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, April 6, 2010

Monbiot Starts to Get It

Substantial progress at Monbiot's in understanding what has been going on at CRU.

(Congratulations to Steve for helping him get it and to Joe for serving as intermediary.)

And thanks to George Monbiot for elucidating his side of the story. Perhaps we can stop eating each other now and go on to developing a healthier relationship between science and the press. Monbiot is one of the best we've got; it's been very disappointing to see him go off the rails on this one.

Nobody says science is perfect. Jones is a fine scientist in terms of production, but a perfectly ordinary one in terms of contextual insight, motivation, and behavior. Had he been more of a Schneider or a Hansen, more of a participant in the larger context, he might have been better able to explain and defend himself. As a part of a flawed system, he shares its flaws, but as an individual, (much like Michael Mann) he is utterly blameless.

I hope Monbiot moves his attentions away from CRU and this Climategate nonsense. If he wants to think and write about the absurd and contradictory pressures on scientists, though, that is a useful topic.

Update: Steve points out in an email that Monbiot is very attached to the FoI process (that's clear enough in the linked article) and thus may be reluctant to acknowledge how it has been abused in this case. This may account for Monbiot's confusion about the whole situation.

I guess one question is whether science counts as government for the purposes of sunlight laws. Nevertheless, I agree that we should move toward openness and reproducibility in science to the extent practical.

8 comments:

Deech56 said...

A little OT, but here's why Elizabeth Kolbert's writing rises to the top:

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/04/12/100412taco_talk_kolbert

Steve Bloom said...

The response of the British press to the CRU FOI issue needs to be seen in light of the recent Parliamentary expenses kerfuffle, probably Britain's biggest political scandal in living memory and one that saw the light of day only after a long struggle to get Parliament to comply with the FOI law. I think this explains the emphasis by Monbiot and others on the attitude taken by Jones/CRU/UEA toward FOI compliance rather than actual (technical) compliance.

Michael, I also wanted to point you to these interesting new results by some UTA researchers. I'd be curious to know what Sterman thinks of this and vice versa.

watchingthedeniers said...

I agree with your points: there is little point getting "angry" at the scientists like Jones. They are trained to do one thing, and do it extremely well. Scientists like Jones are highly trained specialists, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect.

However, problems arise when they have to compete in the market place of ideas. In this market, facts are not enough. Not only to you have to shout with a megaphone, but entertain your audience.

Media training seems a trite response, however the climate science community needs to have a far greater understanding of the post-web media environment we live in.

Michael Tobis said...

watching, it is impossible to require every scientist to be capable of understanding media. We can't even manage to get them to be good classroom teachers. So the bad guys can always find the Joneses to target. It is crazy to require such a different skill set; you will throw away two thirds of the scientists and many of the best ones. It's not worth it.

The solution has to be elsewhere. These calumnies and pufferies and media circuses have to be defeated without relying on random scientists to be able to defend themselves. They already are spread too thin and have too many competing demands.

watchingthedeniers said...

MT, I agree with your point about practicalities. Training every scientist would be both foolish and counter productive.

But, climate science is the political issue of this century. Alongside their professionalism, climate scientists are increasingly forced to engage with the public. The calls for more transperency will only become louder.

I know in other professions media awareness training is recommended - i.e. see this example of Judges in the UK http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/7130616.stm

Like scientists they are highly trained specialists. However they are under enormous public scrutiny.

So perhaps not all scientists, but those with an aptitude could become the public face of climate science. This won't fix the problem, but could be a viable strategy. I keep thinking climate science needs it's own Carl Sagan.

Agree - let's keep kicking around ideas about what the solutions are :)

EliRabett said...

Eli explains it all

Vinny Burgoo said...

Re Steve Bloom's UTA study: I'm not Sterman, indeed I have no idea who he/she is, but ...

'The findings [...] could help better explain the decisions people make on [...] spending more on environmentally friendly products.'

Standard press-release hype: shoehorn the environment in there somehow and you'll get more coverage.

That study has nothing useful to say about 'environmentally friendly products'. It found that the more you know about larger but relatively distant one-off material benefits to yourself (which it called 'long-term rewards'), the more you'll ignore them and opt for smaller but more immediate one-off benefits ('short-term rewards'). How can that finding be relevant to something that, at best, has an infinitesimally small long-term reward for the purchaser? People buy environmentally friendly products products because of short-term rewards: they get an immediate rush of self-congratulation from doing what they think is the right thing. Whether their notions of correctness are informed by knowledge of the products' possible +/- impacts on the environment or on a more naive belief that all things claiming to be environmentally friendly products are environmentally friendly and therefore correct doesn't matter. In both cases, by far the largest reward is immediate: a feeling of virtue. (This feeling, according to a similar study published last month, makes such shoppers more likely to lie, cheat and steal than those who buy the ordinary cheap stuff. But let's not go there.)

Michael Tobis said...

Y'all it's just UT. UTA is in someplace called Arlington, basically near Dallas.

Similarly The University of Wisconsin - Madison is UW; UWM is in Milwaukee. When I showed up in Madison I called it UWM for a couple of weeks until somebody corrected me. Nope. Just UW.

And just UT.

Funny that I've been in this situation more than once.