"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, June 14, 2010

Willard's Meta-Audit

A guest article from Willard of "Neverending Audit". Willard has asked me to post it here, it being rather out of character for a Tumblr site.

I neither endorse nor refute. I find myself thinking quite hard about Climate Audit and what to do about it these days.

I think Willard is an interesting character who says interesting things.

During the week-end, Michael went into the Lion's den:


That journey led Michael to create some free associations:


Being a fan both of Michael and Steve, I followed their exchange with great interest. One of Michael's comments deserves to be quoted in full and annotated. Here is the source of the comment:


Michael Tobis begins by stating:

» Y’all are seriously missing the point. Well, several points. 1) Dr Curry and I agree with you on open science going forward, but by being so disagreeable and hostile you don’t contribute positively toward the odds of that happening.

Notice: **by being so disagreeable and hostile you don’t contribute positively toward the odds of that happening.** This criticism will be forgotten by Steve.

» 2) Very few people in science believe y’all have made a serious case of malfeasance among the CRU email crowd. Except for some peculiar talk about (crudely) deleting email, which deletion probably didn’t occur, there isn’t even anything that you have made a solid case for that even looks suspicious. As for the email deletion, someone is being protected from something, and presumably Oxburgh knows what and isn’t saying. So the best thing is to butt out, those weren’t your emails to start with. Saying “yeah but climategate” really strikes us as you saying “yeah but mxftsdlkfjlx”.

Notice the second point: it's about the Oxburgh inquiry, a topic not quite related to data, and quite related to misconduct, about which Steve still maintains that we need lawyers. So MT's second point is directly related to lawyers. Recall that the first was about being confrontational.

» 3) We don’t refuse to denounce others out of laziness or cowardice. It doesn’t rise to challenge us on those fronts. We refuse because it is inappropriate and unethical to denounce except in the most extreme cases. Skepticism combined with a presumption of innocence, and a sense of mutual respect makes the whole idea seem so totally unethical taht [sic.] the suggestion strikes us as ludicrous. Making science into a courtroom drama or a political battlefield is unseemly. Whatever repairs we agree to in updating scientific process will not change this.

Notice how this third point connects the first two: **making science into a courtroom drama or a political battlefield is unseemly**. Asking scientists to mortify themselves in public is exactly what Steve has been asking for a long time now, employing expressions like _the silence of the lambs_ or the outright _hypocrisy_ of the community.

» On a fourth point, where I disagree with Dr. Curry: 4) She is backing you up on FOIA and comparable laws in the UK applying to science. I think that is nuts. Once you resort to FOIA it is between you and the lawyers.

This is quite true, as lawyers are now in on the game. And everyone knows it. As a commenter once said: "this has lawyers fingerprints on it". There are only two ways to follow-up that war: via legal means or via public relations, which is political. The fact that blogs sound like conversations does not preclude some blogs to consist almost entirely of political warfare. Trying to push for better regulations or to voice concerns regarding the application of actual regulations does not sound like a scientific process at all.

The structure of Michael's post does not separate the overall conclusion from these four points. This might explain Steve's equivocation. Here is the overall conclusion:

» Push on NSF. Push on PNAS. Push on blogs. I’m all for it as long as you are collegial for real and give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Nobody is in this field out of venality or political ambition. This doesn’t amount to a guarantee of competence, far from it.

Take note again: **as long as you are collegial for real**. Somehow, people can notice when you are merely being polite.

» But it means these are people who don’t deserve the way you have treated them, or for that matter, me. If you don’t seriously rethink your approach you won’t be helping matters.

The important sentence is the second one, an advice regarding Steve's editorial policies. By replying only to the first one, Steve decides to pick the lesser one in importance. In fact, Steve never deemed to accept MT's criticism of his editorial practices.

» Once you bring lawyers in, count me out. Once there is a request through legal as opposed to scientific channels I hope they tie you up in court forever.

MT's points can then be summarized as such: keep collegial, informal, and interpersonal, like any scientist would do, and please revise your editorial practices accordingly.

Now, let's look at Steve's reply:

» Steve: Michael, you’re just making things up. Since when I have advocated bringing lawyers into these things?? I’ve pushed on NSF. I’ve pushed on journals. I’ve pushed on blogs. I’ve submitted a few FOI requests (not through lawyers), some of which have been successful. You say that you don’t deserve the way that I’ve treated you?? What on earth have I done to you?? The idea that I’ve “mistreated” you is beyond absurd.

Steve accuses Michael of "making things up". The two counter arguments are that he never advocated bringing lawyers into the debate and that Steve never mistreated Michael. As fas as I can see, the two accusations hold no ground.

Let's deal with the second one, as it has been dealt with first. Steve does not understand how Micheal could feel mistreated. Here's Steve very first response to Michael's contributions:

» Michael Tobis: My credulity is not the issue.

» Steve: On this point, reasonable people can agree. Tobis’ credibility is another matter entirely.


Here is Steve trying to escape with an _ad ludicrum_:

» Steve - surely reasonable people can recognize that this was a bit of fun with a malapropism.
Welcoming someone by making fun of his credibility is surely the safest way to make him feel he will be treated with consideration. There are ways to determine what reasonable people believe that goes beyond armchair dismissiveness.


Whatever the efficiency of Steve's justification, saying that Michael is "making things up" (again an inconsiderate comment) is moot at best.

For the first point, let's see an example where Steve clearly asks for lawyers' intervention :

» Willard, a while ago: Among the thousands of people “having “no prejudicial interest in climate change and climate science””, any names coming to mind?

» Steve, dismissively: this is essentially a legal matter. Turn it over to lawyers.
Source: http://climateaudit.org/2010/02/12/royal-society-of-edinburgh-oct-29-2009/#comment-221703

When confronted by the fact that Steve previously asked for lawyers' intervention, Steve added this erratum:

» I had a different point in mind, though I understand why you made the comment. Tobis was talking about the pursuit of data, in which, as he recommended, I’ve used journal policies, agency policies and blog sunshine to try to get data. For the assessment of the conduct issues that the inquiries are dealing with – legal issues – of course, it’s logical to use people who know how to run inquiries i.e. lawyers. Tobis’ comment was about trying to get data and I haven’t used lawyers for this and have discouraged occasional suggestions by readers to go this route. I’ve had experience with litigation and have little interest in it for getting data. The comment that you quote was about running an inquiry professionally – rather than these sham inquiries with no transcripts, no evidence from critics and in the Oxburgh case, no written terms of reference. In my opinion, an inquiry judge would have done a much better job and the inquiry would not have been as tainted as these ones are. I should have phrased the distinction more carefully.

Notice that Michael's comment contains many points, not just the one about the "pursuit of data". By reading back Michael's comment, the reader will decide for himself if it was about "trying to get data".

Notice the generality of that last comment. Steve rarely generalizes like that. We might wonder why.

Here is another general comment by Steve, replying to Michael:


» 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.

Steve is asking Michael to provide a very specific answer to a very general question. The reader might ask himself how Michael can respond to that request. This shift from general to specific (and here while staying in the general mode) has the bonus effect of conflating criticism with inaccuracy.

The same conclusion obtains regarding the exchange between Michael and Steve, purported to be about "the pursuit of data". In this exchange between Michael and Steve, at no time does Steve's consider his own stated editorial practices.

So here's a pea-and-thimble strategy one might try out in a discussion:

- When confronted with general, collegial, and interpersonal criticisms, look and ask for specifics;
- When being responded to on specifics, return to the general mode, but on another subject, in a more collegial and interpersonal voice.

The reader can easily see that it creates an unwinnable position for the opponent.

images of some kind of an auditor or investigator from strategicdc.com and www.howstuffworks.com/


Steve Bloom said...

Nice job, Willard.

The smarter denialists (who of course are too smart to admit to being denialists) pretty much all use these techniques.

If and when you're up for another, I suggest the discussion between Lucia and James Annan (with a few others chiming in) in the comments of this post.

afeman said...

The point McI makes about actually using lawyers for FOI requests seems a red herring anyway -- the first that came to mind when reading that was that FOI requests are a legal tactic, whether you use an attorney or not.

manuel moe g said...

From Willard - Very good catch of the specific technique of "The Art of Controversy" -- ducking and weaving between the general and specific. A reminder to myself that my general point and my specific point should skip down the lane holding hands, so I don't fool _myself_ with the same technique (skipping down the lane being a metaphor for presenting an argument).

dhogaza said...

"The point McI makes about actually using lawyers for FOI requests seems a red herring anyway -- the first that came to mind when reading that was that FOI requests are a legal tactic, whether you use an attorney or not."

The request, of course, will go through the entities FOI response office - a bunch of people trained in FOI law with lawyers involved at some level.

So lawyers will be involved regardless of whether or not McI (or others) use a lawyer to make the request.

Blindingly obvious in MT's comment, and far too obvious to have been misunderstood by McI.

Steve Bloom said...

We also have the interesting situation in the UK of the enforcement agency giving advice on compliance but then feeling free to nail agencies for having followed that same advice. Now there's a lawyer's paradise. Re CRU, I expect the forthcoming report (expected within days if rumors are correct) to shed some light on this point. In the u.S. at least these functions are entirely separate, which seems to work a lot better.