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)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fighting Bad Science

One of the issues with how the UEA emails are perceived is whether the reader understands the context of the dubious pseudoscience and constant harassment the field faces. If you understand that, the emails are understandable and mostly excusable. If you don't, if you think that normal science is being stymied, then you come away with a very different impression.

For some reason I've been bcc'ed on a conversation among scientists about a different controversy in climate science. I will go so far as to reveal text that says nothing about the underlying issue (about which I am not qualified to comment). I will say that the topic has bubbled up a little bit in the popular press over the last few weeks.
I have heard from several of you and there seems to be some support for going forward with a letter to ****[journal]. This will be foremost designed to correct the two reports' critical and blatant errors, politely, while supporting the broad validity of most of what is contained in those reports. And furthermore, showing in general terms that ****[topic] is complex; it is not a simple picture, as many people have said. This paper will avoid details of ****[dataset] data analysis, and other analysis which is prone to be controversial, nuanced, complex in its own right, and not needed to correct the two reports' errors. Finally, but importantly, this paper will be a call to buttress peer review in ****[field] literature, which has mostly been the usual course, but in too many cases has not been. We are all shocked by the errors. A key, however, I think is to not cast blame to any degree not required to explain what the errors are and how the errant statements relate to other components of these documents that are for the most part correct. This paper will not delve into the science details much, just enough to make the points. So people who have papers in prep or in review need not fear that they will be scooped. This will be as short a paper as possible, to the point. With team effort in writing, we can get it out.
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I do think time is critical, because we cannot have a situation where politicians or the media are correcting our communal errors for us, then risking further blanket condemnation of otherwise very good (not perfect) and important documents, such as IPCC 4th Assessment.

Several points here. First, there is crap getting into real journals. I don't think Oreskes' unanimity holds anymore. Second, real scientists' time is being taken up by the necessity for responding to the crap. Thirdly, responding to the crap is contrary to the scientists' self interest (time, fear of being "scooped").

Fourthly, scientists are still at pains to avoid "blame" and stick to genuine logical and evidence-based argumentation. No matter how egregious the nonsense, the rules require it be responded to in the same journal, and only the rebuttal rather than any concerns about the underlying process, may be represented there. This doesn't mean the community remains unaware of the problems. It does mean there is no public record of what the community actually thinks. This ties into climategate directly. People in the field know real challenges from bullshit. Outsiders have no such context.

Also interesting is the unlevel playing field. Scientists' time has always been divided and motivations have always had a multiplicity. Anti-science has no such constraints; its motivations are simple and easily measured.

Coping with anti-science is just one more log on the fire for real scientists. Among its other nasty attributes, anti-science functions as a filibuster technique. It appears that once a science comes up with a result that requires a social response, far from becoming more lucrative and pleasant, that field is going to become nasty and financially unstable.

Update: Another example of filibustered science. This paper would never have been written in a world where the greenhouse policy controversy either didn't exist or had already been politically resolved. Nor would GRL have published it. From a scientific point of view it is totally redundant.

4 comments:

Dean said...

I don't think the process of science is well tuned to dealing with a field that is deeply politicized and where there is a constituency that is dogmatic and not interested in valid science.

But I've also seem cases where people thus embattled got frustrated and it affected the way they deal with it negatively.

Like it or not, and none of us like it, this aspect of this field of research is going to be like this for some time. Climate scientists are going to need much thicker hide than researchers in other fields, and more patience to boot. Lots more.

You can blame the worst of the denialists if you want, but it happened with tobacco, which is why "tobacco science" is now a part of the lingo. Because science it ain't. It's just the world we live and work in.

This isn't comforting for climate scientists. They are going to have to watch everything they say for double entendres or lingo-speak that means something different in calloquial speak. They are going to have to treat some people with respect that they don't think they have earned. Maybe some of them in the end will earn that respect.

I served on a community volunteer board a few years back. I couldn't call another board member to discuss an issue because it wasn't then available on the public record. Couldn't meet them for a cup of coffee to talk it over. Could only email on city email addresses, since those were a part of the archiving system. All of these significantly affected our productivity. But it is the world we live in.

Climate science now lives in a world with the scrutiny of a presidential candidate. That isn't going to change until "climate" skeptic" takes on the meaning of "tobacco science".

Michael Tobis said...

yup

Dean said...

I should clarify/adjust to say that it will be this way until "climate denialist" means the same as tobacco science. There will always be valid skepticism in some areas of the field.

Dan Satterfield said...

I agree wholeheartedly that the reason that paper was published was in response to the junk out there.

The peer review process works quite well in my area of operational forecasting. It's rather loose and allows a free exchange of ideas.

That said, in the hyper- political world of climate change science, a much tighter, "by the book" rule seems to be called for.

You know of course that suggestions for this will be seen as an attempt to "hide the truth!".

IMHO the result of doing it anyway will likely be a step toward the illumination of truth.