"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Defense of Kestenbaum

Science functions in a social context. Emergence of an educated class is as disastrous as emergence of a wealthy class. Without a social fabric in which it is securely enmeshed, science is worthless. The reason we are seeing persistent and dangerous pseudoscience is that the fabric has been torn. We will not repair it by physics lectures. I am so very tired of people missing this point, and recently many of us appear to have missed it badly.

Everybody's up in arms about the NPR story about Kristen Byrnes. David Appell says he's lost all respect for David Kestenbaum, the NPR reporter. I have to say I'm baffled. I seem to be a severe outlier on this one. I think Kestenbaum's story was excellent.

Not that Kristen isn't a problem, obviously. In fact Kristen's website was a motivation for me starting this blog a year ago. I think she has confused herself in a prefectly sincere way, and that indicates the deeper problem that Kestenbaum gets to.

The problem isn't that just one person gets it wrong; the problem is that it is easier to get it wrong than to get it right. Intermediate level (advanced high school, early college level) material on the denialist side is vastly more copious and more accessible to that on the side of science (with the severe alarmists like Mr Turner holding their own).

The truth will lose out to the lies more often than not when an intelligent person without much connection to academia openmindedly takes on a study of climate change. The ease with which we on the inside are perceived to be driven into arrogant huffing (as a consequence of being baited into it) doesn't help.

But that's just to establish my bona fides. I'm not here to discuss that today.
I'm here to stick my neck out and defend David Kestenbaum. What, after all, was his point?
And the truth is, for people who want to get down into the details, climate change science can get very hairy. There are oceans to consider, which can absorb heat, water vapor and cloud cover to account for.

Much of the evidence comes from detailed computer models. Scientists disagree on some of the details. A handful do not think the case has been made. But the overwhelming consensus is that humans are causing global warming, and the consequences could be serious.

Despite Kristen's online celebrity, she doesn't talk about climate change much with her friends.

During lunch at a local chowder house with her friend Chrissy Flanders, they talked about food and friends and clothes.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Chrissy piped up to say she disagreed with Kristen on climate change.

"I think it's partly because of humans," she says. Asked why she believes that she says she doesn't know. Kristen chimes in: "She just believes what everyone else is making her believe."

It's probably fair to say that most people — even those who have strong opinions about global warming — couldn't make a strong scientific argument for why they believe what they believe.

Most of us delegate, decide to believe someone we trust. We don't actively seek out the other side. We probably wouldn't know what to make of it, or how to reconcile the two. Who has time? Or the expertise?
Yes! Exactly!

I don't see why all the recriminations against Kestenbaum. He has identified the problem exactly. Science is about collective knowledge, and collective knowledge is about trust. Whether Kirsten is a little more sophisticated than her friend who happens to be right is secondary. The question is about whom each of these girls has decided to trust.

When you get deep enough into something a certain coherence emerges, but it's not easy to get that deep. I am trying to think about global food security for instance but I'm having a heck of a time identifying the authoritative sources. Of course, I am also asking the wrong questions: where does nitrogen come from, where does it go? These are questions that the experts don't spend a lot of time talking about because they know all about it. So who addresses the person who has come to the point of asking about nitrogen?

How do networks of trust operate when they work? How do they fail? How are they subverted by zealots? (Dare we hope that the press will get the gumption to take this on, finally?) These are the right questions, the crucial questions, and Kestenbaum has got to the root of them.

Update: Also, isn't Kristen chimes in: "She just believes what everyone else is making her believe" just deliciously ironic? I am really shocked and dismayed at how superficially the climo-blogo-spheroid is looking at this report. It's really very clever.

Update: Ponder the Maunder seems dramatically inferior in quality to what I saw a year ago, which presumably was the school project. Accroding to my recollection, anyway. Earthlink is unwilling to serve that up at present. Anyway, the page David Appell links to makes absolutely no sense, for instance. This doesn't bode well for young Kristen. If she wanders here in her ponderings, I hope she'll check my article on Wired Science about youthful hubris, in which, alas, she figures prominently.


EliRabett said...

She still has the wrong CO2 vs year graph on her site, which is a pretty clear indication that her interest in learning is negative. David Appell says that he tried over months to talk with her about this to no avail. He also has a comment on your comment on his blog.

Dano said...

I don't see why all the recriminations against Kestenbaum. He has identified the problem exactly. Science is about collective knowledge, and collective knowledge is about trust.

No. Kestenbaum sounded dumb. And he treated her like her blog had nothing wrong with it: "why, golly! Kristen's science, my word! has a lot of people talking about it! Gosh, isn't that something! Gee whiz!".

That's the problem. I was dumbfounded at how idiotic the piece sounded.

It was as if a Republican leftover manager at NPR went to staff and said: give equal time to the skeptics or you're fired!".

Really. That idiotic. I'm more and more disappointed at the dumbing down of NPR.



Anonymous said...

I read a lot of science blogs and I agree with you that the NPR bashing has been a bit over the top. The story stated, as you've quoted, that overwhelming numbers of climate researchers agree about antropogenic climate change. It's nice to see someone stepping up for NPR.

The pedestal that they are placed upon is fascinating. When it all boils down, Morning Edition and All Things Considered are still journalistic organizations who are looking for stories, not scientific journal papers.

Michael Tobis said...

I had an NPR bash of my own recently and I stand by it.

I just don't see it in this present case. I think many people whom I normally consider as allies are misunderstanding the point of the piece, which I find discouraging.

That isn't a blanket endorsement of journalistic "neutrality" when one side is objectively wrong, far less of twisting matters to put the center at a "fringe". NPR gets no free ride from me.

LuboŇ° Motl said...

Hi Michael,

you must surely be scared but the aggressivity of your fellow hot heads, right?

The journalist was clearly no climate realists, according to my definitions. But the story was just great. It showed a realistic mixture of the personal and "professional" life of Kristen and put it into the right context.

It didn't pretend she has revolutionized the world but it also didn't try to pretend that she was a weak student who must surely have some serious intellectual or moral problems.

It was just a very good story that didn't have any agenda. And I am at least happy that some people from "both sides" can agree about it.

Appell has proudly admitted that he has been harrassing Kristen for half a year by obnoxious correspondence. This is just terribly. She is just a very young woman. She is a girl.

I am often devastated by the torture by the aggressive warming believers myself even though I am a pretty resilient adult male. What do you think that a young girl may feel if she is exposed to similar Gestapo officials from your camps such as Mr Appell?

If you want to help the hysteria to cross all human conventions - such as the unacceptability of torture of kids because of ideological reasons - that were accepted just a few years ago, you should gather people from your camp who think similarly to you and pay for euthanasia for Mr Appell because what he's doing is simply way too much.

I completely agree with the journalist's observation that most people just send "delegates" and copy opinions. And I also agree with you that it is far easier to get it wrong than to get it right. It is far easier for you, too. That's why you get all the major climate questions wrong, too.

Thanks for your consideration ;-)

Michael Tobis said...

Hi, Lubos. As you may know, I think your own confusion traces back to Baliunas and Soon; they seem like nice enough people, so one wonders where their confusion comes from. They are, nevertheless, very baffled and underinformed about what is known about climate and how. I am sorry you fell in with the wrong crowd.

"Appell has proudly admitted that he has been harrassing Kristen for half a year by obnoxious correspondence."

I'm not a lawyer, but I'd refrain from making such a strong statement without evidence. Also I really doubt it.

I am indeed alarmed at how easily people are pushed into shrill and excessive responses.

The fact remains that there are financially motivated and politically skilled people who do everything they can to coax reasonably well-informed people into shortness of patience.

That all said, I agree that the report asks the right question. Whom do we believe, whom should we believe, and how, and why. It is absolutely not a trivial question.

LuboŇ° Motl said...

Hi Michael, there have been many typos in my previous text, sorry. I will try to spellcheck it this time. ;-)

Do you have a particular argument concerning Willie's and Sallie's knowledge or is it just another example of the standard "between the lines" defamation of the inconvenient people? Note that the journalists didn't try to do anything of the sort against Kristen.

Also, Willie and Sallie are not the only skeptics in the world. Would it be equally easy morally to say the same bad things about Spencer, Lindzen, Christy, Singer, and many others? Why did you pick Willie and Sallie? Would you promise us that you are certainly better a climate scientist than Lindzen?

When I say that Appell is an obnoxious troll who didn't hesitate to poison the life of children, I am using publicly available evidence. On his davidappell.blogspot.com website, he writes, among many other outrageous things:

"Ms. Byrnes' Web site is an absolute joke, full of errors, entirely unscientific. For example, her graph of CO2 levels in the atmosphere showed it flat until about 1950, which is simply wrong. I corresponded with her for months and months about this, as did many other bloggers, until she finally hid her error without acknowledgement of what was correct."

There are several additional paragraphs of nasty attacks against her on his website, arguing that allowing her to be seen "threatens the existence of future generations", among very many examples of similar disgusting and absolutely insane propagandistic shit.

But the comment that he has "corresponded with her" for many months - until she did what he wanted - sounds truly scary for me. (And he even wanted to be thanked for that.) Once I received the third e-mail from this obnoxious dishonest aggressive fanatical sourball, I had to incorporate a new e-mail filter simply because virtually every sentence from that guy is an immoral and irrational personal attack or a direct threat. But months and months of his harrassment? It just sounds horrific.

I am happy that two of us agree that the journalist has opened the important question about our methods to use "trusted sources" and to copy opinions and possible flaws of these methods. But I am afraid that most of the people on your side won't be able to join this debate or any other rational debate.

They prefer to sink inconvenient children, something that even the Nazis were only doing in very extreme circumstances.

John Mashey said...

My opinion is that this is strongly driven by her step-father, and had the NPR article said:

1) It does not appear that she is doing science, and what she says disagrees with huge masses of data and work by good scientists.

2) Nevertheless, many people seem to want to believe poor information from a 16-year-old who has not yet taken physics, calculus, or statistics. Is that a problem? If someone were ill, would they consult doctors or a high school student who has read about illness on the web?

THEN it wouldn't have bothered me. As is, the article is subtle enough that it's being trumpeted as a great vindication.

3) I don't know if they checked this out with Portland High School. I'd have loved to see comments from them.

4) As I posted over at Rabett Run, recall that this isn't just opinions on the web, the KBSF *solicits funds* on the basis of Kristen's expertise, part for college, 25% for grants to other efforts. I suggested that people learn about "wire fraud". If her step-father were to create such a website, NO ONE would care, but with a 16-year-old doing it, it's on NPR.

Google: npr kristen byrnes 2008 climate realist

npr 2008 kristen byrnes
gets a more balanced mixture.

Michael Tobis said...

But you are hardly the picture of restraint yourself, are you, Lubos?

Please tone it down a bit if you want to converse with me in a domain which I moderate.

Re: Lindzen, no I am effectively in a support role for people who can compete with him. His great contribution was a considerable time ago, though. I am very impressed with his QBO work. Much of the rest of his work didn't pan out as well. He has been disengaged from actual contributions for a long time, ever since the evidence went against his "iris effect". Lindzen is something of an exception in this crowd all the same.

Re: Singer. Give me a break.

Re the others in between: Fine observationalists on the whole, but not dynamicists. And rather few of them, though I suppose they are mostly sincere, as I believe you are as well. I was under the impression that you were personally acquainted with "Willie and Sally", which is why I singled them out.

Michael Tobis said...

John, then we should get on with challenging the trumpeters, not on challenging the report, which is much more interesting than a simple vindication or endorsement would be.

I have read some of her material. It strikes me as intelligent and entirely reflective of what a sixteen year old would find with a trust matrix skewed to the right a bit.

This is what interests me about the whole thing.

I believe your points 1 and 2 were in fact addressed. That people on both sides felt free not to listen is sadly apparent. That is not Kastenbaum's fault.

Obviously the stepfather has a lot of influence on this. That's the whole point. Very few of us get to the point where we can actually weigh ideas effectively in a sturdy scientific framework for even one or two matters, never mind all of them. Yet all of us participate in the marketplace and in politics.

So the question is whom do we pick as our equivalent of Kristen's stepfather. There are several issues where I really don't know. It worries me that everyone around me is so sure of whom to believe.

I don't know what you mean by "wire fraud". The stepfather freely admits to promoting the effort, but the young woman actually writes the content, I believe.

It's really a shame that she is being channeled this way. She may not recover to a position worthy of her talents. She may be subverted into politics, per Eli's comment at the top of the comments. It's sad.

It's equally sad when the rest of us deny that it's possible to be misled, only that it's possible to mislead. That doesn't even make any sense. If every skeptic is dishonest and nobody is actually misled, then there is no consequence to the dishonesty.

Dano said...

OK, I went back and listened again, and had the transcript in front of me.

Michael, when I hear and read passages like this:

and Kristen did get emails from people challenging her science. But after a few exchanges, she says, her opponents backed down. "A few of them gave up and figured they can't win against a 15-year-old," she says. Mike laughs as she says this.

my 'listening like tobis' balloon gets deflated. My profession requires me to hear what people are saying, and try as I may, I hear what you're saying but I think you're trying too hard.

Just a thought.



Michael Tobis said...

Lubos, your latest submission is rejected on the grounds that you refer to specific people as "Nazi-like scum". Mostly people I rather like, as it happens, but that's secondary.

Please feel free to resubmit without the two "scum" sentences.

In future, if you don't see a comment, try taking out the most confrontational language and try again.

Michael Tobis said...

Dano, are you saying that little vignette makes them look good?

I can't see it. It just screams shallowness and hubris to me.

John Mashey said...

Michael: have you read my comment over at Rabett Run? That might help explain, but I can say more later.

MT said...

"Yes! Exactly!"

I agree. Also about the delicious irony. Thanks for highlighting that. Besides "trust," I think the most important underused word to do with these culture war questions is "testimony." "Trust" is the more important issue, but it's abstract and I think we do it so unconsciously that it's impossible to attend to while we speak so ambiguously as we do all the time. "Testimony" is the nub. In public, nobody is talking about things, only things according to whom and assuming what. These are arguments around which people's assumptions differ, so you'd think the assumptions deserve to be delineated and discussed.

Michael Tobis said...

Agreed, "mt", but who are you and why are you using my initals?

mt <-- the real one

Dano said...

I can't see it. It just screams shallowness and hubris to me.

Hmmm. I see where you're coming from now. I agree. I don't think it screams that to Jane Six-pack.



Michael Tobis said...

I guess it matters to me that it was on NPR.

The presumption that consumers of media are incapable of subtlety is a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent. Kestenbaum was trying to engage the listener in interesting questions. I think this is progress.

Y'all's responses scare me.

That people who like Kristen's stuff mostly think this report is "good" and that those who don't mostly think it is "bad" shows how far we have fallen.

Anonymous said...

Michael, I generally agree with your POV on this. The only thing I would add is the observation that the more negative interpretation of some of the commenters here, while plausible, could only be effective with a listener who considers it reasonable that even a bright 15/16 year old could mount a credible challenge to the vast body of scientific work referenced in the story.

We also need to consider this story in the broader context of what NPR listeners get exposed to. The NPR Climate Connections page makes it very clear that there's no real problem, at least in terms of over-inflation of the denialist POV.

There's one more aspect to this issue:

How does the NPR staff get educated about progress in climate science? Is some effort made to brief them on an ongoing basis? I suspect not, and that most of them therefore are considerably behind the curve on the science.

Anonymous said...

> "I think many people whom I normally consider as allies are misunderstanding the point of the piece"

The important "point of the piece" is what Jane Sixpack took to be its take-home message, and Jane (who heard it, & told me about it) interpreted it as promoting uncertainty and doubt, particularly uncertainty and doubt about the existence&urgency of global warming.

Unrelieved uncertainty and doubt are paralyzing.

> "He has identified the problem [of how to decide what's real] exactly. "

Yes, that's a big problem, and he did identify it. Should he have taken the further step of addressing it? since to identify it but not address it is to throw listeners into confusion. Which doesn't shed light.

Does anyone know Mr. Kestenbaum and could you invite him to come here and discuss the piece?
That is, after all, what blogs are best for...

And I have questions for him (which I've asked the NPR ombudsperson, but as of last night at least, they hadn't been answered)

John Mashey said...

I do think the NPR piece may have been a little too subtle, at least when read by itself. I have seen this other places where, for one reason or another, a reporter is very careful in what they write, and may well be expecting audiences to pick up more context. It may well be that a reporter is thinking "Everyone will see how ludicrous this is", but will not actually say so explicitly.

I'm reminded of an article called "Monckton Saves the Day",

Although be warned: British libel laws and British humor are different than ours.

Michael Tobis said...

Yes, very much like the Tim Adams piece on Monckton.

I don't expect everyone to see such a piece as exposing the ridiculousness of it. That doesn;t achieve the purpose. If you write it so that Monckton himself doesn't see the harm in it, you successfully make it very clear just how far over the top he is.

SImilarly if Kristen and stepdad and followers are happy with the coverage, they don't see how their own failings have been so clearly raised.

Anna's anecdote may be a rare case, but it seems to me there are very few people, especially among NPR readers, whose positions might be influenced by a piece like this. So the risk is quite low.

What disturbs me is how everybody on what I would ordinarily presume to be the smarter side is buying into the superficial interpretation.

It's not as if the reporter was all that subtle. He asserts the consensus position. He quotes the girl saying something arrogant and foolish. He quotes another girl saying something modest and more nearly correct. Good observations.

Then he asks how we make up our minds. Damned good question. The best question of all, perhaps.

It's not about feedbacks or sensitivities for most of us. It's about whom we believe and why. That question isn't implicit in the report. It's explicit!

As for "sounding dumb", (Dano's first comment) that's how you give someone enough rope, you know.

EliRabett said...

I agree that the quality of what is on Kristen Byrnes' web site has deteriorated. Better said, some very sloppy material has been added.

On the whole, the response to the npr report has been useful in that it filled the Google tree with material pointing to how wrong, or more to the point, misleading, Ponder the Maunder is. I particularly liked your response on Wired Science. I too tried to solve the four color problem, but we were so poor I only had carrots to draw with....

Anna Haynes said...

An update re my earlier comment
("I have questions for him [Kestenbaum](which I've asked the NPR ombudsperson, but as of last night at least, they hadn't been answered)") - it turns out that he had already answered when I submitted this comment.

I'd asked him if a PR firm had been anywhere in the picture, in the genesis of this story; he replied:
"... No PR firm was involved. Her website made the rounds on a number of blogs and someone forwarded me a link to it last year."

And I will invite him over here to answer questions.
(your house is much more presentable than mine, Doc)

Michael Tobis said...

My virtual house is yours, Anna, even when we disagree.

I'm not sure what you're hoping to achieve but I'll be happy to host it.

John Mashey said...

Well, taking a somewhat intermediate position, I'd refer people back to:


And on a related, more pleasant note, in some sense, I had the pleasure yesterday of hearing Naomi Oreskes's next installment on origins of denial, in this case on the Western Fuels Association activities of the early 1990s.

Some fascinating internal memoes have come out, including details of the marketing campaign, which was quite professional.

She had some excerpts from their video that showed how more CO2 would be wonderfully good for everyone, and would "green up" the world. This was shown with a globe of the Earth, getting greener everywhere. It was wonderful to see the Sahara turn bright green, an ability I'd not known CO2 to have, having learned Liebig's Law as a kid.

Anna Haynes said...

John Mashey's link above didn't work for me - I'm guessing it's to his Deltoid guest post John Mashey: What to do about poor science reporting
(which I'd remembered, appreciated, and wanted very much to find again - thank you John!)

And thanks also for this -
> "I had the pleasure yesterday of hearing Naomi Oreskes's next installment on origins of denial"

John, please, please, please write this up! or link to it, or...

Michael Tobis said...

Presumably we'll be getting a glimpse of this soon enough. I found this item very interesting in Oreskes' publication record:

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik Conway, in review, “Deny, Deny, Deny: How to Sow Confusion about Climate Change,” Agnotology: The Social Production of Ignorance, edited by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, under consideration at Stanford University Press.

Agnotology. Indeed.

John Mashey said...

Sorry for the broken link, but you got the right one.

Since she said it in public this week, I guess it's OK to say that all this is part of a book she's busily working on. I reviewed an early chapter last October, and it's good stuff, meticulously documented, but I probably can't say much more than that.

The talk this week was about the marketing campaign of the Western Fuels Association, i.e.:

- test market messages in 5 towns, preferably hometowns of Congresspeople on certain key committees, and getting substantial power from coal.

- make up acronym ICE, evaluate which of several phrases were more believable.

- Try a bunch of different advertising messages - she had a lot of examples.

- See which population segments respond well to which.

- Create Greening Earth Society, akin to to Tobacco Industry Research Committee [and a number of other parallels with tobacco were discussed].

- Create the video I mentioned, which was sent out free to many libraries. "CO2 is really good for you. Plants have been eating the atmosphere's CO2 and they are starving for more."

- I.e., in general, a classic market-research + marketing campaign.

See also: Craig Idso, co2science.