"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

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.


Anonymous said...

"In science, it's the responsibility of the person making the argument to …"

I'd say "… get it right" or "… make it work"

"In politics and jurisprudence ("prudence"?) with its inherent competition, the person making a claim …"

I'd say "… simply has to win the argument" or "… has to persuade others to favour his position and support him"

The problem is that sceptics manufacture controversies, and many scientists (unlike lawyers) are not particularly adept at repeatedly handling nonsense/misguided arguments in the public eye without eventually receiving accusations of being overly technical. Scientists have special talents, and the sceptics get scientists out of their areas of expertise to compete in unfamiliar territory (in the sense of communicating with the public), so scientists are at a disadvantage before the contest begins!

I agree that we cannot refute every bit of nonsense. I have my own strategy for dealing with nonsense; other climate change bloggers have theirs. We compare notes, but target different types of contrarians or truth-seekers ;-)

You are right that society determines who to trust. That determination depends on culture, education, and a peculiar American way in which all sorts of topics are "manufactured" by special interests to be partisan in nature. These influences cause America as a nation (I am not referring to individuals, but the collective impact of society here) to lag behind most of the world in terms of trusting world experts on any matter, but especially on scientific issues.

EliRabett said...

Louis is a trip. He pops up occassionally on deltoid

Dano said...

I'm shortcutting here, but lately in America I think how all this works at the policy level is that we fall into 1/3-1/3-1/3 groups: 1/3 aren't going to believe in AGW noway nohow nuh-uh. 1/3 don't know, don't have the time to think about it but can be galvanized. The other 1/3 have long been convinced of the fact of AGW.

Sound like the voting bloc in general? Yup. So, there are 1/3 of our public - for whatever reason - who respond positively to the noise machine and will be unconvinced even by a branding iron or a 2x4 across the noggin'.

The job is to figure out what the middle 1/3 will listen to. And that is my other comment here and at John's place.



EliRabett said...

Well, and you are not going to like this, you are right, that science requires trust. The other side of that is when people start distorting for whatever reasons, that trust must be withdrawn, I speak specifically of Lindzen, Michaels et al, and that subcubus Singer. For too long they have played both sides of the street.

Michael Tobis said...

Eli, I am not sure why you think I should dislike that comment. While as a strategic matter I'm reluctant to name names, I totally agree that some people are undeserving of trust.

I'm willing to go so far as to say that contemporary opinions from the three people you mention are very unlikely to have a lot of influence on the way I think.

That is, while I try to avoid deciding who is misguided and who is dishonest, I do not trust any of those you mention as scientists, as sources of competent and fair scientific opinion, now. (One still has to give Lindzen credit for advancing the science in the past, though.)

The issue that I am trying to address is how the deniers have succeeded in getting the public to withdraw trust from the people doing the honest work.

The network of trust within the climate related sciences remains healthy. The connection to the general public does not, though.

This is a real risk.

The public is not in as strong a position as it might be to distinguish between the active and healthy scientific community on the one hand, versus the politically motivated armchair scientists who only pretend to play by the rules on the other.

If we have a disagreement, it is certainly not about whether there are malefactors in the situation.

Like you, Eli, I say there are.

It would be hard to look at the situation without concluding that *someone* is lying. The problem is that the professional "swindlers" have more time and attention and skill to give to their work than the actual scientists have to give to their non-core obligations to outreach.