"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, June 11, 2010

Some Free Associations on a Friday Morning

Something Beeville Going On

I've been trying to come up with a pun about "Beeville" and "evil" (without casting any aspersions on Beeville) for the title of a follow-up article on the Beeville hoax story. The best I can do is "Something Beeville going on" but that's a reference to an obscure vintage blues tune that will mostly be familiar to people who listen to WHPK on Monday nights; it's the theme song of the wonderful vintage blues program "The Evil Show".

So I went trolling for quotations on "evil" and there are some doozies here, unfortunately all of them somewhat obscure. One of the ones that sticks with me is this one:

The creed of evil has been, since the beginnings of highly industrialized society, not only a precursor of barbarism but a mask of good. The worth of the latter was transferred to the evil that drew to itself all the hatred and resentment of an order which drummed good into its adherents so that it could with impunity be evil.


In other words, evil usually wears a mask of propriety and decency. This can be compared to the one about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. The additional feature is that hatred and viciousness remains hidden behind a mask of decency. These things usually begin with some core of positive intent. The original intent eventually fades, and yet reference to the original good intent is kept as a sort of a mask for truly heinous behavior with very malign consequences.

Whither Climate Audit?

This thought is much with me as I contemplate the deterioration of "Climate Audit".

It has now become impossible to engage with most participants in the "Climategate" clique, by which I mean the people who have somehow convinced themselves that the stolen CRU emails should somehow impact the climate policy debate.

What I've learned from my recent foray into their circles is that they have a shibboleth. You have to denounce somebody, preferably Michael Mann or Phil Jones, but Lonnie Thompson or Gerry North, apparently, will do in a pinch. Anyway, a denunciation of one of their betes noires is like a passport to entry. We saw the same with some of the CA regulars' visits to this blog: denounce Mann or no conversation is possible.

This of course means no conversation is possible. Scientists do not ordinarily denounce other scientists on the basis of hearsay and casual Googling. It's totally outside the realm of scientific skepticism to do so. Nothing is more extraordinary in science than to bring ad hominem conversation into substantive debate. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

In fact, such a statement pretty much never happens if there isn't direct supervisory or editorial responsibility for the allegedly fraudulent material.

So even if I were to have some suspicions drummed into me by the incessant denialist drumbeat, I would as a matter of propriety avoid repeating them, never mind endorsing them. The same applies to anyone connected to the scientific tradition.

Thus we fail the litmus test and are summarily excluded from the circle of civilized communication as the Climate Audit community would have it. Consequently, the already weak communication channels between the "auditors" and the scientific community are severed, by the actions of the auditors, in a way that allows them to convince themselves that they are behaving ethically.

This is exactly how evil originates in the world.

The Real Problems that CA Addresses in an Ineffectual Way

This is all very unfortunate. There really are problems in science, including in climate science. I am pleased that Dr. Curry uses the word "anachronism" in a recent posting there. I am not sure whether she recently picked it up from me. But yes, the structure of public sector science is anachronistic, and this has severe consequences for its productivity and for its interface with the public. And in its early days, Climate Audit was at least somewhat in tune with those problems, and may have made some positive contributions to the open science movement.

At this point, though, CA has become a toxic ally for those of us interested in reforming science.

Under the pretense of a search for openness, it has become an umbrella for hostility to science; the presumption that climate science is devoid of meaningful content, that its practice is essentially conspiratorial, and its practitioners verging on criminal, pervades the atmosphere. Any attempt to engage requires denunciations of particular individuals or particular actions. Efforts to raise the underlying issues are treated as hand-waving. It's become a misanthropist club.

The Connection between Science and Policy

This all matters more than it ought to. Nobody takes these people seriously except 1) journalists and editors and 2) staffers for very "conservative" politicians. (I can't really remove the scare quotes: I don't think their impulses are literally conservative; it's become a very high-risk ideology, not only in environmental policy but also in international relations.) But those are some awfully influential groups.

Which in turn reminds me of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's argument for the necessity for recognition of real science in political debate.

This is all tied together by a wonderful lecture by a prominent New Zealand scientist and chief science advisor to the NZ goverment, Peter Gluckman, as reported in Hot Topic. He says:
in an electronically connected world the tactics of those who reject the consensus, whatever their motives, can undermine confidence in the entire science system. In a world that is increasingly dependent on science in many domains, I cannot regard it as helpful to actively promote distrust and suspicion of the scientific process for political ends.
The issue here that concerns me is that of how to communicate complex science. The public has a right to understand these issues and in the end they determine how society will respond. However without responsible media it is not clear how this can be achieved.
Almost as if he were a regular reader of this blog! (More likely, the points he makes are just correct, so independent diligent observers come to the same conclusion.)

Full Circle

And so we come back to Climate Audit and its approach, which claims to respect and defend the scientific method, while simultaneously actually attacking it. By turning a demand for openness and statistical precision into a venue for vendettas and an excuse for know-nothing populism, it applies a very bad odor to calls for open science.

This puts those of us who understand the need for more formalism and more openness in the science in a very awkward position. We certainly don't want to be seen as participating in the persecution of senior members of the community who have given good service to it, and especially to aiding and abetting those who want to convince the public that we have no results at all.

Steve McIntyre has a choice to make. He can encourage or discourage this antisocial behavior. From all appearances he has succumbed to the darker side of his nature, and his followers have duly followed.

He may have difficulty backing out of this position, and I sympathize. But if he doesn't find the courage to do so, he will end up doing great damage, not just to climate science, and not just (as may be obvious) to climate policy, but to the whole alarmingly shaky enterprise of reason-based civilization.

Failing that unlikely outcome, engaging with the Climate Audit group is, I can report, not a promising prospect.

Update: Some major edits for clarity. I really liked this piece but it didn't seem to get through to anyone else, so I'm trying again...

Further Update: Still trying to engage over there. Eschenbach seems to be trying to prevent it; he spent some effort going through this whole site to find comments that would be maximally irritating to McIntyre followers with some success. His last comment was a tad conciliatory though, so who knows. I really don;t understand those people very well, that's for sure.

On the whole, though, I am still finding the environment there far more hostile and narrow than it was prior to the CRU incident. I am still trying to figure out what they are so worked up about from their own "climategatist" point of view. They find it hard to accept that I made some serious effort to figure that out in the past to no avail.

Image from Laughing Squid's Flickr stream, (C) (CC) Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic


Anonymous said...

You are in danger, Michael, of sounding like the 'Wee Frees'.


A newcomer to Heaven is being shown round by St. Peter when he notices a small stockade with very thick, high walls and St. Peter cautions him to tiptoe past very quietly. When he asks why he is told that the 'Wee Frees' are inside and they think they are the only people here!

Everything you say about CA can be said again, even louder, about RC. So far, so human, and it is exceedingly useful for non-scientists like me, so to speak, to stroll down the Amsterdamn Strasse looking at what's on offer in the windows! After a while you get the flavour from both sides of the street and take your pick.

We are not all dimwits and some of us are quite able to take a reasoned decision - which might, alas and alack, be an opposite one to yours.
David Duff

Michael Tobis said...

I find your comparison absurd.

RC has to moderate its comment stream for it to have any utility whatever, and it occasionally lets too much editorial impatience show through.

That impatience is there for a reason. Climate science is not devoid of content.

Most of the articles on RC demonstrate conclusively, for those with the skill and patience to follow up, that climate science is not devoid of content.

What comparable service does Climate Audit provide?

Climate Audit is also tightly moderated. Admittedly, at some superficial level, the tone is enforced to be calm on the rare occasion that outsiders drop by. But the content is toxic and malicious; one is entrapped into this "denounce the demonic Dr X or burn in his stead" with great alacrity.

This is far worse than the occasional snark from Gavin et al when some visitor displays unshakable confidence in a proposition that is easily refuted, much though I wish Gavin would make an effort to restrain his expression of exasperation sometimes.

Had you chosen Joe Romm or David Roberts, you would have a stronger point, but even in those cases considerable respect for evidence is evident amid the tribal skirmishing.

At CA, respect for observation and statistical reasoning is evident, but not as tools in the quest for understanding of nature. Rather they are seen as weapons to be brandished against enemies.

Michael Tobis said...

I tried leaving this comment at your post, but google wouldn;t let me through. Feel free to put in the comments, in an update, or you can just ignore it. But here it is:


You didn't even give me a chance to compliment you before blowing it.

Honestly, sometimes I can't figure you out. So was your jaunt over to CA some stunt? Yes, you got treated shabbily, so now you feel free to poke a stick in everyone's eye over there? I mostly get treated lousy here by your readers. Does that speak to your modus operandi?

You write: "At CA, respect for observation and statistical reasoning is evident, but not as tools in the quest for understanding of nature. Rather they are seen as weapons to be brandished against enemies."

That is quite a blanket condemnation.

I'll let Judith Curry speak for herself, but I find it hard to believe she'd expend so much of her time engaging with CA if she shared your cynical take on its host and his readers.

Unknown said...

You mention the comments of Prof. Gluckman, science advisor to the NZ government, on denial. His analysis is unsophisticated. The real deal is here.

Anonymous said...

That's a great post, MT.

Unknown said...

Michael, the CA thread was initially more hostile than usual owing to Steve Mc being tied up with other things, and being slow on the "snip." The challenge to constructive engagement is to focus on the main participants (which isn't obvious to the casual participant), particularly McIntyre, and leave the "flames" alone. There is a lot frustration over there since people don't pay attention to what are often good points, but the venting in frustration keeps people away. So a chicken and egg problem. But i maintain that there is a real, and important, signal over there amidst the noise

Anonymous said...

You owe me, Michael - big time! Or to be precise, this being a scientific site and all that, several hours of my rapidly diminishing time! You see, I actually sat down last night and this afternoon and ploughed through that gigantic comments thread in which you were engaged.

As a reasonably intelligent and interested non-scientific observer, I decided some time ago that the arguments in favour of AGW were unconvincing and also I strongly suspect that the natural causes of climate change were not, and still are not, fully understood. Even so, I keep an open mind and, having through a long life been wrong about many things, I have no embarrassment at owning up to be wrong again should that occur.

From that base I read the conversation over at CA and rather than pick nits from every single entry I will simply draw your attention to one single but hugely important factor. Steve McIntyre, at least twice repeated this challenge to you:

"you accused me of “mistreating you”. I asked you to provide an example of what I view as an absurd allegation. You’ve also made wide-ranging critical allegations about things that I’ve said at the blog, but failed to provide any examples. I try hard to be accurate in what I write and to correct any inaccuracies if I make a mistake. Can you identify some points of inaccuracy in my posts that occasioned your allegations against me? I’m not asking you to itemize everything in the entire blog, just to start with two or three examples of statements that I’ve made (me, not individual commenters like Willis or yourself) that you believe to be false." (My emphasis)

That omission, perhaps accidental, on your part strikes me as being fatal to any other protestations you might mak here, or over there.

David Duff

Michael Tobis said...

David, I had already answered once, and now have answered three times.

You may also want to consider Willard's counterexample, wherein my credibility was challenged by Steve in pursuit of a weak pun. I was just ignoring that one.

Anonymous said...

You mean you provided him with "two or three examples of statements that I’ve made (me, not individual commenters like Willis or yourself) that you believe to be false."

If so, despite a careful (Oh alright then, maybe not forensic!) reading I failed to spot - and presumably Steve did to because he repeated his comment.

David Duff

Steve L said...

A previous commenter says that you owe him big time. You owe me, too. It's hard to slog through all that stuff over there, especially given the reward (or lack thereof).

On the other hand, your update says that you're going to try to figure out what they're up in arms about, and if you write about it here I'll consider your perceived debt to me paid in full. (I'm reluctant to look over there any more.)

John Mashey said...


SO, I am curious and I often ask: which of Conservation of Energy and quantum mechanics do you reject? Or both?

guthrie said...

The funny thing is that Duff's comparison with the wee free's could be taken muc further. Only it would reflect badly on those that Duff suppports.
The GReat disruption occured over who got to have the biggest say in choosing the minister for a parish church - the local landowner or the congregation. It was part of the long arguments about whether the church should in various ways be part of the dominant political system or truly be separate from it and beholden only to god.

So the dissenters left the church of SCotland and set up their own churches, often virtually beggaring themselves in the process. Some of these churches then rejoined the established kirk, ie the church of scotland, at a later did. The one I was brought up in rejoined at the end of the 19th century or early 20th, I can't recall which.

So here we have the plucky climate auditors dissenting from the majority opinion on climate change, and spending a great deal of time and money making their points.
The difference being that the actual science is being done elsewhere, it is as if the wee free's had forgotten what it was they were up to, and simply parrot old biblical phrases and never change with the times, complain about shops opening on Sundays and are thirled to a a very strict view of the bible, with lots of hell and damnation for those who step out of line.

You know, the wee free's really do sound like climate audit and others.

Tony Sidaway said...

It has never for a moment seemed reasonable to suppose that engagement on the Climate Audit blog is necessary. It may be judged useful by those who want to know about external critiques of the scientific process, though on that point the articles on blogs such as RealClimate have always seemed to of to be a more productive use of my limited time.

I emphasize again that the important distinction is between necessity and usefulness. Nothing happening at Climate Audit has ever or is ever likely to influence science, even if the noise were magically to disappear. Some insights may perhaps be gleaned by reading some of the threads there, though there are more timely and effective means of absorbing information about such external critiques.

Climate Audit has its apologists, but if it is to become a respected venue for the discussion of science it needs to do far more than attract fans.

EliRabett said...

Michael, you err in thinking it is a bug. It is not, it is a feature.

Mal Adapted said...

Eli: "Michael, you err in thinking it is a bug. It is not, it is a feature."

How can you tell, Eli? Is it wearing a jacket and tie?

King of the Road said...

I haven't seen Tom back - his oft repeated statements that he won't be back remind me of the old Dan Hicks song "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?"

But on a serious note, I've soldiered through the comments on the CA linked post and I have to concede that it could have been handled in a way that's more satisfactory to me. And as you know, for broad reasons, I'm generally in agreement with the basis for considering that AGW is a fact.

But though I haven't read the entirety of the purloined emails, I've read more than "Mike's Nature trick to hide the decline," "the next time I see Pat Michaels I'm going to be tempted, very tempted...," and the other headline quotes. And I've contemplated how wonderful (not) I might appear if selected quotes from my last 10 years of email were published for all to see.

But regardless of whether the true "knowledge leaders" in climate physics would so choose, Mann, Jones, Briffa, etc. ARE the face of the mainstream position as far as the public in general is concerned and what I've seen is disturbing. I'm not a climate professional, nor even a climate amateur but, as I've pointed out before, it seems like those such as I are the best chance of turning the tide.

Why? In my limited circle, I'm regarded as thoughtful, analytical, open minded, intelligent, and well-read. It may sound like I'm tooting my horn but I think it's an honest assessment. Hence, in that circle I am, to a certain extent, influential. If there are a lot like me exerting their influence, it can have an effect. And bringing such as I "into the fold" would seem to be scaleable.

If I didn't know you personally, if I only had the front page of your blog and the linked CA stuff, I wouldn't be hugely persuaded.

Yes, you were treated shabbily in quite a few comments, but for one not vested in the protocols of scientific communication, the reluctance to unequivocally state that, if some of the things McIntyre states are facts, that they are wrong and those who engaged in these behaviors stepped over a boundary between right and wrong. Yes, they felt persecuted, yes they felt like M & M didn't have the gravitas to criticize, etc. Sorry, that isn't good enough in my opinion and it should be so stated. I found the analogy with the infamous police "code of silence" to be apt.

You implied that censorship should be left to institutions. I don't understand how that is sufficient. There really does seem to be at least some fire among the smoke.

The execrable Monckton and Morano are easy to dismiss. M & M, not so much. It's easy for a neophyte trying to get his or her bearings to read the comments, read CA and In It, and read comments such as Eli's and think "they are dismissive, condescending, have their fingers in their ears." And I'm on your side.

I don't know if all of this makes e a troll of some variety, but I think I do feel it needs to be said.

Michael Tobis said...

Rob, (KoTR) thanks.

I have actually mentioned you at a bloggers' meeting as representing exactly the audience we are failing to reach.

I'm a bit exasperated at the moment, so it's the wrong time to take it on. Anything I would say right now would sound defensive, and that's not what I want. Your points are important and deserve to be thought through, not reacted to.

I have never said that McIntyre doesn't have some good points. I think he does; in fact I agree with him on some of the problems in science.

The question I am raising is whether he wants to solve them, or is having so much fun snarking at them that solving them is the furthest thing form his intent.

I'd much rather argue with you than with Eschenbach, who is making my blood start to boil. So stay tuned, and thanks.

Anonymous said...

'KotR' is almost my mirror image, except, perhaps, that I couldn't in all honesty claim all of his virtues of being "thoughtful, analytical, open minded, intelligent, and well-read" - but I do try, honestly I do! Also, the mirror image is spoiled because my sympathies, for lack of a better word, are with the sceptics rather than the AGW proponents.

However, I will, in all humility, proffer you, Michael, a word of advice. Your own analytical and scientific virtues might well be of a high order but you do, in my opinion, suffer one weakness. Your literary style is frequently opaque. You have a tendency to over-long sentences in which the reader, well, this reader anyway, struggles to grasp the exaxt meaning. Oh, I get the drift, no problem there, but I tend to skim read because the detail is frequently obfuscated by your convoluted writing style. And, no, I do not hold myself up as a good example!

My friendly advice: keep your sentences short, sharp and to the point.
David Duff

Tony Sidaway said...

In the end climate change has nothing to do with whether a scientist said something embarrassing.

Of course lots of reasonable people will find the content of some statements that were intended for private consumption disturbing, and that's why Muir Russell's team is examining these and other communications (those that were not stolen) with a broad remit to look for unethical behavior.

Sensible people of all persuasions will be slow to criticise until Russell's team reports. Hotheads know no such restraint, but whatever they have to say will be forgotten, one way or another, once we have the facts. Why add to the noise?

The facts are not decided by the people who shout the loudest, but by those having a reputation for factual accuracy (which the contrarian blogs lack). In particular, the facts are not decided by bloggers. Bloggers of all persuasions frequently forget this.

King of the Road said...

To David Duff:

Yeah, to clarify, after I read my own comment I realized that I'd implied I have those characteristics. The truth is that my circle evaluates me as having them, or at least so they say. My self-evaluation might not match.

Anonymous said...

Well you're lucky, 'KotR', my friends think I'm a blithering idiot!
David Duff

Unknown said...

"But if he [McIntyre] doesn't find the courage to do so, he will end up doing great damage, not just to climate science, and not just (as may be obvious) to climate policy, but to the whole alarmingly shaky enterprise of reason-based civilization."

I'm not sure any of those things are a concern for individuals like McIntyre. In fact, at least the first 2 (damage to climate science and climate policy) are likely an active goal. As for reason-based civilization, I wouldn't go that far. There are far greater threats to reason than a few fanatical bloggers, and it's lack of reason that pushes folks towards his product than the other way around. What keeps CA (and several others) "relevant" is the public demand for anti-science drivel. He's merely meeting that demand, with a perhaps (only sometimes) more subtle style than his blogospheric competitors.

M. Blogger said...

This is an excellent article. I concur with your comments completely.

Just as the Church couldn't adapt to the printing press, the Scientific community is having trouble adapting to the type of populism carried on the web.

Scientists need to be aware of their social responsibility, which includes seeing their work through to the minds of the thoughtful public.

Michael Hardner