that at some level it is understood by even the believers that GW is a faith based proposition that clings to some sciencey sounding stuff: In other words, another social mania.

  • jeffn

    So what happens if you convince people that climate change is all man-made and all bad? How do they process such information? Remember the old adage “be careful what you wish for…”
    So, the public supports “solutions” to the “catastrophe” that aren’t on the pre-approved political list. Well! It may be the most important/catastrophic/imminent thing in the world – but please, let’s keep the discussion to tax increase and more government power. I mean, why consider any deviation from the same-old, same-old liberal political platform just to avoid calamity? Next thing you know they’ll be babbling about nukes and…. hey, Lynas! Dammit, that’s unhelpful man! Heretic!

  • Keith Kloor


    There is no need to “sell it”–as WC says, there is evidence enough of global warming.

    That the impacts don’t yet register enough for man-on-the-street is what this particular debate (severe weather linkage) relates to. Personally, I don’t think that is going to be a winning approach, for reasons that William gets at.   

    The doing something about global warming issue is separate and pertains more to the realm of risk and values.

  • Sashka

    Just because Connoley decided to give an honest answer once doesn’t mean I’ll talk to him on their turf.

  • Keith Kloor


    You’re wrong about that. But fine if you want to let get personal animus get in the way.

    Also, pay attention to what Stu said.

    All this flaming back and forth has gotten me sufficiently pissed off that I’m going to start exerting a heavier hand in moderation. 

  • Sashka


    I already tried to speak to these people under their moderation and I have learned from my mistake. People very rarely change, you should know that. They can change tactics and manners when it suits the purpose but it’s still the same guy no so deep inside. Yesterday you behaved exactly the same way WRT Lambert whose critique of Lynas was perfectly reasonable to the neutral observer. Yet you have enough background on him to know what he is. You had no interest to maintain the “conversation of the moment” as Stu is calling to. So why are you telling me that? You know that I am willing to engage with anybody. Just not under their moderation.

    @ Stu

    Comments are forever only until the moderator erases them.


  • Marlowe Johnson

    I think this subsequent comment by MT is an interesting one:

    “As an engineer, I would say that systems far from equilibrium demonstrate modes that can be neglected in systems near equilibrium. (Fenders do not crumple on cars under ordinary operating conditions, but they do when the car is subject to forces outside its ordinary operating range.) So sooner or later we can expect transient dynamics that don’t appear in the near-equilibrium dynamics.”

    I would suggest that those of us that fall into the ‘alarmist’ camp are more concerned with the implications of these sorts of changes than we are with coarse global metrics like climate sensitivity or statistical trends in extreme weather events.  

    It seems to me that people who take a more pollyanish view tend to think about climate change in linear terms and adjust their view of impacts and adaptation on that basis.  

  • hunter

    Thanks for your reply. It was not really a topical reply, however.
    For womethign that does not need to be sold, it is amazing that conference after con=ference held and article after article is written by AGW believers to sell the idea, or to analyze why the latest marketing effort failed.
    Please explain why you are able to detect a change in the weather that the average man on the street is not?
    And while you are at it, why does your perception -and that of your community- entitle you to other people’s money?
    It would also be nice to who how windmills, for instance, make us less vulnerable to the extreme weather that GW must consist of if GW actually exists.

  • Keith Kloor

    Sashka, you are a neutral observer?

    Lambert’s critique of Lynas had nothing to do with the subject of the post. It was cherrypicking. If was solely intended to undercut him. And distract from the arguments Lynas makes his new book, which was discussed in that Yale interview. 

    People from both camps do that sort of thing all the time. As Stu said, it’s a cynical strategy, intended “to totally delegitemise someone” based on isolated instances.

    Anyone can play that game, since we all say/write stuff that could easily be highlighted to score points.

    Just to be clear: It’s fair to assert that someone has lost credibility or should not be taken seriously because of a pattern of false statements or poorly reasoned blog posts/articles/etc.

    I’m okay with that. People should be held accountable. I’m just saying it should be done fairly.

    My beef with Lambert is that he wasn’t playing fair.

    It is my hope that neutral observers could see that.

  • hunter

    William Connolley at #7 you assert that we do not need extreme weather to demonstrate GW.
    When did that change occur?  Why was it not communicated soone and more loudly so that untold numbers of trees and PBS specials could have not been made, improving the environment?  How many congressional hearings and speeches by Hansen etc. could have been on some different topic other than the risks of extreme weather and ‘storms of my grandchildren’?
    If AGW is not about extreme weather, what in the heck is it about?
    Are we going to be destroyed by moderate weather?
    Perhaps what you are actually doing is retrenching- the trends on storms and droughts are histroically unchanged. The so-called dramatic changes in temperatures amount to triviality. So is the latest marketing effort to be claiming that average weather is the great CO2 caused climate catastrophe? And the only way to deal with it is by building things that do not work, like windmills and solar arrays, and not building things that do work, like gas fired and coal fired power plants or nuclear power plants.
    I would suggest that promoting AGW is going to take a lot more marketing effort.

  • William M. Connolley

    @18: it has always been true. Don’t blame me, or scientists, for the meeja.

    > If AGW is not about extreme weather, what in the heck is it about?

    If you’re really capable of asking a question like that, you haven’t been paying attention. You could try reading which will tell you about some of the other issues. I’ve already mentioned some, above. 

    > the trends on storms and droughts are histroically unchanged

    Ah, note that I *didn’t* say that at all. Nor do I believe it. You just made it up.

    @H: Would you like some more of Curry’s errors? 

  • Sashka


    Very often I’m not neutral. But in the spat between Lambert and Lynas I am.

  • OPatrick

    Keith, thanks for picking out my question here and I agree entirely with your comments about the quality of conversation – but to be honest I don’t think it was initiated by my question (which hasn’t really been addressed, explicitly at least).

  • hunter

    I do ask the question, because if AGW is not going to cause more pain and suffering, then who gives a flip?
    And using wikipedia to defend your inability to answer a climate question means you don’t really have an answer.
    that you do not beleive that the historic trends of flood and storm events and losses are unchanged only means you are wrong.
    And no, sadly for you, I did not make it up. It happens to be true.
    And now that we see the climatocracy has been fibbing and misleading people like you- as skeptics have been claiming they do- for a number of years, perhaps you need to reflect a bit before you post a reply.

  • huxley

    Stu @ 6: In this post KK praises a conversation at Tobis’s and upholds Tobis’s moderation style, although Tobis commmenting here on Dr. Curry was false and ugly — violating KK’s concern against ugliness and Tobis’s concern for truth-seeking.

    So I’m asking questions about consistency and checking to see if Tobis or his allies can either support that statement or whether Tobis will do the right thing and retract his statement.

    It’s not hard to do and if one is intellectually honest it is required when one makes a false charge that serious.

    So far Tobis will neither support nor retract his statement. Color me unsurprised.

  • huxley

    William M. Connolley @ 7: Again, here is what Tobis said: “But I can hardly read a paragraph from Curry about an actual scientific question without finding gobsmackingly sophomoric mistakes.”.

    I’m sure Dr. Curry makes mistakes and I understand that you disagree with her in various ways. But that hardly is equivalent to saying that she makes one or more “gobsmackingly sophomoric mistakes” in almost every scientitic paragraph she writes.

    I defy you, Dr. Tobis, or any other Curry detractor to back that claim up in its own terms. Citing a bare link that takes Curry to task on some point or two does not qualify.

    I am not a climate scientist, so I’m limited in how far I can follow the technical discussion of climate science.

    But when climate scientists and their allies make irresponsible, ugly and false claims as Dr. Tobis has about Dr. Curry, that I can follow and it gives me the impression that these scientists are indeed close-minded, sloppy thinkers who will say whatever they can get away with in support of the climate science agenda.

  • Keith Kloor


    I could spend every waking minute of the day repudiating real and perceived offenses.

    I’ve already said that I don’t make summary judgements of people based on individual comments, posts, articles, etc.

    Your harping on this is approaching vendetta territory. You’ve made your point numerous times in posts that have nothing to do with this. Now move on, because I’m really low on patience with this BS. If you can’t help yourself, then you might require moderation. Your choice.


  • willard

    > although Tobis commmenting here on Dr. Curry was false and ugly 

    This is the second time huxley says that in passing, as if it went without saying.  Perhaps even the third.  Repeating it does not make it true, nor does it make it relevant.

    We could pay due diligence to the only comment huxley quoted thus far.  We could then read the reasons MT provided to back up his opinion.  We could inquire into the meaninglessness of saying that en editorial is “false”.  

  • willard


    Your site has been hijacked.



    Please beware the emails you provide.

  • Keith Kloor


    Before you go sowing panic, how about explaining what you mean. You also have my email address, so you could just easily tell me there, too. 

  • willard

    Sorry, Keith.

    I went to your main page from another computer.

    A page full of ads was inserted before your posts.

    I can’t reproduce it, but I have not the means nor the time to check this.

    Perhaps it comes from the computer I am using, but I doubt it.

    It looked like an injection.  A spam bot. 

    I should have sent you an email instead.  Sorry.

    * * *

    In any case, my advice is a sound one.  When you put an email adress into a database somewhere on the Internet, there are fair chances it will end up into another one’s. 


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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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