"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, April 30, 2007

My Little World (and Yours, Too)

I have an essay on sustainability aimed at a broad audience. It's now up on Grist.

I'm quite pleased with it, at least as a start. The analogy that the article builds on can be useful in many ways and I hope it catches on.

The Solar Herring

Nice article on the "other planets warming too" noise on Bad Astronomy.

Terrifyingly ignorant commentary on Digg, lest you get too complacent about what people are really thinking. Admittedly members of this chorus are almost certainly young male American technophiles, but that is an influential demographic.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bill Gray says no worries

Bill Gray, the hurricane season tealeaf-reader, er, expert, says it's the oceans. Apparently it will cool off soon because cycles are like that, you know.

Fox News runs with it.

PS - In case anybody wanders by who is inclined to take this cycle business at face value, please come up with a cyclic model for this.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Swindle Swindle

Interesting response to the "Global Warming Swindle" swindle here .

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What not to do about Prometheus

I am struggling with my organization of the blogroll, per Heiko's complaint in a comment that I've misplaced around here somewhere. I think Heiko is reasonably fair-minded, and it's good to have sensible opposition. Maybe, in some old-fashioned dialectic, we can even learn from each other. Anyway I put him on the "good climate blogs", because he is always worth reading.

What I am struggling with is Prometheus. In my opinion Roger Pielke is a post hoc arguer, choosing a position based on a political calculation and then defending it, [Update: this is still my impression but given my confusion about the number of Roger Pielkes on the scene I am reconsidering it] rather than proceeding from evidence to conclusions. Consequently, he is sometimes very cogent and sometimes very counterproductive, depending on whether he started from a sound position or otherwise.

I am splitting the difference by not blogrolling him at all, partly compensated by my objections when he was [temporarily] removed from the blogroll at RC, and partly excused by the fact that anyone interested in climate blogging will come across Prometheus eventually anyway.

Anyway, Pielke was treated very shabbily by RC of late and has not been shy about saying so. This intemperate behavior at RC does far more damage than any half-baked laundry list Prometheus comes up with about what's wrong with the WGI report. [Update - I have confused RP Jr with RP Sr, and I withdraw this with apologies. Google for Pielke and "scientific errors" to see the article to which I was referring.]

It's bad enough when a random delusionist gets this treatment.

To treat a prominent academic in a relevant field in this way is, hmm, how to put this mildly, hmm, hmm, let me limit myself to "counterproductive"

Simply censoring him would be cause for concern, but yelling at him, openly censoring him, and not giving him room to respond is another matter. This behavior by RC editors is worse than no RC at all. It isn't Pielke that looks bad in this exchange.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Communication and the Market for Lemons

"In a market where the seller has more information about the product than the buyer, bad products can drive the good ones out of the market."

In an article on Wired, Bruce Schneier attributes this observation to economist George Akerloff. He discusses the implications for computer security products, which need not concern us here.

A Slashdot reader summarizes neatly: "when deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead."

What does this have to do with our interests here? In attempting to communicate science in the face of organized opposition we have a fundamentally different task than is conventionally true of science outreach. In the past, scientific communication with the public had to overcome indifference, but now we have to overcome opposition. In other words, we are in a competitive situation.

We have the quality product, but producing the shoddy competition is easier and cheaper. The buyer (the lay person, the journalist, the politician) has only weak signals on which to base their decisions.

It's not enough to be good, my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Adair, once told her class. (This is the single fact I have retained about Mrs. Adair.) You also have to look good.

I've never forgotten this advice, and it took me a very long time to forgive it. I disliked it from the beginning, as many scientists and other intellectual types are wont to do. She is right. This is because it is difficult for the lay person to process the deep information. We must take care that our shallow information is in good shape as well.

There are a lot of ideas competing for everyone's attention these days. We can't get the real dimensions of the sustainability problem across to people if they don't listen. They won't listen if they think we are a bunch of half-crazed hippies.

Once we start offering advice, we have to project calm authority, and that means we have to look like what people imagine scientists to look like. (I think this might be set mostly by the demeanor of medical professionals, the closest thing most people see to a scientist.)

I don't like it, but it seems to me that in the end Mrs. Adair was right.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Earth Day in an Airplane

The fates have a number of plane flights between Austin and Montreal lined up for me from which I can envision no escape. In addition to the jarring culture shock of abrupt transition between two such dramatically different cultures, I found myself struggling with feelings of guilt and excess as I changed planes in Chicago on Earth Day.

I'm not sure what else I should report about it, except how the newspapers handled Earth Day.

The entire front page of the Montreal Gazette was taken up by mea culpas about how the newspaper itself had environmental damage (though the idea of, well, giving up on paper wan't examined very deeply.) There were no other stories beside this rather pointless introspection.

The Montreal Star, by the way, has long since folded. Montreal can barely support a single English language daily at this point. I mention this because, if you come across a copy of the Star for the first Earth Day, though, you will find a picture of some earnest teenagers picking up garbage from the street, myself among them.

There was prominent and thoughtful coverage in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The National Post (of Canada) prominently featured a columnist on the front page with the usual denialist talking points mercilessly mocking the idea of anthropogenic climate change.

The front page of the Chicago Tribune had no mention of earth day whatsoever.

I think the difference of opinion between the US and everywhere else is that the US is not coming to grips at all with the fact that there might be a serious sustainability problem. The difference in emphasis was very striking.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Two bits of personal news

I have accepted an appointment with the semi-exalted title Research Scientist Associate at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas.

Of course, opinions expressed by me other than those on official University of Texas communications are my own, and are not necessarily shared by the Institute, the University or the (yes, the great) State of Texas.

Also I have been accepted as a columnist at grist.org which will expand my audience. Opinions expressed by others on grist.org are not necessarily shared by me!

My first Grist contribution is visible here.

My own opinions probably fall into a crevasse, er sorry, a gulch between typical opinion at each of these two institutions. I am honored that each has enough trust in my judgment to accept me as a participant in their efforts.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sachs lecture and quibbling at the fringes

The second in the series of Jeffrey Sachs' Reith lectures is up. There is some quibbling about his history of science on Stoat.

While I find the comments fascinating, in a sense it's all hairsplitting.

Sach's fundamental point seems to need emphasis in this crowd:

world population increase of roughly fifty per cent, with income on a path, barring various disasters, to increase approximately fourfold. Multiplying one and a half by four suggests that the current trajectory would lead to an increase of world economic activity of six times between now and 2050. That is the goal from the point of view of economic development, but think about the paradox, if we already are on an unsustainable trajectory and yet China, India, and large parts of Asia are successfully barrelling ahead with rapid economic development at an unprecedented rate. We are asking our planet to somehow absorb a manyfold increase of economic activity on top of an already existing degree of environmental stress that we've never before seen on the planet.

It is possible that we will not be able to increase sixfold in economic activity with current technologies before the environmental catastrophes would choke off the economic growth. The hardships in water stress, deforestation, hunger, and species extinction, would cause this process to go awry, even before we are able to do more damage to the planet. But that does pose the fundamental question - what will give in the end?

The rest is window dressing. I'd like to see people taking up the core point.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

In a balloon

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

So there are two managers who are ballonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:

"Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?"

to which the reply comes back

"You're in a balloooooon!"

The ballonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion "That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before."

Have a look at Gavin Schmidt's response to this provocative posting by Steven Mosher on RealClimate. Notice how it responds exactly to the question and is correct in every detail. Notice how it nevertheless in no way offers any assistance to the questioner.

The answer makes it clear that the denialists have no significant participation in the discussion. Unfortunately, that is one of the few points on which they agree with the consensus. They are promulgating a different model of why this is so.

There is nothing in Gavin's answer to allay the suspicions others may have that climatology is an arrogant and closed-minded community. In failing to address exactly those suspicions, it seems likely that he confirmed them for many readers.

It is much harder to explain how and why certain topics are relegated to the fringe than to assert that they have been. Confidence building is hard, but in a situation like this, confidence erosion is easy. It is better to shut up than to dash off an impatient answer, however correct.

Mosher's position, whether benignly intended or not, is well formulated and worth of a response that holds together both factually and polemically. As a polemical response Gavin's reply is very counterproductive.

I didn't start this blog because I wanted to jump on Nisbett and Mooney's bandwagon. (As far as I see it I scooped them, for whatever that's worth.) I started this blog because I see realclimate backfiring. This is a case in point.

Update: The inimitable Dr Bunny has more evidence of RC folk being somewhat at the end of their rope. I am sure I do not always follow the gist of Eli's bemused commentary, but I am equally sure there is a lot in the exchange he points to that will not do much to attract fence-sitters, to say the least.

Today's Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail is Canada's newspaper of record, serving the purposes of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Today's Globe features two climate change stories on the front page, and one on the editorial page.

The editorial sums up the Globe's position on the main story. The story asserts that Canadian Kyoto compliance would require a 1/3 reduction in greenhouse gas net emissions per year spread over the next five years. So it is not hard to credit the following:

"I believe the economic cost would be at leaqst as deep as the recession in the early 1980s. ..." Mr. Drummond writes in a letter.

It will be difficult for the Liberals to attack Mr. Drummond, a senior Canadian economist whom [the Liberals among others] have consulted over the years.

Showing that for politicians, having politics trump actual reality is not a phenomenon that is unique to one side or the other of the political spectrum, the Liberals are happy to score cheap points off a problem that is of their own making. (They were the majority party during most of the Kyoto years, while Canada's emissions burgeoned.)

I am interested in making a case that economists should not be listened to on long time scales, but the other side of the coin is that their advice is indeed valuable on short time scales.

Canada has already procrastinated to the point where meeting Kyoto protocols is an impractical goal. It is ludicrous to suggest starting now to meet those goals, and it is offensive for the party that promoted those increases to blame the failure on the new conservative government.

Canada should strive to meet and exceed Kyoto goals as quickly as is possible without major disruption. Avoiding major disruption is, after all, the point of reducing emissions. Starting out with a major disruption misses the point.

(None of this is to offer much enthusiasm for the Harper government which is making plenty of other mistakes, like rolling back gun registration laws. But that's for another time and place.)

Indeed, the Globe's editorial page, in my opinion, more-or-less rightly summarizes:

The opposition MPs, led by the Liberals, have let crass politics trump their policy judgment. The federal government cannot and should not take such drastic action to meet Kyoto goals.

None of this letts Ottawa off the hook. Global warming is real. The Tories have a duty to produce a substantive package of market-based policies that would foster real reductions, albeit at a slower pace. But the federal government cannot destroy Canada to save it.

Well, whether the policies are market-based or not, they need to happen. The idea of Kyoto was that we would have 15 years to reduce modestly, not ten years to grow rapidly and then 5 to shrink spectacularly. The second plan makes no sense, and pretending it does to make cheap political points is not the way out of our predicament.

The second GHG related story states that Ontario intends to eliminate sales of incandescent bulbs by 2012. Good. Not market based at all. Purely regulatory, and perfectly appropriate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Geoengineering and Intergenerational Ethics

EnvironmentalResearchWeb has a very interesting article by Steve Gardiner of "the other UW", on the subject on the ethics of geoengineering as an alternative to mitigation or adaptation.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Passionate Defense of Optimism

Inel points us to a remarkable talk by Jeffrey Sachs to the Royal Society, and excellent replies to defeatist mutterings by presumably "conservative" m'luds in the audience. Get it while you can; apparently the mp3 will not be available past the end of the week.

(Such ringing language doesn't really roll of the tongue of someone with what I take to be a "gimme-a-break" urban Chicago accent, but his message overcomes his nasal whine easily enough...)

It's awfully cogent stuff for an economist (though he acknowledges Stern in the most effusive terms). The important point is moral. We can't afford fatalism about "human nature". This sort of defeatism, attachment to the insurmountability of human flaws, is a bizarre reading of what "conservatism" means. It certainly has nothing about conservation in it under present circumstances. What exactly is being conserved?

No matter how badly off we may be there is always a best outcome, and we must always strive for it. Setbacks are no excuse for surrender. There is no excuse for surrender. This is the only world we've got.

In short, making the best of it is pretty much the best we can make of it. It's only slightly less a tautology to say that we must always act on our hopes, else there is little hope.

Where I think Sachs missed the boat in response to this sort of muddleheaded defeatism is this: stasis is not an option, stability is not on the table. Things will either change for the better or for the worse.

For the reasons Sachs catalogs, as well as one, exponentially increasing consumption, (which, unsurprisingly, as an economist) he explicitly eschews, the situation is fundamentally unstable.

There is no "business as usual" anymore. Something has got to give.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Latest delusionism from the WSJ

Because we have been successfully Godwinned out of calling the self-proclaimed "skeptics" "denialists", I join the new trend in calling them "delusionists".

Here's a slightly edited instant messaging transcript you may find interesting. "mt" below is me. The other two people speaking are not climatologists. One (here called 'Fred') is well-known as an author of operational weather forecasting codes. The other (here called 'Barney') is a very clever high performance computing expert who has seen weather and climate codes but does not specialize in them.

It is interesting that Barney was quick to violate Godwin without any prompting. I do not think he has heard of "denialism".


mt says, "The Wall Street Journal is at it again." [linked]

... pause ...

Fred: Mr. Jenkins is pissing in the wind. If the world scientific community *and* the U.S. Supreme Court aren't enough for him then I guess he's just gonna have to suffer.

Fred says, "I like how he slams Gore for what Jenkins thinks Gore's going to say."

Fred says, "Ought to at least let him say the thing first before criticising it. What's wrong with public discourse in this country?"

Fred says, "Are the people I agree with this strident and obnoxious too, and I just don't notice it because I agree with them?"

Fred . o O ( I'd like to think not, but we're all creatures of our own biases. )

Barney . o O ( What's wrong with "such a belief [being] the 'consensus' of scientists"? Perhaps Mr. Jenkins only shares beliefs with a plethora of tooth faries, or he only believes things written in invisible ink he cannot see drafted by an invisible man he does not know, or maybe god just tells him what to believe... or maybe he just knows better. )

Barney says, "A consensus of scientists have a theory of gravity -- but they're all wrong: The earth just sucks."

Barney says, ""Obviously we need a better theory than Mr. Inhofe's of when head-counting is a useful way of estimating the validity of a factual proposition and when it isn't." Yeah... How about a "scientific theory"?"

Barney assumes fetal position on floor in corner.

Barney can't tell if the WSJ is anti-science, or anti-intellectual.

Barney says, "What other well documented facts does WSJ provide coulmn space debunking? Anything on holocaust denial? What, exactly, is WSJ's point in running this dribble?"

Barney says, "There's a reason why it's always non-scientists who discover "mistakes" in cimate change studies: Lack of skill in the field leads to difficulties in self-assessing one's own incompetence."

Fred says, "Well said. I like the tooth fairy plethora consensus."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Is climatology a real science?

An article referenced at RC asks whether climatology is a real science.

The article is rife with the usual denialist sleight of hand and drivel, but it is not at all clear that the author is insincere.

The answer is yes, but why should anyone believe me? This leads me to broaden the question. How should one answer "is academic community X doing real science?"

After all, I have been known to ask whether economics is a real science. So I have to admit that the class of question is admissible.

I can't just point to the best climatologists I know and say "if that's not a scientist, I'm a blue armadillo". Any economist could argue similarly.

Values of X where this is very uncertain from my point of view include:

psychology of consciousness
artificial intelligence
string theory

Others ask this of fields for which, for me, the answer is obviously affirmative, notably evolutionary biology, geology, climatology, any field which can't function in the context of a hypothetical world created ten thousand years ago.

I think the class of question is legitimate, and that high dudgeon is not a useful answer. What then constitutes a science? Is there some reasonable way for society to distinguish between sciences and intellectual disciplines that are not sciences?

I suspect that the question has no objective test, which puts us in a pretty pickle.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Annan vs Hegerl goes Nuclear in a Hurry

Strange day.

I just returned from a day that included a talk by Gabrielle Hegerl to discover that James Annan has a poster criticizing an aspect of her work.

In fact, the point that James makes, was, in essence, covered in her talk. She said the data alone was insufficient to remove the long tail, but she was clear that the long tail was almost certainly an artifact of
the way the problem was set up. I believe that James' approach amounts to begging the question: if you assert a prior where there are no tails, you can't say the data has constrained the tail. This seems to me like hair-splitting, though I expect James will disagree.

OK, fine, here I am at Bayesian central, I suppose seeing some technical battles between my virtual friends and my real-world acquaintances is to be expected in the rough and tumble world of science, but it's a bit of an odd coincidence.

So to see if there is some ongoing longer feud between these two, I googled "Annan Hegerl", and who should pop up but Lubos Motl! My God, this article was uploaded tomorrow (dateline artifacts). It appears negativeland is already all abuzz with the fact that a climate scientist would dare to criticize another!

(We are damned if we criticize each other and dmaned if we don't, but still, this is ridiculous.)

And see this on the SEPP site (with similar comments from Motl):

Three weeks ago, Hegerl et al. published a text in Nature that claims that the 95 percent confidence interval for the climate sensitivity is between 1.5 and 6.2 Celsius degrees. James Annan decided to publish a reply (with J.C. Hargreaves). As you might know, James Annan - who likes to gamble and to make bets about global warming - is

an alarmist who believes all kinds of crazy things about the dangerous global warming;

a weird advocate of the Bayesian probabilistic reasoning".

However, he decided to publish a reply that

the actual sensitivity is about 5 times smaller than the Hegerl et al. upper bound which means that the warming from the carbon dioxide won't be too interesting;

Now, leaving aside how weird it is for anyone, let alone the ever-rigorous James, to be called "a weird advocate of the Bayesian probabilistic reasoning" (!!!!) doesn't this read like weird Bayesian James has become almost Lindzenite, putting an upper bound on the sensitivity at 6.2/5 or about 1.25 C?

No. Weird Bayesian James advocates using 20/5 or 4 C as an upper bound. Elsewhere he comes up with 3 C as a best estimate. Which is higher than Gabi's!!!

I assure you Hegerl knows the long tail is an artifact; that the higher the cutoff the longer the tail; that it tells us nothing.

The only question is how to handle it. It can easily be misinterpreted either way you approach it. James' approach can be seen as begging the question. Can you really put your hypothesis in as your prior?

And how (to get back to my blog theme) do we go about explaining any of this to the general public now that the engines of apoplectic confusion are gearing up to make a case out of this?

Note to the lay reader; James will correct me if I am wrong, but I am pretty sure he does not claim that the sensitivity is certain to be less than 1.3 C.

Anyone care to make a bet?

[Update: apparently all this denialist noise was from last year. Still...]

Isotope evidence

Of course, the fact that modern humans are the source of new carbon is stunningly obvious if you look at the shape of the concentration curve against time.

I'd always heard that carbon isotopes were the clincher, but when asked for evidence, all I'd been able to find was an unsupported assertion in the IPCC TAR, which always irked me. Of course, IPCC has a rule of not referring to anything that isn't published in peer review, and this bit of data is so widely known and accepted among anyone who might conceivably care in a professional capacity that perhaps it appears nowhere in the primary literature.

A sort of catch-22!

Fortunately, Tamino has found a source for enough raw data to make the point.

Anyone who claims the CO2 (never mind the warming) is natural variability hasn't had a leg to stand on for a long time. This is just the icing on the cake.

So (to get meta again for a second) I am not arguing against logical argument. It's necessary, just not sufficient, is all I'm saying. It's nice to finally have solid evidence to point to on this matter.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Invisible Audience Problem

Fergus Brown asks, in a comment to "frames and frames":

This idea [writing to your audience] might work well enough when you are considering the context of a speech or presentation, but how does it map into the blogosphere? Who is our audience here? Do we define them by our position, or do they define our position by their response? In other words, how does the idea of a frame work when the sudience is (in principle) arbitrary?

This is a timely question considering my disappointment with Coturnix's essay; see "More on the framing frame" (OK, OK, I've used that too "frame" frame too much...) and comments thereto.

I think what I am realizing is that the advice "frame for your audience" has to be tempered. You also have to frame for whomever else might wander by.

If we are trying to attain trust by projecting authority, we must minimize the number of people we irritate and confront. Of course if you irritate nobody ever, you achieve nothing. (It used to be you could sell a lot of colorful and vapid magazines, but I think those days are drawing to a close. There: I irritated magazine writers.)

So while I agree with N&M, I also need to say something that must be obvious to journalists but seems far from obvious to scientists. In a public communication, you have two framing tasks.

In the past, this didn't apply to scientific papers. Dr. X. might "disagree with the IPCC's assessment in Section" and not worry about it. Now Dr X needs to recast his statement lest his statement be turned into "Dr X disagrees with IPCC" and "Dr X disagrees with so-called climate consensus" and "Dr X is among the many scientists who think this product of the UN bureaucracy is unjustifiable" (and this is even before it crosses into outright misstatement.)

In the present environment, everything you say in public can come to the attention of anyone.

The overall effectiveness of the communication is not dominated by its evidence or logic, but by how effectively we build and maintain social networks of trust. This is much harder because people are deliberately trying to break that trust. This makes it all the more urgent that we pay attention to the whole thing.

In summary, what I am coming to is:
  1. Identify and address your primary audience. Serve their needs.
  2. Think about who else might be most negatively affected if they see it, treat them as a secondary audience, and if possible do what you can to soften the blow and avoid making enemies unnecessarily
  3. When you are done think about whether what you say will do more harm then good. Once in a while be willing to throw the whole thing away. Substitute some dry lecture on Clausius-Clapeyron and be done with it.
This is no different for the web than it was in the days of paper. If anything, while it's easier to get published, it's also easier than ever for your words to reach someone they might offend. The intrinsic formalism of public communication exists for a reason.

In the end we are all in the same boat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Frames and Frames

[Factored out of the previous posting for clarity.]

There are two meanings of the word "frame" that are getting confused here; one is the Overton Window stuff (the limits of what society tolerates as acceptable opinion can shift, and a good way to influence history in the long run is to move the perceived frame).

Climate science has suffered from a very sneaky placement of that frame, where the IPCC (which is a deliberate and careful attempt to explain the center of scientific opinion) is cast as the extreme of a debate, while one of the two actual extremes (Lovelock's position, I suppose) simply isn't in the public eye at all.

For clarity, perhaps we should call this the "window" and not the "frame".

What Nisbet and Mooney are talking about, in their discussion of framing that has gotten so much attention, is how to present your information to one or another audience: it refers to a given communication effort, not to the whole context.

Even in this case, despite the knee-jerk reactions of some, the word "framing" isn't about "lying". You say different things to different audiences because they have different needs and interests. That doesn't mean the things you say are inconsistent with each other or with truth as you understand it.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Authority and Trust

Orac's view
gets it right as far as it gets it at all. Orac demonstartes that scientists who are threatened by N&M's position can't possibly be very introspective, because every communication is framed (and windowed too).

Everyone I've read on this lately seems to be missing a key point, though. It's about trust.

Scientific communication occurs in a "trust but verify" world. In principle it is necessary to allow for your work to be checked, but in practice if you check more than a tiny fraction of what you are exposed to, you get nothing done. You know people who know people. When someone says something close to your own turf that surprises you, you check it, not because you mistrust the messenger but because the matter piques your interest. Progress emerges collectively, not individually, and by a process that is more social than formal, except perhaps in pure mathematics.

When you present a new result, you are asking people to put a very considerable amount of attention and care into considering it. They must weigh your demands against those of many others. The first thing they weigh is not your argument. It is who sent you. Then, what institution are you from. Then, did you reference the right people, or are you coming in from left field? Do you dress like someone from that field, do you tell the right jokes, do you have the right friends, are you casual but not shabby....

It is far from flawless, overly clubby, and cruel to people who enter science with this particular form of social radar underdeveloped. (Some call it classism or even racism, but the fact is that Canadians play better hockey because Canadians grow up surrounded by 1) hockey enthusiasts and 2) ice, so no one needs to teach them what those things are.) But cruel or no (and I myself haven't been a beneficiary of this system) it is effective. It works. Truth emerges.

(There is a real problem of unearned and undeserved trust, but that's for another time and place. I am here discussing how the system works at its imperfect best.)

Truth emerges through a network of earned and deserved trust, and generally not through the efforts of any individual person, no matter how talented.

The matter of how truth percolates form science to society is hardly different. We make social judgements far more than we make judgements of substance, because we do not have the time to judge everything on substance. We can only operate on the basis of trust that the social network is doing enough judgements of substance.

In my youth, my generation railed against authority, against the "establishment". We had a common bumper sticker, "Question Authority". Unfortunately, the bumper sticker stuck too well. Now there is nasty gluey stuff all over the bumper of society. My wife Irene has suggested an amended bumper sticker: "Question Authority but Listen to the Answer!"

In those days when there was an establishment and it cared about science, if I were to investigate a scientific issue, I would get the best efforts of scientists to communicate to my level. I would not have been cut off at the pass by an organized posse of authority questioners, skilled in generating confusion and motivated by something other than truth.

What people who care about truth need to do first is understand that science flourishes in some social environments and not in others, that some social environments care about truth as an independent constraint and others will try to argue their way out of a hurricane. ("It's not so bad. The levee is only broken in one or two places.")

We can't allow the network of trust to get broken. It's already altogether too frayed. The costs aren't just our comfortable science jobs at nice institutes with a few nice foreign jaunts every year. The entire fate of humanity is at stake, whether or not the climate change consensus is right.

In order to save the freedom of free nations we must save our collective competence. Our competence depends on respect for evidence, and respect for evidence depends on respect for the network of people who gather the evidence.

How do we deserve that trust, and how do we go about regaining it, in the face of highly skilled malign opposition?

I am still thinking about it and I hope you are too, but I am sure one crucial step is to respect your audience, no matter how wrongheaded they may be.

We should not suffer foolishness gladly, but as for fools, I defer to Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons. Paraphrasing, he has pointed out that the world is so complicated now that everyone is an idiot about some things.

We are all fools in some context or other.

That's why, in order to survive and thrive, as individuals, groups, societies, and a world, the most important skill is knowing whom to trust.

It's also why we should treat fools with respect and consideration, while fighting their foolishness. Tomorrow you will be someone else's fool.

[This rambled a bit. I split off the opening into a separate posting. See above.]

Sunday, April 8, 2007

More on the Framing Frame [updated]

Courtesy of Jim Torson who writes a lengthy diatribe to the globalchange googlegroup.

Here's Nisbet and here's Mooney.

Also Jim points to Blog around the Clock/Coturnix. I'm not sure whether Jim endorses this article, but I surely don't. Consider this:

The result of training is that scientists are uniquely trained to be poor communicators of science. Scientists - a tiny percentage of any population - are the only people in the society who even try to think and talk in a value-free way, get insulted when someone suggest they shouldn't do so, and view other people who can't do so as intellectually inferior.

I think that captures something interesting. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the substance but it's an interesting idea.

Unfortunately, it's stated in such an extreme, overstated and confrontational way as to thoroughly offend both scientists and nonscientists in equal measure. One could hardly come up with a way to frame the opinion that does more damage to discourse.

I thoroughly dislike the rest of the "Clock" article. It gets even worse.

Apparently anyone who doesn't agree with the author about absolutely everything is an inferior being, who has yet to progress to the level of perfection that the author has attained. Charming.

[Addendum: let me expand on this.]

Here is an approximation of the evolutionary ladder as displayed in an image on this article (sorry, I don't have time to do this up as a fancy graphic)

Coturnix (highest possible form according to Coturnix)
People who agree with Coturnix
Atheists who have some quibbles with Coturnix
Christians (lowest form attained by humans according to Coturnix)
Anerobic Bacteria

Notice there is nothing whatsoever about science on this chart. The purpose of public communication of science, it is revealed, is to slyly and secretly move people UP the ladder of development so they are more Coturnix-like.

Maybe all of us in some corner of our minds believe there is some ladder of correctness with our own opinions at the top, and people who thoroughly disagree at the bottom. Grownups tend to know enough to temper this with a tad of humility. On the other hand, publishing your secret arrogance is guaranteed not to win you any friends. Publishing it in an article intended to advise people on public communication is, hmmm, perhaps a tiny bit like shooting yourself in the foot to emphasize your message on firearm safety.

[end addendum]

Humorous sarcasm about bloggers you disagree with is one thing. It's fair game.

Arrogant, humorless contempt for huge swaths of humanity is another. There is hardly a worse example of framing the dialog possible than the toxic sludge of this article.

The amazing thing is that this article claims to offer advice on how scientists should approach public communication. Ironically it violates every bit of good advice it can muster and then some. If you want to know how to communicate in your area of expertise, study this article for form rather than content, and then don't do that.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Overton Window

wherein I disagree about disagreeing...

Eli has some comments disagreeing with me, but oddly, I agree with them.

I am not sure I understand what it is he thinks I am saying, but apparently I disagree with it.

It's very much worth a read anyway, if only to gain the worthwhile nomenclature of the "Overton Window".

Flipping the Question

It's often a good source of creativity to take a question and flip it around.

About when I pulled out of science, (and before I honed my political skills, at least a bit, in the private sector) I was at a meeting of paleoclimate modelers, when I kept saying "flip the question". They were trying to pull together ways to apply modeling to study paleoclimate, but I thought and think that the best approach would be to use paleoclimate data to study how to improve climate models. (I don't think anyone ever even got a clue about what I was so agitated about.)

I am now writing an article about "computer programming for everybody". Here, a clear statement of the flipped perspective is offered by Mark Guzdial: "I'd never before thought about computing for learning as opposed to learning about computing".

This site originates in a question flip. People are thinking hard enough about how to communicate science to the public, but as with the other two questions, they aren't thinking about it very well because they haven't looked at the dual, the flipped question. The flipped question is how to communicate how the public thinks to scientists and scientifically inclined people. Without some care about the flipped question, the communication of science to the public will tend to fall on deaf ears.

The way ideas prevail in science and the way they prevail in society are distinct. To some extent the way ideas prevail in society is broken and needs fixing (in that it is too emotional, and in that networks of trust are failing, and in that public opinion is too vulnerable to cynical manipulation), and to some extent the way science works is broken (mostly in that it is too clubbish and inaccessible). Anyway, given that we have matters of great importance at stake, we have to cope with the situation we have.

Friday, April 6, 2007

What about the other 11%?

Commentary on the WGII SPM on Slashdot spans the usual gamut from snarky through self-importantly clueless to insightful, and as usual for nontechnical articles the comment moderation system is not especially helpful. My impression that the balance of Slashdot opinion was moving in the wrong direction is not confirmed this time; it seems to be about 25% informed and 75% ill-informed, with the ill-informed split evenly between worried, unworried, and more or less misguided difference splitting (a.k.a. Broderism).

One presumably skeptical question seemed genuine and insightful enough, though. What does "consistent" mean? It's stated that 89% of the observational records showing significant change are "consistent" with warming. Does this imply that 11% are "inconsistent"? What does this mean for the "consistency" of the record as a whole?

I think we'll be hearing this question again.

I didn't see any answer in the SPM. Did I miss it?

Thursday, April 5, 2007


Dr. Lubos links to an amazingly painful Larry King snippet and scores some easy points. Brace yourself.

In short, Bill Nye the science guy sputters a bit and then makes the usual blunder about the "Gulf Stream shutting down", and Lindzen makes plenty of hay from it.

If this is the story people are seeing, is it any wonder they are getting it jumbled up?

Larry King's people deserve some of the blame for this disaster, but Bill Nye should have just demurred. We don't need some bowtied Mr Rogers clone defending us, for God's sake. It may not be "a hundred thousand to one" as Nye idiotically suggests but it's pretty much "ten thousand to ten". Where were the ten thousand? Couldn't King's people have found even one competent member of the IPCC?

It's bad enough to have to debate on these terms, but it seems we have to. If we don't, they will put up the likes of Bill Nye to argue our case!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Not just Texans

Here is the president of the Czech republic making us out to be the comeback of the Stalinists, much as Lubos Motl does.

Great comment on RC

A nice summary of a typical foray into the bizarro universe

This is what a lot of people are thinking. You can't refute this stuff with references to primary literature. What's most disturbing is that the stuff sticks. More and more people think like this every day. Let's think about why, and what we can do about it.

Outside the echo chamber

I guess it's not hard to find people sitting in the skeptics' echo chamber once you look.

I am adding "Geoheresy" to the roll of "what they are thinking", by a fellow named Louis Hissink, whom I gather is Australian. Look at the August 02 posting in his archives for a fine example; it seems like he has been banging the "no such thing as global temperature" drum for a while now.

Exercise for the non-expert reader: spot the specious claims about specious reasoning. You can start by checking the last sentence in particular. There is a lot to dislike about the August 2 geoheresy, and there's a fools' gold mine of similar rantings to see here and elsewhere.

I'm considering separating out a "what are they thinking" blogroll and a "hall of shame" blogroll, the latter for people who really, really, ought to know better. Unfortunately, it's never clear who is confused and who is being deliverately misleading. My good cousin Lubos, (I gather from his name and bio that he and I may be among the few surviving members of the same tribe) for instance, really ought to know better but is almost certainly sincere.

The main issue we need to think about as citizens of the Earth isn't this sort of half-baked argument. It's how much traction such arguments get.

In science, it's the responsibility of the person making the argument to ensure that it's worth making before exposing it to criticism. In politics and jurisprudence ("prudence"?) with its inherent competition, the person making a claim has no responsibility to expose its weaknesses to the opposition.

It's impossible to refute every bit of nonsense when there are so many more people generating nonsense than there are people generating sense. This is true in science in general, even when there are no major policy controversies involved. Once there is controversy, there is a huge motivation to dig up the pseudoscience and promote it.

Here, then, is the root of the problem. Science cannot function without a certain level of trust, albeit provisional and skeptical. (I don't know of anyone claiming to be a sociologist of science that gets this right, by the way. Can anyone help?) The trust among the scientific community remains reasonably high. The problem is that the trust between science and society has broken down under the assault of people who don't understand how knowledge gets generated.

It is not our job to refute every piece of nonsense that comes along. It is our job to find the nuggets of truth among the muck. (Hmm, a gold analogy... "We can tell the queen of diamonds by the way she shines...") It's our job to deserve trust.

In a democracy, it's the society's job to determine who is deserving of trust. (In any system, it's the ruling caste's job, and the problem is remarkably similar.) That's the weak point of the whole system. People undeserving of intellectual trust can easily make the claim, and can approach the matter in a way remeniscent of litigation. "If it doesn't fit you must acquit" etc.) For society to get this wrong has huge consequences...

Many people are not only motivated but paid to ensure that society gets it wrong. How many things are there that I firmly believe are wrong? Am I a victim of propaganda efforts discrediting other fields and substituting ill-founded rantings in which I have only a casual interest?

Scientists are paid only to deserve trust; it's a full-time job and then some. Nobody is really paid to advocate for the real thing in the way that others are paid to advocate for confusion and misdirection. Maybe this needs to change.

Monday, April 2, 2007

It's 3 C

The global sensitivity to CO2 doubling appears to be pretty close to 3 C. Stop the presses.

The global equilibrium temperature sensitivity to CO2 forcing is really starting to look like we have it down. Can we move the conversation on to more appropriate questions?

No, I suppose not...