Modified from comments I made at Keith Kloor’s Collide-a-Scape:
To respond to the events since Nov 19 by calling for regrouping and examining the contents of the WG I report, as Judith Curry recommends, seems to me profoundly problematic.
There is something to be said for making lemonade of the lemons life hands you. The contrarian blogs can serve a constructive function.
It is a good thing that there is a burgeoning community of amateurs interested in WG I problems, and that an opportunity to improve the practice of science exists in their demand for openness. The amateurs are potential allies in moving science off a 19th century model based on tight social networks to a 21st century model based on openness and sharing of methods and data. On these matters I completely agree with their critique.
Retroactive Enforcement of New Principles
However, it makes no sense to enforce this model retroactively. We can’t just impose hoped-for future norms on past behaviors. Various groups of practicing scientists have concluded that both Jones and Mann have behaved according to the extant norms of pure science. These norms evolved in different technical and social circumstances than exist now and may be somewhat maladaptive, but norms in an established discipline are not easy to change.
McIntyre, Hughes, Liljegren etc. may be perfectly sincere and well-intentioned. For all the damage they do, I believe that they are.
On the other hand Mann, Jones, etc. may not be saints or extraordinary geniuses, but they are also sincere and well-intentioned. The implication that anything revealed by the emails rises to gross malfeasance is persistent in the comments in their blogs and often insinuated in the articles at the amateur contrarian sites. This itself is an enormous problem in the amateur climatology blogs.
No Change in the Science
If we weren’t in such a mess, it would be amusing to note how, as the work is slowly replicated in amateur circles, the more serious amateurs find that station placement isn’t important, that the observational record is more or less as reported, and presumably once someone gets a serious millenial reconstruction together they will find it will fit right in the spaghetti diagram of AR4 with an unspectacular MWP (*).
In other words, the old fashioned and clubby version of science (of which, I want to say, I am far from a beneficiary) indeed, for all its flaws, reliably manages to come up with the right results.
So, like it or not we are talking about 1) normal behavior constrained by existing ethical principles and 2) broadly correct results.
Grotesquely Incommensurate Damage to Science
Yet, we have this repulsive word “climategate”. We have press reports insinuating gross malpractive. We have lawsuits instigated at the gubernatorial level against EPA based on the purported malfeasance “revealed” by the CRU emails. And now we have retroactive investigations of some two bit grant (”almost half a million dollars” over seven years may sound like a lot to anyone who hasn’t put together science grant proposals; this might have been almost enough to support a grad student) by the Virginia state attorney general, egged on by the inexcusable Fred Singer.
And we have ” ‘Since it’s public money, there’s enough controversy to look in to the possible manipulation of data,’ says Dr. Charles Battig, president of the nonprofit Piedmont Chapter Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment, a group that doubts the underpinnings of climate change theory.”
Nothing in the actual record is used to support this repulsive witch hunt. There is merely “enough controversy”.
It is absolutely fine to try to reformulate the discussions of WG I matters in a less confrontational way. Zeke Hausfather is doing a good job of this over at Liljegren’s, for instance.
But it is absolutely irresponsible to take this moment, the moment when the excesses of the critics of climate scientists are reaching their most extreme crescendo, to be bending over backwards to make peace with them, as Judith Curry advises.
The Real Issues
We cannot possibly ignore the completely disproportionate damage they have done and are continuing to do. That is the issue that needs addressing now, not our relationship to the rather uncharitable but relatively serious corner of the contrarian blogs. We should welcome the increased attention to science in detail, and not try to shut it down in a misguided attempt at self-defense, but we shouldn’t allow that to distract us from the far more crucial and salient facts.
The serious issues raised by the CRU fiasco are:
- 1) injustice to innocent individuals,
- 2) an attack on scientific practice,
- 3) the vulnerability of conventional science communication channels to deliberate distortion by political forces and
- 4) fodder for potent propaganda from those who would like to distract us from the real open questions.
The Red Herring Attack
It is urgent and crucial that we discuss policy, adaptation and mitigation, about the future of civilization and the sustainability of the planet. If people want to spend years of their lives arguing about two paragraphs in an obscure journal about bristlecone pines, that is a peculiar hobby, but if that sort of thing is used to displace discussion about the enormous systemic problems we actually face, that is a deep and fundamental problem.
These are the “issues and questions we should be talking about” to pick up some of Curry’s own words.
To first order, the work of WG I is done. The Charney sensitivity is around 3 C, with a range of 1.5 – 6 C. Even on the low side that is worth worrying about. Risk weighted that range is more than enough to require action.
Going back to physical science is a perfect delaying tactic for those who are motivated by ideology or financial interest (often both) to want to delay, but the chances that S is much less than 1.5, which the delayers need to be nearly certain in order to support their strategy, remain small enough to be negligible. Of course, science is never so “settled” that new evidence can’t change things, but at this point people are asking us to bet the farm, really the whole dang world, on a very long shot.
My Point, Lest it be Missed Yet Again
The biosphere is a biological, chemical and physical system in space, whose properties humans are grossly altering without plan or purpose, to our own peril. We need to get a grip on these issues, CO2 among them. Let me reaffirm my point here since so many people seem to be missing it.
The main lesson of the CRU fiasco is that the crucial conversation of our time is easily derailed by narrow interests, nitpicking, hairsplitting, and misdirected outrage. This is a big problem. We need to fix it. Journalists are not passive observers in this dynamic; the role of journalism is crucial.
Curry buys the Red Herring
Attacking the messengers for not dotting our i’s is, I suppose, one way to react. It may even have some value. But taken as a substitute for getting a planetary perspective that is respectful of quantitative evidence, the approach taken in the blogs most critical of climate science and echoed by the press is dangerous even if not deliberately malicious.
As is plain to see, some people use that position as a camouflage for extreme malice that is hard to see as less than deliberate and calculated. Ignoring that aspect of the situation would have been wrongheaded even before the direct attacks from politicians on science began, but now it’s obviously foolhardy.
Dr Curry’s responding by saying, OK, we’ll go back and dot all our i’s and cross all our t’s and so on, is not helpful, given that time is of the essence. She has expanded her horizon from the scientific community to the scientific community plus the more technically competent hobbyists, but that is a very dangerous, if seductive, place to draw the line. The context is much larger than that.
Engaging the amateurs on their own terms is one thing. It has many possible benefits.
On the other hand, since the amateur community emerged largely out of suspicion of the scientific community, accepting their definition of the social and political context is something else entirely. Given their connections to communities that are implacably, viciously and irresponsibly hostile to the inconvenient truth, it’s very naive to do so.
Keep Your Eye On The Ball
The dominant uncertainties in climate policy are in impacts, adaptation and mitigation strategies, economics, policy, and interaction with other long-term sustainability problems. Even under WG I topics, geochemistry and emissions scenarios carry the bulk of the uncertainty. None of these fall under the remit of climate science, which isn’t “settled” but is a whole lot more clear than any of the other crucial questions.
How and why the debate centers on the easiest part is interesting and peculiar, but it’s mostly a problem. Picking up on the obsessions of the amateur statisticians wing is really not the place to put our attentions. We need to understand and cope with the obsessions of the press, and of the people who are bound and determined to put climate physics into an ideological frame. That’s the CRU fiasco.
Curry has had a red herring dangled in front of her and has lost track of the real story. Let’s not fall into the trap with her. The real story is that there is no story at all at CRU or PSU. No malfeasance, no manipulation of data, no evidence of poorly supported conclusions, no pattern of behavior outside existing scientific norms, no change in the broad scientific picture, nothing scandalous except for the scandal itself and the hacking that precipitated it.
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. And all that to do about nothing, that’s something.