The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lindzen Diatribe

It looks like Lubos Motl gets credit for the first notice in the blogosphere of Lindzen's astonishing new rant about the state of climate science.

As is often the case with people who are too sure of themselves, he turns out guilty of some of the things he accuses his opponents of. He politicizes and conspiratorializes rather than simply addressing the problem dispassionately. His personal characterization of other scientists is grossly excessive in at least one occasion. I am inclined to extrapolate that his understanding of specific events is similarly skewed.

It's important to acknowledge that there is a legitimate point underneath all this bile. While scientists may be obligated to be advocates in extreme situations, science itself must remain distinct from advocacy if it is to be of any use at all. This is absolutely crucial in matters of public import.

There are definitely signs that the capacity of science to absorb new information is in decline. This may indeed bias the perception in client sciences (which use the output of climate science) of the extent and timing of anticipated climate disruption.

It's essential, for example, that the IPCC not overstate the certainty of its conclusions and that the community remain open to reasonably well-formed criticism. Any evidence that anything else has been happening in the past should be met with something other than emotive defensiveness. This may be hard given the confrontational tone adopted by some of the critics, including Lindzen here.

Science must make judgments, and some of those it finds wanting will always be offended. I am reasonably convinced that Lindzen's "iris effect" is refuted; Lindzen apparently is not. It is hard to know when to close such a debate, especially with a person who has made real contributions in the past.

I'm not softening on Lindzen. Indeed think this particular contribution is rather toxic. Still, it's obvious that (to the extent that he wrote this) he isn't so far gone as to be considered stupid.

I actually think the community has been extremely tolerant of Lindzen, going quite some way to allow his theories into print. It's the unestablished outsider that has a real complaint, as far as I can see.

Any evidence that the publication selection method is based on something other than science is a cause for concern; alas, there is evidence for such. It's not about "politics" in the usual sense though. It's basically that many scientists can't write, many scientists have no time to read, and the entire publication mechanism that is the metric of performance is consequently flawed. The bias is toward papers emerging from established research groups. If this becomes excessive science becomes "academic" in the worst sense.

Which brings us back to Lindzen's diatribe. I am hoping the bizarre snipe at Ray P was ghostwritten. It's inexcusable. I am confident that Ray has never publicly addressed scientific matters other than scientifically, and is in no reasonable sense fanatical. At best, Lindzen "approved the message". As such he is very clearly participating in the degradation of scientific conversation he claims to be bemoaning. As far as I am concerned, this one gross misstatement colors the credibility of the entire article. Perhaps others will find other similarly grotesque mischaracterizations elsewhere.

Crude swipes at the few people with the talent to both read and write effectively at the highest levels hardly seem designed to improve matters.

Likely this paper will be a Palinesque effort, energizing the "base" who have preconceived notions along these lines, and having little effect elsewhere.

It's a shame. We do need to rethink how science is done. This sort of injured and injurious argumentation will do little to advance that prospect.

12 comments:

Dano said...

In my mind, things such as this are indicators of death paroxysms.

I agree that scientists need to communicate more gooder. I'm not exactly sure how that can best be accomplished, but I do know that the GFs and my audiences appreciate the fact that we can make things understandable without oversimplification (we are even presenting together in a few weeks in Atlanta), and in my mind it is more than just a mandatory communications class in undergrad; I think scientific reflection/analysis and communication are not natural partners.

At any rate, Lindzen appears bitter and partisan to me. Ah, well. Would that he wrote something once in a while worth discussing, instead of the occasional IED in the WSJ.

Best,

D

thingsbreak said...

Still, it's obvious that (to the extent that he wrote this) he isn't so far gone as to be considered stupid.

From an earlier Lindzen screed:

When an issue like global warming is around for over twenty years, numerous agendas are developed to exploit the issue. The interests of the environmental movement in acquiring more power and influence are reasonably clear. So too are the interests of bureaucrats for whom control of CO2 is a dream-come-true. After all, CO2 is a product of breathing itself.

I submit that this statement is a non sequitur of such staggering proportions as to be indistinguishable from objective stupidity.

One can swap "flatus" for "breathing" for a clearer sense of how ridiculous it is.

I haven’t read this latest piece, but I would be surprised if it was not rife with similar... fallaciousness.

AdamW said...

"It's essential, for example, that the IPCC not overstate the certainty of its conclusions and that the community remain open to reasonably well-formed criticism. Any evidence that anything else has been happening in the past should be met with something other than emotive defensiveness. This may be hard given the confrontational tone adopted by some of the critics, including Lindzen here."

I think this very neatly sums up why the various forms of attack on the climate community have made it harder for well formed, valid criticism can be badly handled.

I would go further and suugest that that's possibly one intended outcome of such attacks. Whether Lindzen's pieces fall into such a category is relevant only if you are interested in him personally, for the effect is the same.

Lumo said...

Dear Michael, I thought that you were complaining that I am acknowledged in Prof Lindzen's article.

Your criticism is interesting. One thing that strikes me about Richard's text is how incredibly peaceful and calm it is.

In my opinion, it is more peaceful and calm than the situation deserves.

Lumo said...

And don't tell me that you don't realize that Pierehumbert is a fanatical nutcase. Just check a few texts involving him here. He should be recommended a psychiatrist.

Marion Delgado said...

Michael, about science-as-it-is I feel more conservative all the time. I worry about the directions people want to fix it in. Not you, but a lot of people, to clarify.

On a semi-personal note, my favorite sociology/philosophy of science writer, the retired physical chemist Hank Bauer, has become another raving denialist of virtually everything that smacks of a consensus. Things like that make me lean more towards Feynman's opinion on evaluating science (vs., say, a Paul Feyerabnd). It doesn't help that the only news-making person in the analysis of science field lately was Steve Fuller, who works for the Discovery Institute sometimes.

Science is one of the least broke things in existence, although at the peripheries it has serious issues, granted. Chris Mooney has been very good there. And not to say science is perfect, but the mechanism of peer-reviewed journals , verification of observations, and, frankly, accepting and moving beyond a consensus on what data is and usually on what it means, has a really good track record. Especially compared to the programs of its biggest critics.

What's mainly changed is, you not only have to filter out your own biases, sources of experimental error, the effects of time and competition pressures, etc., but now you have to worry about deliberate malfeasance. The irony is, journals and newspapers (filters) are more important than ever, but they're dying off.

Marion Delgado said...

forgot to say a very good post, michael. anyone who's observed ray on the net knows how patient he is and how willing to repeat endlessly the facts and explanations behind some scientific point or claim.

It is very nice to see you periodically making the point that you don't settle scientific claims by tribal feuding or invective.

Pico said...

Lumo,

I for one find the articles by Pierehumbert at RealClimate rather illuminating. The long rant by Lubos Motl at the page you link to suggests rather that he, and perhaps you, are the fanatical nutcases. Particularly since the page includes a number of very tired denialist talking points that have been debunked time and time again in many forums.

Michael Tobis said...

Pico: Lumo and LUbos MOtl are one and the same.

He joins with his president in thinking that our faults and our strengths are all attributable to being a quasi-stalinist totalitarian conspiracy. His behavior is actually quite reasonable in that light. Central Europeans have actually endured such conspiracies for a couple of generations and should be forgiven for their false positives. In turn they should take a deep breath and consider for a moment the possibility that there is more to this matter than CO2-as-fascist-scapegoat.

Now that we have his attention I suppose I ought to ask; Motl, if you are inclined to answer, are you, as I find myself guessing, a descendant of the smallish tribe of Hungarian speaking Jews from Slovakia?

If so we are distant cousins...

Either way, I think we should compromise. I will work to avoid the catastrophe you fear if you work to avoid the catastrophe I fear. The symmetry is imperfect, to be sure. It's not in the central European worldview to take existential threats too lightly, but I wish you would understand there is more than one thing to worry about.

thingsbreak said...

Lubos:

I can count about 13 claims (some redundant) that can be evaluated as far as the science goes. An additional four or five factually can be evaluated.

What of this screed are you backing?

Please elaborate at length about raypierre being an extremist.

Thanks,
thingsbreak

ourchangingclimate said...

Nice post; you bring a lot of things together here. You have good point about the need to remain open to criticism, but diagonally going over Lindzen’s piece, I see not much of worth in it. Indeed, with some “skeptics” being so shrill and accusing the scientific community of doing what they do themselves (politicizing the science), I find it hard to take them seriously. The more serious and honest skeptics end up not being heard either, even though they may actually have something to contribute.

The warning of not overstating the certainty may also be valid in the other direction: We shouldn’t understate the certainty either, or the relevance of the certainty. The latter is important because the public at large has a very different perception of the concept of uncertainty than scientists have. The concept of risk may be much more useful in communicating the science to the public and to policymakers. The bottom line, in my view, is that “if it’s bad, it’s really bad; if it’s good, it’s still pretty bad”. In saying so, am I taking an advocacy position as a scientist, or am I merely engaging in more effective communication of scientific uncertainty? Or both?

Understating the upper bounds of the uncertainty interval may also occur; I’m thinking of the example of scientific retinence regarding sea level rise, as argued by Hansen and Rahmstorf.

You bring up the issue of the role of (the number of) publications in science, and how established research groups and scientists may have an advantage in getting things published. That is a real issue, for science as a whole, as well as for young scientists trying to establish a research career.

EliRabett said...

On Reality Check, Werner Aeschbach Hertig has an excellent example of Lindzen's obtuseness.