Who Framed Roger Pielke?

An interesting and sympathetic take on Roger Pielke Jr. comes to us from from Dylan Otto Krider. One of the first comments on this blog was what I took to be a sincere welcome to the fray from RP Jr, and I’ve been torn about how to deal with him from well before I took up blogging in earnest.

It seems to me that sometimes he adds value but sometimes he seems to be so far out in right field that he’s playing in a different game. It’s hard to know what to make of him in any holistic sense. But it’s clear to me that dismissing him as a “right-winger” with “ties to industry” as Brad Johnson did in his otherwise elegant takedown of Revkin is excessive and off target. RP Jr. seems to want something different of the debate, and what it is I can’t entirely understand, but then again, I suppose that’s true of me as well! It does seem he tries so urgently to articulate his something and he fails, which is ironic given the sorts of critique he hurls at others.

On the other hand, it appears from the comments on Dot Earth that he approves of dragging Gore into the article on Will, an exercise I find inexcuseable.

Some folks are gearing up to push the Will case at the Washington Post for all its worth. That is definitely a good thing. It is time the press was forced to let go of its unearned carte blanche. So I suppose I shouldn’t try to rail against Revkin too hard; it’s just a distraction as long as the real action looks to be elsewhere.

Still, I don’t forgive Revkin. (Update: I don’t think his dragging Gore into Will’s muck was a minor transgression of a fine point of propriety. I think it was palpably evil.) To the extent RP Jr had a hand in it, I don’t forgive him either, even though he is something other than a corporate lackey, which is I don’t know exactly what.

Update: The massive blogstorm continues with a presistent mesoscale convective complex centered over Roger Pielke Jr . David Roberts had some musings about RPJr recently, for which John Fleck took him to task (see comments), much as I was uncomfortable with Brad Johnson’s stuff above. And Dylan Otto Krider is on the topic right now. ( Meta-Update: So is Backseat Driving. Brian updates: ” edited to tone down a bit. Must find the right tone….” Indeed. So, what is it about RPJr that makes that so hard?)

I also have some inside information that Joe Romm intends to weigh in soon, and one guesses not in the gentlest way. ( Meta-Update: It’s here. )

I should add that RPJr. did not originate any linkage between Gore and Will that I have been able to see. Although he did comment on the linkage after the fact, well, so did I.

Criticizing Gore on content is an odd sport and one which I find unsavory, but it is not in a league with finding symmetry in a comparison of Gore to Will. As far as I can tell the blame for this particular travesty rests squarely with Revkin.

I think there is little doubt that Pielke enjoys saying things that Republicans want to hear, but that is very different from being scientifically dishonest. It’s not even, necessarily, malign, despite the alarming current state of the federal Republicans. He does, at least, get a voice for legitimate climate science into quarters where it might not otherwise be heard.

I’m not convinced that he is entirely sincere, though. I find myself suspecting that he gets so much pleasure from explaining how things go awry that he is disinclined for them to go reasonably.

New: Eli posits a different explanation.

Update May 6: Though I have become a fan of Kevin Kloor‘s (despite the obvious cause for suspicion that he was a willing participant in my railroading a couple months back), I am a bit hurt that he has sent people back to this thread without providing some needed context, by which I mean specifically this almost contemporaneous posting, wherein what hit the fan in this present posting, leading to the above-mentioned railroading, was discussed at some length.

Revkin Beyond the Pale

Revkin falls into his old habit of splitting the difference between lies and truth, and then offers some lame justification on his blog.

This is not acceptable. Revkin should take a hint from Joe Romm on what the actual climate news is this week.

I am also 100% behind Joe Romm on his take on Revkin’s article. Just when you think Revkin is actually performing a service he comes up with this sort of poison.

Unlike George Will, Revkin knows better. That being the case, this sacrifice of genuine balance for a cute but shallow sort of journalistic symmetry is not just lazy but unethical.

Update: If this sort of tempest is your cup of tea, there’s a vast array of related links at Thing’s. Whatever you do, though, don’t read Revkin’s rant without also looking at Brad Johnson’s detailed critique of it.

Update: Comment by me at Climate Progress:

For me this isn’t nearly as much about George Will or the Post as it is about Revkin and the Times. To be sure, neither part of the tale is pretty.

In the article in question, Revkin frames the debate as balanced between Gore and Will. Yet, from the point of view of the most informed people on the topic of climate change, the IPCC represents the middle of the road, not an extreme, and Gore himself is a dyed-in-the-wool moderate. Anything that casts Gore’s position as extreme drastically misframes the issues we should be talking about.

Revkin clearly knows enough about the situation to know that the posited equivalence between Gore and Will is not just strained but ludicrous. His readers may not know this.

The disservice of knowingly and falsely presenting the two as roughly symmetrical in the interest of a tidy little article is more than run of the mill journalistic laziness. It is a betrayal of the public trust. If ever a journalist were eligible for impeachment it would be Revkin as a consequence of this travesty.

Any sensible points made in passing (and there were some) notwithstanding, his article is unacceptable and uncivilized, because Revkin surely knows better. I care little for George Will’s opinions. On this matter he is a confused old man, and will for the most part be ignored.

Revkin is presumably not so confused, but if one presumes so, it seems that he is willing to confuse others. It is no exaggeration to suggest that by capitulating to the Times’ desire to be nonthreatening, Revkin may have contributed directly to worsening the scope of the catastrophe our world will face.

Revkin owes us a vastly more cogent explanation or apology for this gobsmackingly shallow and vile blithering than he has managed to date. If he was pressured to produce this travesty by management at the Times, all the more so. I believe this matter is so severe that Revkin ought to make it his highest priority to repair it immediately or failing that to resign.

Update: Will goes on as expected. Revkin, to my eye, backpedals a bit without addressing the core malpractice in his column:

The office of former Vice President Al Gore complained about my story on climate exaggeration the other day and now George Will, the other (very different) example in that piece, has weighed in as well with a column, “Climate Science in a Tornado,” defending his accuracy and questioning my competence. I’ll leave the competence judgment to readers.

Update: I’ve recently become a huge fan of Jay Rosen. I am pleased to note that he gets it exactly right in the comments at Dot Earth (#183):

… in my opinion you have seriously under-estimated and mishandled the “false equivalence” issue. It’s good that you acknowledged it; it’s bad that you dismissed it. And I don’t know why you reduced it to a question of qualifications. I think you’ve seen in the days since how little resemblance there is between Gore as a mistake-maker and George Will. This alone should cause you to regret what you wrote suggesting they were caught in the same trap.

You talked of temptation in your original story on exaggerations in the climate change debate. I urge you to please consider what a temptation there is for editors and reporters in a “both sides engage in hype” story. The temptation to portray the two sides as equally at fault, equally misleading, equally loose with facts is HUGE, and you failed to resist it.

Please re-consider. I think your judgment about the original story is off. Way off.

In case you missed my point, I am very, very, very disappointed by this. I see all the moaning about the future of the press, including by a couple of my friends who are practicing old-school newspaper journalists, and I worry about it, I really do. But frankly, if this is the best the press can do, I have to say to hell with it. (edits blogroll)

Henchman: I promise you it won’t happen again.

Zorg: I know.

Empathy Counts for More Than Reason

In another reminder that democracy and science are different games played by different rules, a recent Slashdot story links to this story on Ars Technica
The recent AAAS meeting had session devoted to understanding how the public receives and evaluates scientific information. I can’t find any primary information about it but the AT artcile itself is interesting. I’m especially interested in the report of Anne Schuchat of the CDC’s assessment:

Simply speaking from a position of authority isn’t enough, Schuchat argued. She cited surveys indicating that, for credibility assessments in areas of “low concern” (she suggested Tsunami risk in foreign countries as one example), US citizens are happy to defer to expertise, rating it as accounting for 85 percent of their assessment. When the topic shifts to areas of personal concern like family medicine, the importance of expertise vanishes. Schuchat said that it drops to where it accounts for only 15 percent of the decision, equal to a sense of honesty and openness, and far below the value of empathy, which accounts for roughly half of the decision. The message was pretty clear; for the public, how decent medical information is conveyed counts for more than the quality of the information itself.

The conclusion of the article strikes me as about right. It’s where “In It” came in.

The clear message of the session was that a command of facts is never going to be good enough to convince most segments of the public, whether they’re parents or Congress. How the information is conveyed can matter more than its content, and different forms of communication may be necessary for different audiences. As became clear in the ensuing discussion, most of the public act as consumers of information, with journalists acting as middlemen. To connect with the public, scientists have to work with the press to ensure that two things happen. Reporters have to overcome their ingrained aversion to the uncertainties of science, and have to avoid presenting uncertainties as a matter of balance that’s addressed via material from crackpots with credentials.

Framing, in other words.

The best advice is to be honest and patient, and look honest and patient while you’re doing so. Don’t attempt an advanced undergraduate lecture series every time you are asked a question. That is not how the truth will out. Remember that you have adversaries playing a very different game.

B-schools vs Scientists

I don’t have much intellectual respect for B-school (school of business) types, and unlike most scientists I have had some dealings with them. It appears the pseudo-skeptics are getting a lot of mileage out of some bet that Al Gore is justifiably ignoring and some generic principles that do not apply promulgated by a Professor Armstrong.

I said in the comments to another article:

So the person behind forecastingprinciples.com accuses climate science of being unaware of forecastingprinciples.com . To this accusation I for one plead guilty.

He isn’t moving the goalposts, he is inventing the game.

It is certainly the case that the sorts of forecasts he dwells on on his site are very difficult.

On the other hand, a forecast of the position of Jupiter in the sky exactly 50,000 years hence is quite feasible.

Climate physics is more constrained than social dynamics and less constrained than the orbits of the planets. So we can get more than 5 years and less than 50,000.

Beyond that you have to get into detail.

These guys are promulgating purported universal principles on the basis of an argument from authority, when as far as I can tell the only basis for their authority is having registered “forecastingprinciples.com”.

Well, I registered 3planes.com some years ago. This means that anyone claiming to be three-dimensional will have to pass 83 criteria identified by me.

Well, that last bit goes a tiny bit too far. It appears that Armstrong has some authority. He is a professor at the esteemed Wharton School of Business.

While I am sure the Wharton School is more respected than the U Wisconsin – Madison B-School I have a couple of anecdotes about one of the most popular and respected professors at UW, a recent emeritus from whom I took a minicourse in management. I was universally assured by the B-school that this was an extraordinary opportunity.

The good professor X, whom I shall not further embarass by identifying, suggested that it is “not all that hard to start a business”. He reported on an extensive survey over several business categories which he did by simply comparing the yellow pages (business phone directories) from two years a decade apart (say 1989 and 1999). He asserted that 80% of the businesses in the 1989 directory were around in 1999, and that therefore the rate of successful startups (defined as lasting a decade or longer) was clearly 80%. (Think about it.) The words “sample bias” escaped neither his lips nor those of any of the students. Nor did he distinguish between startups and existing businesses at all.

That was bad enough, but the time he used the question numbers on a questionnaire to weight the results really had me slapping my forehead. He made several other glaring logical errors. I saw the other engineer in the room rolling his eyes on one occasion. Everyone else was diligently writing down everything the illustrious professor X was saying.

To be honest, I did get a couple of insights from this course into how MBAs think, not all of them pretty but not all of them horrible either. It did strike me that they had essentially zero skill in quantitative reasoning though; they make economists look like von Neumann.

My father likes to tell the story of the successful illiterate businessman from the shtetl:

“Look, from factory in Minsk, I buy each piece for hundred ruble,” he says. “In market at Omsk I sell each piece for three hundred ruble. And from this three percent (shrug) I make a living.”

Anyway, James makes clear why it’s not a bet worth taking, but implies that it is surely dishonest. I think this gives business people too much credit. Armstrong may or may not have chosen the points of comparison disingenuously. It may just be a perfectly honestly constituted invalid metric, an instance of Hanlon’s Razor.

My father also has this to say about B-school types:

“If they know so much about how to get rich, why would they be telling you?”

Which disciplines to esteem and which not to in decision making is a difficult problem. Authority and competence may shift as time passes. As long as decision makers listen to bad advice more than they listen to good advice, we will have serious problems.

Is there some systematic way to tell the difference?

Update: Unfortunately but unsurprisingly this nonsense has made the op-ed section of the Wall Street Journal. That makes this interesting story relevant.

Update: The Armstrong thing is further dissected on RealClimate. The concluding summary says all you need to know.

RC on Monitoring and Modeling

I started blogging because I saw scientists losing arguments to obfuscators and specifically largely because I saw RC coming off as arrogant and overly casual. Far be it from me to take any credit, but I’d like to take note of the current RC article, which is extremely elegantly put together, and in which the provocations are being handled deftly.

The article is in response from the latest noise from the Climate Audit folks. It absolutely demolishes their silliness; as usual they start with a nitpick and try to blow it up into a showstopper. Realclimate puts the whole thing in appropriate context very effectively.

Some very interesting conversation about the nature of GCMs ensues, and I hope to have more to say about it. After all, some people have me listed as a “science blog”, and it’s time I delivered some substance where I have some expertise.

Meanwhile, please note another aspect of the converstaion, the money double bind.

Many of the nits being picked are consequences of and adaptations to inadequate and episodic funding, yet the critics claim that the whole business is motivated by overfunding and are constantly applying pressure to scale back. Rather, they should be advocating more funding for more data, better data, and more contemporary software engineering practice with extensive maintenance and software infrastructure.

So we are being yelled at for not doing things more carefully and transparently and with better data and easier replicability, but all of these things are expensive. Yet the same people doing the yelling are convinced we are getting too much money.

Of course, the expectation that the big picture will be overturned at this point is silly. There is admittedly no point spending more money to pay people to find a different answer unless the truth is actually different than what we’ve been saying for almost thirty years now (including several correct predictions!)

We still have a lot to learn, some of it with policy implications, but it’s pathetic that people are still trying to make the “no such thing as AGW” case, and ridiculous that they accuse us of lying for the money and the proof is that we haven’t spent more money on the problem.

To those reading from America, happy 4th y’all!

Peak Oil Explained

Thanks to the anonymous poster who pointed me to Quark Soup, which seems to maintain an excellent compendium of timely science links. I’ve blogrolled it and intend to follow it. I also won’t be shy about adding a few words about some of the more interesting links. (For instance I note the irrepressible Matt Huber appears again, this time on a story of making use of CCSM a little less painful. Boy, there’s a timely issue for me. But that wasn’t even my favorite link of the first batch I saw.)

I always appreciate when people manage to boil the essentials of complex issues down to a few words. I’m not sure that is what lit crit people mean by framing, but it’s what I mean. Quark Soup points to a fine example which appeared in this The Independent story about peak oil:

According to “peak oil” theory our consumption of oil will catch, then outstrip our discovery of new reserves and we will begin to deplete known reserves.

Colin Campbell, the head of the depletion centre, said: “It’s quite a simple theory and one that any beer drinker understands. The glass starts full and ends empty and the faster you drink it the quicker it’s gone.”

Dr Campbell, is a former chief geologist and vice-president at a string of oil majors including BP, Shell, Fina, Exxon and ChevronTexaco.

Essential Reading: Updated

Whew, it’s harder to maintain a blog when you are working than when you ain’t…

Anyway, a couple of bits of essential reading from the blogroll today: Samadhisoft points to this BBC report which suggests that

  • There is a global migration crisis
  • climate change will make it worse


It’s not a matter of climate change, all else being stable. It’s a matter of throwing an unprecedented problem into an increasingly volatile mix. I think people should be talking about the big picture more. I see this in science as well as in politics. Everyone’s wrapped up in their niches. Thinking about the big picture is discouraged.

Dennis at Samadhisoft calls the confluence of population and technology driven global problems a “Perfect Storm Hypothesis”. I’m not sure it’s a hypothesis, strictly speaking, but that’s whistling past the graveyard, isn’t it?



Meanwhile Eli points to John Fleck, (who gratuitously invokes the Framing Meme in) pointing to the joint position of the various national science academies of:

South Africa
the United Kingdom
the United States of America

surely representing the great majority of contemporary scientists worldwide, stating:

  • “Our present energy course is not sustainable.”
  • “Responding to this demand while minimising further climate change will need all the determination and ingenuity we can muster.”
  • “The problem is not yet insoluble but becomes more difficult with each passing day.”
  • G8 countries bear a special responsibility for the current high level of energy consumption and the associated climate change. Newly industrialized countries will share this responsibility in the future.”

Nicely done. Hopefully this will have an impact on most people’s thinking. It’s a great relief to see the academies making such strong and unequivocal statements.

Update: Also, be sure you catch up on the last of Jeffrey Sach’s Reith lecture series. In the final installment, Sachs suggests that defeating severe poverty and inequity, globally, in the very near term (a decade or so) is a necessary and plausible first step in our escape from our quandary. I think he has a point.

Finally, I suggest you wander over to the Global Change List which is getting very interesting these days.

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.

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.