"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Contrarianism, Honesty, and the Value of Debate

One of the most interesting conversations I've had in my recent travels has been with professor M. Professor M lamented the fact that the public doesn't have any idea what the real disagreements among scientists look like. This is not the greatest tragedy of the success of climate denialism, I suppose, but it's not one to be sniffed at, and it's part of a larger pattern which allows muddled thinking to prevail. As a consequence of lack of exposure to informed disagreement, people do not know how to disagree; how the give and take of argument can be made most productive, under which cricusmtances to bend, under which circumstances to yield, and when, on the other hand, to press the point and go for a retreat on the part of the opponent.

Politically influenced debate simply doesn't yield. It offers no political advantage - one loses a constituency one had lined up without gaining much with the constituency that the opponent has claimed. This is why congressional "debate" and "testimony" is mostly for show. I wonder when the last time a representative in any democracy was convinced by anything said in formal debate on the floor of the legislative chamber. I wouldn't be surprised if it was centuries ago. "Debate" is not discourse. It is not aimed at the person you are discussing with; it is aimed at third parties.

One of the great vulnerabilities of scientists in dealing with politicians is that we love discourse. We love intelligent disagreement. Intelligent disagreement is how we get our work done.

Yet we are in a political battle, a battle for the highest imaginable stakes. So one might argue that we need to show solidarity. Indeed, one is often criticized not intellectually but ethically for raising uncertainties in public. After all, any disagreement or even perceived disagreement on any point might be maliciously cast as "disbelieving in global warming".

I think prof M was arguing for more public contrarianism. People should actually be able to see disagreements, and see the whole zoo of ways in which they work out (and not just the most useless ones, of which there are examples aplenty).

For instance, what are GCMs good for, and what not? There's plenty of disagreement there. I hold opinions outside the mainstream. Many of us feel that the much-displayed 20th century simulation results are misleading. The question as to how to say so, and how to argue it out, without giving too much ammunition to the shallow and shabby opposition is fraught.

When I hear the word "contrarian" in a climate context I expect the next two words in the sentence to be "Richard Lindzen", just as "wreak" leads to "havoc" or "fell" as an adjective leads to "swoop". But Lindzen, though nowhere near as ignorant as his allies, is not a useful contrarian. At this point what Lindzen does is not argument, it is just contradiction.

So the question is whether and how to create useful debates among scientists and the scientifically informed that will be accessible both practically and intellectually to a larger audience. The risks are clear, but what we say will be systematically misinterpreted regardless.

I am very much inclined to the contrarian role. Sometimes (the Wikileaks thing) I am not even sure what I think. I'm just trying to ask questions that clarify the matter for myself.

Other times, I see the opposition as having just a smidgen of a minor point, and am horrified to see a weak position being systematically defended: this pulls the whole nature of what we are doing into question. (The 20th century GCM simulations for instance say something, but what exactly is that? And how should we best address the lag between T and CO2 in the glacial record?)

So when I had some discomfort with the CNN article featuring Gavin Schmidt, I had the choice between voicing it and keeping it quiet. In practice, it turns out that I did the right thing, because my critique elicited some excellent comments from Gavin and others. The conversation also elicited from me a clarification of my discomfort with the original article.

Gavin says:
However, I think you might be reading a little more into this than is there though. What I am arguing for is science that is based on what real policies can do. I am not talking about targets, or focuses or one component vs another. Rather that any actual, practical thing that a government puts in place should be assessed against a range of benchmarks - including CO2 emissions of course, but also including the impact of short-lived species on climate and air pollution, and on other aspects of life/environment that people care about.

Each individual might value weight the various outcomes differently, but where there are options that can be supported by more than one constituency, it is clearly going to be easier to move forward.
It's hard to think of anything more reasonable than that. Certainly I have no objection. My concern can be boiled down to this:
For example, we may argue for wind-driven electricity powering electric cars because of the national security aspect of imported oil, when in fact we are interested in the climate aspect. Others may enthusiastically support our argument and then use it to support coal-to-liquids, or Canadian tar sands.

Then suppose we turn around and say, "well we didn't mean *that* because of the climate implications!" This would seem to mean that we were lying about (some of) our motivations in the first place. So we'd get the extra greenhouse gases and the loss of credibility, and only the secondary problem (security of liquid fuel supply) would end up addressed.

No thanks.
I think the conversation makes it clear that this sort of thinking (which I think is quite Lomborgesque) was NOT Gavin's intent. I remain convinced that this kind of thinking does exist and provides us with a very slippery slope. As scientists, we must advocate for evidence and truth at the expense of all other values. To fail to do so is to fail to do our job as scientists.

(The fact that it has become necessary for us to act as advocates is both interesting and unfortunate, but that's a topic for another day. Nevertheless, honesty trumps effectiveness or we aren't bringing our core value to the table; we become just another interest group.)

I have nothing against what Gavin said subject to the clarification, though. One can't control how a reporter will cast what one says. I consider the matter resolved. Both my point and Gavin's stand as somewhat refined, and as far as I know we have no disagreement.

I do want to point out that me acting on my discomfort rather than going with an impulse to solidarity has, at least in this case, had a beneficial effect.


Paul Kelly said...

There hasn't been a "tragedy of the success of climate denialism". What has been rejected is the insistence that the science demands a top down, global, government dominated CO2 suppression via punitive pricing schemes like cap/trade or carbon taxes. I say punitive because everyone agrees these schemes must hurt enough to force people on to alternatives.

That approach is unavailable. The real intellectual challenge is to think about how to cut CO2 without it or, I submit, not much appeal to the political process at all.

Just incase my google ID leaves out my last name again - Paul Kelly

Michael Tobis said...

Paul, please actually mention an alternative or go away. Your handwaving is boring, and I will in future reject it on the "repetitive" clause.

If you have something better than recapturing the externality subsidy on carbon emissions, please say something substantive about it. Or, better yet, do something about it and report back to us when you have a prototype.

I already know what you don't like and I don't care to hear you repeating that. It's dull.

Paul Kelly said...

You are right that if we could recapture the externality subsidy on carbon emissions, there would be no need to think of other ways. But, that is not the situation. Therefore, I advocate a bottom up approach based on individual initiative. It is not much different than what is already being done by groups like 10:10 and many others.

What I've done, here at the bottom, is organized a replacing fossil fuel club. After many fits and starts the club has recently entered into a deployment partnership with Leo High School, a small urban institution that needs to replace its 90 year old windows and doors. The club is participating in a year long fundraising effort that culminates in a major event next November. Co- chairs for the effort are an experienced financial adviser and the president of one Chicago's leading PR firms.

Michael Tobis said...

If there were anywhere near enough support for individual action to make a difference (in a given country), there would be ample political support for repricing. After all, the individuals taking individual action would already be paying the higher price.

Therefore your action, like your contribution to web conversation, is merely symbolic.

I call cargo cult.

Paul Kelly said...

Please note, I am not asking you or anyone else to change their views on climate or on what approach one would take in an ideal world. I'm simply suggesting that, if you desire climate mitigation, your time and effort would be better spent concentrating your thoughts on practical ways to actually deploy fossil replacing technologies and efficiencies rather that on how to educate more people about the dangers of climate change.

Paul Kelly said...

The critical mass necessary for successful social action is far smaller that that needed for successful political action. Part of the appeal of my approach is that it brings on board a lot of people who don't necessarily care about climate.

I think it also appeals to those frustrated by the seeming inability of individuals to impact the solution. Many people are willing to bear extra costs. They just don't have any place to send the money.

This is not symbolic. It is concrete. We have a project and a process in place and active.

Jim Bouldin said...

One of the interesting/important points raised in this discussion, IMO, is the idea that scientists are somewhat prone to elaborating on what they feel is interesting, scientifically, at the expense of what may be the most relevant or needed, societally, for policy/law making. I think I disagree with Gavin that the IPCC ARs display this tendency--you can only cover so much ground and just covering the climate system is a monumental task, not equalled by anything I'm aware of, save perhaps the MEA (http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx).

I've long held the position that, ecologists at least, spend far too much of their time indulging--and justifying--their intellectual curiosity at the expense of a coordinated effort to determine, prioritize, and then systematically address, the most societally relevant questions. Mind you, I'm not the least bit against intellectual curiosity itself--it's what drove most of us to become scientists. But I am against letting it carry more weight than the imperative of systematically addressing societally crucial questions that NEED to be solved. Very much against it.

I think a thorough discussion on this topic is needed. I 100% agree your statements about the priority of getting the science story right, but I think that imperative has to be embedded in another one that makes good decisions on what exactly it is that we should be studying.

Unknown said...

Michael objects to the repetition of Paul Kelly's grassroots/energy transformation message--even calls it dull.

Hmm, I suppose it's not tiresome or dull hearing the "Hell and highwater" message ad nauseum.

And that one is going over with flying colors, aye?

Paul Kelly said...


I think Michael objects that my ideas are not fully fleshed out or sufficiently put into practice for him to accurately judge their merits.

Steve Bloom said...

You betcha, Keith. Ideally, we should all be focused on exploring the climate conflict narrative. That'll fix things for sure!

FYI, there are very large numbers of projects along the lines of PK's, both private and governmental. They're common as dirt here in the SF Bay Area. As Michael correctly points out, pointing to them as a solution just begs the larger question.

But answer me this: Hansen says we must phase out coal use in the U.S. in the next 20 years. How exactly does PK's project help with that? More pointedly, if such projects are all we do (recalling that PK, doesn't want to just be left alone to do his project, he's on a crusade to get others to drop the push for GHG mitigation in favor of more such projects), how do we get to where we need to go?

Michael Tobis said...

Keith, at least Joe's message has some substantive content.

"Winning" politically is no more the final goal than is overcoming the information deficit that Nisbett is leading y'all in mocking.

The final goal is a viable planet, not a legislative or cultural victory, but a sufficient set of them.

If Paul, Lomborg, Peilke, and you trumpet a more politically viable plan that is grossly inadequate, that does not constitute a useful compromise. If you have some way of moving your plan off of opbviously inadequate, you will win over a great number of the poeple you now construe as stubborn, difficult and dogmatic.

We are anything but dogmatic. We'd love to see a pragmatic solution. But we are quantitative. Any plan that doesn't include actual global aggregate numbers dramatically different from what we see and can foresee is just greenwashing.

And for that matter, any writing that isn't at least cognizant of the numbers is just noise.

That is why Fuller is noise, and that is why Lomborg is noise. Keith, I suggest you don't join their company.

I don't care that Lomborg's message might have been expected to be more politically viable than Joe Romm's. (Judging by the box office, this appears not to pan out.)

That isn't the question. The question is whether Joe is in the right ballpark. Maybe he swings for the bleachers a bit, but unfortunately, he is.

Now I want you guys delivering good cheer to go ahead and make a case with some numbers in it. I'll be on your side in five minutes if you can make any sense. Voluntary? Great, so long as it results in 50% by 2050 and 90% by 2090, I'm your man.

Please, for the love of God, put up or shut up. Show us the numbers or stop criticizing. We're not opposed to what you are saying. From where we are sitting Paul Kelly hasn't said anything whatsoever. It's simply off topic. I am glad he has a nice symbolic gesture going, so he should go peddle that in the places where that is considered interesting. Meanwhile we're trying to come up with something that will actually work.

Paul Kelly said...

Thank you Steve Bloom for coming here to completely misrepresent my position. That others are already taking the approach I advocate bolsters the argument for it. Never have I said it is the entire solution. I propose it as an additional wedge, a people's wedge.

Nor have I ever advocated dropping the push for GHG mitigation. Read the recent discussion at Bart's. What I say is that energy transformation is the one sure way to cut GHG emissions; and, that energy transformation is the one rubric that satisfies all the various reasons for wanting to replace fossil fuels.

I have no quick solution to coal fired plants, but do know transformation is at best a 30 - 50 year process. That is why MT, Hansen and others support OTF (at least in tandem) if only to buy time in dealing with coal and other issues.

Paul Kelly said...


I'm not a fan of Lomborg and any agreement with Pielke is purely coincidental. Thanks for your time and thoughts. I'll keep plugging along. You wrote "Meanwhile we're trying to come up with something that will actually work." I hope you succeed.

Steve Bloom said...

PK, you may be representing Michael correctly, but not Hansen. See the thread at Stoat.

I don't think I misrepresented you at all. As I said, nobody is saying that projects like yours shouldn't be done or aren't helpful. Speaking for myself, I've supported a number of them over the years. You, on the other hand, believe that direct mitigation efforts are ineffective, which while technically not the same thing as advising people to stop working on them clearly implies a judgement about the utility of such activities.

30-50 years for coal plants? By what path, exactly? When we we need to stop building new ones? What climate hazards are associated with such a long delay? You really need to have thought about such things if you want to be taken seriously.

Paul Kelly said...

Before I go, let me respond to Steve Bloom, which I no longer do elsewhere. I do not oppose direct mitigation. I have long advocated action on the second most important human produced forcing, carbon soot. Yes, I learned about it from reading Hansen. I've written about it frequently since last year's Jacobson paper.

Replacing fossil fuels through substitution is direct mitigation of CO2. It is not me that says mitigation by CO2 suppression isn't going to happen soon, it's the world.

Anonymous said...

What Jim Bouldin said.

"For example, we may argue for wind-driven electricity powering electric cars because of the national security aspect of imported oil, when in fact we are interested in the climate aspect."

What bothers me a little about this is that it seems to imply that a policy can't be judged independently on its own merits- that we only argue for something because we have an a priori position. We're either interested in national security or climate change, we can't be interested in both, nor be sufficiently objective to evaluate their relative weight when making policy decisions.

In an ideal world, legislatures and the public would evaluate policy proposals at face value, working back through the pros and cons rather than starting with pre-existing positions. I don't see why scientists from different disciplines shouldn't try to engage in the same process, looking beyond their fields to see what others are saying and setting aside their own specialist interests for a while. Sort of like what Gavin was doing in his article.

I realise this is hard: perceived benefits not always obviously comparable, with different timescales and levels of uncertainty. I still think it's worth trying. Might actually help us identify the win-wins.

Tom said...

What is noise is your last two posts, as you vaguely try to talk about an honest debate. After your scummy behaviour it sounds more like someone trying to reclaim their virginity.

Tobis, you're just a hack. The mask slips, the slime comes out and you're off to the Inquisition again. Then you slip into penitent mode and try to sound all reasonable-like. And your useful idiots tell you what a great guy you are.

Pretty pathetic, really.

Jim Bouldin said...

healthyclimate said: "I don't see why scientists from different disciplines shouldn't try to engage in the same process, looking beyond their fields to see what others are saying and setting aside their own specialist interests for a while."

Yes. One of the real beauties and strengths of climate science is its increasingly inter-disciplinary nature (far exceeding any other science field in that regard). [Look at the diversity of topics to be presented at the AGU next week for example, everything from alpine plant nitrogen cycling to physics of the magnetosphere.] It's ideally positioned to execute exactly the kinds of things Gavin is advocating, and it's like putting your pitcher in right field not to take advantage of it.

Michael Tobis said...

I think we should follow onto Francis Bretherton's suggestion (and NCAR's models) in calling the discipline Earth System Science, in which climatology is an important component but surely not the only one.

However, I need to insist that existential questions are existential questions. You cannot succeed by ignoring any of them (or at least, not without a lot of luck). If the question is a matter of the persistence or collapse of civilization, we have to bat 1000.

Multiple objectives and interacting strategies is one thing. Proxy objectives is something else. I object to the proxy objectives.

If the world is too stubborn to get the carbon problem right, we can't just shrug and move on to the next problem.

Øystein said...

It's sad, really, to read Tom Fuller's comments.

I know moderating him out would constitute censorship on mt's part. However, he is currently describing his own posts in great detail, whilst believing he describes mt. Not approving his comments would be a great help - to Tom Fuller

Steve Bloom said...

PK, the LHF-first thing is just a flag of convenience for you. As I demonstrated over at Stoat, Hansen doesn't advocate it, and I doubt Jacobson does either. Michael may agree with you, but perhaps based on a misunderstanding of Hansen so we'll see if he adjusts his view.

More broadly, I've become fairly convinced that a good chunk of the human race (a bigger chunk in the U.S. as a consequence of American exceptionalism) needs some sharp climatic whacks over the head to wake up and smell the coffee. Like you (and Kloor, and probably Judy Curry), they are unwilling/unable to grasp the true nature of the problem, and refuse to acknowledge the science telling them it can't be ignored. What you suggest is rather like FDR appearing in front of Congress on 12/8/41 to announce an unconditional surrender.

EliRabett said...

Jim how about materials science for interdisciplinary?

EliRabett said...

On the contrary, it is great to read Tom Fuller's comments, full of bile, lacking in sense, it not only reflects on ol' Tom, but his advocates.

Sam said...

While I don't know Paul Kelly's rhetorical history much, I do think he has a point that all should consider: examples can be powerful, even when they are simply symbolic. I have previously posted here about methods for change - I believe we need lots of types of messengers at both the local and national levels. I compare potential paths to change in this situation to previous ones: how did civil rights change, in this country and others? Without the many examples of personal harm from widespread policies in the civil rights arenas, the bulk of the populous was not emotionally engaged, and change was stalled. The best we are doing now for symbols of climate change is drowning polar bears and homeless seals. It will take more human stories to capture the imagination. While I do not necessarily endorse Paul's programs (details unknown to me) as sufficient to the scale of the problem, they could function as Rosa Parks and lunch counter sit-in imagery to continue to press the points home.

Separately, I must admit that Tom Fuller's last few posts have displayed psychological projection of the most humorous sort - characterizations of the actions of others that describe perfectly their own actions. Deliciously amusing - I admit to a guilty pleasure that he exposes himself in public.

Also, I heartily endorse the idea that the ultimate solutions to climate pollution must entail costs for that pollution - no other solution compels organizations and individuals. Trying to turn a stick into a carrot fools no one, but the more gentle the curve, the easier the turn.

And hitting to all fields, I thought Vaughn Pratt's writings at Curry's blog were priceless! The man is clearly an excellent mind, with the ability to both distill the essence and represent the complexity. I felt lucky that he took the time, and I learned a couple of interesting details. He is clearly a great educator.

Jim Bouldin said...

"...how about materials science for interdisciplinary?"

I guess I should be careful with extreme statements. But there's no biology nor hydrology there for one, and I can't imagine that it comes close in terms of scaling, complexity, feedback, time lag and hierarchy issues. But I'm willing to be educated.

Anna Haynes said...

Re Paul Kelly's
> "Co- chairs for the effort are an experienced financial adviser and the president of one Chicago's leading PR firms."

Paul, is there any information online about this group and its effort? I did a quick Google and didn't find anything.

Paul Kelly said...

Anna Haynes,

There is a rudimentary website at.

Membership in the club is incredibly easy. Simply send your dues to the 501C3 deployment partner, in this case Leo High School 7901 S. Sangamon St. Chicago,IL 60620. Write replace fossil on the memo line. You are now a member in good standing and have just purchased one unit of energy transformation.

Michael Tobis said...

Whoa... 79th and Halsted...

I did some tutoring at a South Side Chicago high school once. (I thought it was going to be ongoing but it never came together somehow.) I felt safe on school grounds but make no mistake, this is a very troubled neighborhood.

Make of Paul Kelly what you will. If most of the money actually goes to replace windows at this South Side Catholic School it will certainly be a good cause.

Even so its relevance to climate change is essentially nil. I find Kelly's endless commentary on the subject to be free of content, and I find Keith Kloor's fascination with Kelly as a voice of wisdom and moderation to be yet another example of inadequate judgment on Keith's part.

Paul Kelly said...

Thanks, Michael. Regardless of how many molecules of CO2 the project keeps from the atmosphere, it is a worthy cause. We're hoping to keep fundraising costs to 5% of the total. The school's motto is Facta non verba, Latin for deeds, not words. correct link

Anna Haynes said...

The website is ReplaceFossil.com.
(there's a typo in Paul Kelly's comment above)

Paul, I don't see any mention there of who the co-chairs ("experienced financial adviser and president of one Chicago's leading PR firms") are - is this public info? (and if so, could you share it please)