Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Well-tossed word salad with French dressing

Bjorn put on a little conference last week in honour of our visit (or if you prefer alternative facts, we made sure our dates included the meeting). Mostly, it consisted of an up-to-date compendium of what people are currently doing in climate model development which was very interesting to us now we aren't based in a lab. Of course this work tends to be fairly incremental stuff so having a bit of a hiatus doesn't matter too much for those of us not actually working at the cutting edge of this stuff!

Interspersed between the science sessions were occasional “Cross-cutting invited presentations on the history, philosophy and sociology of Earth system science”. A fair chunk of this served only to reinforce my jaundiced view of the social sciences, but some was genuinely interesting and thought-provoking. In that respect, Wendy Parker presented an interesting discussion of the role of models and how we use them, arguing that rather than considering a model as a hypothesis to test (and which is inevitably false when examined in detail, as all models contain simplifications and approximations) we should instead form hypotheses about the adequacy of the model for a specific task, and aim to test these. I don't think this is revolutionary - surely many modellers already do think in these terms to some extent - but seeing it laid out explicitly in some detail was useful, I think.

There was some stuff about “consensus” and the role of the IPCC in contributing to the public understanding of science. I don't think this discussion really achieved a great deal. Thomas Stocker (who was present) gave a robust defence of the IPCC process but whatever your viewpoint, this is all largely irrelevant to the process of scientific research that most attendees focus on in their day jobs. I do think the IPCC is a bit of a dead weight sometimes, as an outsider it sometimes appears  that the authors consider their main role when responding to comments is to defend their first (public) draft against all criticism, and of course there's no independent editorial control over this (as there would be in most peer-reviewed publication). But on the other hand, even this supertanker can be observed to have slowly changed its direction over a period of time when we look back over a decade or so. Persistence, when combined with being right, generally wins out in the end. Thomas Stocker also presented some results from this analysis of the IPCC text from a readability point of view.  He was a bit apologetic about the fairly low scores achieved of 10-30 for the IPCC SPMs, though he did point out that not only was WG1 at the high end of this, but also the summary headline statements were generally significant easier reading than the texts. For calibration, scientific papers are around 40, quality papers 40 and tabloids 50 on the Flesch Reading Ease score that was used. 

The slide that motivated the blog title was a dense screed of text from one of the social scientists which, when I analysed the final sentence with the Flesch Reading Ease formula, achieved the notable score of -21.5. I think this probably means that it can be understood by no-one, even the author. However she did partially redeem herself by referring to the silly 1.5C limit stuff as fake science, relying as it does on fantasy technology that doesn't yet exist (at any meaningful scale). I'm still rather disappointed by the alacrity with which the IPCC has jumped at the opportunity to write a report on this, despite the utter futility of the exercise.

I see I haven't really commented on the science. Um, science was being done, by lots of people, in a number of different directions. A decade, in the context of “decadal prediction”, still means 2-5 years, this being about the limit of any sort of measurable (let alone useful) prediction skill. My decadal prediction is that they'll stop calling it decadal prediction in about another decade :-) There is lots of carbon cycle modelling which I have never really got that excited by. I know it's important for determining how the climate will change (as a function of emissions) but it still seems a bit ad-hoc and empirical to me. Paleoclimate research is increasingly valuable for testing models, though I'm not sure how it will all fit into the new IPCC chapter structure that is on the verge of being approved. But as above, that's not about the science per se but merely about how it's summarised. Should I say something more? Well, if anyone has a specific interest piqued by the program, ask away. I think presentations may also appear on the website at some time. By the way, having made a rather late decision to come, Jules and I were merely attendees with no presentations of our own.


William M. Connolley said...

> ask away

Which presentation was the salad ;-?

James Annan said...

If they are put up on line you can judge for yourself :-)

William M. Connolley said...

I did look. But (a) they only have the abstracts (and not all of them I think); and (b) there was a lot of epistemology so they all looked like salad to me...

Anonymous said...

A fair chunk of this served only to reinforce my jaundiced view of the social sciences
My view is also rather jaundiced, but I am trying to work out if maybe I misunderstand some fundamentals (always possible) or my rather jaundiced view is justified. We had a talk from one of past undergraduates, who is now doing a PhD in STS. Their talk basically tried to defend STS and argued that suggestions that it is a myth that STS is mainly made up of people with agendas who don't understand science. My own view is that if you have to explicitly defend your discipline against such views, then it would seem that you're not doing a particularly good job of making it obvious in the first place. Given that a role of STS is to understand the interface between science/research and society, this would seem to be a rather fundamental failure.

James Annan said...

Yes, there were one or two speakers who really gave a strong impression that they didn't understand the topic well enough to make an informed comment. A bit like Judith Curry often does (though she's got far less excuse of course). For example, one speaker in particular brought up the "norm" of using anomalies for global temp. Now, Lenny Smith, who was supposed to be attending, has some cogent criticisms of the way in which model bias (i.e. the range of PI mean temps they simulate) is brushed under the carpet but this speaker (who was a late sub in the program) didn't demonstrate sufficient understanding of the scientific basis for the use of anomalies in order to argue coherently about it. There was another who described interactions in the science-politics nexus and concluded with "therefore, science is politicised and politics is scientised" without having actually supported the claim with anything more than a few sketchy diagrams and a hand-wave. There was no hint of a theoretical framework, falsifiable hypothesis, or counter-factual underlying the claim of causality that they had made. I wasn't the only one to find that disappointing.