"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

They Have One Point

I conceded as follows on RealClimate:

I’m afraid that I agree with the skeptics that even when published our codes are unnecessarily impenetrable, inadequately validated, inadequately linked to the literature (which itself is unnecessarily impenetrable, although IPCC reports are a big help in the latter regard).

We climatologists do not seem willing to acknowledge that our unanticipated responsibilities really do require more formality and more accountability than was the case when we were pursuing what amounted to a peculiar and idiosyncratic academic curiosity.

Our most adamant critics do not seem willing to acknowledge how difficult, expensive and risky such a change would be even in the best, most civilized and most supportive of circumstances. Such benign circumstances are not the ones those same critics are, for the most part, willing to grant us.

Tamino didn't refer explicitly to my comment but I agree completely with his susbequent comment:

A man goes to the hospital with severe chest pain, a shooting pain in his left arm, shortness of breath, and when the intern on call listens with a stethoscope she hears a highly irregular heartbeat, typical of heart attack victims. The intern orders an EKG, which shows the classic pattern of heart attack, so she pronounces that he’s suffered a major heart attack and orders the appropriate treatment.

Suddenly another doctor comes in. Hold the phone! The software used by that EKG machine has never been validated! It’s not “open source!” It can’t be trusted! Tell that patient to go home, we’ll call him back as soon as everyone agrees that the EKG software doesn’t have a “bug.”

Validating the EKG software is a good idea. But let’s not make the already overworked interns do it, and let’s not make the already underfunded hospital pay for it. And since we have a plethora of lines of evidence of lifethreatening illness — so many that even if the EKG is totally SNAFU there’s still no doubt — quit stalling, for GOD’S SAKE get that patient into the critical care unit. Stat.

Update: I hope this isn't construed as me saying the effort to model climate has been fruitless, (though I suppose it will be so construed). In Tamino's analogy the EKG machine we actually have is a bit clunky and its user manual is wretched, but it's better than no machine at all and it has many appropriate uses. All of which is neither here nor there as far as the patient is concerned.


Dano said...

Heart attack and EKG software.

Go with that. That's the one. Everyone understands that, and it easily goes up to climate/weather (e.g. BMI and individual variation).

It's a winner.



Anonymous said...

Both good comments, and tamino's narrative is exemplary by all definitions. (Don't let the self-acclaiming climate auditors get you down, nor allow them to interfere with your valuable work.)

Michael Tobis said...

I should probably add that the fellow responsible for documentation and support on NCAR's CCSM was laid off in a budget crunch.

Anonymous said...

Do you know, Michael, I almost fell out of my chair in surprise at your opening lines and was just attempting my rather pathetic English attempt at a Texan 'yeehaw' ... when suddenly you let the 'sillies' in again. I don't know who 'Tamino' is but you should advise him/her to stick to poetry because the metaphor he/she invented is so hopelessly inaccurate and unilluminating to the point of being misleading, that it can only be described as, shall we say politely, a flight of fancy.

Never mind, I applaud your opening statement. (And yes, I do know that you haven't been biting your nails in anxiety awaiting my response!)

Michael Tobis said...

David, see, this is the risk of conceding points in an unfair argument. The opposition tends to glaze right over the "yeah but..." parts.

If you were being fair you'd at least try to see why I am claiming that the nature of the critiques doesn't make progress in this regard easier, and why Tamino points out that in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter all that much.

Thanks for the cowboy whoop, though, I enjoad it, much 'preciated.

Sparrow (in the coal mine) said...

I should probably add that the fellow responsible for documentation and support on NCAR's CCSM was laid off in a budget crunch.

More info plz. This kind of stuff is important.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't know much about it. I know the CCSM documentation is out of date, though.