Friday, November 23, 2012

Dialogue or denialogue?

The big blogospheric news is the start-up of the Dutch Climate Dialogue site, which is already being discussed variously elsewhere. Well-intentioned it may be, but I'm not really that impressed by what I've seen so far. Far from being a meaningful dialogue, we seem to have the stereotypical exhibition of a Gish Gallop from Judith Curry, who is obviously relishing her role as an "expert" almost as much as she did being a heretic. Not that she has actually published anything relating to the recent decline (which cannot be reasonably explained, to any substantial degree, by the modes of decadal variability that are usually touted as most relevant). But that doesn't stop her risible "I know nothing, so let's call it 50:50" schtick which I'm way past bored with. I did try to get her to justify herself, but she did the usual duck and weave, and the segregation of plebs from "experts" (together with my second comment being unaccountably held up in moderation for some time) means that there is no possibility of a real discussion. The other experts could arguably do more to hold her to account, but that's not what they signed up for, and I don't really blame them for not bothering.

I certainly see nothing to make me regret my decision to decline their invitation to take one of the "expert" positions in the next topic of climate sensitivity. This was planned to coincide with the big AGU meeting in San Francisco, which I'll be attending, and I hope I'll have more fun things to do there than to struggle with their over-stressed internet connection to subject myself to more of the same old same old. The people invited on the sceptic side (according to the email I was sent) for that discussion are not relevant to the scientific debate, other than as an occasional minor annoyance, and their previous publications on the topic have been debunked in some detail. Of course, it bears repeating that most scientists are generally more interested in doing science, than in debating with "sceptics" or assorted commenters of whatever stripe. Whereas, on the denial side, debate is a valid goal in itself. So the existence of the site is already a win for them.

10 comments:

Tamsin said...

Ha! I *have* accepted their offer. I admit I haven't read the Arctic sea ice articles but I applaud their stated aim of trying to explain *why* people disagree, and in any case it's a good excuse for me to review the literature before we write up our own results (and a free topic for a blog post). I quite enjoy the challenge too...

Carrick said...

I guess my biggest issue here is James framing of this as "either/or" "believer/denier". In this reference frame, either you are a "true believer" and accept in a lock-stepped fashion the current lore on any topic or you are denier and automatically reject in a lock-stepped fashion current lore.

Of course there are "believers", those are always present in science, I used to call them "band-wagon members" and give as the root cause of their existence, the "band-wagon effect".

You can track the group of people who credulously accept the findings in any given fields, and see these evolve and change as rapidly as the science does, even following high-frequency flip-flops in currently stated understandings. I hold their intellectual position in no higher regard that I do a denier's, or for that matter, my cat's.

Then there are always certainly crack-pots who are true deniers, I used to deal with a lot of people who didn't believe in Newton's three laws (in places they should apply that is). Climate science's equivalence to this I suppose is people who don't believe in photons, have some new formulation of the 2nd law, don't accept established radiative physics, etc. (People who deny the Earth has warmed would also fit into this category.) I don't know too many people who take these crackpots seriously.

Then there are people who are legitimate scientists but not in your field. There is always a bit of outreach that has to happen to explain the findings of your research to them and defense of the basis for why you believe what you believe (especially on controversial issues for which there is a substantial divergence of opinion within the field). It can get annoying and repetitive after a while, but it is a necessary part of outreach. Brush-offs of other's legitimate questions is likely to be met with something worse than skepticism, namely returned hostility.

I see James' discussion as the typical one-dimensional dismissiveness of criticism that people in climate science treat as the norm. Not all of us are ideologically bound to accept as premises a certain set of conclusions (be they "believer" or "denier" precepts), and frankly we see the whole framing of the debate into these terms... rather strange at best.

Whatever you can say about current arctic ice loss, the chances are it is a very much evolved perspective than the view you would have heard 10 years ago. Of course that predates the current ice loss...but that's the point right? You have to look at data that tests the predictions of your models to establish the validity of models in any field.

That the major ice loss events in 2007 and 2012 were not predicted isn't controversial. That this calls into question the utility of the models which incorrectly predict ice loss shouldn't be either. That said, I'll probably shop other places than Climate Dialog for nuanced views on what this ice loss really means.

Paul S said...

I guess my biggest issue here is James framing of this as "either/or" "believer/denier".

I don't recognise this characterisation of James' post from reading it, and would suggest it's a product of something subjective you're bringing to it. There are some clues explaining why our perspectives differ in the rest of your comment..

Then there are always certainly crack-pots who are true deniers, I used to deal with a lot of people who didn't believe in Newton's three laws (in places they should apply that is). Climate science's equivalence to this I suppose is people who don't believe in photons, have some new formulation of the 2nd law, don't accept established radiative physics

I think your understanding of 'denier' and 'denial' isn't one that would be recognised by people who study the phenomenon. You seem to believe a 'denier' is simply someone who rejects a certain set of well-accepted physics. While deniers may reject such things, it's not necessarily the case, and there are already adequate words to describe such people, one of which you used: 'crack-pots'. 'Cranks' is another.

All scientific fields have cranks - people who believe mainstream understanding is wrong, but cranks are not necessarily deniers. Deniers are people who might use the work of cranks to justify/rationalise their positions.

Denial is not something commonly found in other scientific fields because it is about social belief structures - mainly manifesting as politics or religion - which most sciences don't affect. Climate science is one that does, evolutionary biology another.

Denial is an approach to a subject, in which the conclusion is predetermined by aforementioned social belief structures. With climate science this mainly relates to the threat of international regulatory action if climate change is a serious problem. For deniers the conclusion is simple: climate change isn't a serious problem. This doesn't have any clear bearing on the specifics of what they choose to accept/not to accept: as you've surely seen around the Internet many are happy to "accept the basic science" as long as they can continue saying there isn't a problem.

Applied to other fields your definition of 'denier' would mean there are almost no Holocaust Deniers. Having spent some time reading about their schtick, it's clear most "accept the basic science": there were concentration camps, lots of Jews died etc. All they need to believe is that what happened wasn't "bad" or out of the ordinary - "there was a war on. Lots of people died, not just Jews". Within that framework there are a large variety of specific beliefs amongst different deniers.

William Connolley said...

If people like James aren't prepared to contribute, then they're doooomed.

> The other experts could arguably do more to hold her to account, but that's not what they signed up for, and I don't really blame them for not bothering.

I do. Its supposed to be a dialogue; they shouldn't be afraid to get stuck in.

EliRabett said...

What Wm points to is a source of much of the problem. "Just let us get on with our science" "She's done some good work in the past" "No one pays attention to that crap"

and off we go. Well done Tamsin.

Some time ago, Eli pointed out that a whole lot of other people appear to think that scientists are lousy communicators, and indeed, a whole lot of scientists agree and there are workshops, meetings and even, shudder, blogs, devoted to self improvement, or not. This goes into the file under missing the point.

It's not that scientists are or are not lousy communicators (say that and Eli will lock you in a room with Richard Alley for example), but that journalists are lousy communicators. It's their fucking (emphasis added) job and they are screwing it up to a fare-thee-well.

So what is the job of scientists. To police their own. When someone utters crap, toss it back at them. THAT'S your job.

James Annan said...

Carrick: no, I don't think it's like that at all. I could have found plenty to have an interesting discussion with, including disagreement, among those who are making meaningful contributions to the topic. And of course I already do this through normal channels. But including a couple of people who are frankly no more than an annoyance, and pretending the debate is between the consensus and the sceptics, is substantially less interesting to me, and misrepresents the reality of the situation. Those people simply are not a substantive component of the scientific debate, for all that they occasionally get nonsense papers through peer review.

Eli, IMO most good scientists are also good at communicating *among and to their peers*. They aren't necessarily so good at (or interested in) playing debating games for the sake of a non-scientific audience though. The critical difference, is that in the former case we are all basically constrained by nature, and so can be reasonably confident that the truth will win out in the near future. Of course that's not to say that scientists are perfect, but I think it's reasonable to expect that most of them will converge to the truth over the medium term.

Tamsin, hope it turns out well for you...

Carrick said...

James: But including a couple of people who are frankly no more than an annoyance, and pretending the debate is between the consensus and the sceptics, is substantially less interesting to me, and misrepresents the reality of the situation.

Were you given the people that were included on the ECS that were on the "low-ball" side? I'm just curious who they are.

I don't think a contribution that made it clear that people who don't have substantive things to offer really don't, would somehow empower those with nothing to add. All it would do is make it clear they are just "zeros" (people with zero to add).

I do agree with Eli on this that it is important that somebody push back when other people spew out nonsense, and whether that nonsense is on a public, lay forum or a peer reviewed (-ish) journal, I think rebuttal is needed. I've done it a few time, and although it is usually a thankless job, it does have the desired effect of clamping down on nonsense.

Magnus Westerstrand said...

Ofc. It is important to push back but the main problem is as Eli points out the journalists in US (and at other nations). Scientists should be pushing back in the journals and the once that can do it in media should (and should get rewarded for it)... however as a former politician I can say that not many scientists understands the political game and how to argue and come across well to lets say buss drivers or such. And there is no reason they should be able to do so as far as their doing their job is what we are talking about. When would be a good time for a climate scientist to take time of from research to go to debating and PR school? However, explaining what science is and why blogging is not the same thing for the reporters must be priority... and why one paper that gets past peer review need time to be accepted and should not be jumped on if it challenges a howl field. etc...

Doing this kind of debate just is a waste of money and time.

Bart said...

James,

I don’t disagree with your judgment of the current on ClimateDialogue about Arctic sea ice and I hope that next discussion rounds will improve on the first one, by having more scientific sharpness (i.e. critically assessing the argumentation for and against the different claims). I believe that such an outcome strongly depends on the participating scientists: ClimateDialogue will be made or broken by who decides to participate.

If good scientists with good written debating skills (e.g. those with blogging experience) participate, the relative validity of claims will become clearer and the risk of false balance smaller. The more mainstream scientists shy away from participating, the more the risk that the better arguments remain hidden and that a false balance ensues. That way a flood of criticism could actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. OTOH, participation of good blog-savvy mainstream scientists would increase its chances of success. That’s why I was very much hoping for your participation. As William also alludes to, you are exactly the kind of person we’re trying to enlist for discussions, since you don’t shy away from criticizing something that doesn’t stack up. Having a scientific discussion in front of a non-scientific audience is important for baseless claims to be exposed. If scientists won’t do it, who will?

As for some of the practical stuff: The sensitivity discussion has been postponed (Sea level rise is next), so it won’t interfere with AGU. Moderation is done by one person only, twice a day during Dutch office hours. So delays are expected (even more so when it involves a judgment call related to the comment policy). As a fellow expert, you can ask the editors to enter the “invited experts” discussion and/or to have your comment be highlighted over there.

Bart

James Annan said...

Bart,

Well I don't exactly wish failure on it - there is certainly room for a diversity of approaches. But I'm actually surprised how badly the first instalment turned out.

If the original proposal for sensitivity hadn't been so poorly scheduled, I would have had one less reason to decline...but I already have my own blog where I can (and do) point out deficiencies in the arguments of others...