Posts Tagged ‘Richard Tol’

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. 


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.


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.


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.


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