At Kloor’s, someone called Huge Difference, pretty clearly a climate consensus doubter, says
This is what I’ve said before, you seem to rely on proxies, just like the rest of us. Because I rely on proxies outside my own field, I do not say things like “So and so is right, and so and so is wrong”, I say, it seems mainstream scientific thought believes that, but there seem to be significant amounts of disagreement. Many lawyers seem to feel that law would be … but there are others who disagree. I don’t think that’s an emphasis on false balance, I think that’s an emphasis on my stating what I’ve heard, giving people references, and letting them decide for themselves.
But what I see from you and other journalists, is Very Serious Person reporting.
I think there’s something to hold onto in that. I replied (pending moderation, which Keith does to me sporadically):
While I am sure Huge Difference and I have huge differences regarding climate change, his point here is extremely cogent and sound. …
This is just the flip side of my usual complaint: an incapacity of the journalistic profession to make adequate judgments of who the non-serious people are follows from an incapacity to judge who the serious people are. While this has been my key complaint about journalism, and indeed accounts for HD’s apparently skewed vision of the balance of evidence, it cuts both ways.
As I read in a very different context, and have quoted several times since, “when deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead.” That is, we base our beliefs on signals of credibility when we are not in a position ourselves to judge credibility. Since the world is complex, we mostly base our beliefs on shallow metrics. If achieving shallow symbolism of credibility is much easier than achieving actual credibility (which becomes true the more the academic system is flawed, and nobody would argue that it is safe from charlatans nowadays) and false expertise will tend to drive out real expertise. The peer review defense fails once a topic gains broad enough interest; the definition of the peer group becomes unclear.
And here we find ourselves, both in environmental sciences and (I would argue) at least as seriously so in economics. We don’t have a quality metric. We (and this includes our political leadership) look to the press to solve the problem, and the press emits a massive shrug, and the world continues to spin out of control. The whole idea of democracy rides on it: these are not small problem domains.
If academic peer review can’t scale to meet the problem, something else has to. Our natural expectation is to turn to journalism, which basically punts or at best tries valiantly to manufacture some meaningless “middle ground” between theories which can’t be averaged out to anyone’s satisfaction.
My conclusion is that science journalism is too important to be left to nonspecialist journalists. We need a new institution and it will take some time (time that many of us do not feel is in ample supply) to develop its credibility.
Curry, meanwhile, has finally been diagnosed. Stoat says, in a gloss on a comment by Eli:
Still, she seems happy to attempt to re-write Climate from the ground up on her blog. It won’t work, and it isn’t interesting to watch, but it keeps her followers happy. Perhaps in part because if you do it like that, you can never leave the basic level, so it all remains very easy to understand
and I think that nails what she is trying to do. It’s as if she had heard of science but never seen it done. Sorry, everybody, but science (and engineering and medicine and everything that separates us from the ancients) is a collaborative enterprise. Curry seems to be taking this “nullius in verbum” thing altogether too seriously. (I understand it did not originally mean “Don’t trust nobody, kid” but rather meant “Dogma is not decisive”.) In fact, nobody since Descartes has managed to be a renaissance man, and that’s why it’s called that. Success depends on standing on the shoulders of giants. This means, of course, you have to have some sense of who the giants are.
Curry now has an article provocatively entitled “education versus indoctrination”, which is certainly a good marketing pitch. One instinctively thinks that “education” is the good stuff and “indoctrination” the bad stuff. Now it just remains for the arguer to come up with a plausible distinction. And here it comes:
Often, the purpose of this knowledge transmission seems to be to convince people to “act” or support certain climate change policies, rather than education. True education occurs when the learner is enabled to critically examine the material. How can we we enable true education and engagement on the issue of climate change?
Aha. Well, to some extent we can’t. I can’t teach my clever cat to do Lebesgue integrals no matter how hard I try; even elementary limit theory seems to escape her. She will never have more than the crudest grasp of it, nor of the greenhouse effect. Most humans can get a glimmer of it, but few will spend the hundreds of hours needed to go from, say, high school algebra and physics to a reasonably complete grasp of the details. Yet we are in a democracy, and most humans must be convinced to take action, as the evidence for such action is quite overwhelming.
To some other extent, we could conceivably do vastly better than we do. The letter at Curry’s from Michael Larkin is quite compelling:
I started getting more interested in the nuts and bolts. I desperately needed to find a decent primer. But no one out there seemed to be clued in to my entry behaviour. They seemed primarily involved in one of two things. First, disseminating not things that would help me think for myself, but convince me one way or the other. Second, things which I could perceived had educative value, but which were presented at too demanding a level. I was often referred to scienceofdoom, and all sides seemed to think that site is worthy. But it started at too high a level, and from my viewpoint rapidly went stratospheric. I needed something to bridge the gap between entry behaviour and that.
I haven’t even mentioned all the emotional influences in the debate. Partisanship, disdain, defensiveness… and all the rest, which, once perceived (from whatever side), cast doubts on reliability.
Somehow, I had to negotiate my way through the morass. The only place I found that sometimes spoke to my ignorance was WUWT, and particularly a fellow by the name of Willis Eschenbach. Willis may not realise it, but he is a born educator; he has an instinct for how the naïve mind works, and does not speak down to it. Okay, sometimes he goes above my head, but there is no one else in quite the same league. Yes, he’s a sceptic, but in no ways a bigot, and he can be as harsh on misinformed sceptics as on proponents, and that impressed on me his likely integrity.
Ouch. None of us is doing as well as Willis Eschenbach! Now I will give Willis this much: he’s hardly the worst of the bunch and he does seem capable of getting some things right. But if he’s the person a serious reader ends up watching closely (and I don’t doubt that this happens) we are failing to serve that portion of the public that actually wants to think about these things as best as they can with the knowledge base they have.
This is a real problem, and if Curry were to stop here I’d be on her side.
On the other hand, this is fertile ground for denialists to sow confusion. It’s why-why-why land and it’s obviously bottomless. People who understand what is going on normally get to control the attentions of the student so as to optimize the path to understanding. But here we have a situation where people are, um, pessimizing. Directing attention so as to maxize the probability of confusion.
Curry fails to acknowledge this. Instead, her example is to doubt everything. Well, to doubt everything is to know nothing. We might as well abandon science if this is really the model of scientific thought. Without community there is no science. Without a credentialing system the community fails. If people are getting their understanding from Willis Eschenbach, they aren’t getting it from the scientific community. And policy continues to ride off the rails, taking all us poor passengers alike with it.