Archive for October, 2009

What do we know?

October 26, 2009

– The direction of the (expected) changes is clear

      – Globe is warming

      – It’s due to us

      – It’s bad news

– Carbon is forever; Aerosols are not

– Uncertainty + Inertia = Danger

That is the short version of what scientists know about climate change.

And a normative statement: 

– Science should inform policy measures. We are used to that regarding human health; we should also get used to it regarding climate change.

update: See here for a more elaborate description of the scientific consensus on climate change.

Communicating science: finding common ground

October 22, 2009

In discussions, you can either stress the disagreements and differences, or you can search for common ground. Greg Craven (the high school teacher with the youtube climate hit a few years ago) does the latter very well, see eg this video of his, where he sais:

I point out that my motivations are simply pragmatic, because in my experience, that’s the case for a lot of you, as well, so it’s common ground for us. (…) What I’m concerned about is me and mine, and our lifestyle.

Terrific. That hits home, it hits a nerve, and more importantly, it hits quite a strong nerve especially with those that are not convinced of the urgency of the problem.

Greg has since written a book (“What’s the worst that could happen?”), meant for the layperson to make sense out of the climate debate. I haven’t read it (yet), but judged from his video’s and website, he’s a great communicator with a healthy dose of both humour and common sense.

Simon Donner makes a similar point with respect to addressing religious constituencies. That one is a challenge for me though, I have to admit. More on that in a later post.

Even when two people disagree, they often both make valid points. Most scientists are good at doing science, and are not great storytellers (with, of course, many exceptions). So they naturally resent being told to go and tell a story, especially so when they feel that they’re being (partly) blamed for the public confusion about the issue. On the other hand, Olson is right, that the nature of the game has changed, and that scientists who do communicate to the public better be aware of how the public filters and digests information these days, and shape their message accordingly.

The latter episode is an example of an all too common pattern: When someone’s role is criticized, it invokes a defensive reaction. Whereas more often than not, there are multiple reasons for the problem under consideration. In this case, there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc. And in many of these cases, it’s very hard for individuals to change their behaviour for the better, since the institutions were built in accordance with the status quo. E.g., the way scientific work is structured and valued actually dissuades them from engaging in public outreach.

Web-iquette for climate discussions

October 15, 2009

When checking some odd stuff regarding taking care of our 3 year old, I came across this web-iquette for discussing your internet search results with the doctor. Many of the same principles apply to a layperson browsing the web about climate change, which inevitably raises questions about what is true and what isn’t. The list bears some resemblance to my effort at providing hints for how to distinguish sense from nonsense in the climate change ‘debate’ (or other complex scientific issues such as health).

Now I’m a bit of an internet-doctor myself, so it’s useful mirror to look into. The list is as follows (replace “doctor” by “scientist” for more climate relevance):

1. Do bring it up. “Most doctors don’t see your research as an attempt to second-guess them.” (as long as you don’t accuse them of being a bunch of frauds, of course)

2. Keep the tone conversational, not confrontational. It sounds so sensible, yet so many people offend this very basic rule of human interaction. Me too, more often than I want to. Tell us that the science is just garbage, and we’ll stop listening to you very quickly. Or we’ll tell you to bugger off, if we’re in a bad mood and forget about this rule ourselves. Usually with a reference to a link or two.

3. When you get a diagnosis, ask the doctor to spell it.
A-n-t-h-r-o-p-o-g-e-n-i-c  G-l-o-b-a-l  W-a-r-m-i-n-g.

4. Check who’s behind the site. ”Falling for information from untrustworthy sources is the biggest mistake parents laypeople make. “Anyone can set up a site called the National Association for Such-and-Such,” pediatrician Alanna Levine notes. Check the “about us” section to see if the information was written or vetted by doctors scientists. Look for sites from government agencies (look for the .gov at the end of the link), universities (look for the .edu ending), or medical scientific organizations such as the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology IPCC or the American Academy of Pediatrics NOAA, KNMI, etc.”

5. Don’t confuse personal experience with science. Anyone can write anything on the internet. Beware, it’s a dangerous place. And, don’t confuse weather with climate. Please. It’s making us soooooo tired.

6. Don’t assume your doctor has blown it based on what you read. Proclaiming that the science is all garbage just because you know how to use google does not impress anyone. Please refrain from doing so, it just makes you look silly. And if you’re really convinced of yourself, why don’t you submit your ideas to Science or Nature?

7. Let your doctor help you evaluate what you find. “There’s something to be said for a professional (such as a scientist) who has a base of knowledge and can help you sort through your own research,” says pediatrician Joseph Kahn. A doctor scientist can help you determine if the site is trustworthy (…) and if the information you found is outdated.” Expertise matters. You wouldn’t let your accountant do the plumbing and your plumber file your taxes, right?

8. Realize no doctor can read every single study the moment it comes out.Medicine Science is constantly evolving”. Though that doesn’t usually mean that everything we know today will be invalid tomorrow. The big picture only changes very slowly.  Eat and drink in moderation and varied, and get enough exercise. More greenhouse gases in the air cause more warming. It’s been pretty stable advice/science for a while. Details may shift (is coffee good or bad for you? How important is aerosol nucleation for climate?), but the big picture less so.

9. Definitely ask about what’s confusing or troubling you. Asking, yes. Bringing up doubts, fine. Rational discussion, absolutely. Accusations of fraud, claiming that we just want to steal your SUV, nah.

Btw, it’s Blog Action Day! (with climate change as its theme.) Check out some of the links if you’re interested in more climate related blogs.

Did McIntyre have the data all along?

October 8, 2009

The bunny is right on top of it. He quotes an excellent comment from ClimateAudit about the fact that McIntyre was being told who to contact about the data. It is written in a very non-judgemental way, but in between the lines the message is clear. I.e. some of McIntyre’s writing tactics are being used to convey the message. Eli calls it a work of art.

Craig Allen over at Deepclimate brings the news that McIntyre was already provided with the data 5 years ago (!), but was unsure that they were the real deal, so he wasn’t ‘immediately’ satisfied. Deepclimate’s post itself details how the Russian scientists (and originators of the data) have an analysis based on a much bigger sample that basically confirms Briffa’s results.

If this wasn’t already a tempest in a teapot, then it most definitely is now.

Update: Tim Lambert (Deltoid) has a round-up as well, with some relevant quotes.

McIntyre’s role in the latest teapot tempest

October 6, 2009

This whole tempest in a teapot about the Yamal tree rings made me curious about how this story, with an analysis by Steve McIntyre at the centerpoint, gained such traction. The not-so-critical part of the blogosphere ran away with his results, blowing it way out of proportion in their haste to claim that climate science is a big sham. How much credit or blame (dependent on your viewpoint) goes to McIntyre for how this story panned out in the public mind?

Jim Bouldin gives a thoughtful rundown of the major issues.

What struck me was Roger Pielke Jr’s attack of RealClimate’s sarcastic reaction to this sorry story, and his defense of Steve McIntyre, quoting him as follows:

It is not my belief that Briffa crudely cherry picked.

Fair enough, one might think. Except that this quote is from comment number 254 in one of the Climate Audit threads. And it doesn’t particularly square with what he said elsewhere. It is most definitely not the message that his readers got (see for some collections here, here, here and here). One could reasonably argue over how much to blame the readers (as Pielke does) versus how much to blame the author (McIntyre in this case) for any ‘misunderstanding’. But judging from the vast majority of his readers who infer grave accusations from his writings, it’s fair to at least look into the latter as a possibility.

Some other quotes from McIntyre, mostly assembled second hand (a.o. commenters Andrewt, Phil Clarke and Jim Bouldin, my emphasis):

“If you can get a single dendrochronologist to support Briffa’s use of 10 trees in 1990, I’ll be flabbergasted. They will be astonished and appalled at the procedure. The young dendros will be wincing and some of them will probably be bit shell-shocked at this news. It’s very embarrassing for the field.

“In my opinion, the uniformly high age of the CRU12 relative to the Schweingruber population is suggestive of selection – in this respect, perhaps and even probably by the Russians”

“It is highly possible and even probable that the CRU selection is derived from a prior selection of old trees”

“I do not believe that they constitute a complete population of recent cores. As a result, I believe that the archive is suspect.”

“Because the selection yields such different results from a nearby population sample, there is a compelling prima facie argument that they’ve made biased picks.”

“Unfortunately, to date, people in the field have not honored this responsibility and, to an outside observer, seem to have done no more than pick the version (Yamal) that suits their bias.”

“… the resulting Yamal chronology with its enormous HS [hockeystick] blade was like crack cocaine for paleoclimatologists …”

”…But maybe this is a coincidence. One never knows – it’s climate science …”

“I’d be inclined to remove the data affected by CRU cherrypicking but will leave it in for now.”

Roger Pielke goes on to make an argument that could potentially backfire:

You guys are hilarious. There is no need to pluck out-of-context quotes from deep in comment threads to divine what McIntyre _really_ thinks. He spoke directly to this point as follows:

“I don’t wish to unintentionally feed views that I don’t hold. It is not my belief that Briffa crudely cherry picked. “

Convenienty forgetting that this quote is from comment number 254. He later mentioned that McIntyre, in a more recent headline post, denied having made such allegations:

I did not say or imply that Briffa had “purposely selected” individual cores into the chronology and clearly said otherwise.

It is not clear whether the “otherwise” refers to his comment number 254 or perhaps also to other places. However, it is clear, both from what he wrote elsewhere and what the vast majority of his readers deduced, that he successfully implied strong allegations. He’s hardly ever saying it point blank. He doesn’t need to, since his audience is all too eager to get his message.

Commenter Andrewt calls it dog-whistle politics:

You say one thing, but your choice of words means your target audience infers something quite different.

Making the insinuation subtle enough to be able to defend himself later (‘I made no such accusations’), and clear enough so that the message gets through to his supporters. Which it does: For miles over the internet, people refer to McIntyre as the source of having uncovered this ‘scandal’.

Andrewt sums it up:

Steven McIntyre unambiguously says what Gavin claimed he said. Gavin did not lie.

Steven McIntyre has now added a retraction after this comment.

Will you also add a retraction to this post and an apology to Gavin?

No reply on the latter.

Interestingly, Roger feels he is upholding important scientific standards, whereas I feel that this whole sorry story is about science bashing, which he seems to be endorsing or turning a blind eye to. I do believe, however, that he is sincere in what he thinks. But I also think it’s misplaced. I hold him, as a political scientist who frequently has interesting viewpoints to bear, to higher standards than some other parts of the blogosphere.

To McIntyre’s credit, he has set some of the more fanciful journalists straight in blowing the story out of proportion, as Phil Clarke points out:

While there is much to criticize in the handling of this data by the authors and the journals, the results do not in any way show that “AGW is a fraud” nor that this particular study was a “fraud”.

Perhaps he’s just naïve, that he doesn’t have the foresight how people will interpret his writings? It’s not that it hasn’t happened before though.

I’ll finish with two other memorable quotes from McIntyre, which shows how he levels insinuations at scientists. Or outright disgust.

Is Gavin Schmidt honest?

Try not to puke.

I’ll leave it at that.


McIntyre’s accusations of stonewalling do not seem to hold water, as Marco points out in the comments. See these quotes from ClimateAudit (2006, here and here, respectively), h/t Marco, dhogaza and Eli Rabet:

“Science (…) suggested that I contact the original authors.”

“Steve these data were produced by Swedish and Russian colleagues – will pass on your message to them
cheers, Keith” [Briffa]

Seems like he’s been barking up the wrong tree, even after it’s been pointed out to him. 

Communicating science: dealing with questions

October 2, 2009

“…he respectfully treated each question as a genuine search for knowledge.”

(e-skeptic, h/t Hank Roberts)

I think that is the best way to get people to accept the science. It is easy for us who are deeply entrenched in the on-line climate debate to forget how a newcomer perceives the issues. Take the example of Matthew L. at Realclimate’s excellent post on communicating science: My impression is of someone trying to make sense of the daily news stories by browsing the internet, without having a strong opinion about climate change one way or the other. I think he exemplifies the kind of person we need to –and can- convince of the strength of the scientific evidence. We should be thinking carefully about how to best do so. An interesting conversation ensued between Matthew and others, myself included.

I think the tone of the response is important. Even if he were just repeating claims picked up from some anti-scientific website, what would do more good for him and for the numerous people reading (but not participating in) the comments: A sarcastic reply calling him out on his ‘denialist’ talking points or a patient explaining of the issues? And what if he indeed were sincere in his concerns and (perhaps misguided) questions? 

When dealing with the hard-line Morano’s of this world, it may be different. But otherwise, a calm and collected attitude is important. And even with the likes of Morano, it is not clearcut that abusive language is the way to go. Keith Kloor writes:

“If I was stranded on a desert island because of global warming and I had a choice to live out my days with either Morano or Joe Romm, it’s no contest.”

That’s what we should avoid. Perhaps being nice is a better strategy. For Joe Public, it matters a helluva lot who is the nicest guy. They don’t know who is right or who is wrong. Many of them decide based on their gut feeling.

This quote from Matthew is another example of what should be avoided:

“Sad to say JP (a climate activist) did not acquit himself well. He got progressively angrier and ended up shouting, and was even forced to back-track at one point. In contrast the denialist remained very level headed. Anybody listening to the interview and not familiar with either person, or the positions they represented, would have scored a definite win for the denialist camp.”

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