"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's Wrong with Web Polls

From LW (full credit to whom if LW so desires) and Think Progress. Feel free to not take this seriously. The contender among the real science blogs is Bad Astronomy, which is, in fact, very good.
At 5:00 PM (EST) tonight, voting will close in the fifth annual Weblog Awards, "the world's largest blog competition." In the competition, participants are allowed to "vote once every 24 hours in each poll."

Currently leading the field in the "Best Science Blog" category is a website whose work has gone a long way in furthering anti-scientific interests, the global warming denialist blog Climate Audit.

Climate Audit is run by Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian and "former mining executive" who has become the darling of climate skeptics by challenging the conclusions of Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann and NASA's James Hansen.

McIntyre's criticisms of Mann, which appeared in the non-peer reviewed conservative journal Energy & Environment, have themselves been challenged for "overstat[ing]" their case. Even McIntyre himself has admitted that "the significance of things has been misstated by [Rush] Limbaugh and people like that."

But the right blogosphere has made Climate Audit's shot at the Weblog Award a cause celebre and are using postings and "endorsements" to rally their support to push for a skeptic to be named "Best Science Blog"
Sigh. I can't believe I'm having anything to do with this stupid game, but anyone who campaigns to win something like this, it seems to me, deserves to lose. The vote count for this "award" is about ten times the ones in the other categories.

Update: The voting is now over. It appears unclear who won this contest. McIntyre is declaring victory but as I look BadAs has the lead. I am sure the results are meaningless in any case.

Let me add that I think there's nothing wrong with playing this game to gain attention. What is disturbing is that McIntyre seemed to be playing the game to gain credibility, which is a very different thing.

Some follow-ups are substantially more interesting than the event itself. Bad Astronomy is generous to McIntyre:

This brings us to the heart of the problem: I am a scientist, and I understand a lot of the methods used to analyze data. However, this does not make me an expert on all data. I would have to spend a large amount of time plowing through what McIntyre did and what the folks at Real Climate say to see what’s what, and even then I cannot know for sure, because I am not an expert in this field.

And there you have it. How do any of us interpret these crucial findings when we are not experts? We have to rely on other experts. In this case, the overwhelming number of experts, truly overwhelming, say that GW is anthropogenic. That doesn’t mean they are right, but it does mean it’s the way to bet. And I encourage people to look into the studies on both sides of this. Science is all about keeping people honest.

About the science, though: I refuse to get sucked into any debate over “sound science”, because that uses science’s own strengths — tentative results constituting evidence and support, but not “proof” — against it. You can always wait and try to get more data, but there are times when you have enough. In my opinion, we have enough.

Again, let me be clear: I applaud McIntyre’s efforts to work through this. He has clearly done some good, and I have said so in previous posts. An argument can be made that my use of the term “denialist” for him may be too strong, but it still does seem to me after reading more of his site that he comes at this from the angle of trying to tear down arguments made for anthropogenic GW while not going after the antiGW claims.

McIntyre himself uses the event to protest his innocence in an article provocatively titled "why is this left and right", a question many of us find pertinent.

Prior to this vote, I (and doubtless many CA readers) had been unaware of the Bad Astronomy blog (and other interesting nominees who have undeservedly not attracted the attention that deserved) and I’m sure that this same holds in reverse. I hope that readers of each blog will take the opportunity of this introduction to visit the other site; I’ve added a link to Bad Astronomy in my very short blogroll.

Like many issues, the voting seems to have divided on left-right lines. While I realize that much of my support has come from right-wing sources, I don’t think that the analysis that’s done here is anything that should either comfort right-wing people or offend left-wing people. Sometimes the argument is made that, if Mann’s Hockey Stick were wrong, it means that the climate situation would be actually worse than people think. I ask “left-wing” readers to ponder this for moment: if the errors in Mann’s (and similar studies) result in a disguising of a problem, shouldn’t people concerned about AGW impact be on the cutting edge of attempts to analyze the Hockey Stick and see if there any defects in the analysis? Shouldn’t they be demanding that all the data used in these studies -even Lonnie Thompson’s - be available so that each one of them can be properly analysed?

Back when views on Iraq were more evenly divided, I sometimes compared what I do to being a CIA analyst arguing that sometimes an aluminum tube is just an aluminum tube and not evidence of WMD. That wouldn’t mean that proponents of the war couldn’t argue the matter using different arguments or that the war was or wasn’t justified, or that the subsequent occupation of Iraq was or wasn’t botched. All it means is that policy-makers shouldn’t be basing their decisions on questionable information about aluminum tubes. This was a line of argument that used to rub right-wing people who liked part of my message the wrong way, but I hope that it says something about me.

I’ve said on many occasions that, if I had a big policy job, I would be guided by the views expressed by large institutions. Unlike some “skeptics”, I don’t argue that decisions should be deferred pending perfect certainty. I have business experience and know that people make decisions all the time with uncertainty - you have to. At the same time, if you’re going to make effective decisions, you need to have the best possible information. And I vehemently disagree that scientists can use the “big picture” as a justification for being careless with their details. People should try their hardest to get the details right as well as the big picture.

But runner-up P Z Myers at Pharyngula sticks to the denialist label for McIntyre, and protests a good deal more vigorously:
what's bringing you and your fellow naive whiners here is the need to defend the climate change denialist, McIntyre — so many of you, after carping that I'm not meeting your demands, are protesting that he's not a denialist, and you aren't denialists, and you're all here in the cause of good science.


My expertise is not in climate, but in biology, and I'm familiar with his type — it's a common strategy among creationists, who do dearly love to collect complaints. There are people who put together a coherent picture of a scientific issue, who review lots of evidence and assemble a rational synthesis. They're called scientists. Then there are the myopic little nitpickers, people who scurry about seeking little bits of garbage in the fabric of science (and of course, there are such flaws everywhere), and when they find some scrap of rot, they squeak triumphantly and hold it high and declare that the science everywhere is similarly corrupt. They lack perspective. They ignore everything that doesn't fit their search criterion, and of course, they're focused only on putrescence. They aren't scientists, they're more like rats.

And the worst of the rats are the sanctimonious ones that declare that they're just 'policing' science. They aren't. They're just providing fodder for their fellow denialists, and like them all, have nothing of value to contribute to advance the conversation. You can quit whining that you and McIntyre are finding valid errors; it doesn't matter, since you're simultaneously spreading a plague of lies and ignorance as you go.

So bugger off, denialists. I am not impressed.

Update: The web awards site punted.


Anonymous said...

Michael, you wrote:

The vote count for this "award" is about ten times the ones in the other categories.

such a classic, text-book def. of freeping, alright.

It would be nice for the folks over at Weblog Awards to do a little extra homework on this one, and identify - and exclude - at least the more obvious freeps.

One small sliver of silver lining: at last glance it appears BA may just barely edge out Slimyte Audit.


Hank Roberts said...

Well, on the one hand it led to someone showing how easy it is to automatically spoof the Flash software to defeat the one-vote-per-24-hours limit.

So the number displayed is provisional and the logawarders are doing something like comparing IP numbers. Gee, I wonder if those could be spoofed too?

But for now, the tenth of one percent difference between the two vote totals is obviously enormous.

It's as big as the difference between two temperature curves ... oh, wait.