Defense of Kestenbaum

Science functions in a social context. Emergence of an educated class is as disastrous as emergence of a wealthy class. Without a social fabric in which it is securely enmeshed, science is worthless. The reason we are seeing persistent and dangerous pseudoscience is that the fabric has been torn. We will not repair it by physics lectures. I am so very tired of people missing this point, and recently many of us appear to have missed it badly.

Everybody’s up in arms about the NPR story about Kristen Byrnes. David Appell says he’s lost all respect for David Kestenbaum, the NPR reporter. I have to say I’m baffled. I seem to be a severe outlier on this one. I think Kestenbaum’s story was excellent.

Not that Kristen isn’t a problem, obviously. In fact Kristen’s website was a motivation for me starting this blog a year ago. I think she has confused herself in a prefectly sincere way, and that indicates the deeper problem that Kestenbaum gets to.

The problem isn’t that just one person gets it wrong; the problem is that it is easier to get it wrong than to get it right. Intermediate level (advanced high school, early college level) material on the denialist side is vastly more copious and more accessible to that on the side of science (with the severe alarmists like Mr Turner holding their own).

The truth will lose out to the lies more often than not when an intelligent person without much connection to academia openmindedly takes on a study of climate change. The ease with which we on the inside are perceived to be driven into arrogant huffing (as a consequence of being baited into it) doesn’t help.

But that’s just to establish my bona fides. I’m not here to discuss that today.

I’m here to stick my neck out and defend David Kestenbaum. What, after all, was his point?

And the truth is, for people who want to get down into the details, climate change science can get very hairy. There are oceans to consider, which can absorb heat, water vapor and cloud cover to account for.

Much of the evidence comes from detailed computer models. Scientists disagree on some of the details. A handful do not think the case has been made. But the overwhelming consensus is that humans are causing global warming, and the consequences could be serious.

Despite Kristen’s online celebrity, she doesn’t talk about climate change much with her friends.

During lunch at a local chowder house with her friend Chrissy Flanders, they talked about food and friends and clothes.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Chrissy piped up to say she disagreed with Kristen on climate change.

“I think it’s partly because of humans,” she says. Asked why she believes that she says she doesn’t know. Kristen chimes in: “She just believes what everyone else is making her believe.”

It’s probably fair to say that most people — even those who have strong opinions about global warming — couldn’t make a strong scientific argument for why they believe what they believe.

Most of us delegate, decide to believe someone we trust. We don’t actively seek out the other side. We probably wouldn’t know what to make of it, or how to reconcile the two. Who has time? Or the expertise?

Yes! Exactly!

I don’t see why all the recriminations against Kestenbaum. He has identified the problem exactly. Science is about collective knowledge, and collective knowledge is about trust. Whether Kirsten is a little more sophisticated than her friend who happens to be right is secondary. The question is about whom each of these girls has decided to trust.

When you get deep enough into something a certain coherence emerges, but it’s not easy to get that deep. I am trying to think about global food security for instance but I’m having a heck of a time identifying the authoritative sources. Of course, I am also asking the wrong questions: where does nitrogen come from, where does it go? These are questions that the experts don’t spend a lot of time talking about because they know all about it. So who addresses the person who has come to the point of asking about nitrogen?

How do networks of trust operate when they work? How do they fail? How are they subverted by zealots? (Dare we hope that the press will get the gumption to take this on, finally?) These are the right questions, the crucial questions, and Kestenbaum has got to the root of them.

Update: Also, isn’t Kristen chimes in: “She just believes what everyone else is making her believe” just deliciously ironic? I am really shocked and dismayed at how superficially the climo-blogo-spheroid is looking at this report. It’s really very clever.

Update: Ponder the Maunder seems dramatically inferior in quality to what I saw a year ago, which presumably was the school project. Accroding to my recollection, anyway. Earthlink is unwilling to serve that up at present. Anyway, the page David Appell links to makes absolutely no sense, for instance. This doesn’t bode well for young Kristen. If she wanders here in her ponderings, I hope she’ll check my article on Wired Science about youthful hubris, in which, alas, she figures prominently.