It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thought-Provoking Week


A whole bunch of interesting stuff to react to this week. The conversation, which advances in fits and starts, has done some advancing.

A very careful effort to rebut Monckton was put together by a team of people who have been ??ist targets of late, drawing upon experts in each Monckton assertion. It got coverage in the Guardian, and plenty of blogosphere reaction (Angliss, Bickmore, Cook, Littlemore, Mandia, Romm, Verheggen), but not elsewhere.

Regarding the limited interest of the press, a veteran science communicator was overheard to say
I didn't expect it to get a ton of pickup initially. It's good educational material for discrediting Monckton's arguments, but because his testimony was from a few months ago, I think a lot of reporters didn't see enough immediate news-value to write on it. Unfortunately, good, credible scientific analyses always take longer to put together than a powerpoint deck full of misinformation, so the contrarians typically enjoy a "deadline" advantage.
which bears some thinking about. Of course, by "contrarian", he meant ??ist, the point of view which must not be named.

On that note we have Lubos Motl staking out the anti-Rosen point of view with an appeal to a one-dimensional model of intelligence, at which, as a (presumed brilliant because he can think in eleven dimensions) string physics guy, he clearly claims an outstanding position. The trouble with his position is that it rules out democracy altogether. It's essentially not just a plea for continued cowardice in journalism, but also a plea for the most unworkable imaginable aristocracy; a world run by the idiots-savant. So no thanks on those grounds. Otherwise it's unworkable: Lubos' argument essentially allows no mechanism for governance to be informed by science at all.

On the other hand, in what looks like a breakthrough (but possibly won't be, old habits die hard), there is some real progress in the difficult journalistic art of letting science speak for itself at Dot Earth. Revkin's Laughlin piece leads to a follow-up article, and a similarly structured piece a couple of days later, that looks like what a serious science journalist with a good network of contacts ought to come up with.

Along with the stunning and depressing piece by Anthony Doerr, an apparently brilliant writer and sane thinker of whom I was shockingly unaware until this morning, we have a similar jolt of pessimism from Monbiot that made a bit of a splash.

But in my opinion, among all this fascinating stuff, the best thing written in the past few weeks was Bob Grumbine's. Bob has captured the essence of the science/sustainability problem perfectly.
I think a crucial part of that error is a failure to understand how science works. While you and I (and others) look at it and see masses of scientists from different areas and reach a conclusion, others don't. The extra piece of knowledge we have is that science has to hang together as a coherent picture. If climate people were seriously wrong about the radiative properties of CO2, then CO2 lasers would not work. And so on through a very, very long list. Conversely, if climate types were seriously wrong about CO2's radiative properties, laser specialists would look at the climate work and point to the errors and that'd be the end of the wrong climate CO2 work.

Instead, they take the view that science is story-telling. Laser physicists go along with the climate people because the climate folks are telling a story that the laser folks like, not because there's any particular evidence in favor of it. The "It's a liberal conspiracy", or "They only say this because they want to impose one world government" responses are part of this. The he said -- she said journalistic line is exactly this, as the science is presented as two stories the reader is chosing between. They think the scientists are doing the same thing.
(How would they know differently?)
Aye, there's the rub.

That's the problem. In America at least, science teachers do not understand science, and in particular, they do not understand this key constraint that makes science work. The idea is absent not only among the general public, but even among educated and prominent people. I have been calling it "coherence".

Even many engineers fail to understand how coherence works in science, even though it's equally a core tool in engineering. Everyday plumbers and auto mechanics (the better ones being by no means unintelligent) experience the constraints of coherence every day, but in a relatively small and clear-cut domain. The fact that coherence works at large to distinguish science from non-science, and that for all its flaws, the scientific culture is sufficiently robust to manage this distinction reliably, is really not understood. I don't know if we can get anywhere without getting this point across.

Though Bob usually has a much more down-to-earth close-to-the-evidence style than I do, he has described the key quandary better that I have ever managed. Dang.

Update: Note also that Bob points us to this interesting discussion.

12 comments:

David B. Benson said...

Motl has superabundantly shown he is best ignored.

Dan Olner said...

On a almost, but not quite, completely unrelated note: something to perhaps make you smile, via resilience science, the tale of how Brian Eno ended up talking to Stafford Beer about cybernetics in business and music. Ace.

Dan Olner said...

It's also been interesting to see, as Monbiot points out, a climate denier seemingly make the logical leap from that to creationism.

Brooker: "“I spent a fascinating few days in a villa opposite Cap Ferrat, taking part in a seminar with a dozen very bright scientists, some world authorities in their field. Although most had never met before, they had two things in common. Each had come to question one of the most universally accepted scientific orthodoxies of our age: the Darwinian belief that life on earth evolved simply through the changes brought about by an infinite series of minute variations. The other was that, on arriving at these conclusions, they had come up against a wall of hostility from the scientific establishment... We have seen a remarkably similar response from the scientific establishment to anyone dissenting from that other dominating theory of our time, that rising CO2 levels caused by human activity are leading to runaway global warming."

David B. Benson said...

Dan Olner --- Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

In the light of evolution now regularly observed in laboratories...

Lou Grinzo said...

Motl has some quite interesting ideas, like 13C of warming would be just fine. (I covered this, with a response from Motl here: http://www.grinzo.com/energy/index.php/2010/01/20/13c-is-juuuuuust-peachy/)

The Doerr piece is very thoughtful and well written, and it pretty well describes where I am on these topics, currently. One point, though: When people make the garden or zoo analogies, they almost universally overlook that gardens and zoos are only sustainable with considerable external physical and human resources. Where do those resources come from to maintain Earth?

Lars said...

I have been calling it "coherence"

I believe that this is referred to as "consilience" by epistemologists, if I read you correctly. The word goes back to Whewell, although it never seems to have come into wide usage.

Mal Adapted said...

It's also been interesting to see, as Monbiot points out, a climate denier seemingly make the logical leap from that to creationism.

Mark Hoofnagle coined the felicitous phrase crank magnetism for this diagnostic denier trait.

manuel "moe" g said...

Journalism is fine. Blogs recapture the newspapership of Thomas Jefferson's place and time, or the furious formal and informal generation of letters of 19th century London.

Modern mainstream journalism demonstrates that intelligent topical writing cannot enjoy economies of scale, scaled up indefinitely - even though structurally it resembles popular media that can. Stated that plainly, it seems ridiculous that anyone would think otherwise.

Anna Haynes said...

> "Anthony Doerr, an apparently brilliant writer and sane thinker "

He needs to read Sharon Begley.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I was going to comment along similar lines to the Begley article linked above. No amount of personal, voluntaristic behavior is going to work. Nor are permits and trading schemes going to work. The only thing that will work is rebuilding the infrastructure that people use. People are pretty much forced to use whatever infrastructure is available to them.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, leaving aside the sad fact that it seems increasingly unlikely that anything will work, I agree that putting it in terms of personal as opposed to collective responsibility is impractical.

That isn't all there is to what Doerr writes, though.

All that said, there is the question of how far personal responsibility does go. The **ists have something of a point when they make a case for the irony of Mr Gore not being much of an ascetic. Is any of us who eats animal protein every day a hypocrite? The case can be made.

Steve Bloom said...

The system changes enable additional personal action. There's a synergy.

Interestingly, in my rather long experience in dealing with recycling programs at the local level, bureaucrats and elected officials like to use personal action as an argument against enhancements to the system. This is of course utter BS, but pushback on this stuff gets very creative.