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, July 9, 2011

A Headscratcher

from Watts, in response to "Now it is clear why people with little training are so easily confused." justthefacts replies:

I question whether “training” is the best way to learn about Earth’s Climate System. I think it’s better to actively identify the gaps in your knowledge and seek to fill them. With access to much of written human knowledge in a matter of a few keystrokes and some great professors hanging out in places like WUWT, one isn’t reliant upon trainers. Furthermore, a diversity of sources and opinions is advantageous when studying such an uncertain subject. I think it is better to be well researched, well read, well taught and well learned, than it is to be well trained…

At first it sounded ludicrous to me. Obviously this is a person who does not Get It. But there's something to think about here.

"a diversity of sources and opinions is advantageous when studying such an uncertain subject" is the nut of the question. How do you know that the subject is uncertain? The more diverse your sources the more uncertain you will be, but what does that actually tell you? What you need is to know the diversity of reliable sources, and coming in fresh, you do not know who the reliable sources are.

It seems to me, actually that "training" is not exactly the issue. Many an undergraduate is highly trained in mathematical methods but doesn't understand research; that is the recruiting ground for skeptics and denialists, and the place where the defense of science has been shockingly weak.

The best way to understand research is to obtain a new fact or two that is more or less recognized as such. Those who haven't achieved this are at a disadvantage in identifying where to cull the input on a question in which they take an interest. Perhaps there is some way to make the real intellectual hierarchy more apparent.

How the scientific community winnows and sifts ideas and settles on theories, that is, the details of the social mechanism, changes over time and with the technological and social context. It is in some turmoil right now, as is any communication-intensive pursuit.

The recent process has largely been invisible. It is designed to protect the egos of marginal players. This is why peer review tries to be anonymous and private. But there may be more important goals now.

The appearance of suspicious/hostile amateurs at various levels of competence and seriousness changes the balance of power quite a lot. It may be necessary for scientists to drop all the formal circumspection and be as frank (or "arrogant") in public as they are in private. This is not a time for waffling.

Almost everything is wrong. The superpower of science is the ability to say something is wrong. Jim Bouldin suggests that Wit's End is wrong about tree mortality. I wondered about that. I smell expertise here and so be it; I don't choose to argue the point. It's sort of funny but in a way his response is far more convincing to me than chapter and verse would be. Of course, and this is the point, your mileage may vary.

19 comments:

Rattus Norvegicus said...

I have to say I'm with Bouldin on that one.

And of course, that is expertise speaking.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

And of course, in spite of his blogger profie, he does know quite a bit about trees and plant ecology in general:

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/jim-bouldin/

Grypo said...

I liked that 'Wit' post for other reasons, but besides that, this post here is on a good subject. The comparison between what happens in science and what happens on the skeptic blogs should be explained better, and for God's sake, could some of these people subjected to the attacks step up and defend what they do, like as a group or something. I'm not saying they need to respond to every silly logical fallacy that gets blasted from CA, but at least stop being the punching bag.

Anna Haynes said...

(Me too re Bouldin; on a gut (nose?) level the tree mortality stuff hasn't smelled right.)

Dan Olner said...

"Holy….!! This post will go down in history as the post that killed the AGW debate once in for all."

Again.

Brian Brademeyer said...

Bouldin's infantile comment reflects more about him than about Wit's End.

Hank Roberts said...

witsend is a friend or copypaster or sock for the person posting the ozone-trees-conspiracy wacky stuff that's shown up a lot of places. There's ample good science on ozone, but whatsername's blog is not the place to find it. I've watched and occasionally replied to their posts for years now, with pointers to references, and their line doesn't change nohow.

Michael Tobis said...

Brian, no, not really, and that is my point.

Democracy does not mean everybody's understanding is of equal value. See also Fran Liebowitz on self-esteem:

"There are too many books," she tells one audience of college students. "The books are terrible, and this is because you have been taught to have self-esteem."

To hell with people's feelings. We have problems to solve.

Brian Brademeyer said...

I still can't envision someone like Jim Hansen posting a comment so juvenile as that McEnroe clip.

And from the last few years of following RealClimate, I have found Jim Bouldin's contributions to be staggeringly unimpressive. Just my opinion.

Grypo said...

Hey look -- great example of what I'm talking about further up. :0)

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/07/revisiting-historical-ocean-surface-temperatures/

dhogaza said...

Grypo: McI and RPJr are just a couple of whiny little brats, aren't they?

Aaron said...

I know that "climate" is an uncertain subject because IPCC AR4 got sea ice wrong.

The climate models are too hard to understand what is really going on inside of them. Nobody has stood up and pointed at a line of code in the models and said, "This is why we got sea ice wrong!"

The climate models should be rewritten to be smarter, faster, and simpler.
: )

This would be a good time. With all that is going on with the Jet Streams and Polar Vortex, we have a new climate circulation system and we do not know what the rules for that system are yet.

If one is subject to system, but one does not know what the rules are, then there is some uncertainty.

Michael Tobis said...

The primitive equations (yes, for some reason we call them that) are not subject to revision.

susan said...

I think if you separate out the obsession with ozone, which I agree is doubtful (and know almost nuffin' about it), there's a lot to like in Witsend's work. Calling it "copypasting" is overly harsh and untrue. There is, of course, a problem with everyone being their own expert (self included) but there is a kernel of truth in the ozone problem. Witness the recent UCS presentation:
http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/climate-change-and-ozone-pollution.html

It appears to be easy to confirm one's bias. Listening (reading, whatever, learning with an open mind, I mean) is becoming rarer and rarer in our era of instant and multiplying communications.

dhogaza said...

Susan:

"I think if you separate out the obsession with ozone, which I agree is doubtful (and know almost nuffin' about it), there's a lot to like in Witsend's work."

I'm sorry, Susan (who I generally admire), but the obsession with ozone is pretty much her entire game.

In terms of being anything but mainstream.

She's a kook, a well-meaning one who happens to accept the science of climate change while rejecting a whole pile of other science regarding plant physiology, etc.

Jim Bouldin said...

"I still can't envision someone like Jim Hansen posting a comment so juvenile as that McEnroe clip."

Too much Zeppelin and Hendrix at too high of a volume at too impressionable an age. Stunts the development.

Michael Tobis said...

Really? Surprising.

I would have thought Hansen was more of a Frank Sinatra/Mel Torme type, myself...

susan said...

dhoghaza et al.):

My science training is limited: it includes some undergraduate work in biochemistry at MIT before I dropped out and became an artist, teaching scientists how to draw (also at MIT), a lifetime association with science and scientists (hint: Anderson), and a lot of unrewarding hard work in the last decade trying to bring my aging brain back to stuff that's over my head. OTOH, an artist is a good synthesizer when it comes to patterns, such as this:

http://weather.unisys.com/satellite/sat_wv_hem_loop-12.gif

which is showing fascinating changes over time.

It behooves me to tread lightly, but the circular firing squad is not helping, and we all have blind spots:

Would god the giftie'd gie' us
too see oorselves as ithers see us
(rough I know)

I seem to have a good instinct for bullshit in general, and an outsider/insider view on how things look.

I know a bit more about Witsend than most but am trying to tiptoe there as well. She does tend to obsess on ozone, but as the UCS post indicates, there is an associated issue which by a long stretch could be regarded as more central than it is. I also grew up in the countryside she is observing, and that part of New Jersey suffers more from alternate drought and flood and long-term damage as it becomes hotter over time, pest damage, the toxic plant enhancement of weeds and insects we know are associated with CO2. My observation is continuous since the 50s when I was a child there.

Witsend has done more than almost anyone else I know in actively protesting Koch antics and I find this totally admirable. I posted extracts her work in another article here that shows both literacy and perception.

As I see it, one trouble is the scientific community has come to regard the way they look at the world as normal. I'm not saying they don't make more sense than most, only that at this point the PR experts have discovered they can distort this in ways that are clever, evil, and hard to counter.

susan said...

That was not meant to be an emoticon but perhaps it is a furrowed brow:

):