"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reticence and Excess

Somehow this escaped me until it was pointed out by no less than Lubos Motl in this fascinating thread on Stoat. So thanks are due to Lubos for highlighting this very interesting argument by James Hansen on the subject he calls scientific reticence.

Hansen claims that there are pressures on scientists to understate rather than overstate risks. I am not sure this phenomenon applies to all scientists everywhere, but it certainly applies to climate scientists in the US, where the perception of the consensus position is that it stands at one pole of a scientific debate, rather than constituting a center of gravity around which excursions in both directions are healthy and worthy of investigation.

However, it is not fair to simply shrug this off and say it cuts only one way in general. The constellation of forces arrayed around climate science (geology, agriculture, military, civil engineering) are naturally conservative. Other groups may feel very different pressures.

For instance, reticence does not seem to apply to environmental nonprofits.

I am particularly unhappy to face up to the fact the propagandistic skewing of data recently demonstrated by the Audubon society. Toxic environmentalism is real enough, and it's really shocking to see it an an association as venerable as the Audubon Society. It's hardly surprising that a survey of species shows the ones in most rapid decline as declining rapidly. This must be placed in context of the rest of the survey, which the Audubon Society, almost surely deliberately, did not do. In fact, if I understand correctly, and more appear to be increasing rapidly than decreasing rapidly in their survey, but Audubon appears to be taking considerable care to leave a different impression.

Reason requires fair attention to evidence. It is necessary to resist pressures to skew what your data means, regardless of who butters your bread. These days that is all too commonly difficult, and to that extent, regardless of his severely confused ideas about climate, Lubos Motl has a point.

Here's a quote from Paul Dietz, duly crediting John McCarthy, which I found on an interesting discussion about AGW skepticism :

Yes, this is a great symptom of denialism, showing what John McCarthy called 'lawyers's science'. You start with the position you want to prove, and search for evidence, however thin or dubious, to support it. The result is the jumping from one easily debunked argument to another.

The surprising thing is the persons exhibiting this behavior often don't allow themselves to realize what they are doing.
Agreed. Of course McCarthy usually talks about lawyers' science on the part of environmentalist groups. Let's try to remember that the pressures run in both directions, and let's try to have the courage to tell the truth regardless.


Anonymous said...

I don't know about the situation really and I'm not an ornithologist, but I would take it as possibly alarming if many bird species were increasing rapidly and many others declining rapidly as well.

Ie it doesn't tell us that everything is right. It doesn't compensate.

Of course, it is a different thing than what was given as an impression in a press release. It is sad that so many press releases and news pieces are quite different from the actual underlying activities or study results.

Overstating your case should not work in the long run.

Michael Tobis said...

mz, I agree completely.

I am not a biological scientist either, and I agree that the study might not be sufficient to prove that things are fine.

Perhaps the study is biased. I can easily imagine how numbers might appear to increase due to better observational techniques. Climate statisticians think about such things all the time, and I hope biologists do too, but I'm not sure they do.

If the study is not biased, it appears the total bird population is increasing. Perhaps larger birds are being replaced by smaller ones, so the total health of the bird population is decreasing.

I'm sure other possibilities exist.

I should say this, though. I doubt biologists would know what the variability in species populations is on such a large scale in the undisturbed case. I do know that the old model of ecological equilibrium has turned out to be a drastic oversimplification in many cases.

As you acknowledge, that's not my main point. The point is that a misimpression is being deliberately cultivated, and that this is, frankly, subversive. If trusted organizations systematically deliver misinformation, democracy cannot function well.

Climate science is constantly accused of doing exactly this. We are innocent, but that doesn't make such a thing outside the realm of possibility.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps the study is biased. I can easily imagine how numbers might appear to increase due to better observational techniques. Climate statisticians think about such things all the time, and I hope biologists do too, but I'm not sure they do."

There did seem to be some sections on bias in the study (as I said in a different comment, I only skim read it looking for total populations).

NB my other comment touches on some of what is covered here, but I hadn't seen this one.

EliRabett said...

Not to blogwhore, but Eli had the Hansen thing in April.

Michael Tobis said...

Sorry I missed it, doctor bunny dude. It's fun citing Motl on occasion anyway.

I am amazed you have time for my humble meanderings these days. I am most impressed by your heading into deeper waters than I would ever wade into with your Wikipedia news.

Seriously, my humble respects. It sort of puts my squawking about the bird people into perspective...

I encourage my readers to watch Eli's often enlightening, occasionally baffling, but always engaging blog.