Monday, December 19, 2005

Whither RealClimate?

RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.
And I should make it clear at the outset that I think they are doing a really good job overall. But I have to wonder about some of the issues they've chosen to highlight recently. They have always had an inordinate focus on the hockey stick affair (from which none of the main protagonists emerge with a great deal of credit IMO), which in scientific terms is really not that important. At least this can perhaps be excused by the fact that it has been a high-profile story in the public eye, even if it doesn't really deserve to be. More recently, they have plucked a couple of fairly minor papers out of relative obscurity and thrust them into the limelight for no apparent purpose other than to tear into them (here and here). The authors' crimes? In each case, they included a throwaway phrase which appears to pose some sort of challenge to the "consensus" view. In both cases, the papers make some valid points, and I don't find the RC rebuttals entirely convincing. But it's not so much the science I'm objecting to, as the tactic itself, which I don't think is really warranted. With RC's dominant influence on the web comes a responsibility to treat people - and the issues - fairly. They risk looking more like a playground bully than an honest broker, especially with the rather obvious targetting of anything containing sceptic-friendly phrasing. It's a rare scientific paper that does not contain a single dubious sentence, and any significant error can always be dealt with by a "Comments on ..." reply within the peer-review system.

In contrast (and not just to prove I can hand out compliments as well as criticism) the Ruddiman article seems like a shining example of how it should be done - I would hazard a guess that most RC contributors think his ideas are rather speculative, but they still made room for sensible debate. Please, let's have more discussion of the interesting and/or important science, and less acting as judge, jury and executioner towards anyone who is perceived to be stepping out of line.

[Oh, ok, a few words about the science in the RC articles. The first article refers to comments by Esper et al suggesting that a more variable past would imply lower sensitivity to anthropogenic perturbations. While Esper et al's point is somewhat awkwardly made, it's not necessarily quite as stupid as the RC article implies. If the past was more variable, this could suggest that the variability of natural forcings is stronger (either in absolute terms, or in terms of the climate's response) than is currently thought. This might lead to some re-evaluation of the radiative forcing concept (which is only an approximation, not a law) and a conclusion that anthropogenic effects aren't quite as big as we think. However I think in practice we can accommodate significant historical variability without being too worried about implications for our understanding of climate sensitivity - if anything, the smoothness of the MBH98 reconstruction is harder to swallow.

As for the Cohn and Lin paper on trends, discussed here - it is hard to deny that scientists in all fields have sometimes used somewhat simplistic statistical tests and assumptions, and this provides a rich seam of opportunities for people to "rediscover" the limitations of these approaches. I recall this presentation at the EGU a couple of years ago making effectively the same point (it seems to have appeared recently as a paper here, which I've not read), and I've even discussed the issue myself on occasion. It hardly seems as cut and dried as RC's presentation would seem to imply.]

17 comments:

Gavin said...

James, In any endeavour, there are high points and low points (though people rarely agree which is which). RC is a continuing work in progress, and as you noted, the Ruddiman piece was a bit of a departure (quite a good one actually, but possibly a little technical for the general public). We'd be very interested in similar submissions on other topics. In particular, you have an open invitation to suggest more worthwhile subjects, and indeed, to write posts yourself.

Belette said...

Hi James. Well, I think this was a bit of a weird post. In particular the Esper bit of it. But "With RC's dominant influence on the web..." sounds good.

ps: the Nature thing is out; see Stoat

James Annan said...

Gavin,

Thanks and I will bear it in mind. But there's nothing wrong with the occasional fallow period when there are no big stories to talk about...

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Well James, it's your fault. I went on RC and posted several sceptical questions about a couple of the comments. I am by no means a global warming skeptic, but I consistently find RC annoying, supercilious, and (especially) unhelpful in its explanations. It claims to be aimed at the interested public, but some of the authors don't seem to have a clue about who that is. I have a degrees in Physics and experience in atmospheric science (but not climatology) and I rarely know what they are talking about, except when they are discussing the trivial (like the nature of skepticism) or just happen to be egregiously wrong (as in claiming that the climate system's behavior has nothing in common with a random walk).

James Annan said...

CIP,

I recommend you have another look at the marvellous articles here and here and reconsider your scurrilous accusation :-)

Kooiti Masuda said...

I have discussions with some Japanese colleagues about whether we should have something like RealClimate in the Japanese-speaking part of the Internet. We have not built a concrete vision yet. But I have come to some (interim) personal thoughts.

The concept of stock vs. flow seems to be helpful for knowledge management (as well as to understanding of climate change). Blog is a tool for handling the flow. We need another tool for handling the stock. We need frequent updates, and thus our stock should be more like Wikipedia than Britannica. But the straightforward freedom of Wikipedia is, while good in its own measure, not good for our purpose. What I envisage is something technically similar to Wikipedia but with a limited membership of authors.

Finding an active "honest broker" is a hard thing. It seems to be equivalent to find someone who is enthusiastic enough and disinterested enough at the same time. Probably we need some compromise, or some division of labour. Perhaps, members who are more enthusiastic are good for producing the flow, and those who are more disinterested are good for maintaining the stock.

Anonymous said...

You can have a Wiki with limited authors. For example see here.

Of course you will probably want some parts limited authorship and a discussion forum where anyone can add comments, questions and suggestions for improvements. I don't see why each article in the wiki couldn't have a footer saying if you want to ask questions, make comment or suggest improvements please follow this link which could go to a php discussion boards. The authors would be given moderator rights on that discussion board to distinguish them.

Don't know if that organisation is worth thinking about.

crandles

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Ah yes, James, your post and that with William of the many names are indeed good stuff. But check out rasmus's snarky replies to my comment (#46) for the reasons why I get frustrated. If he understood my points, he certainly didn't address them in a way I found meaningful, much less refute them.

Of course I should admit that arguments about statistics usually give me a headache.

James Annan said...

Masuda-san,

I agree that a focussed wiki could be useful. The main difficulty may be in getting a critical mass of regular contributions. Wikipedia itself isn't that bad, and more scientists contributing would make it better!

CIP,

I'm tempted to contradict myself and say it's only a blog, get over it :-) Actually I share your disappointment but expect that they will learn from things and would rather move on constructively rather than nit-pick at details which may be best forgotten (which is after all what I criticised RC for doing at the start, hey I'm internally self-consistent again).

Steve Bloom said...

CIP, I had a look at the comment and reply you referenced, and would just point out that a slightly snarky comment might get a slightly snarkier response. Speaking for myself (and as someone without much of a formal education in science), I get a lot from pretty much every RC post. Even where they descend into technicalities that are over my head, there's enough of the general left that I can get the gist of it.

James, re Raypierre's Esper post, I can see your point, but actually I think the way he engaged with the comments made it one of the most informative RC posts ever (notwithstanding that it was another opportunity for some of the solar crazies to creep out into their natural element). That said, what's most interesting about the post itself (putting it less delicately here than I did on RC) is that Ray fell for Milloy's fraudulent spin hook, line and sinker. Unless, that is, I'm somehow completely misreading what Esper actually wrote. See my comment #55; I'd appreciate knowing what others think.

James Annan said...

Steve,

I think you're trying a bit too hard on that RC comment. I'm pretty sure Esper was trying to kick up some scientific controversy and make his own research appear more important than it really is - that's not intended as a slur on him, all scientists are occasionally guilty of the same :-) But at the level of the plausible differences in variability being talked about, I doubt there are substantial implications for the rest of climate science. There are several lines of argument for estimating climate sensitivity which all point in pretty much the same direction.

Steve Bloom said...

I understand that what Esper speculated about probably won't really have a big impact even if proven out, but the main point I was trying to get to was that Esper's comment was intentionally twisted into its opposite (in terms of the implication for the value of climate treaties) by Milloy and that Ray bought the twisting. Not that that excuses Esper's odd phrasing that allowed the twisting to begin with. Of course all of this would be of little importance were it not for Ray's report of it having been a factor in the denialist disinformation campaign in Montreal.

Anonymous said...

I have too many positive things to say about RC, but not enough time or space here to go into them.

One point ... with having a muzzle on for the last six years, it feels good to express my views and have others read and comment on them. I think the muzzle is still on, so I can't go into that now.

pat said...

Where did everybody at RC go?

James Annan said...

If you mean the current quiet time...academics tend to have a holiday around now. Doesn't everyone else?

pat said...

Oh, I'm not in academics. Maybe people just want to make it look like they're busy with other things.

Hank Roberts said...

Speaking of Ruddiman and Esper, there's Frank et al. 2010 including Esper.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7280/full/7280400a.html

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7280/full/nature08769.html