"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Speak no Evil

It's hard to stop thinking about all the oddities coming from Judith Curry. I think one could easily fill a blog just cataloguing them.

Astonishingly, after all that she has said in the last few months, whe writes a piece today asking "how we can end the war with skeptics", where the collective pronoun includes herself not among skeptics but among mainstream scientists. Isn't that peculiar?

I believe the US signed treaties with indigenous tribes in the 19th century using this methodology, appointing non-representative tribesmen of their own choosing to represent the tribes.

I don't want to turn this into a blog about Curry's hasty generalizations, sweeping self-contradictions and peculiar attempts at misdirection. Somebody might want to start one. "Fish-In-A-Barrel.blogspot.com" perhaps? But I can't resist addressing her cure:

Well, lets try this. In 2010, lets assume that there are very very few climate scientists left that regard the IPCC as dogma. What might this look like?

  • no petitions signed by members of the IPCC or national academy members
  • Nature and Science not writing op-eds that decry “deniers”
  • no climate scientists writing op-eds that decry the “deniers”
  • no climate scientists talking about “consensus” as an argument against disagreement (argumentum ad populam, h/t Nullius in Verba)
  • IPCC scientists debating skeptics about the science
  • climate scientists stop talking about cap and trade and UNFCCC policies because the science demands that we do this
  • no more professional society statements supporting the IPCC

Let’s wipe out dogma from climate science. I look forward to the “insiders” who don’t like my use of the word dogma convincing me that this no longer exists!

Wow. So that's release from dogma, huh?

This has nothing to do with keeping politics out of science. All of these points (except perhaps the "debate with skeptics" one, as if there were no such debate now!) are about keeping science out of politics. This certainly would be the healthiest thing for science qua science.

But we are in the pay of the larger society, I would think, for reasons other than our own entertainment. If there are issues which the larger society is not properly accounting for by any reasonable estimation of what the society actually wants, it is surely the larger extra-scientific but ethical responsibility of the scientific community to make those issues socially salient. If organized opposition to that communication arises, it becomes an ethical responsibility to overcome that opposition.

Here scientists find ourselves far beyond our expertise or intellectual interests. This is part of the reason that it goes badly. (Also, the prospect we are selling, really large risks in the fairly distant future, is not a very attractive one.)

Does the science "demand" large up-front costs in exchange for avoiding large, far-off risks? No, of course not. That's a category error. But it's a perfectly ordinary short cut in speech. What is meant is that "in the light of the ethical frameworks held by most people in most cultures, the scientific evidence implies an ethical responsibility." A mouthful. "The science demands" is close enough for most purposes.

Dr. Curry claims to be in the scientific mainstream of the climatological sciences, but seems quite unconcerned by the scientific evidence that only near-term action can blunt very large risks in the future. In this, I would say she is an outlier.

The rest of us see it this way: Until the nature and extent of the risk is understood by the political process, the decisions taken by that process are not only contingent and reversible, but in fact need to be reversed.

To say that scientists participating in professional associations should actually avoid taking extraordinary action to communicate implies a social structure wherein those actions are carried out by some other agency. In fact, IPCC was designed to be that agency. If IPCC is constrained from providing that function (by being maximally impotent and defenseless) somebody else has to step up. In fact, we see that IPCC is inadequate, so various scientists as individuals and organizations have been stepping up. But Curry wants that to stop as well.

It seems as if this keeping science out of policy (known as the "end to dogma") is designed above all to create an ignorant policy. It might produce a more comfortable environment for science. Would this work in practice? I don't know as the genie can go back in the bottle. But it would essentially guarantee bad policy and ever-increasing risk, not only on the climate front but on several others as well.

What scientists should or shouldn't do is not an interesting or useful question. The question is this:

If we scientists shouldn't communicate the risks, who should?


Anonymous said...

Let's go to "Honest Brokers" for $200, Alex!

King of the Road said...

Curry has certainly insinuated herself into the forefront of nearly every climate related blog I view, and that includes (as I've mentioned in mine) both those of the so-called "skeptical" point of view and of the mainstream point of view.

This would (or should) imply that she's discussing crucially important or completely novel ideas. From my armchair point of view, this consequent is false. Since the antecedent is demonstrably true, then if my understanding is correct that the consequent is false it means that it's not actually an implication.

This is, in my opinion, a failure of the filtering process that should take place in learned discussion of the of these issues. Either that, or it's all just entertainment.

Michael Tobis said...

Curry is in a politically formidable position. She is likely to be invited to testify to congress. She is therefore important in exactly the way that Monckton is important.

The question of what we are actually doing on these blogs is interesting. There's certainly some entertainment of a peculiar sort involved. Is it learned discussion? It could be in principle. On computer blogs it certainly is. But we aren't really discussing science itself most of the time. We are discussing the science/policy interface.

guthrie said...

Yup, science/ policy interface, and often skating around value systems as well. My values are such that, given the evidence available so far, I am quite willing to reduce my standard of living somewhat in order to ensure a better future for my (as yet hypothetical) children and in order that I don't have to spend the next 40 years watching things get messy.

On the other hand, other people seem to take their own values more seriously, even if doing so leads them away from consideration of physical reality. See Tol's obsession with your alleged authoritarianism for example, or Curries concatenation of scientific errors with misunderstanding of the actualities of deniers. For example, 'skeptics' (ie deniers) are not interested in sensible rational debate, and can be seen not to have them (eg Monkton). And if professional societies aren't allowed to weigh in, who is? Curries reccomendations would permit only denialists, politicians and pressure groups to comment, and leaves the status quo with the larger more easily listened to pressure groups.

Maybe she should offer to debate some IPCC scientists about the science?

Steve Bloom said...

This new paper hits just the right note IMHO, plus creates a basis for scientists to take its points farther into the policy debate.

A distinction that I would make between Curry and Monckton is that the latter is willing to say anything. Curry (so far, anyway) isn't, which I think would put her at a severe disadvantage testifying with someone like Hansen or Solomon.

KotR, what's driving the attention is the novelty factor. Since Curry lacks the science chops to back up most of what she's saying, I expect it will wear off in not too long.

King of the Road said...


Can you elaborate on what you see as the nature of her novelty?
Is it:

Her ideas on decision making under uncertainty (this doesn't seem to be especially innovative to the extent that it makes sense at all)?

Her portrayal as a former "believer" with academic credentials pertinent to the field who has left the flock? This would explain her ubiquity on skeptical blogs but is its debunking enough to explain it on blogs such as In It?

That she's somehow the first to attempt bridge building, as disingenuous as these alleged attempts may seem here?

That she's female?

Some combination of the above or something else entirely?


Steve Bloom said...

I'll take door #2. :)

I suppose that added to the novelty is the mystery of why she chose to go down that bizarre path.

Re the bridge-building, that's a little old hat since she started in with it a couple of years before she began questioning the science, but IIRC a number of other scientists were initially cooperative withg the "skeptics" until the latter did or said something to make it clear that they had a mainly non-scientific agenda. What Judy seems to mean by it isn't just being pleasant and cooperative, but agreeing with their views.

Being female probably does get her treated more politely by some people but IMHO doesn't change the basics.

Anonymous said...

It looks to me as if the bulleted list addresses what it would look like if virtually all climate scientists had determined that the issue of AGW theory was a completely open question, and that the "deniers" were their equals in their determination to find the correct answer. As an aside, it does not seem to address whether the behavior of "deniers" would be any different.

David B. Benson said...

This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.


David B. Benson said...

Ask Munich Re.

They are only actuaries.

Nick Palmer said...

They get awfully wound up about being described as deniers, don't they?

Just to clarify, "climate change deniers" is used in the sense of denial of reality and is not a direct comparison with "Holocaust deniers".

The risk from the consequences of the atmospheric constituents being altered like we are doing are so grave according to long known physics and paleo-climatological studies, and so obvious, that anyone doubting or trying to belittle those risks is in denial of reality and is a danger to everyone else, not just themselves.

They have a right to their views and opinions but it is beyond stupid for them to publicly express them where they could mislead the gullible or biased.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

Well, my take is that it's her narrative that is novel, if not new exactly. Researcher sees Climategate, suggests moderate and appropriate changes, is abruptly and sharply ostracized, reluctantly but courageously chooses the role of dissident and gadfly... this is made-for-TV stuff.

My Carnac-the-magnificent-level analysis is that it is, quite deliberately, made for television; by which I mean that the posts on her blog are intended to establish her persona, rather than communicate anything of substance. I am, of course, not responsible for any defects in my mind-reading ability caused by my tinfoil turban.

Put more bluntly: I know this is a lame hypothesis. However, when I look at the mailed-in, slapdash arguments, the embrace of lukewarmer and moon-barker alike and the almost gleeful way she talks about being "labeled a heretic," it makes more sense as performance art. It's not rigorous, tactful, or kind, I know. But I feel like I have given her the benefit of the doubt numerous times and end up feeling like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.

Anonymous said...

I've been following the last one or two Curry blog postings with some interest, and at least the comment section seems to be another WUWT-type haven for people who think life is unfair and all the "real science" is being ignored while all the "fake science" is just model garbage. The usual. Judith of course has not helped this situation.

I think Mike Tobis has been extremely nice to her "# list" on how to end the "dogma." None of them make sense or are completely out of touch with what is actually happening in reality. People signing position statements for climate change means it's a dogma? Please.

Hank Roberts said...

it's her fans who worry me the most.
This guy at SciAm for example:
and in the next comment he tells everyone where he recommends learning climate science -- judithcurry.com

Anna Haynes said...

Paging Steve Bloom...

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Quite frankly, it seem more like unilateral disarmament. Only climate scientists are supposed to stop signing petitions? While the other side is free to keep on with their deception?

Michael Tobis said...

Rattus, don't it just seem that way, don't it just?

Deech56 said...

Rattus, a number of posts along the lines of unconditional surrender of scientists (see from “Never do an enemy a small injury” onward) appeared on the last few hours - when Judith gets back to adding to her blog, it will be interesting to see her response.

Anonymous said...

What Judith is doing is rather scary and IMO, a pretty big deal. This is sort of old trick of the deregulation crowd to hamper the efforts of experts to warn the public of possible problems. I had thought Carl Sagan had put an end to most this, and again Hansen in during the Bush administration. She may not realize it, but asking scientists to step so far out of the public eye is contradictory to what we have science for. So any movement toward this goal should be met with resistance, if she is really serious about pursuing it. I would amend the final sentence in Micheal's post to:
If we scientists shouldn't communicate the risks, what is the point of science?

Anonymous said...

Chris Colose, even though the noise over there is large, your posts have been sensible and important. As has been gryphosaurus, John Nielsen-Gammon, Michael Tobis and many others.

Judith Curry's inability to respond to them in a meaningful way has highlighted a lot to many observers, I hope.

Maybe someday she'll come around to thinking about those things as well.

It will take time, but I have some optimism left.

Often many people who balk at your ideas, quietly examine them and change their views.

I've come to think she has a far too rosy view of the deniers. This can be seen from her comments on Pat Michaels. She needs to get more information.

Anonymous said...

One of the issues with internet is the firehose like nature. There's little delay and little impediment to make a splash.

Less time for thinking.

Nevermind changing your perhaps not well based opinion.

Perhaps people should use some form of "peer review" for blog posts - asking other bloggers to look at them.

Actually, JC is moving towards this and has asked Michael and James Annan to review her next "The Italian Flag Revisited" post.

Hopefully something better will come out of this.

Andy S said...

Major premise: Climate scientists should respect skeptics.
Minor premise: Arguments against the major premise only reinforce it.
Conclusion: Climate scientists are assholes.

LC said...

I second what PDA said above about "made for TV" - my 2 cents is that JC has indeed decided to pursue a new career track that is a lot more fun than, you know, actually doing science and teaching, by monetizing her perceived expertise. It works like so:

1. Actual climate scientist makes critical claims about climate science on denier websites and starts making allies with prominent deniers. (Interestingly, scientist makes noises about how she was briefly treated as a "rock star" over her hurricane paper - yearning for a return to the public spotlight, maybe?)

2. Visit semi-prominent 'teach the controversy" website (CoS) and chat up the moderator (KK) with provocative statements that play to his own worldview. 2a - vanish when rational people start asking what the heck you're talking about.

3. Visit prominent "warmist" websites (e.g., Real Climate) and make highly provocative semi-incoherent drive-by comments (making sure not to respond when rational people tell you why your rambling comments are misleading non-sense, but building up your "cred" with deniers by taking on "the keepers of the orthodoxy" - e.g., Gavin). Talk about "peace-making" while selectively criticizing scientists and talking up prominent "citizen-deniers".

4. Start your own blog and proceed to accelerate making statements that are both increasingly outlandish (e.g., high priests of the IPCC, etc.) and/or incoherent. Be sure to pointedly ignore rational comments by those knowledgeable and published in technical climate fields (e.g., Eric Steig and James Annan).

5. Get written up as a "heretic", thereby scoring the bonus of somebody else highlighting the all-important meme of "climate science as a religion". Associate with prominent "there's a lot of uncertainty but I expect it won't be so bad" talking heads, such as RPJ and Revkin.

So far, so good - now the tricky part. Since said scientist is second tier (at best) in her field but has a reputable academic position and has no problem getting published, she must somehow trigger at least the appearance of ostracism, retribution and tyranny at the hands of the "high priests of climate".

6. Accordingly, scientist eventually has to start doing stuff so wacky and out-of-bounds that her academic colleagues are forced to take notice, and she must do whatever it takes to push for a confrontation of "truth" (well, hers anyway) against the vicious culture of "tribalism". For the plan to work, she MUST do whatever it takes to get rebuked, censured, fired, or whatever. This of course demonstrates completely unmerited persecution by the warmist cabal (who must at all costs keep all scientists in their thrall, especially heretic, maverick scientists) -- this, of course, is catnip for deniers everywhere, and especially Faux News. Almost payday now.

7. The brave, truth-telling, heretic, maverick scientist now uses her new-found iconic status with the lipstick on a pitbull crowd to cash in as the "go-to" showpiece "real climate scientist" with a Faux News contract, an eagerly sought participant in numerous "fair and balanced" panels and speaking engagements, hired as a senior fellow with Heritage, AEI, CEI, etc., etc. Followed by the sale of movie rights, an autobiography and a book tour. Voila - from obscure middle class real scientist to famous, well paid climate shill adored by billionaires, corporate behemoths and Tea Partiers alike, in 7 easy steps.

If this is actually the scenario that is underway, then it is pointless to expect JC to start dialing back the rhetoric and trying to make sense. In fact, just the opposite would be true -- to bring such a plan to fruition, she MUST keep getting more and more belligerent, intransigent and just plain nutty, to provoke the essential "persecution" and secure her new-found denier rock star status.

Thoughts regarding this hypothesis?

LC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy S said...

L. Carey & PDA, between you said:

made for TV ... maverick ... lipstick on a pitbull ... the embrace of lukewarmer and moon-barker alike and the almost gleeful way she talks about being "labeled a heretic," ... second tier (at best) in her field ... she must somehow trigger at least the appearance of ostracism, retribution and tyranny at the hands of the "high priests of..."

There are echoes here of another prominent personality but we seem to be struggling to put a name to her.

Your hypotheses are all very reasonable but you stop just short of making clear predictions that could corroborate or falsify them. May I suggest that we predict that soon Professor Curry will liken herself to a large female carnivore; or perhaps should we be looking forward to a new reality show Judith Curry's Georgia?

Anonymous said...

L. Carey, I'm feeling ashamed - your post was very witty, funny and well written and I was certainly entertained by it. It strikes so many points in the American culture.

But at this point it is important that there is an earnest attempt for contact. I think it is likely that Curry is sincere but mistaken. These are potentially quite important things and I hope that even after all her best efforts she is not alienated.

I come from a world which is not polarized like USA, it's cynical in a different way. :)
I'll call it a night, it's been a strange sunday.

Steve Bloom said...

Eh, all a "fixed" flag would do is provide a means for correctly expressing Curry's own flawed view of uncertainty. The basis for that uncertainty is what needs examining.

Michael Tobis said...

For Curry to become a laughingstock is no victory for science, but only Curry can prevent it.

The scientific community cannot permit pseudo-science to be propagated unchallenged. If it's silly enough, it will be mocked. It it's silly and enough people are fooled into taking it seriously, it will be mocked endlessly.

This is not an outcome I favor. I would prefer if Curry didn't just come out with a series of SWAGs from Watts-land and implicitly claim authority for them.

I can conceiviably keep the mockery off In It, but one can't keep it off the net. Stipulating she might be entirely sincere, she is still being irresponsible. In fact she is being so irresponsible she is likely to bees as ridiculous. Her best bet is to only come out with a couple of well-thought-out innovations rather than this flood of ideas from wonderland science.

Anna Haynes said...

L. Carey did well.

Andy S said...

Earlier this year I thought that Curry's attempt to build bridges would fail because her initial welcome onto the skeptic blogs would quickly turn sour once she tried to introduce some rigor and reason into their world. How wrong I was.

I thought she was naive but sincere. I still don't doubt her sincerity but I'm shocked by all the errors, the incoherence on uncertainty, the bizarre exaggerations and her indulgence of crackpot ideas proposed by some of her "skeptical" followers.

The idea that she may be called to testify before Congress is nauseating. Mockery and humor is obviously not going to make any difference to the outcome--nor will a more earnest approach, I fear--but it does have some slight and temporary therapeutic effect.

Niels Bohr is supposed to have said: “There are some things so serious you have to laugh at them.”

Michael Tobis said...

bees? Bees??

bees should have been "be seen"

-bees in my bonnetly

Anna Haynes said...

Re-paging Steve Bloom...

You can call me Elle. said...

"(Also, the prospect we are selling, really large risks in the fairly distant future, is not a very attractive one.)"

I think it goes further than this, MT. I'm pretty sure that people are incapable of weighing the costs accurately given the lag in the time-line. I understand your dedication arises out of your personal and professional sense of moral obligation to communicate the problem, but I think scientists have got to stop beating themselves up over this. Obstructionists like this Curry-person have the advantage because they can appeal to "reasonableness," (always a hit with academics) even while being unreasonable, and when the facts on the ground signal that there is no reasonable debate to be had on the subject. She's got you over the barrel that you are shooting fish in. But I hope you keep fighting the good fight. I admire you immensely for it.

Michael Tobis said...

"She's got you over the barrel that you are shooting fish in."

Nicely said.

LC said...

Gravityloss, I appreciate your comment. I am normally pretty even-tempered and would like to see Curry regain some common sense and credibility. Perhaps she can still be reasoned with, but to my estimation the arc of her behavior seems very likely to lead to something similar to the outcome I described. I may have been overly sarcastic, but she really seems to relish her rock star iconoclast status with the denier community. And her most egregious missteps are not over esoteric details - they are over basic commonsense and garden variety reasoning tasks, featuring things like sweeping unsupported generalizations, aggressive defense of a book it turns out she didn't read, seemingly uncritical acceptance of obvious denier nonsense, out of hand dismissal of Oreskes' demonstration of the corporate right-wing creation of denialism across a range of scientific issues including AGW, etc., etc., etc. To me it seems that the very rudimentary nature of these errors (easily corrected by application of the most basic level of critical thinking skills) does not bode well a good outcome for reasoning with her.

Ric said...

L. Carey, you have nailed it exactly.

Maybe I have missed it somewhere, but has JC, qua scientist, made any predictions notably at odds with mainstream climate science?

If not, what's the fuss about (besides personalities and the greasier sort of politics). If so, it becomes interesting to follow the success of the predictions.