"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Better Explanations?

In It has picked up a persistent contributor, "Steven" who complains:

"Specific information pro-AGW that is understandable to the layman has been very thin... which is unfortunate because I think it's an area you could really make your niche (or one of)."

Leaving aside my easily guessed objection to the awful name "pro-AGW"...

While I have made some efforts in this direction over the years, I admit that isn't the focus here. I began this blog specifically with the observation that no matter how much information is aimed at the layman, it will be insufficient in the face of organized opposition.

That said, I somewhat sympathize. We can't just be pointing people to IPCC, and a few simple tutorials. The $300 M "We Campaign" is an embarassment of earnest and shallow positioning as long as it lacks any effort to educate. I am on Mr. Gore's mailing list, of course. I think I need to say that I find the whole approach the opposite of inspiring.

Some reasons that we are not doing better:

1) There is no funding for people who understand the material to convey it. In America at least, academic outreach funds go exclusively to non-controversial topics of research and are aimed almost exclusively at schoolchildren. (American schools, it need not be stressed, are in a disastrous state largely because of their incompetence in dealing with matters of controversy). Skeptics have been funded generously by fossil fuel interests and private foundations run by people very suspicious of collective activity.

2) Scientists are in very competitive positions, and any significant efforts spent on reaching the public detract from their competitive position both as a matter of reducing available time and as a matter of reducing their perceived seriousness among their peers. Outreach is for the Isaac Asimovs, Stephen Goulds, Carl Sagans etc. who are perceived as having given up trying to make a mark directly.

You could put me in that category, by the way. Having spent enough time with Ray P. (we are the same age and grew up reading the same science fiction) makes me very sure I won't ever be able to contribute in the way he does. I think I have something to add regarding how scientific software is done, but that's pretty abstruse and will likely never get me first authorship in the sort of Science or Nature article that gets quoted a lot by climate blogs.

3) There are fewer ways to tell a true story than a false one. It just gets tedious writing up various version of the Gore slide show over and over. By contrast, the variety of nonsense that can be put up in opposition is relatively vast. In other words Mamet's Law applies.

4) People who understand the material best have no formal training in conveying the material or in participating in the rough-and-tumble of polemics. We constantly fall into traps set by our more politically adept opposition.

5) We don't actually spend our time thinking about AGW; only the opposition does. We spend our time on science. Our expectation of AGW is a fairly straightforward consequence of science and is rarely studied as such. So when we write about what we are thinking about or working on, it does't apply directly to what the public is thinking about.

6) It's very hard to get it right, much harder than if you don't care. Even a single mistake does a lot of damage to a scientist's credibility, especially given the idiotic sport of gaffe-pouncing that has developed in the mainstream press. Say one stupid thing and you run the risk of being identified with it forever. Best therefore to say nothing.

All this said, I have concluded that the quantity of intermediate level materials matters a lot.

It's not necessary to be redundant. There are so many interesting stories to be told about actual, real science in ways that the public could understand. I wish some of the "We Campaign"'s funds were directed toward scientific communication. It is symptomatic of how they operate that there is no way to communicate with them other than by checkbox or by check. If anyone wants to create such a job, please consider me interested.

The current situation is that, of course, the peer-reviewed literature is long past the point of arguing about global warming, but that isn't what most people see. Starting from a typical Google inquiry, the materials proposing that AGW is in some way false tend to be more sophisticated than those which assert a reasonable balance or those which are unduly alarmist.

Adding material isn't primarily what this blog is about, though I will poke at it now and again. Actually, I would love to have this task take over my life. Short of that, though, I can't see amateur efforts making enough of a dent to matter. I'm under no illusions about how difficult this would be. Some fraction of the $300 million for the We Campaign ought to be going that way, though.

I agree that it's a real problem.

Update: Per a suggestion in the comments I am looking over RealClimate's off-site links. They seem rather perfunctory on the whole. I think the best example of an introductory FAQ is Tom Rees's site. And of course, there's GlobalWarmingArt. Both are inexplicably missing from RC's links. Any other suggestions?


Anonymous said...

Nobody asks about whether there's material for laymen on how to design cars, or how to create supercomputers, or how to go to the moon.

The only reason why the world would need "specific information pro-AGW that is understandable to the layman" is merely that inactivists are using the lack of such material to blow smoke up everyone's rear ends.

Seriously, if anyone genuinely wants to know about this stuff, they can always ask Gavin Schmidt, James Annan, Stoat, etc. some useful questions. Which I've done.

And of course, it's possible (and it'll be nice too) for a handful of climate scientists to come together and write up a monograph on "what the heck is this climate modeling thing and how does it work?", but I'm sure Steven will just ignore it anyway.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Michael Tobis said...

bi - there is no reason to be provocative. Steven is steeped in half-baked reasoning but he seems open enough to be won over eventually. These things take time.

Comments like that don't help. Blogger doesn't allow partial moderation of comments. Next time you are pointlessly contentious, with regret because you say interesting things, I will flush your comment.

Michael Tobis said...

It is not at all clear that the situation has anything to do with cars or supercomputers. Consequential decisions must be made collectively. The collective therefore deserves whatever information it wants, especially given that the scientists' salaries are paid collectively.

What the public does not understand is that participation by scientists in public discourse on matters of controversy is in practice barely tolerated.

Consequently, materials coming from the pseudoscientists who are rewarded for such materials have an appearance of depth compared with the very thin materials at intermediate levels coming from the science community. Accordingly we lose the respect of MDs and engineers and hadrware hackers trying to "look into what Al Gore is saying" as it is usually phrased. These are and should be the opinion leaders in their communities on matters relating to science. This is not a small problem.

Aaron said...

It is deeper than just AGW. We do not elect scientists and enginners to public office any more. We do not choose S&E to manage corporations. And, we do not put an emphisis on teaching science.

We barely tolerate scientists, and we are rude to any scientist who stands up and speaks a serious truth that goes against the way we would like things to be.

I know managing engineers with large staffs that do not bother to keep up on advances in science.

Good decisions are not made collectively. Nobody can understand all of the ramifications of the complex decisons that we make in a modern world. A leader needs to have a group of experts develop a plan, vet the plan against stakeholders, then sell the plan to the majority. Done honestly it can work. If done dishonestly, the process fails.

Anonymous said...


I've consistently found the tone and content (generously calling it that) to be unhelpful, negative, arrogant, and dismissive.

In what way did you think that post would forward the discussion?
Take a long cold look at yourself and think about what you are really trying to accomplish here(?)

To the degree that I can find anything useful in your post- In fact there is a substantial amount if information on all those topics for the layman. I think it's a great thing, and I think there will continue to be more and more scientific information available to the general public in common language. And also that the general layman will have the capability to increase his scientific literacy and vocabulary.

Half-baked as I may be, I have as much standing as any of the other 6 billion people on this planet to ask questions, and seek to understand what I can to satisfy my own interests.

There is a strong tone of "We know best. Trust us. We are smarter than you. Our expert opinions and policies will be better than your ignorant wishes", coming from several people.

Anonymous said...

We (still) need a good online resource to credibly teach practical epistemology.

I talked with our resident coffeehouse Limbaugh-listener today. Transcript:

D - "Al Gore refuses to debate about climate change [ergo he's wrong and knows it, since debate is the best way to reveal the truth]"

Me - "Debate is _not_ the best way to reveal the truth; if it was, science would use it, since science has been optimized to achieve this purpose."

D: "sez who?"

So what resource can I point D to, that's got a "lab" feel to it - that can show him, empirically, by demonstration, that debate doesn't work as well as peer review?

(& ditto for other kinds of unsophisticated reasoning that people engage in, that are capitallized upon by the denier contingent)

Here's what I think - the We campaign" folks should solicit grant proposals for how to better educate the public, and Michael, you should get a grant to implement this.

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, I am awaiting any clue for how to do anything regarding the "We Campaign" besides receive exhortations and send money.

It's one of the most disturbing aspects of the We thing: control of information. It's so 1980s; the thing just won't attract any participation the way it is currently set up. If anything it seems designed to support the paranoid worldview promoted by the opposition.

So far I am deeply disappointed.

Anonymous said...

> "It's one of the most disturbing aspects of the We thing: control of information. It's so 1980s"

Agreed, 1000%.

Time for Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, I think. (Video, transcript)

(also - wonder if we could get Paul Graham to expound on patterns of persistence of hidebound management, and whether it can be fixed or whether we get there faster if we just route around it.)

Anonymous said...

> "RealClimate's off-site links...seem rather perfunctory on the whole. ... Any other suggestions?"

Steve Kirsch's Global Warming: Why we must take dramatic action within the next 8 years

Anonymous said...

Michael Tobis:

"Steven is steeped in half-baked reasoning but he seems open enough to be won over eventually."

I beg to differ -- and I do know a true skeptic -- but I'll leave it at that.

"It is not at all clear that the situation has anything to do with cars or supercomputers. Consequential decisions must be made collectively."

I don't see why not. Car safety issues are obviously very important to our modern lives, and they can -- and do -- percolate right up to the legislative assembly. Yet practically nobody goes up in arms about the car manufacturers being a bunch of ivory-tower elitist technocrats and all that. Why's that?

* * *


"There is a strong tone of `We know best. Trust us. We are smarter than you. Our expert opinions and policies will be better than your ignorant wishes', coming from several people."

As I said, you can ask them how they know their stuff. Ever tried that?

* * *

Anna Haynes:

The main argument against "debate" is this: Just look at the ID trial in Dover, PA. Big, big debate there... and the IDists lost. Did they admit defeat? No, they simply threw a hissy fit and continued to pump up the same crud that they've always pumped out.

In the case of global warming, the "skeptics" always, every time, invariably try to rule out a priori the possibility that they may be wrong. Just as in the Dover trial. Lose a debate, just whine loudly and ask for another debate and complain about being "Expelled" and all that. "Debates" are a complete waste of time.

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, Steve Kirsch goes too far. There isn't any evidence, as far as I know, never mind any consensus, for the following:

"If we fail to make significant reductions by 2020, then the CO2 levels will very likely be above the 450ppm "tipping point" that one of our most respected climate scientists, James Hansen, has been warning us about for years (see Jim Hansen's profile on wikipedia). When that happens, large ecosystems (such as our oceans) that used to absorb CO2 start emitting CO2. You can read an explanation of the tipping point by George Monbiot here. At that point CO2 becomes a runaway train with nothing to slow it down and no end in sight; our planet will heat up every year at an ever increasing rate and we will be powerless to stop it even if the entire world cuts all man-made emissions to zero. That's because we've warmed the planet to a temperature where the remaining ecosystems are net CO2 emitters instead of net absorbers like they are now. So even though we drop to zero, what's left, nature, is now emitting CO2 instead of absorbing it like it used to. So the CO2 concentration continues to rise even if we cut the man-made emissions to zero. That means temperatures would continue to rise even if we've eliminated all man-made emissions. It's that serious."

Such a tipping point is not impossible, (probably mediated by a clathrate release) but I have heard Hansen speak and he makes no claim that this sort of tipping point occurs at 450 ppmv. David Archer has looked into this in detail with Bruce Buffett, and they don't expect a major clathrate release for thousands of years.

The rest of the article is defensible but this part is just wrong. Hope this helps you sleep just a little bit easier. I can't recommend the article, though.

Anonymous said...

> "...tipping point...can't recommend..."

thanks for this feedback Michael.

re "I am awaiting any clue for how to do anything regarding the "We Campaign" besides receive exhortations and send money", an apropos Shirky quote from here -

"A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.
We're looking for the mouse. We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, "If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?" And I'm betting the answer is yes.

John Mashey said...

I know Steve Kirsch, although I haven't seen him for years. I think he got a lot right, and he is a good guy, but did get carried away, and these days, I think he is otherwise preoccupied [diagnosed with 5-year terminal illness], so I suspect he is not so focussed on fixing this.

Steve Bloom said...

Re the tipping point business, I just wanted to note that we're talking about two quite different ones. Hansen's tipping point is a commitment to a relatively near-term melt of the GIS/WAIS. While he hasn't expressed specific concern about a clathrate tipping point, if a significant quantity were to be released we'd be looking at that first tipping point in the rear-view mirror.

As Michael points out David Archer has indeed ruled out a major clathrate release as a short-term concern, but when I saw that I remember wondering about the prospect of a smaller release from the East Siberian shelf (the only major deposit of shallow clathrates). Lo and behold, it turns out that there is some cause for concern (Der Spiegel story here, related abstracts here and here). While a methane release approaching 150 Gt (presumably spread out over many years) is no PETM, neither would it be a walk in the park.

I emailed David about this, and it sounded as if he hadn't seen these results but would be doing an RC post soon.

Michael, I'm not sure what you mean by "intermediate" but I'd be curious what you think of Forecast Earth (Weather Channel) and Ricky Rood's Wunderground blog (where it seems pretty clear that he's using it to write a book). It would be interesting to know the traffic stats for both of these.

Anonymous said...

> "they don't expect a major clathrate release for thousands of years."

Your comments on this (Friday) KSJT post?
In Nature, a warning of potential Arctic methane timebomb
"...research team not only believes it has found the geologic evidence to back ideas of monster outbursts of frozen methane hundreds of millions of years ago that turned Earth from a snowball to a sauna, but thinks a smaller but still serious replay is plausible in our or our children’s lifetimes. The scenario imagines ice sheets retracting, unburdening and warming methane hydrate deposits, and BURP. There goes any hope for a gentle transition to a warmer climate."

Anonymous said...

Best thread anywhere in a long time. Thank you.

Anna, the 'burp' I think refers to the likelihood of a minor event in the current century.

A major event is more like