Posts Tagged ‘blogging’

To publish BS or not, that’s the question

November 11, 2011

Richard Tol levied a strong accusation at Judith Curry for highlighting two seriously flawed papers (via twitter):

Its wrong, but with @JudithCurry lending her authority it becomes disinformation

Judith defended herself in a post where she tries to shift the blame to the mainstream scientists:

 Here is a quiz for you.  How many of these disinformation tactics [a list containing a mix of logical fallacies and avoidance tactics] are used by:

  • JC (moi)
  • Public spokespersons for the IPCC
  • Joe Romm
  • Marc Morano

If that’s not a dog-whistle I don’t know what is. 

Keith has a nice rundown of the discussion, and the ensuing thread over there contains many good comments. He’s got a knack for hosting interesting discussions.

Richard has since laid out his argument as to what’s wrong with the papers in a guest post over at CE.  Basically they’re methodologically flawed:

Using “detrended” fluctuation analysis to study “trends” was a dead giveaway that something is not quite right with these papers.

Tol goes on to write: 

7. There is a substantial body of climate research that is credible — even if it reaches opposite conclusions — but there are also papers (left, right, and center) that are just flawed.
8. If flawed papers reach a certain prominence, they should be debunked. Prominent but flawed research does damage as it misinforms people about climate change. Publicly criticizing such research hardens the existing polarization.
9. If flawed papers linger in obscurity, they should be ignored. The papers are wrong but do no damage. Lifting a flawed paper out of obscurity only to debunk it, is no good to anybody.

Curry takes especially issue with the last statement:

Yours isn’t a statement about science, but about playing politics with science, and reinforces the gatekeeping mentality in climate science that was embarassingly revealed by the CRU emails. (…)

Of course scientists don’t want the public to be misinformed about the science! So If I’m concerned about public understanding of science, I’m automatically “playing politics with science”? Then I sure hope every scientist is.

Judith rightly says that “Of course there are flawed papers that get published.” But why shining the spotlight on them? What’s gained by doing so?

It’s true that these discussions don’t occur about science without policy relevance. Research on the mating behavior of fruit flies won’t result in argument whether a flawed paper should be promoted in the public sphere or not.

The differences are that 1) such research is not present in the public sphere, because the public isn’t interested, and 2) even though flawed papers exist in any field, the more its conclusions clash with ideologies, the more attempts will be made to reach opposite conclusions and thus the more deeply flawed/biased papers will be published. It’s not a coincidence that there’s no fruitflies-version of EIKE or Heartland. 

Curry:

Most people don’t come to climate etc. to reinforce their prejudices (there are far too many echo chambers where this is much more satisfyingly accomplished). They come here to learn something by considering the various arguments.

The general tone of comments at CE makes me strongly doubt this last statement.

Tol:

@Anteros
I would agree with you [no harm done by highlighting flawed studies] if climate blogs were exclusively read by well-intentioned, well-informed, and intelligent people.

Richard further shows his mastery in the tweet-universe with one-liners such as

I argue for self-censorship. It is what separates adults from children.

Over at CaS, Roger Pielke Jr makes the point that wrong or bad articles can be a useful teaching tool. And indeed they can. But as Stoat rightly says,

within a managed class structure with someone guiding the discussion, it is fine to discuss flawed texts, for the reason given: it encourages critical thinking. That wasn’t what Curry was doing.

Tol:

Curry took two papers that almost nobody had read, and put them in the limelight.
The papers say 2+2=5.
There are a lot of people who would like to believe that. It is not true.
So now there is yet another dogfight about whether the answer is 3, 4, or 5. We can do without that.
There are plenty of real issues to argue over.

Jonathan Gilligan, consistently thoughtful, writes:

Pielke has said that he views blogs as more like the kind of discussions people conduct over beers at the neighborhood bar, and from that perspective Richard’s criticism makes no more sense than telling the crowd at the pub to leave sports commentary to the experts. 

Tol makes some valid points here, but Pielke is more persuasive. People will read these blogs or not as they choose, and when a blog repeatedly calls attention to crap, its credibility and its audience will adjust to reflect this. Climate Etc. is not The Wall Street Journal, so the greater danger in Curry’s gushing over crap is to Curry’s reputation, not to the public understanding of science.

I have also compared blogs to bar-discussions (quoting Bob Grumbine), but that comparison is about the presence (or lack) of quality control. As Tol rightly says, 

With academics blogging and tweeting, and journalists, and prime ministers, and institutes, departments, agencies and companies, I don’t think there is a one-rule-fits-all.

At CE, thousands of people are listening. Judith’s opinion and her writings make their way to the general public and politicians via mainstream media and Senate hearings as well. By the scale of those who are engaged in the conversation, that is orders of magnitude different from a discussion in a bar. That also means that the risk is twofold: Both to Curry’s reputation (her problem) and to the public understanding of science (everyone’s problem, even though Curry tries to belittle that).

Whereas Tol argued based on methodological flaws, Fred Moolten explains why the papers’ conclusions are unsupportable on physical grounds and I made a similar argument:

Conservation of energy precludes the climate to wonder off too far in any direction without being “forced” to by changing boundary conditions. Unless of course the energy is merely being redistributed within the system. Which it isn’t, since all other compartments of the climate system are gaining energy.

The paper’s conclusion that the observed warming is “predominantly a natural 100-year fluctuation” is at odds with conservation of energy.

All very reminiscent of the random walk saga and the Harry Potter theory of climate.

2010 blog round-up

January 3, 2011

I started writing this blog in mid 2008, and it was off to a quiet start. In the last months of 2009 and the start of 2010, my blog traffic gradually increased due to me chiming in on popular blog discussions on topics such as the CRU email affair or criticizing some contested ‘skeptic’ or ‘lukewarmer’.

A big change in my readership occurred in March 2010, after I wrote a post comparing different datasets of global average temperature. I was looking for a good looking graph of the major surface temperature reconstructions for use in a presentation, and after I couldn’t find one to my liking decided to prepare my own.

Now in all honesty, it wasn’t my pretty graphs that drew thousands of visitors to check out that post, but rather the verbal antics of pseudonymous commenter “VS”. It was initially picked up by Bishop Hill (causing a massive traffic spike) from where it spread to WUWT, Josh’s cartoons and others. It garnered over 2000 comments, many of which consisted of cheering VS on in his attempt to show that the increase in global average temperature could be described by a random walk (from which he later seemed to backpedal), based on a near unit root in the timeseries. But besides the expected chorus of “see, it’s all a scam/random/don’t touch my SUV!”, which got on my nerves at times, it was an interesting discussion from which I learned a thing or two. Of course, from energy balance considerations it is quite clear that the global average temperature can’t randomly walk away in any one direction without being somehow “forced” to. But I do have this desire to understand where someone else is coming from, to search for a nucleus of truth amidst the rhetoric, and to see if common ground can be reached between reasonable people who disagree.

I did a recap of this discussion in various posts thereafter (though never a proper round-up regretfully): Here, here, and my favorite: a sarcastic analogy on April fools day, followed by part 2 (not half as funny).

My site stats clearly show this post is an outlier: 45,000 views, whereas all the others are below 3000. After the big spike was over, the number of pageviews stabilized on a level a few times higher than before (~3000/week after vs ~700/week before). I think a lot of this increased traffic is due to more lively discussions taking place in the comment threads. The number of pageviews in 2010 were almost 10 times that in 2009, and in 2008 it averaged less than 100/week.

Since my recent posts are published in whole on the front page, the number of pageviews of separate posts sais more about the popularity of the discussion ensuing in the comment thread than of the head post itself (most of my pageviews are to the frontpage). That said, after the global avg temp thread the top-3 most popular discussions were:

The risk of postponing corrective action to a gradually deteriorating situation (2713)

The NIPCC report: don’t be fooled (2712)

Scott Denning to ICCC Heartland ‘conference’ gathering: “Be skeptical… be very skeptical!”  (2378)

The NIPCC post (from 2009) is popular because it’s one of the only rebuttals of their 2009 “climate change reconsidered” document, and as such is easy to find by google. The others were mainly popular because of the ensuing debate I think, though I like the post featuring Scott Denning’s excellent Heartland presentation a lot.

I don’t think these were necessarily my best posts; I’ll try to make a list of those some time later this week. Suggestions welcome, as I’m curious to hear what my readers liked or disliked.

It is clear though, even from my own blog, that antagonism sells. Posts where I’m sharply critical of something or someone tend to be more popular than thoughtful essays. Others have similar experiences I believe. Which goes to show that for many, blogs are mostly about entertainment and polarization. The challenge is to get some thoughtful reflection, discussion and critical thinking in there too.

A happy, thoughtful and fun new year everyone!

The nature of blogging (“having a beer”) vs the nature of science

April 19, 2010

Robert Grumbine (a scientist-blogger well worth reading) explains how the scientific process works and how scientists communicate, and how it differs from blog debates (which he describes as “having a beer”). The following is lifted from his comment at Chris Colose’s blog a while ago. He sets up his argument in response to another commenter (self-identifying as “a genuine skeptic”):

———————————-

As a skeptic, I share your frustration equally, and as a genuine skeptic, and someone who does care about the environment, I am ready any day of the week to have my opinion sway back to believing in / trusting the consensus / IPCC position. Further, I know exactly what would sway me: dialogue, and constructive debate with the skeptics, in particular those skeptics of the ilk of Lindzen, Christy, and, although he refuses the label “skeptic”, Pielke Sr. (…)

(…) I’ve disagreed with Pielke Sr., for instance, but in the scientific norm. Tenderhearted readers, unaccustomed to the scientific norm, might have thought I was awfully hard on Roger. (One did say so.) But his own comment was that he appreciated my constructive discussion. This is a cultural issue that I think the general population does not understand. Normal exchanges, for science, about what’s going on, what’s good, or not, are fairly rough and tumble. It may not be the best thing that science is conducted this way, but it is what it is.

The scientific norm issue is a different matter. The scientific norm is the professional literature, not blog commentary. If you look in to Lindzen and the response in the scientific literature, you’ll find that he’s been met properly (by the standards of science, that is). Namely, he suggested his ‘adaptive iris’ idea. This was based on there being a certain relationship (it had to have a particular sign, and large magnitude) between surface temperatures in the tropics and cloudiness (and, for that matter, particular types of cloud). One paper in the scientific literature doesn’t buy you much. It is the start of the conversation to publish in the literature, not blessing as holy writ. He published, and then got the best possible response — other people used other (better) data sets and observing methods to see if they could get the same answer as he had gotten in his first cut. Unfortunately for his hypothesis, the better data sets erased his effect. Indeed, not only was the magnitude much smaller than he thought, the sign was the opposite of what he thought.

As far as scientific norms go, he got extremely good treatment. a) he did publish his idea (no ‘conspiracy to suppress’) and b) other people took a serious look at it. It is significant work to take a look at somebody else’s new idea. As a scientist, if you can get others to look at your idea, you have done extremely well. As happens in science, perfectly normally, the initial proposition got rejected by more detailed analysis. Since what was at hand was deriving a relationship between observational quantities, and Lindzen is a theoretician, it’s no great surprise or shame that he didn’t get all the niceties on his data sets right. As usual, devils lay in the details, and the responses were from groups familiar with all the devils laying in those details.

Where things went problematic was that contrary to proper scientific practice, Lindzen didn’t drop his disproven idea. A bit of ‘is so’ publishing (sorry, it was painful to read his response article and this is all I can say of it) in response to the objections was it. And then much complaining outside the scientific literature about conspiracy, scam, censorship, … To be honest, even his original Iris publication was an example of lenient reviewing. There were problems in his data management in the original paper that even I saw (correctly) would be a problem for his idea — and I’m not a tropical person (polar regions mostly), nor, then, sea surface temperature, nor then or now satellite sensing of clouds. The later publications — in the scientific literature — about his errors confirmed my suspicions, and, unsurprisingly, added a number of problems to what I suspected. But that’s not what you see out on the blog universe.

You can make some headway over at scholar.google.com. A fair amount of the non-scientific world shows up there, but a fair amount of the scientific world is present.


always see an ad hominem attack for what it is (I refer to the attacks by commenters at RealClimate, which were not removed by the editors). In most cases, straw men arguments can also be seen for what they are. And then an argument, “we don’t have to answer that ’cause it wasn’t peer-reviewed” always also increases the lay public’s skepticism. No one takes that response seriously, and again, skepticism can only increase.

I agree that outside the scientific community nobody takes seriously that something didn’t appear in the scientific literature.

That is a problem with outside the scientific community.

Doing science is difficult. Over the past 400 years, the modern scientific method has accumulated a lot of knowledge and understanding. Doing science means changing that body of knowledge and understanding. Sometimes that means saying that even though we used to think that something was the case, it really isn’t. Making that argument successfully is hard work. ‘Even’ the easier argument of making an addition is hard work. It’s hard work because other people have to be able to rely very strongly on everything you say in your paper. (…)

There are two parts to the scientific publication process important for your comment here. One is, to publish in the professional literature about your idea, you have to examine and explain your idea thoroughly. ‘thoroughly’ turns out to be a lot of work. Second is, you have to research all the relevant aspects of your problem and honestly discuss them. The up side of this is, once you’ve finished a proper scientific paper, it can stand for some time. You might turn out to be wrong about something — because there were different data than you used, or a better technique than you used, or … several things. Being shown wrong by later and much more labor-intensive examinations is fine. But being shown wrong because you failed to do your homework is disaster.

In contrast is blog posts and comments. The standard there is what I’ll call ‘chatting over a beer’. If you and I sit down and start talking, both of us with something we like to drink, having a relaxed conversation, that’s wildly different than scientific literature. Both of us will say what we think, but there’s no concern about tomorrow you trying to write a paper on which our professional reputations will hang based on what I say. We’re just chatting. I’ll give you my best answer at the time, but if I’ve forgotten something, or the answer is 25.0 instead of 2.50, eh. Just chatting over a beer. Just a blog comment. If someone started writing a scientific paper based on comments in blogs … all kinds of wild things could show up. The earth is flat, hollow, expanding, 6000 years old, and so on. Somebody, somewhere, in the blogosphere has said all such things.

To do science, we need something much more reliable than ‘anything anybody ever says anywhere’. We even need something better than “well, he’s normally pretty good so even tough he’s never worked on this kind of problem before and doesn’t know how the satellites detect what he’s working with, he _must_ be right anyhow.” That something more is the professional scientific literature.

Within the world of science (all 20 or so of us), it is an extremely telling, and negative, thing that much of what the general public thinks is the case about science is actually based on things which are said _only_ outside the scientific literature. If the speaker had confidence in his statement, he’d try to publish it in the literature. And, if they were right about the ‘conspiracy’, they should at least have a rejection letter and comments from the editor and reviewers to show. Instead, they talk about the conspiracy, but have no rejection letters (_I’ve_ got rejection letters — they’re normal to trying to do science.)

But the public perception is quite different. Still, I have to think if someone won’t go in front of his professional peers and stand for what he thinks is scientifically correct, he doesn’t really believe it himself. If his only or major audience is people who don’t know the science thoroughly, I have to figure he thinks that’s the only audience who’ll let him get away with whatever it is he’s saying now. Fine for you and me over a beer. No fine for doing science.

——————————–

Just to add a qualifier: Not everything that appeared in the scientific literature is necessarily “good science”. Likewise, not everything that appeared on a blog is necessarily unscientific or wrong. Just as in a bar, the greatest ideas and insights can be heard. But amidst a helluva lot of chatter about the weather. Which is actually pretty nice right now. Enjoy your beer!


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