"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Tom Fuller Gets One Right

I'd like to commend Tom Fuller for most of this:
Representative Lamar Smith has issued a subpoena for emails and records from NOAA scientists participating in Thomas Karl’s rather desperate attempt to prove the ‘pause’ in global warming never existed. 
The pause did exist, and Karl’s paper is being contested where it should be–in the scientific literature. 
What Representative Smith is doing is both wrong and stupid. Wrong, because we don’t need to create a climate of fear in science. Scientists should be able to communicate via email without re-reading every word they write with an eye on future investigations. Stupid, because witch hunts don’t increase your stature, reputation, amount of information or even the size of your… big toe. 
When Cuccinelli did this with Michael Mann I opposed it, writing an open letter to Cuccinelli equating what he was doing with Salem’s search for witches. What Smith is doing is no different and I oppose it just as strongly. 
To be clear, I have no objection for asking for data, models, calculations. But emails between scientists? No. That way lies poorer science. 
Representative Lamar Smith, call off your dogs.
Other than the 'desperate' (*), this is very sound. Fuller and I disagree so often that I should come out and say that I greatly appreciate his writing this, and I greatly appreciated his position on Cuccinelli vs Mann as well.

(* - Karl's data speaks for itself. Whether he should have come out "against" the hiatus insofar as whether it exists is another story. There are arguments to be made either way but I think it was not a practically wise thing to say, since his latest round of revisions were so minor. This grand claim didn't make sense. There was enough of a hiatus that people are still trying to explain it. However, it was never that MUCH of a hiatus as people liked to claim. It's really small potatoes. So I can't buy into Karl being 'desperate'; 'hubristic' is closer if that's a word.)


andthentheresphysics said...

I don't want to rain on your parade, but as some have pointed out on my blog, this does seem rather ironic.
To be clear, I have no objection for asking for data, models, calculations. But emails between scientists? No. That way lies poorer science.

Michael Tobis said...

Indeed, there is that problem.

One could argue that there is an ethical difference between trawling through emails that someone else has stolen and actually issuing a congressional demand. Which way that one goes may lie in the eye of the beholder.

I have to admit that my sympathies for Edward Snowden are much interfered with by the CRU episode. Had there not been that precedent, I'd probably have ended up a vigorous supporter of his. As it stands I'm uncertain.

In fact, the role of privacy in modern society is fraught with confusion. But harassment of academics by authorities oughtn't to be.

andthentheresphysics said...

Yes, I agree that there is not a direct equivalence. Also, if Tom's view is as he claims it to be, that is indeed commendable. I'll leave it at that :-)

Tom said...

If the Climategate emails hadn't been released, Mosher and I would not have written our book. What would have changed? I would argue not much at all. I would not have been sorry.

Perhaps more importantly, if Gavin Schmidt hadn't started to referring to the emails online, including links, I would not have either. I wrote on Examiner.com after receiving the emails, delivered via Sneakernet by Mosher, that I would not publish them. I still haven't published any of the attachments, believing they are proprietary work product.

When they became fair game, cited with reference numbers by the entire blogosphere, the situation changed. Our book, which essentially showed what was happening at the time the emails were written, maybe quoted 50 or 60 of the thousand emails that were released. Books have been written about secrets revealed before and they will be again.

I'd write the book again. (Hopefully I'd write better. Co-authoring a book in 30 days using different operating systems while working full time is an experience I don't regret but have no wish to repeat.)

The book got quite a bit of attention right up to the point where it was released into the wild. All of the mainstream media attention evaporated when they read the part where we said that there was no conspiracy, it didn't change anything about climate science and that we largely agreed with WG1 of the IPCC.

However, it is still useful as a polarizer for various elements of the blogosphere. As I said, I would not have lost sleep had the book not been written. And both climate science and the climate debate would probably be pretty much just where it is now.

William Connolley said...

How nice to see this outbreak of amity. Happily, you even have a chance to reciprocate, and vigourously denounce Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman - see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/06/science/exxon-mobil-under-investigation-in-new-york-over-climate-statements.html?_r=0

Tom said...

I probably will address the NY thing in context with other government initiatives.

Tom said...


Michael Tobis said...

This is a hard one. I'm thinking. I'm thinking.

I think it is a tactical blunder, but I'm uncertain whether I find it in the same category as the vicious and baseless attacks on Folta or Mann, and now Karl.

Even Grijalva's harassment of Curry was unconscionable, and I am no admirer of Curry's as is well known.

I will say that like the question of whether "CO2 is/isn't a pollutant", the question of the culpability of Exxon can only be understood in the context of American law, and that context is set by the enormous judgments against the tobacco industry in the US.

The lines among legitimate advocacy, sleazy shilling, and deliberate fraud are not always easy to draw. But the tobacco industry was in fact j onsidered culpable for their willful misrepresentation of the evidence they had to hand.

The litigation directed at Exxon raises the question of whether they are similarly culpable under the same (essentially the identical) legal framework. Did they have reason to know that their claims were dishonest? Did they negligently, er, neglect their own evidence?

I think the answer is that obviously Exxon has always had top-notch geophysicists on staff. It's ridiculous to suspect that this topic wasn't a priority for some people at Exxon, probably starting as early as the 1960s.

That said, I don't understand anyone claiming that what Exxon was doing, flirting with the edge of fraud on their communication on climate, wasn't transparently obvious all along. It's important to understand how immensely motivated they were to fool themselves on the subject. The same, presumably, was true of the tobacco interests, though.

Whether taking it on at this instant something that moves the cause of climate responsibility forward is another story. I think it doesn't. I think McKibben's protestations of shock are particularly cheap and disingenuous. It's the first time he has disappointed me so badly. He always seemed so sober and dignified at heart.