The Solar Herring

Nice article on the “other planets warming too” noise on Bad Astronomy.

Terrifyingly ignorant commentary on Digg, lest you get too complacent about what people are really thinking. Admittedly members of this chorus are almost certainly young male American technophiles, but that is an influential demographic.

What not to do about Prometheus

I am struggling with my organization of the blogroll, per Heiko’s complaint in a comment that I’ve misplaced around here somewhere. I think Heiko is reasonably fair-minded, and it’s good to have sensible opposition. Maybe, in some old-fashioned dialectic, we can even learn from each other. Anyway I put him on the “good climate blogs”, because he is always worth reading.

What I am struggling with is Prometheus. In my opinion Roger Pielke is a post hoc arguer, choosing a position based on a political calculation and then defending it, [Update: this is still my impression but given my confusion about the number of Roger Pielkes on the scene I am reconsidering it] rather than proceeding from evidence to conclusions. Consequently, he is sometimes very cogent and sometimes very counterproductive, depending on whether he started from a sound position or otherwise.

I am splitting the difference by not blogrolling him at all, partly compensated by my objections when he was [temporarily] removed from the blogroll at RC, and partly excused by the fact that anyone interested in climate blogging will come across Prometheus eventually anyway.

Anyway, Pielke was treated very shabbily by RC of late and has not been shy about saying so. This intemperate behavior at RC does far more damage than any half-baked laundry list Prometheus comes up with about what’s wrong with the WGI report. [Update – I have confused RP Jr with RP Sr, and I withdraw this with apologies. Google for Pielke and “scientific errors” to see the article to which I was referring.]

It’s bad enough when a random delusionist gets this treatment.

To treat a prominent academic in a relevant field in this way is, hmm, how to put this mildly, hmm, hmm, let me limit myself to “counterproductive”

Simply censoring him would be cause for concern, but yelling at him, openly censoring him, and not giving him room to respond is another matter. This behavior by RC editors is worse than no RC at all. It isn’t Pielke that looks bad in this exchange.

Communication and the Market for Lemons

“In a market where the seller has more information about the product than the buyer, bad products can drive the good ones out of the market.”

In an article on Wired, Bruce Schneier attributes this observation to economist George Akerloff. He discusses the implications for computer security products, which need not concern us here.

A Slashdot reader summarizes neatly: “when deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead.”

What does this have to do with our interests here? In attempting to communicate science in the face of organized opposition we have a fundamentally different task than is conventionally true of science outreach. In the past, scientific communication with the public had to overcome indifference, but now we have to overcome opposition. In other words, we are in a competitive situation.

We have the quality product, but producing the shoddy competition is easier and cheaper. The buyer (the lay person, the journalist, the politician) has only weak signals on which to base their decisions.

It’s not enough to be good, my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Adair, once told her class. (This is the single fact I have retained about Mrs. Adair.) You also have to look good.

I’ve never forgotten this advice, and it took me a very long time to forgive it. I disliked it from the beginning, as many scientists and other intellectual types are wont to do. She is right. This is because it is difficult for the lay person to process the deep information. We must take care that our shallow information is in good shape as well.

There are a lot of ideas competing for everyone’s attention these days. We can’t get the real dimensions of the sustainability problem across to people if they don’t listen. They won’t listen if they think we are a bunch of half-crazed hippies.

Once we start offering advice, we have to project calm authority, and that means we have to look like what people imagine scientists to look like. (I think this might be set mostly by the demeanor of medical professionals, the closest thing most people see to a scientist.)

I don’t like it, but it seems to me that in the end Mrs. Adair was right.

Earth Day in an Airplane

The fates have a number of plane flights between Austin and Montreal lined up for me from which I can envision no escape. In addition to the jarring culture shock of abrupt transition between two such dramatically different cultures, I found myself struggling with feelings of guilt and excess as I changed planes in Chicago on Earth Day.

I’m not sure what else I should report about it, except how the newspapers handled Earth Day.

The entire front page of the Montreal Gazette was taken up by mea culpas about how the newspaper itself had environmental damage (though the idea of, well, giving up on paper wan’t examined very deeply.) There were no other stories beside this rather pointless introspection.

The Montreal Star, by the way, has long since folded. Montreal can barely support a single English language daily at this point. I mention this because, if you come across a copy of the Star for the first Earth Day, though, you will find a picture of some earnest teenagers picking up garbage from the street, myself among them.

There was prominent and thoughtful coverage in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The National Post (of Canada) prominently featured a columnist on the front page with the usual denialist talking points mercilessly mocking the idea of anthropogenic climate change.

The front page of the Chicago Tribune had no mention of earth day whatsoever.

I think the difference of opinion between the US and everywhere else is that the US is not coming to grips at all with the fact that there might be a serious sustainability problem. The difference in emphasis was very striking.

Two bits of personal news

I have accepted an appointment with the semi-exalted title Research Scientist Associate at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas.

Of course, opinions expressed by me other than those on official University of Texas communications are my own, and are not necessarily shared by the Institute, the University or the (yes, the great) State of Texas.

Also I have been accepted as a columnist at grist.org which will expand my audience. Opinions expressed by others on grist.org are not necessarily shared by me!

My first Grist contribution is visible here.

My own opinions probably fall into a crevasse, er sorry, a gulch between typical opinion at each of these two institutions. I am honored that each has enough trust in my judgment to accept me as a participant in their efforts.

Sachs lecture and quibbling at the fringes

The second in the series of Jeffrey Sachs’ Reith lectures is up. There is some quibbling about his history of science on Stoat.

While I find the comments fascinating, in a sense it’s all hairsplitting.

Sach’s fundamental point seems to need emphasis in this crowd:

world population increase of roughly fifty per cent, with income on a path, barring various disasters, to increase approximately fourfold. Multiplying one and a half by four suggests that the current trajectory would lead to an increase of world economic activity of six times between now and 2050. That is the goal from the point of view of economic development, but think about the paradox, if we already are on an unsustainable trajectory and yet China, India, and large parts of Asia are successfully barrelling ahead with rapid economic development at an unprecedented rate. We are asking our planet to somehow absorb a manyfold increase of economic activity on top of an already existing degree of environmental stress that we’ve never before seen on the planet.

It is possible that we will not be able to increase sixfold in economic activity with current technologies before the environmental catastrophes would choke off the economic growth. The hardships in water stress, deforestation, hunger, and species extinction, would cause this process to go awry, even before we are able to do more damage to the planet. But that does pose the fundamental question – what will give in the end?

The rest is window dressing. I’d like to see people taking up the core point.

In a balloon

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there are two managers who are ballonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:

“Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?”

to which the reply comes back

“You’re in a balloooooon!”

The ballonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion “That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before.”

Have a look at Gavin Schmidt’s response to this provocative posting by Steven Mosher on RealClimate. Notice how it responds exactly to the question and is correct in every detail. Notice how it nevertheless in no way offers any assistance to the questioner.

The answer makes it clear that the denialists have no significant participation in the discussion. Unfortunately, that is one of the few points on which they agree with the consensus. They are promulgating a different model of why this is so.

There is nothing in Gavin’s answer to allay the suspicions others may have that climatology is an arrogant and closed-minded community. In failing to address exactly those suspicions, it seems likely that he confirmed them for many readers.

It is much harder to explain how and why certain topics are relegated to the fringe than to assert that they have been. Confidence building is hard, but in a situation like this, confidence erosion is easy. It is better to shut up than to dash off an impatient answer, however correct.

Mosher’s position, whether benignly intended or not, is well formulated and worth of a response that holds together both factually and polemically. As a polemical response Gavin’s reply is very counterproductive.

I didn’t start this blog because I wanted to jump on Nisbett and Mooney’s bandwagon. (As far as I see it I scooped them, for whatever that’s worth.) I started this blog because I see realclimate backfiring. This is a case in point.

Update: The inimitable Dr Bunny has more evidence of RC folk being somewhat at the end of their rope. I am sure I do not always follow the gist of Eli’s bemused commentary, but I am equally sure there is a lot in the exchange he points to that will not do much to attract fence-sitters, to say the least.