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, March 16, 2010

Bewitched

More on Samanta et al. following up on Loose Cannon in the Press Office? I wrote the following as a comment on the RealClimate article.


The contents of the press release are not remotely supported by the publication.
It is clear that the political process is much more concerned about press releases than about the underlying work. Consider the McLean/de Freitas El Nino paper and its subsequent spin.

http://deepclimate.org/2009/07/30/is-enso-responsible-for-recent-global-warming-no/

The relationship between scientists and their respective press offices is no longer the trifling matter that many scientists would be inclined to expect, if indeed it ever was so.

As matters stand Dr. Samanta or someone claiming to be him (did RC verify it was him?) stands by the press release. This thus becomes less of a process issue; we do not need to establish how this nonsense got past the press office if Samanta is willing to say he approves it. Assuming the attribution is correct, it now becomes Dr. Samanta’s responsibility to defend the argument implied in his comment #27, which is hardly less tendentious than the press release.

The IPCC WG II comment that “up to 40% could react drastically” simply expresses a concern. There is no implication of certainty; indeed it implicitly states that “at least 60% is unlikely to react drastically” which could be taken as reassuring. In any case it would be difficult to refute.

As has been discussed at length in the parent article and the comments, the quoted research does not constitute a refutation of that position in the slightest, but rather is a detailed refutation of the contrary and counterintuitive paper by Aragao Saleska et al (Corrected. Thanks Kooiti Masuda!) that seemed to claim that rain forests love drought. This is a case where you don’t need a weatherman to say which way the wind blows. If tropical rainforests were so fond of drought, they would be growing in dry places. However, Samanta et al did the service of refuting Aragao Saleska.

It is far from obvious how Samanta disputes Rowell or the IPCC. Many of us who have taken a first look at the matter believe that it does not.

A couple of additional points remain to be resolved here. How did a press release which is perfectly attuned to what the doubt merchants might want it to say, and almost perfectly tangential to the actual results of the study, come out of the press office? This, it seems to me, remains a matter for the university to investigate.

Second, it is important to note that if a paper were to come out that actually did refute Rowell 2000, it would not constitute any indication of a flaw in the IPCC process, nor an error in any sense. Questioning the conclusions of IPCC is necessary, else the first report would suffice.

Science progresses. The idea that a refinement or even a reversal on a particular point in the consensus report constitutes evidence that the consensus process is flawed is hopelessly pernicious. It puts science in a perfect bind.

But we need to cross that bridge in cases where the science has actually progressed. The distinction between a one-year drought and a persistent decline in precipitation ought to be obvious to a person working in the field. It is less obvious to the rest of us. If there is a case to be made, it was not made in the peer reviewed publication, but rather only in the press release.

I have not been alone in spending a lot of time worrying over the badly damaged links between science and the press and writing about it. But so far as I know, little has been written about the connection between scientists and the institutional press offices that are supposed to serve scientists. The Samanta et al. story makes it clear that this relationship can’t be taken for granted.


Followup comments to the linked RealClimate story, please.

Please note updates to my prior posting on this matter.