"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Roger's Revenge

Roger Pielke Jr. has an article up wherein he tersely mischaracterizes my opinions in response to our , recent , discussions. Lots of weird followups in comments, too. It's like we're on different planets, really.

Here's my response, which may have some value independent of the discussion. I will turn comments off here so as not to have cross-talk. Go over there if you dare.
I stand by the "wow scary" comment and disagree that it is authoritarian, for the reasons Ron Broberg and a few others explained quite well.

While I thought this conversation was being shelved for now, I must say several other things.

1) My blog doesn't number comments, so Richard Tol's #8 "It is worth reading the comments over at the other blog. The host argues (#40) that people with a higher education should have a greater vote than people with a lower education." cannot possibly refer to me. In any case I never said such a thing nor would I, and I object strenuously.

Nevertheless, democracy doesn't exclude the idea that some people are more influential than others.

The question is whether competence in the domain discipline is weighted in the discourse, or only competence in manipulating emotions. At present there is plenty of weight placed on competence in the latter.

The question at hand is how society is to make use of the information it paid for and needs. The constructions of "Honest Broker", to the extent that I can tease sense out of them, seem inclined to weaken the role of domain competence by delegitimizing its role in discourse. If someone would work as hard to delegitimize manipulative emotion-based opinion mongering as if governance was like detergent, I'd deeply appreciate it.

2) In my reading of THB Roger says "increasing choices" and "reducing choices" are separate roles and that (I gather) nobody should do both. I do not accept this constraint. It is unfair to interpret this objection, as Roger does in the posting, as saying "scientists should not be in the business of giving policy makers choices". Again, something is attributed to me with which I frankly disagree.

Also, Roger attributes this to me "Science dictates a specific course of action, thus to present science to policy makers necessarily compels a particular course of action, rendering advocacy and indeed political give and take, unnecessary." Again this has nothing at all to do with my opinion and I frankly renounce it.

What I *am* saying is that science constrains against certain courses of action presuming an entirely reasonable value consensus. (In this case, that the climate system should not be subject to increasing and accelerating destabilization to the extent that it is massively degraded leading to food shortages, and a population collapse probably via a path through war and anarchy.)

3) The environmentalists quoted in #48 have exactly zero relationship with the climate science community and their opinions are irrelevant to the discussion of how the climate science community behaves or should behave. The cultural origins of climate science are in deeply conservative communities: physics, meteorology, aviation, military, agriculture. The convergence of interest with ecologists is very recent and cannot account for the origins of the climate policy concern.

4) I have no idea which Oppenheimer paper Roger criticized. I barely know who Oppenheimer is, have never read anything he has written, and have certainly never met him. My review of THB is in response to Roger's request in email that I buckle down and make some serious effort to engage his ideas or else stop snarking at him. I read his latest book in order to be able to respond to him fairly. I mostly didn't like it.

Whatever Roger said about Oppenheimer is something that, as of this writing, I don't know. For all anybody knows, I will end up agreeing with Roger.

5) #57 "So when listening to expert, which one do we listen to?" In general, it is hard to tell. That is why the IPCC process has been set up, and that is why essentially all the world's major scientific bodies have expressed confidence in the physical climatology consensus expressed there.

6) I absolutely agree with the code of ethics quoted by Sharon A in #1. Most scientists in all fields would.

7) I also absolutely agree with the principles espoused by jgdes in #33. Though we may differ in how they apply to the climate situation, these are absolutely real concerns, and I have been careful to insist on them for decades now.

I have my doubts about certain other fields, you see. I believe that physical sciences are far less susceptible to bias than biological or social sciences, because we have objective metrics of success.

8) Roger in #54 "The examples that are cited in the discussion are various forms of what I call "tornado politics" where values are not in dispute. In my book I discuss the tendency to try to characterize issues that have value disputes (abortion politics) as tornado politics in order to try to delegitimize certain policy perspectives. The discussion at Tobis' is a textbook example."

This at last is reasonably fair. The trouble with Roger's position is that even the tiniest value disagreement taints the issue at hand in such a way that scientific input seems to be delegitimized. It's like a homeopathic droplet of doubt (e.g., some sophomoric whine that "perhaps it would be better if humanity really were extinct") somehow simply removes the substantive component form the discussion, requiring a hermetic seal, a 500 page report that nobody will read, and an uninformed, emotional debate in the policy sector.

There needs to be some continuum, not a switch. Because the number of cases where the switch remains untoggled is trivial. If someone in the room says "if we are hit by a tornado it's God's will, so we should not seek shelter" does that automatically devalue the warning siren somehow? There is really no such thing as "tornado politics" and it's not a useful dichotomy. It would be better to examine this as a continuum.

What the sensitivity of the climate system to CO2 forcing is, is an objective question. What to do about it is values-laden. But discussions of those values which use a scientifically implausible risk spectrum should not carry as much weight as those which are consistent with the evidence.

9) In the end, we just want to be sure people understand what we are saying and why. We **don't** want to tell people what to do. But we do want people to have a good grasp of the consequences and risks. In a sense, Roger is right that "the job of climate science is done". Further research will not have much impact on the policy time scale, certainly not at the global geopolitical scale that most interests Roger and myself.

But as long as the public discourse is as confused and ill-informed as it is, we have an ethical responsibility to improve the understanding of the stakeholders, which is everybody. So we scientists are not trying to say what to do at all. We're trying to say what NOT to do, in the sense that there are plausible outcomes that will with high probability will be accompanied by huge regret.