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)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Followup re Huge Sensitivity Arguments

Regarding the overwrought claims of the climateprediction.net crowd that I discussed recently, my friend Ursa pointed out in conversation that "no intelligent informed person" takes Allen's "disingenuous" press releases seriously. I pointed out that the qualifier begged the question, and that besides, in a democracy, informed intelligent people don't have as much influence as one would like. His reply was interesting. He pointed out that if informed, intelligent people don't resort to the same tactics as the enemies of reason, they lose in the ill-informed less-than-intelligent marketplace of ideas.

A disturbing defense of exaggeration

Remember the Market for Lemons idea?

"When deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead."

So U. argues that Allen et al should be forgiven, because although the sensitivity is not 10 C, the risks are really really bad, so people might as well have a big number to chew on. In an emergency, you might well yell "fire!" in a theatre, say, rather than "significant likelihood of a release of a disabling neurotoxin!" You are lying about the fire but not the emergency, because there isn't time to convey the actual nature of the emergency in such a way that people will act in proportion to their actual risk. You are providing shallow misinformation as a proxy of the valid but inaccessible information.

The idea that this might be necessary is very disturbing to scientists. I believe that politicians live with it constantly. This is part of why the interface between science and policy sucks.

None for me, thanks

I disagree with this idea of tricking people into doing what they would do if they had better understanding, because the credibility of sound reasoning is absolutely crucial. Without a scientific approach that is intact, we can achieve nothing. Anyone deliberately misrepresenting science is not a scientist anymore, whatever his or her job title; and they should lose any claim on such a title instantly.

It's easier when you don't have any skin in the game

Unfortunately the lines aren't always so easy to see. In an uncertain world, people will slide the lines perhaps a bit further than they ought to go. It's hard in practice to know when to go against your institutional interests and when to go along when truth starts to give way to spin.

9 comments:

tidal said...

The challenges of getting the intial frameworks in place to begin grappling with the carbon problem are depressingly obvious. But then they will have to ramp up aggressively, and that is going to require enormous resolve. And the signal to noise ratio of climate sensitivity/ocean pH/etc. is always going to provide opportunity for vested interests to work against that resolve. IF on top of that you have initial policies that were entered into on fraudent claims (e.g. "we have PROOF that weapons of mass destruction/10C climate sensitivity exist!"), we will be in an increasingly worse spot, policy/resolve-wise.

James said...

There is a serious catch-22 situation here.

When one tries to criticise Allen's more outrageous nonsense, some people like Ursa say that "no intelligent informed person" takes it seriously, and as a result it is impossible to get published (for the likes of me at least).

Thus, it remains unchallenged in the peer reviewed literature.

But what Ursa does not realise is that actually Allen seems to be regarded as a leading authority in IPCC circles, and while the nonsense remains unchallenged in the peer-reviewed literature, it has strong influence on the IPCC reports and more generally the direction of scientific research.

Hank Roberts said...

> strong influence on the IPCC
> reports and more generally the
> direction of scientific research.

Where do you find it cited in either?

ourchangingclimate said...

This is a very important issue you're bringing up. And though you may not agree with the full extent of Ursa's claim, scientists do need to be aware that their community language is not understood outside of their community. James Hansen is probably a good example of a well known scientist who understands this point well, and who is not afraid to stick his head out, even in making claims that some other scientists would prefer to see surrounded with many qualifiers/weazel words. On purpose he leaves out the weazel words though in comunicating with non-scientists. That's why his message gets across. The world needs more of that.

ac said...

Qualifiers aren't weasel words when they are there to honestly describe the conditions under which an assertion is or isn't true.

It's good that some scientists have sufficient PR/Marketing savvy to get their message across, but it's really not our job. We need PR people who's profession is to construct maximum impact messages for public consumption.

Michael Tobis said...

Alexander, an interesting idea. I have thought about this as well.

Scientific communication within institutions is a very low status job, and it's about promoting the interests of the specific institution, not of science as a whole. There are a few freelance science writers making a living, but their job is to sell books.

I recently was involved in an effort to popularize science on TV, a sort of breezy update to Nova. I had my doubts about it all along, but it folded before I got so fed up as to quit, not that I didn't consider it.

I am especially disappointed by Gore's "We Campaign" which seems to have no concept of an educational mission.

It's really a role that needs filling. As my wife says about her career in helping compulsive acquisition and hoarding, "a treatment model is emerging, but we are very far from a business model".

Fortunately there are many people who at least see the need. Expert blogging, particularly scientific blogging is a wonderful thing. It's a shame that one can't get paid very much for it but at least there is a lot of volunteer energy.

On a related note:

Unfortunately I, like most of us, cannot read what you write. Would you care to translate some of it into English someday? If you'd like a native speaker to edit it I will be happy to oblige, but it seems you write English almost perfectly.

best regards
mt

Chuck said...

"In an emergency, you might well yell "fire!" in a theatre, say, rather than "significant likelihood of a release of a disabling neurotoxin!" You are lying about the fire but not the emergency, because there isn't time to convey the actual nature of the emergency in such a way that people will act in proportion to their actual risk."

Not so useful if people react by grabbing fire extinguishers, though.

jamesm said...

Re. your fire vs. neurotoxin example.

There is no point in engaging at a level people don't understand and can't process.

Why don't you just yell "gas!" Accurate and conveys the root message.

In the case of global warming "Yes this is really serious and we don't have any time left, if you want to go into detail I will but otherwise this is what we have to do" ...

.... accompanied by bludgening* down the nonsensical denialist arguments seems to work pretty well.

That's my experience anyway.

* the bludgening part is important. Just use impossibly simple, dumb-downed arguments to refute the nonsense. I find heat balance arguments are usually enough. Pretty much what Gore does actually.

David B. Benson said...

jamesm --- Could you say more about your heat balance argument?