Monday, December 07, 2009

"Scientists need to be a lot more pro-active with media"

(All together now) Oh, now we don't!

I thought of commenting over there but feel no need to contribute more to Stoat's pot of gold, what with him having given up science to earn a proper salary as a software engineer. But I have to take issue with Steve Bloom's comment. I don't need to get involved at all, and (like most scientists) there are significant disadvantages to doing so. One of them is the shrill accusations of politicising climate science, although since this seems to depend on such a vacuous definition of politicisation that I'm already doing this simply by breathing, perhaps I shouldn't care. But it does make a cheap soundbite for the echo chamber, which is presumably the point.

Of course, that does not mean I won't get involved as and when I can be bothered. In fact I'm more than happy to talk to any journalist who contacts me, this happening so rarely that it is much more of a curiosity than imposition (and so far they have mostly done a pretty fair job). But I don't believe there is any particular obligation on me, moral or otherwise, based on my being a scientist rather than anything else. In fact, unauthorised media contact is a disciplinary offence everywhere I've worked. Admittedly, in my experience this rule is honoured entirely in the breach (except when it suits the management to use it as an excuse to get rid of an uppity scientist, but they have 101 ways to do that anyway so I can't pretend to be put off for that reason). But there is precious little upside to it in any case.

Personally, I'd have been uncomfortable appearing in a press conference with Romm arguing that "it is in fact more clear now than ever before that we must take action to solve the global climate crisis" (I'm assuming that is a real quote, although there is an odd lack of google hits for it). That seems to be as clear an example of an is/ought fallacy as one might hope to see, even though it does not specify exactly what action "must" be taken. It is, however, a safe bet that the action demanded includes a reduction in (net) emissions. OTOH if Romm phoned me up and asked me to join him on a press conf covering the subset of climate science issues I consider myself qualified to speak on, it would be rude to turn him down.

Incidentally, I see that Eduardo Zorita has removed the rather inflammatory statement off his web site, replacing it instead with a link to a new blog shared with Hans von Storch. I welcome their addition to the blogosphere in their own right rather than as occasional "guest" posters elsewhere, and I look forward to more detailed - and perhaps measured - analyses on whatever takes their fancy. I did swap a couple of emails with Zorita regarding his statement, which I considered to be somewhat inflammatory and ill-founded, certainly as far as Rahmstorf is concerned (since whatever spin is put on one or two of the less wise emails, there is no hint of anything underhand from R that I have seen). I don't think legitimate, if heated, scientific disagreements, justify calls for banning participation in major assessments. FWIW R also tried to get some of my work deleted from the last IPCC report, and the reviewers told him to go and mind his own business, or words to that effect :-) So I don't think I can be considered particularly predisposed towards him. IMO the solution to accusations of cliqueyness (which I have myself occasionally flung around) is to have a diverse group of people, rather than banning one or two and ending up with a different clique. Scapegoating one or two, based on, well, not very much really, is a dangerous path to take.


William M. Connolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William M. Connolley said...

"I don't need to get involved at all..." but you do at least blog, which makes you more media-savvy than about 99% of your colleagues.

KlimaZweibel? Is this a homage to ?

[Reposted to prove I can spell "homage"]

Carl C said...

I dunno, having seen this sort of thing from the sidelines for a few years, I think you're sort of "cheating the field" if you can't get out there and talk about your stuff. Especially if you're a contributor to IPCC reports etc. I can hardly wait for the Hans von Storch blog though! :-)

Then it's just the attention/media-grabbing ones getting all the time, leading to the sort of over-the-top Guardian pronouncements etc (i.e. NASA's James Hansen's really doom-and-gloom pronouncements). And I find it a little odd that stuff like Lovelock (& now Tim Lenton's?) Gaia stuff, which to me sounds sort of "non-scientific" new-age claptrap, is getting publicity etc and now he's propped up as a leading researcher/"voice of global warming" etc. So since there's no real "peer review" for attention-grabbing scientists getting on the telly, it's a bit of a cop-out to just bitch about it occasionally on a blog (although it is fun).

So it seems like "hard scientists" are sort of left out of the debate & policy decisions. Maybe that's not a "bad thing" but it does sort of push things around a bit to some extreme calamitous "tipping point" thing "we will be judged by future generations" stuff.

EliRabett said...

FWIW it looks like v. Storch and Zorita are using the chance to stick a few knives in, but they need training. People will remember tho.

Hank Roberts said...

Die Klimazwiebel

Orientiert am Leitbild des "Honest Broker" schreiben wir ├╝ber Klimaforschung und ihre Wechselwirkung mit der Politik.

The climatic bulb Oriented at the example " Broker" hone; we over climatic research and its reciprocal effect with the policy write.

Bulb ... onion ... Ah, I see.

Is a "broker hone" used for putting a sharper edge on a broker? That would work.

C W Magee said...

The thing about media blathering is that for public service scientists, they need to be able to give fair scientific advice to people in government with whom they may not necessarily agree.

What will happen and what should be done are very different questions.

So if, for example, your country's assistant minister for climate change is the member of parliament representing your main coal-mining region, a government climate scientists isn't doing his job if he can't talk rationally to such a person, even if that minister is on the record as saying that polar bears are expendable, but strip mines are not.

David B. Benson said...

Medical scientists certainly speak out about proper diet and public heallth matters. Agricultural scientists certainly speak out about soil conservation and so on.

Don't see why some cliamate scientists might do the same; maybe (mostly) Jim Hansen (with some others) is enough...

James Annan said...

Just to be clear, I'm not saying scientists shouldn't say what they want, when they want. But as soon as we stick our heads above the parapet we become targets - witness how Hulme has been accused of writing a "piece of crap" by Steve Bloom, everyone has accused Judith Curry of naivety (a least, if they haven't, I will) and Hansen gets all sorts of crap thrown his way every day of the week. so I'm not going to criticise people who don't bother (at least, not today, if you don't like this opinion wait a few days and you might get another one).

For all that, I have seen no evidence that the "debate" needs more people talking about science (specifically, the science of climate change - I'd like to hear more about developments for low-emission energy). There's certainly already a surfeit of people promoting the latest "cutting edge" which is often widely accepted (by those qualified to judge) to be wrong before it even hits the presses (op. cit. previously on this blog too numerous to mention).

Carl C said...

It sounds like you've talked yourself out of your own blog? ;-)

Seriously though, it sounds like it should be all down to the IPCC reports then, which filters the "research du jour" for consumption by the press & politicos. And then "in between" IPCC reports there's RealClimate as the clearinghouse of the status quo I guess (weren't they consciously or unconsciously sort of the voice/link between IPCC reports)?

I mean if you factor in the blogosphere of those "in the field" (or recently in Wm's case), maybe with a pinch of Pielke (and hold the McI & nuts for those with allergies) -- you get a much less urgent sounding "average" than what's in the IPCC report or Copenhagen or in the Grauniad's interpretation. Maybe Naomi Oreskes can come up with some prior of climate blog consensus to help get a real look at things as scientists do! ;-)

That's sort of how it looks to me - more an overall befuddled amusement rather than the outright panic "we're destroying future generations" gloss we often see. It's a tough game - if you shut up and stay at your desk or laptop; then does Fox News & Lord Monkton & Senator Inhofe declare victory (well they did again anyway after CRU-gate).

(tell ya one thing, I'm glad I'm working on earthquakes now, at least nobody denies they exist or are purely hypothetical or a liberal conspiracy to enslave the world for Marxism etc!)

David B. Benson said...

James Annan --- Yup, especially about Dr. J. Curry.

What I see missing is a drumbeat of the fact that nothing central has cahnged since the 1979 Charney et al. NAS/NRC report on CO2 and climate:

and indeed little has changed since Arrhenius in 1896; just his constant was too large. Very well done for pre-quantum mechanics other, more refined, observations.

So possibly a constant reminder of the laws of thermodynamics and the radiative properities of CO2 and water vapor. Unfortuantely rather boring to keep having to say this over and over. Dunno.

James Annan said...

Carl - I don't blog because I think it will save the world :-)

Earthquakes....hmmm....lots of pork available for public works over could probably make a packet tweaking model parameters to "prove" it is safe to build nuclear reactors on faults. Oh, they build them on faults already.

Heiko said...

I think activism by scientists is a problem when it raises doubts about their objectivity.

If somebody publicly says they hate coal miners, and they then present evidence that coal is much more expensive than natural gas (think of Margaret Thatcher), you will question whether their assessment is an expert judgment reflecting the truth as closely as possible, or whether it's spinning the information as much as possible to damage coal miners.

James Annan said...


I hope you are also suspicious when they do not say such a thing, because they may be hiding their motives. Oh, and if they say the opposite, they may be actively lying :-)

Actually, it is reasonable to be sceptical of all claims, especially when not widely supported, because scientists are only human and all of us have biases, unconscious or otherwise.

Heiko said...

Ok, I am being awfully vague here.

It's pretty hard to communicate accurately to the public what "the science" says. I think it would help to refrain from loud, but unspecific calls for action, combined with a claim that this is precisely what "the science" says.

I think what the science says, if one has to abbreviate it into a one sentence type sound bite, is that the price of carbon given by models is from somewhere around 0 to thousands of Euros per tonne, depending primarily on assumptions about the fragility of ecosystems, equity, what drives wealth and how to account for the more uncertain risks.

If you don't claim (quite wrongly in my opinion) that the climate science is the key battle ground and that everything hangs on whether climate sensitivity is 1C or possibly 5C+ (a la Lindzen), or whether today's temperatures are warmer than the MWP (lots of Hockey stick debaters) or not,

climate scientists can nicely stay above the fray and bask proudly in the glory provided by their widely acknowledged independence and objectivity.

Plus, it's much easier to have sensible discussions about say what we really know about the world average temperature between the years 1000 and 1500.