Posts Tagged ‘citizen science’

Climate skepticism comes in many shades of grey

June 26, 2010

It has long puzzled me why so many people don’t accept the science. There is a tremendous difference in opinion about climate change amongst the lay public as compared to in the scientific community. I’m hardly alone in pondering the question of why (see e.g. this insightful post). It’s clearly an important issue if we are to increase the public’s understanding of climate change. Of course it is only to be expected that some people are skeptical: Naturally there is a spectrum of opinions. But that does not explain why that spectrum is so dramatically different between different groups of people (the lay public and the professional scientists in this case). To name a few plausible reasons:

  • Ideology can be a strong driver of how people view the science: Mitigation of climate change is seen as threatening by many libertarians, because they associate mitigation with government intervention, which they oppose.
  • Psychology can also be very powerful: To some it feels good to be the underdog and get celebrated by anonymous fans on the internet and phoned up routinely by newspapers, TV and other media (that counts for the ‘spokespeople’ only). Many people have a psychological predisposition to side with the underdog (that counts for their fans). The mitigation challenge is very great indeed, which means that it is psychologically favorable to downplay the problem (so as not to get depressed or feeling guilty about everything you do and don’t do). Recently I hear more often that people side with skeptics because they are ‘nicer’. A little odd, but if that plays a major role with presidential elections, than it’s only to be expected that it also plays a role in trusting scientists (or not).
  • Still others suffer from what I call professional deformation: Some well educated people from other disciplines view the science through the lenses of their own specialty, which, if they’re unable to take a bit of a helicopter-view of the situation, could skew their vision.
  • And of course some are just confused. With not a little help from the media, who, in an effort to provide ‘balance’, bias the coverage towards the “skeptical” compared to the mainstream view.
  • Then there are organized efforts at muddying the waters, which bear a resemblance to tactics used by e.g. the tobacco lobby. It is based on manufacturing doubt amongst the public regarding science that produces “inconvenient” results. This mainly applies to certain thinktanks and a few handfuls of individuals, but they exert a disproportionate influence on the media and public perception of the issues. The ‘tactics’ used are in more widespread use, whether consciously or not.

“Old skepticism”

This last category, organized denial and anti-science, could perhaps be seen as the “old skepticism”. It has its roots in history, notably the tobacco wars. It then spilled over to denying environmental issues, such as problems associated with DDT, asbestos, CFC’s, and now CO2. Fred Singer is one of the godfathers of this movement. Recognizing this historical context is important in understanding the nature and tactics of the resistance against science. But it also bears a risk.

Too often, anyone who disagrees with the scientific consensus is called an oil shill, or compared with the tobacco apologists. In most cases, these comparisons are totally off base (at least on the individual level) and counterproductive. Even though it is an important context, overusing this categorization for individuals can easily be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Not everyone who is skeptical of AGW is in the pay of big oil or is consciously mimicking the tobacco strategies. If someone says that I’ve overused it in the past as well: Guilty as charged.

“New skepticism”

In the previous post I discussed a potential new form of skepticism, which according to some resemble “citizen scientists”. They are usually well educated and skilled people, who investigate specific issues of climate science (hockeysticks, anyone?) in more detail, and find them wanting. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s getting problematic if they conflate these details with what is known about the bigger picture, or if they started out with a deep suspicion that the science as a whole is faulty (e.g. for reasons such as stated above).

The more contempt they show for science, the more they argue the big picture of what’s known, the more they rage against emission reductions and talk about ‘world communist governments’ and other paranoid ideas like that, the less serious I take their criticism. Because to me, these are not characteristics of sincere skepticism; to the contrary.

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Citizen science as the new skepticism?

June 23, 2010

Over at Keith’s, I got engaged in a discussion with Judith Curry and others about the well educated skeptics who self identify as ”auditors” of climate science. She claims that

this group is definitely interested in moving the science forward.

The existence and flourishing of technical climate blogs that take a critical stance towards the mainstream scientific view shows that the dualistic view of professional scientists on the one hand and the amateur public on the other hand is too simplistic (especially if the public is deemed ‘ignorant’ of the science). It is clear that there is a continuum of interest, knowledge, skepticism, sincerity, etc amongst the public.

I agree that it’s not constructive to dismiss the expertise and energy of the more scientifically minded critics (“citizen scientists”). But then I would suggest that those sincerely interested clearly distance themselves from the contempt and suspicions raising crowd, since that are the public face of the critics, and it’s severely hampering communication with mainstream scientists and their supporters. Problem is, McIntyre himself has had a major influence in instilling contempt and suspicions into his very wide following. It doesn’t just raise my ire; it’s entirely un-constructive to moving the internet discussion with critics forward (regardless of how it all started). I suggest that those critics who are sincerely interested in moving the science forward engage more with scientists (rather than raging against them).

Citizen science

Judith Curry compares the technically savvy critics with citizen scientists in other disciplines, e.g. biology and astronomy. I think that comparison is only superficially true. In none of those other fields are the citizen scientists contemptuous towards the professional scientists (and vice versa). The ‘normal’ way for citizens to contribute to science is by providing observations; not so much in the interpretation. In none of the other cases I know of are the citizen scientists strongly critical and suspicious of the mainstream science.

Even in cases where the ‘auditors’ have superior technical skills, scientific intuition and broad background knowledge of the field is very important in placing results in context and in making a coherent scientific argument. These (especially the context) are what’s missing in many (not all) of the citizen scientists efforts regarding climate change, and yet, the conclusions are often uncritically taken to be of paramount importance for the field as a whole (e.g. talk of paradgim shift, Galileo and stuff like that).

Oftentimes, the specific details that the citizen scientists focus on and criticize are presented as needing to be resolved before the rest of the science can be discussed, and long before we may discuss policy options. That’s exactly what concerned scientists and citizens fear: That it’s used as an option to delay action (whether intentionally or not).

A constructive discussion about the best public actions to address global warming does notdepend on these technical details at all. That’s the crux of the matter. They make people not see the forest for the trees, in a very effective way. If that’s not McIntyre’s purpose, he should really rethink what he’s doing.

Michael Tobis made the observation that he agrees with the “citizen scientists” on many of their main points, but not on the policy direction. If they would be primarily interested in what they proclaim their key points are, and not in (obstructing) mitigation politics, the rational response would be to welcome Michael as an ally. However, he is “cast as an opponent, even as an extremist”. This is a very important point, and indeed, it suggests that their “real priorities have nothing to do with scientific process”.

In response Judith said that Michael’s stance on mitigation and uncertainties is what the self proclaimed “auditors” respond negatively to. The first point (on mitigation) is exactly what leads to Michael’s conclusion: Their primary interest is politics (disagreeing on the need for mitigation). The second point is untrue and unfair to Michael. He is most definitely not “in denial of uncertainty” as Judith later claimed.

Rather, he often makes the following pertinent points that I wholeheartedly agree with:

  • Some things are known more accurately than others.
  • The big picture of where we’re heading is clear, and this is what’s relevant for policy making.
  • Uncertainty cuts both ways. Combined with the knowledge about the big picture direction and the inertia in the system, uncertainty makes the case for action stronger rather than weaker.

I see a lot of self proclaimed “skeptics” mix up uncertainty with knowing nothing, and use that as an excuse for delaying action on mitigation. That is probably the number 1 argument to delay action. It is a policy statement, masquerading as a concern for science.

Genuine and pseudo skeptics

Undoubtedly climate skepticism comes in many shades of grey (as does climate concern). How can we distinguish between genuine skeptics and pseudo-skeptics? Undoubtedly, all self styles skeptics see themselves as genuine. I don’t really have an answer to that question. But the comparison with other areas of citizen science begs the question of why those in the climate change arena are predominantly critical, contemptuous even, about the mainstream scientific view? If their primary interest was in data analysis or observation quality, such an attitude wouldn’t make a lot of sense. I’d expect a group of citizen scientists to also have a spectrum of opinions on the science, but to see that spectrum go off in a totally different direction than the spectrum of views of professional scientists, is odd. Even if I’d take their criticism on the details at face value (which I don’t; call me skeptical), it doesn’t logically follow that their opinions of the science as a whole, let alone on mitigation, would be dramatically different.

The fact that many “citizen scientists” seem to be have such different views of the big picture makes me think that a sizeable proportion of them did come into this debate with preconceived notions. Something must have picked their interest in the science. Perhaps it’s more likely that they came to this debate with a skeptical inclination, rather than purely based on a love of the science in question, as is the case with archetypical examples of citizen science. This skeptical inclination could have extra-scientific reasons (e.g. psychological, ideological, political, etc) or it could be that criticisms they read about (e.g. from McIntyre) made them question the validity of the science, which they then decided to explore themselves. It’s important to distinguish between the details and the big picture. To what extent do they question the validity of the big picture, while exploring the details? And conflating the two? Without knowing the big picture, the McIntyrian way of looking at things probably sounds very convincing, especially to those from specialized technical fields.

The existing polarization, and subsequent defensive attitude of some spokespeople of mainstream science, may also have contributed to technically savvy people being drawn to ‘the other side’. That’s something we shouldn’t discount as a potentially important factor, and we should try to learn from it. It is clear that mainstream scientists (and their supporters) have not come to grips with these new skeptics, citizen scientists, technically savvy critics, auditors, or whatever name you’d want to give them.

See also some recent posts by Michael Tobis here and here.

Let me end by naming some constructive examples of citizen science:

Clear Climate Code

The making of a sea level study

Temperature reconstructions (and my reply to Lucia at Comment#46143)

Recent examples of citizen journalism also make clear that the less judgment is (perceived to be) passed onto the subject of study, the better it will be received.


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