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, December 6, 2010

Blame it on Fidel

Just saw a wonderful little French movie last night, English title "Blame it on Fidel" ("La Faute a Fidel").

It's about a young girl, perhaps 9 years old, whose parents drop out of the French upper classes in the 1970s to become revolutionaries. Whatever you may think of the parents' sentiments, this results in no little inconvenience, embarassment and confusion for the little girl, who is suddenly thrust into a whirlwind of incompatible certainties and conflicting myths.

I want to strongly recommend this film as a tonic to anyone who is very sure of their beliefs and a solace for those who are mixed up with them.

One of the themes is "solidarity", which is contrasted with "sheeplike behavior", but of course little Anna cannot tell the difference, and the point of view of the film can't either.

I bring this up because of Frank's query:
I can't figure out what your principles are, MT. First you say that honesty is a prime virtue in science, yet you lash out at honest people (e.g. Gavin Schmidt) over minor points in doctrine, while you keep indulging dishonest people (e.g. Tom Fuller) because they happen to say something at some point in time which seems reasonable and honest when taken totally out of context.

WTF, MT?
Now Frank seems to have missed the article immediately preceding the one he is responding to, where I started to address this very question. Repeating myself, I said:
One of the great vulnerabilities of scientists in dealing with politicians is that we love discourse. We love intelligent disagreement. Intelligent disagreement is how we get our work done.

Yet we are in a political battle, a battle for the highest imaginable stakes. So one might argue that we need to show solidarity. Indeed, one is often criticized not intellectually but ethically for raising uncertainties in public. After all, any disagreement or even perceived disagreement on any point might be maliciously cast as "disbelieving in global warming".

I think prof M was arguing for more public contrarianism. People should actually be able to see disagreements, and see the whole zoo of ways in which they work out (and not just the most useless ones, of which there are examples aplenty).
OK, so that's why I disagree publicly with honest people who are important allies. I don't think this is "lashing out". Everybody knows I'm on Gavin's "side" on the big picture. I think disagreement is a good thing, if it leads to greater understanding, and in this case I think it rather quickly did so.

As for indulging Fuller, well he is entertaining.

More seriously, I don't think ignoring the crackpots works when the crackpots are sufficiently funded, unified, organized, politically adept, and diligent. Which is the situation we face. So the question is how to engage. There are two theories here: the first is the Monckton method: find the silliest things any of them say and mock mercilessly. Admittedly this is fun. The problem is that it cuts both ways. Nobody can prevent all their allies from being silly. (That they choose to focus their mockery on Gore, or Holdren, or on a handful of perfectly sensible scientists, serious people all, is pretty revealing. But we have no fundamental advantage on the mockery front.)

Our real advantage is in engaging correctly in pursuit of truth. By engaging on the difficult points and not the easy points, you hand the deniers a weapon: they can always use the conversation to gang up on you at various levels of competence. wear you down and drive you into a defensive and arrogant posture. They are also free to make facts up, where we have to research ours. It's a slog. But if you engage on the difficult points and resist being driven into anger or appeal to authority, you demonstrate that your confidence is in the veracity of the evidence.

There's a huge scaling problem there. Not everybody can do it. It's much easier to be a denier of the science than a defender once the battle is engaged. But those of us who can, who actually enjoy the process, ought to. One part of this is studiously addressing the genuine skeptic in the audience. When someone like Fuller comes along making points that will not appeal to the genuine skeptic, it remains best to ignore them as partners in a search for truth. That's one of the tricks. In each conversation you have to maintain a level of scientific sophistication suitable for one or another audience, even though you'll be attacked at several levels. If attacked from above, the appeal to authority must be made very carefully ("I'll be happy to discuss this with you elsewhere; please see refs A, B, and C and get back to me")

All this said, Frank has a real point. If I bend over backwards to treat the deniers with respect on the grounds that there might be a few genuine skeptics in their ranks, meanwhile looking under every rock for any point of disagreement with people who have their heads screwed on right, my site starts to look like, well, Judith Curry's.

The answer, for me, is that above all the amazing fascination of the cluster of topics is the selling point of the conversation. Most people are put off by the thick stench of evil and hostility that surrounds the "debate", but in fact the questions, in addition to being ultimately questions of global survival, are immensely interesting. The objective is to make the conversation as interesting as possible, to attract more eyes, to engage people to develop greater sophistication, without backfiring into Watts-land. Is this sufficient to save our sorry hides? I don't know, but I remain convinced that it is necessary.

So coming back to the fictitious young miss Anna de la Mesa in the movie, solidarity for me is a non-issue. It is contrary to the spirit of science to put solidarity ahead of truth. And for me, it is contrary to the goal of making the conversation interesting. But I take Frank's point as one more piece of the balancing act. I may not always line up with some political optimum, but giving the devil his due doesn't require giving the devil more than his due.

That (silly statistics aside) is the main problem with Judith Curry's efforts. It is one thing to engage, carefully and consciously. It's another to butter up the lazy denialists and bash the diligent efforts of genuine scientists. If it looks like that's what I'm doing, do call me on it.

That said, don't expect me to stop looking for flaws in the consensus or legitimate arguments from the skeptics. I have little expectation that any serious change of opinion will result, much as I'd be thrilled to change sides if I could. (The money is better and the mood is happier over there, and as far as I can tell they don't work as hard.)

See, there's an interesting fact here. It's not defending science to stop questioning science. It's capitulating. This is why science is the opposite of politics, and why science is probably the way to save politics.

29 comments:

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

MT, as I said:

"you keep indulging dishonest people (e.g. Tom Fuller) because they [inactivists] happen to say something at some point in time which seems reasonable and honest when taken totally out of context."

I've no problem with finding common ground per se, but this sort of practice I described is just bullshit. You're essentially just mindlessly matching a string of words against another string of words. It doesn't lead to any sort of interesting conversation.

A more fruitful approach towards finding common ground will be something like what Gavin suggested: look for common ground in the proposed courses of action. One side wants national security and thinks this is best done with a carbon price, another side wants environmental sustainability and thinks this is best done with a carbon price. Both lines of thinking lead to the same general course of action. This is useful.

In contrast, saying something like "hey, I wrote the words 'journalism sucks', and he also wrote the words 'journalism sucks' -- bingo!" is just meaningless. If one side thinks that the solution is to sue the pants off Rupert Murdoch, and the other side thinks that the solution is to hand the world over to Rupert Murdoch, then where's the conversation exactly?

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

It's the "rely on proxies" thing which HD got right.

Ordinarily one relies on proxies outside one's expertise. I think this is a good way to put it.

The fact that the press relies on proxies rather than providing a reliably proxy itself is an important insight. I'm sticking to that point.

As for "look for common ground in the proposed courses of action" that's fine, but only as far as it goes. Pushing it further than it reasonably goes has risks. So I'm sticking to that point as well.

If you want to disagree with me on either of them I'm game. But it seems you want me to NOT defend these points. There I don't know what to do.

I am interested in interesting questions. These are frequently questions where I disagree with allies or agree with opponents. I understand the risk involved and appreciate you pointing it out.

But at this point you are free to take up either argument. However, please note that "I don't like it" is not the sort of thing I take to be a counterargument.

jstults said...

The answer, for me, is that above all the amazing fascination of the cluster of topics is the selling point of the conversation.
Exactly. This is why I was surprised over on Easterbrook's site about the dearth of grads for the field. I would certainly not consider myself on your "side" (rather the opposite in fact), but the topic is undeniably an interesting one. A hard, complex, unsolved problem with meaningful stakes at the intersection of computational physics and decision making under uncertainty: what's not to love?

Aaron said...

People who deny global warming are either ignorant or evil. We protect the rights of school children and criminals, but we do not and should not let them set public policy.

Today, voting without understanding AGW is like driving without knowing how to operate the vehicle. In either case, more people are going to die sooner.
People who deny global warming should be sent to school or jail.

MT is a nice guy. I am much less so.

jg said...

Regarding your statement: "But those of us who can, who actually enjoy the process, ought to"

Thanks, I take that as encouragement, and to add my experience, I'm amazed at how poorly the contrarians I encounter in my modest sphere of influence understand their own talking points.

jg

Michael Tobis said...

jstults, please stick around. Quality opposition is hard to come by anymore. I'm almost inclined to encourage you to be a bit stubborn.

Martin Vermeer said...

> However, please note that "I don't
> like it" is not the sort of thing I
> take to be a counterargument.

Michael, if you really think that the unconstrained presence of Tom Fuller on your blog makes for a blog worth visiting, I'm amazed at your lack of judgment. It does not for me, and I'm sure the same holds for many more folks like me. I'm not feeling welcome. And that's a pity because there are things worth reading here.

No, this is not a counterargument. It's pointing out that 'I don't like it' has consequences. It's your choice which readers you want and don't want.

Michael Tobis said...

Martin, point taken.

You are certainly among the readers I value most, but others among those I most value have expressed that their bemusement about Fuller makes the site more attractive when he shows up. You are the first to actively complain.

I would think Fuller would eventually get the idea that he is not scoring any points and wander off, so this controversy would be self-limiting. But it doesn't seem that way.

Of late I certainly have not been engaging him; I agree this is pointless. I am just letting him have his say; as I said this keeps me from getting too self-satisfied and it seems to keeps the customers coming. Think of it like a funny comics page or a horoscope in a good American newspaper (if you can remember those).

cagw_skeptic99 said...

So MT, Aaron, Frank, et al: I saw no response to a previous post and ask again.

There is essentially zero chance that all the CO2 reductions now occurring in Europe will ever make even the slightest measurable difference in global temperature or climate. Most of you know this to be true because you accept that the Chinese, Indians, Americans, and more will only continue to increase their CO2 emissions. Increases in China alone will dwarf the reductions of the entire EU.

Millions of people on the lower end of the income spectrum in colder European countries are now having difficulty paying for heat to keep warm this winter, right now in December 2010 in England and Scotland (references if you really want them are easy to find). In no small part, their suffering is due to European Governments following the policy recommendations of people who blog here and their associates.

Does even one of you accept any responsibility for this situation and dare to reply to this post? Does even one of you recognize that, regardless of whether your predictions of climate change come true in future decades, real non-trivial harm is occurring now because Governments followed your recommended policies and that harm is all for nothing, nada; zero measurable difference will ever be measured as a benefit for the harm being done now, next month, next year, etc.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mal Adapted said...

cagw_skeptic99: "Millions of people on the lower end of the income spectrum in colder European countries are now having difficulty paying for heat to keep warm this winter, right now in December 2010 in England and Scotland (references if you really want them are easy to find)."

If you're asking "MT, Aaron, Frank, et al." to accept responsibility for this situation and daring them to reply, shouldn't you be the one to furnish the references? If nothing else, it would help keep them honest 8^).

Michael Tobis said...

Hmm. I looked into it a little bit. I started with a suspicion that British heat had moved off of coal fireplaces to oil furnaces. I found an article which confirmed my suspicion but something very odd happened when I linked to it.

big h/t to KOTR

Presumably what you are looking at is the high price of liquid fuel, which is a peak oil problem, not a price on carbon problem.

To be sure, there will be impacts on the rural poor of the abrupt shift away from carbon which we face. It's not hard to imagine ways to smooth this transition out.

Your claim that this is what we are seeing now in the northern UK is the result of carbon policies as opposed to intrinsically rising prices of liquid fuels is unsupported from where I sit. Can you do better?

dhogaza said...

Poor people in the UK might actually be finding it cheaper to heat their houses, according to the previous government:

"The Labour Government has insulated 5 million houses between 2002 and 2008. By regulating the energy companies we are insulating 6 million more homes between 08 and 012."

There are about 25 million homes in the UK.

Of course, last winter was cold in the UK, IIRC. This would tend to raise heating costs ...

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, if the Fuller thing weren't entirely repetitious it would be one thing, but it's the other thing. On top of that, I find it deeply irritating when you allow him to post extensively in a thread and then end things by cutting off multiple responses. In the most recent instance, the public musing about whether to let them through was just a tad self-indulgent and rather rubbed things in.

If it were me, I'd can the Fuller act unless he actually has something new to say. Every thread you let him hijack is a potential useful discussion that doesn't happen.

Tom said...

Well, Tobis, the natives are getting restless. I haven't even hung up my coat, but...

As I called you scumbag repeatedly, I cannot object to you calling me a denier, I suppose. Hope you realize they basically have the same level of venom and are doing it intentionally. As I don't think you are literally a scumbag, I can at least hope you don't literally think that I believe that six million people didn't die in the Holocaust. But I do hope you realize they have the same level of venom.

I note that you evidently agree that this battle is political, not about the science. (Although you have been very confusing about whether or not you talk about the politics, at one point saying you would never do so and at another saying you only would...)

Nonetheless, you might consider whether starting conversations off with words like 'denier' is really going to bring you political advantage.

At least when I called you a scumbag, it was after you did something scummy. You lead off with the term and are surprised when things go downhill from there.

John Mashey said...

Once gain, ask blog software folks for "shadow threads" or some similar mechanisms to move posts to a secondary thread, where they are visible but don't degrade S/N ratio.

Neven said...

I really wasn't going to write this, but he's here, so I'm going to ask anyway.

Tom, a few days ago I read this product description on Amazon:

"The Climategate scandal covered from beginning to end--from 'Hide the Decline' to the current day. Written by two authors who were on the scene--Steven Mosher and Tom Fuller--Climategate takes you behind that scene and shows what happened and why. For those who have heard that the emails were taken out of context--we provide that context and show it is worse when context is provided. For those who have heard that this is a tempest in a teacup--we show why it will swamp the conventional wisdom on climate change. And for those who have heard that this scandal is just 'boys being boys'--well, boy. It's as seamy as what happened on Wall Street."

How do you reconcile this with your stance that AGW is real, is a problem, and that climate sensitivity is 2.5 degrees C?

Steve Bloom said...

More content-free Fuller, I see. Is that your answer, Michael?

Martin Vermeer said...

Michael, what Steve said. It's about the S/N ratio. You don't owe Fuller a forum; he has his own, and there's plenty like of him out there. Don't add to the noise. Be the moderator.

Michael Tobis said...

OK, by popular request, this thread is closed to Fuller and to responses by and about Fuller.

I am opening an open thread where Fuller can follow up and others can discuss what to do about him and other troll-related matters.

Michael Tobis said...

Three posts by Fuller and one by cagw_skeptic99 were submitted here while I tarted the open thread. They have been moved to the open thread.

Jim Bouldin said...

Please stop this nonsense. Just bear your talents on the many interesting and important topics in climate change that need discussing. Too many climate blogs are stupid food fight circuses. That shit drags everyone down. Goes nowhere, ever.

gryposaurus said...

It's a slog

It certainly is...

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

cagw_skeptic99 and Tom Fuller:

Yes, you're just repetitive and wrong. Go away.

* * *

MT:

Again, the problem is that when seeking "legitimate arguments from the skeptics you keep turning up arguments that, when examined, actually mean the complete opposite of what you claim they mean.

You mentioned you agree with HD, but he says

"I don't think that’s an emphasis on false balance, I think that's an emphasis on my stating what I've heard, giving people references, and letting them decide for themselves."

Can it be any clearer that when HD proposes to let people "decide for themselves", he clearly sees the reporter's role as that of a brainless stenographer?

But that's the exact, diametrical opposite of what you advocate! So why did you claim that his point is "cogent and sound"?

I think you are, indeed, trying too hard to intuit points of 'agreement' with skeptics where they don't exist. But the agreement is only useful when it's real, not when it's contrived.

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

Nice off-topic comment in response to cagw_s by aaron moved to the open thread.

Michael Tobis said...

Frank, nicely stated.

What I liked about HD's claim is the attention he pays to proxies. Most of us decide most issues by proxy. Without proxies, without trust, science can make no progress. In fact, the whole program of civilization is based on placing trust in the right people, and deserving trust when you get it. If enough of this happens, we make progress. Else we don't.

On the other hand, trust is not enough. It must be met by trustworthiness, and a big part of trustworthiness is openness. So in the end, you should have the proxies, you should have the information to decide for yourself, and you should have the meta-skill to know whether you have the skill to decide for yourself in a given situation. This maximally allows the trust to propagate.

At least, that's my vision of things working properly.

The press's role here is primarily to serve as the proxy. The primary science is the system that the person deciding to investigate must refer to.

HD says " I say, it seems mainstream scientific thought believes that, but there seem to be significant amounts of disagreement. Many lawyers seem to feel that law would be … but there are others who disagree. I don’t think that’s an emphasis on false balance, I think that’s an emphasis on my stating what I’ve heard, giving people references, and letting them decide for themselves."

I cannot object to that because it is precisely my position with regard to economics.

My worldview is inconsistent with all available expertise, but it's largely repaired once I subtract economists (and strong AI/naive materialism but I'll spare you all that). So I question economics, and I find many of its critics asking questions similar to mine.

How my position differs from climate science skepticism seems clear to me, but not to them. I can't easily write off the question, though.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

MT:

You're reinterpreting a position regarding climate science reporting (and law reporting) as a position on economics reporting, so that you can find an "agreement" with the position. As I've repeatedly said, that's just trying too hard.

(I don't think I'll agree with HD's position even if we were actually about economics, but that's another topic.)

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

Frank, how do you decide which intellectual disciplines are trustworthy?

It's a key question. I wish there were a simple answer but there isn't. I cannot fault someone for raising the question.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

MT, since you asked...

"Frank, how do you decide which intellectual disciplines are trustworthy?"

Keep digging for more facts, to the point where there are enough facts to resolve the question?

Investigation, basically.

And yes, I think this is something that journalists should do, instead of copping out and punting the question to the reader.

-- frank