It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Saturday, May 10, 2008

How Truth Loses Ground

This follows on to this recent Scientific American article ("Scientists Know Better than You") that Atmoz spotted.

In March 2007, just about when I started this blog, another article appeared in Scientific American by G Musser ("Please Stop Talking about the Global Warming Consensus") that made points very similar to the ones I started with here, about the perception of arrogance among legitimate scientists. Musser did not go so far as to discuss how the trap was baited.

We see many fine examples of denialists' victims. I find this one most striking:

When I encounter believers of Anthropogenic climate change who wish to force me to accept point-blank the whole story of how humans are destroying the environment, if not the world, with their wasteful ways and greenhouse-producing lifestyles, I have to feel that it is my duty to stand in direct opposition to them. In fact, what choice do I have but to believe that they are afraid of my facts because they are likely closer to the truth than theirs are and stand a chance of subverting their campaign--whatever that might be.

...

I for one am willing to stand my ground and defend what I feel is the Truth in Science. I must say that no matter what position I have taken, and what I say about it, I am alway willing to be convinced otherwise. But to be convinced that climate change is taking place by other mostly natural causes, the AGW proponents have to be convincing. Brute force will not do the job. It amazes me that they continually resort to harsher tactics and more extreme exclamations of their points to berate non-believers. It just doesn't work. Instead, it polarizes the debate into factions which more and more represent extreme positions on the issue and the reality is stuck in the middle with almost no one left to defend it.

Important things to note: 1) these people (victims of denialism) are not stupid 2) they are very interested in science and truth 3) if this person is indicative, and I believe he is, they overvalue their ability to detect truth on the basis of what is "convincing" and 4) they don't understand the disadvantage scientists in an underfunded field have in competing against professional opinion swayers.

The tilt on the playing field is invisible to the public. This is how the press has failed us.

18 comments:

Aaron said...

I for one feel that reality is much harsher than anything presented in the IPCC.
The IPCC fails to address the issues of land based ice sheets. These issues include ocean to ice transfer of (latent) heat driven by local temperature differences, failure to address heat transfer through ice sheets by advection, and failure to address changes in the strength of the basement ice because of heating. I for one feel that reality is much harsher than anything presented in the IPCC.

The IPCC fails to address the issues of land based ice sheets. These issues include ocean to ice transfer of (latent) heat driven by local temperature differences, failure to address heat transfer through ice sheets by advection, and failure to address changes in the strength of the basement ice because of heating.

Cumulatively, these issues lead us to believe that we have more time to act. This encourages economic analysis that discounts future costs. In fact, there is a fair chance of rapid an sudden impacts from AGW.

Moreover, it is in the nature of public policy and engineering that sudden actions are much more costly than actions planned over the longer term. The compounding of all of these issues and factors will result in costs that are many orders of magnitude greater and which come in a tiny fraction of the time which the IPCC contemplates.

Bottom line: The IPCC is funded by governments and governments do not want to spread panic. I am not saying that they have lied, only that there was no incentive to seek out the truth.

John Fleck said...

Michael -

Based on a recent underlying thread in your posts, I think you have an opportunity to make a useful contribution to the discussion here.

Your concern, expressed repeatedly, is about the failures of the press. There is a rich literature regarding how the media-public understanding of science-political-policy ecosystem functions. Your critique would be most useful if it drew on this literature, rather than your current approach, which is to draw on your own intuitive understanding of how you believe the system ought to function.

You've got at least one member of the news media (me) among your audience. I think we share the same goal here - the desire for public policy decisions to appropriately incorporate good science, and the desire to optimize the news media's role in this process. I've spent a lot of time in the literature over the last couple of years, trying to understand why my intuitive ideas of my role in the process, and the outcomes I expected to happen, didn't match reality. But it's a big literature, and I admit I've only scratched the surface.

As it is, your critique reminds me very much of the persistent newspaper readers intent on helping me understand climate change by explaining how successful Leif Erickson was farming Greenland during the medieval warm period. Like them, your critique needs to be grounded in the literature rather than your intuitions to be of use.

Steven said...

"4) they don't understand the disadvantage scientists in an underfunded field have in competing against professional opinion swayers."

This sounds like you're making your mockery in the blog title less funny. Don't accuse me of acting in my own self interest, however, we could use more funds.

I guess the only logical answer is that you are a martyr and acting solely altruistically, for the good of the planet and all those other people.

Michael Tobis said...

John, I am barely keeping my head above water, which is why I just rant here rather than saying anything of substance. I hope my rants are of some interest to some people. If I ever get my various obligations under control and stop having a long series of low-grade illnesses I will consider taking you up on this.

Supposing I did, though.

I don't know anything about the literature to which you refer. I am not sure it addresses the point that I intuit, which is that the social origins of the scientific information and that the social origins of the disinformation are not being examined.

The public perceives two bands of scientists rather than a more normal spectrum of opinion and a few wild outliers. The public confuses climatology, civil engineering and ecological communities interested in climate change, and policy advocates.

It's my belief that who believes what and why they believe it needs to be expressed regularly and accessibly. It's my belief that this stuff needs to be on the front page and the editorial lead at least once a week and in the paper and on the TV news every day. I don't know how you would write an academic paper testing such beliefs.

At least I can build a half-baked model of the processes that interest me. How do you test a counterfactual like that in the social sciences?

Michael Tobis said...

Steven, you surely may accuse me of acting in my self interest. I am not aspiring to sainthood.

It just makes no sense to accuse me of acting illegitimately in my self interest to join a conspiracy to misrepresent the climate problem. The reason is that anyone with the skills and moral flexibility to be capable of such a conspiracy is not likely to spend their time pursuing a doctorate in meteorology.

I would very much like more money to go to the field in general (which is really not as flush as people seem to think) and relatively more for myself. One of the requirements for doing this kind of work is a willingness to demean oneself asking for funds that will directly profit nobody.

I'm not clever enough to lie about my results in such a way that the AAAS, the AGU, the Royal Society, the AMS, the NAS, etc. will back me up against the best interests of society at large though, even if you doubt that I am morally constrained.

While personality disorders among scientists are not unknown, I do not know of even a single scientist who is that sociopathic, never mind thousands of them.

John Fleck said...

Michael -

Since your hypothesis does seem untestable, perhaps the starting point might be to look at what actually ends up in people's brains, and what changes occur in resulting beliefs and behavior, from a suitable test case where information has been accurately and repeatedly presented.

One such test might look issues where the public's factual understanding is clearly wrong (the nationality of the 9/11 hijackers is a good example, or the lack of discovery of WMD's in Iraq) and do some sort of quantitative analysis of news coverage.

I'll ping Nisbet and see if he knows of any such studies of those two or other questions and let him know what he says.

bi -- Intl. J. Inact. said...

Tobis, Fleck:

In my spare time I've been trying to come up with a taxonomy of AGW conspiracy theories showing how they've evolved into their current incompatible (and incomprehensible) forms. If you happen to find any resources related to this -- including how environmentalists and mainstream scientists came to be viewed as "communists" in the first place -- do let me know too!

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Anna said...

> "perhaps the starting point might be to look at what actually ends up in people's brains"

Do you guys personally know any good-faith, non-financially-interested doubters? You can get a whole lot of insight just from talking to them - IMO research is likely to actually yield less insight, because the path of inquiry will be more constrained.

> "taxonomy of AGW conspiracy theories showing how they've evolved into their current incompatible (and incomprehensible) forms."

I think this is a case of creationism by a sociopathic deity(aka some very deep-pocketed market research), not evolution.

anna said...

John, does your paper have a Readers' Circle or equivalent, from which you could select a few people at random to study (& inform) further?

Anna said...

further Q for John -

Could you do a "how should we make up our minds about stuff that we're not an expert in?" piece for your paper? A piece that's based largely on discussions with your [non-professional] doubter readers.

David Kestenbaum of NPR ended his Kirsten Byrnes piece with a hands-thrown-up "how do we know anything anyway"; it'd be interesting to see a journalist take this further, into constructive territory.

Michael Tobis said...

I agree with Kestenbaum that this is the right question and would like the press to take it up as a key theme of modern life.

I like Anna's reference to opinions being created rather than evolving, and wonder if we shouldn't really confuse everybody by calling ourselves "creationists".

Our core belief about climate change is that the public is confused primarily because of a deliberate effort to confuse them; i.e., that the controversy was created by an intelligent agent.

Anna said...

BTW here's the relevant Nisbet piece -
(there are links in the original)
("Yet dozens of studies show that public communication campaigns face many barriers in actually educating the public, with the great majority of citizens lacking either the motivation or the ability to learn from the quality nuggets of information scattered across our fragmented media system. It’s also not clear which dimensions of knowledge about climate change would serve as the catalysts for support for meaningful policy action. Moreover, as the differences in views between college-educated Republicans and Democrats suggest, knowledge is often filtered through the prism of partisanship and ideology. As a recent UK government report on climate change communication emphasizes: “Providing information is not wrong; relying on information alone to change attitudes is wrong.”")

Steven said...

Thanks Michael, I think for once we're on the same point.

My point being... people on "your side" (apologies) regularly accuse opponents of doing exactly that.

I've just been trying to point out lately how everyone does exactly what they accuse opponents of doing (in terms of the debate), while loudly complaining that they are themselves being done to.

I keep seeing the same non-topic debate tactics, language, and perspective skew on all sides. And even while engaging in it, both sides acting as if they are the innocent.

bi -- Intl. J. Inact. said...

Steven:

If you can point to any specific case where "alarmists" have published a list of 500 scientists of which 50+ are known to be bogus, please tell us.

If you can point to any specific case where "alarmists" have specifically compared themselves to Galileo, please tell us.

Your argument that "both sides do it" rings hollow.

* * *

Anna:

"I think this is a case of creationism by a sociopathic deity(aka some very deep-pocketed market research), not evolution."

For lack of a better term, I think I'll still call it "evolution". Thus, AGW conspiracy theories have "evolved", in the same sense that the telephone "evolved" from Bell's form to modern-day devices -- the mutations are due to (largely) conscious processes, but they're mutations to existing ideas, rather than new ideas constructed ex nihilo in big acts of design.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Michael Tobis said...

Steven, as the Heartland Institute just demonstrated so clearly, the fact that you agree with me does not mean I agree with you.

There are not two sides within science. There is a spectrum of opinion within science at whose center lies the IPCC.

There is an organized effort to confuse the public, which has been successful in positioning itself as the other 'side', but they are the first 'side'. Before they showed up there were no 'sides', just a healthy spectrum of opinion. The confusionists are not a scientific body (they do not seek a coherent testable theory of their own) but purely a political creature.

Let us acknowledge that among the scientists there are those who have taken note of such political attacks on public understanding of science. (Remarkably many climate scientists remain blissfully ignorant about the whole political situation, even today.) Let us call this group the "opposing camp". In this group, where I may be counted, those who believe the situation is most urgent are perhaps overrepresented.

You can't call Connolley out as an alarmist, though, for instance. William just wants to help clear the nonsense out of the communication channel. We may disagree about the extent of the present danger while still opposing efforts to promote misinformation and confusion.

The "other side" then is not the group represented by the IPCC, it is the subgroup who understands the science believes that the public deserves clear communication from the scientists it supports, and thus that extra efforts are required.

This latter group is entirely a volunteer effort so far. There is no funding mechanism and no professional political advice for us. We are not only outfunded we are quite likely outnumbered, certainly in available hours for the task.

Now whether or not you accept my description of these camps, it is clear that each accuses the other of dishonesty. On this point it is hard to see how they both might be wrong. Somebody is willfully misrepresenting the evidence.

You may expect the injured party to be outraged and the guilty party to feign outrage, but these behaviors, though outwardly similar, are not the same.

The symmetry you see is the dishonest people wearing camouflage.

Reading articles about "global warming theory" is no way to test this. Scientists write articles for each other about the atmosphere and the ocean and the ice, not about "global warming theory". As you see from Tapio's article in Skeptic, when we try to explain the sotry, we don't talk about "global warming theory" we talk about the principles of climatology.

I don't know if there is a fair test of this question shy of a couple of semesters of meteorology following the usual calculus and physics sequence. You just have to decide whom to trust.

If the wh9ole litany NAS, AAAS, Royal Society, AMS, AGU etc. etc. aren't enough to convince you who the good guys are

The whole of science is at stake here, and countries that get this wrong risk more than a bad greenhouse policy.

Steven said...

In response to "bi -- Intl. J. Inact."

My understanding is that the original "consensus" list of AGW proponents (scientists names) consisted of many people who were nominally scientists, although in completely unrelated fields, various activists with no scientific background, some people of completely mysterious origin- such as elementary schoolteachers, several people who turned out not to exist at all, and some scientists who had indeed contributed to the IPCC report, but said they were by no means advocating AGW and wished to have there names removed. I believe some filed suit to have their names removed.

Now, I'm not going to claim I have the time to stamp all this out. I do occasionally have things to do.

However, with a quick web search, I found this, which claims to be a petition of 19,000 and offers this "This listing has been very carefully verified. It contains one and only one entry for each scientist and contains no entries for individuals who are not trained in science or who did not sign the petition."

And also this in response to some letter questioning the veracity: http://www.oism.org/news/s49p1834.htm

Finally, I don't doubt at all that some of the 500 names in the Heartland Inst. list may have indeed produced scientific research that does, or can be interpretted to be contrary to AGW. Neverhteless, they may have withdrawn their support due to pressure, or preferred not to have their positions represented by the Heartland Inst.

How many people do you know that will publicly agree in class with someone crticizing a professor? People's public positions do not always accurately represent their findings or beliefs.

That is conjecture and common sense only, and otherwise I know little or nothing about the Heartland Inst. or their list.

Other random quick hits:
Former IPCC Member Slams UN Scientists' Lack of Geologic Knowledge. http://newsbusters.org/node/13971

I don't make any claims on these. They could be religious nuts for all I know. I just found em with a quick Google. The 19,000 petition is certainly interesting though.

Michael Tobis said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_Petition

bi -- Intl. J. Inact. said...

Steven:

"How many people do you know that will publicly agree in class with someone crticizing a professor? People's public positions do not always accurately represent their findings or beliefs."

Holy Zeus, not this again.

* * *

Anna, Tobis:

By the way, regarding the taxonomy -- or should I say genealogy -- of climate conspiracy theories I was talking about, here's my initial effort at one: Towards a genealogy of climate conspiracy theories.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism