Posts Tagged ‘Climategate’

Wikileaks: not necessarily a good thing

December 11, 2010

After wikileaks spread the US cables, Hillary Clinton said something along the lines of “this is bad for International diplomacy”. I think she’s right.

Diplomatic resolution (as opposed to violent resolution) of conflict requires trust, which is undermined by this leak.

Also, some information is not meant for public consumption. Pin codes are in that category; security/police information; a list of worldwide targets that are important to the US/global security/economy that may be of interest to terrorists (now on wikileaks) also fits that bill.

Someone somewhere wrote that if the internet/wikileaks existed during the time of the camp David accord, it would not have succeeded. The idea that any and all information, be it government related or not, should be available to all seems either naïve or scarily fundamentalist to me.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that are important and relevant for the public to know: Some Arab states asking the US secretly to be harder on Iran, while in public being all cosy with Iran and critical of the US, is questionable to say the least.

I think whether such a leak is ethically right or wrong depends a.o. on the contents of what’s leaked: It has to show greater wrongdoing than the wrong that leaking it represents. And the effects have to be taken into account: Are they positive or negative in the long run? Both are of course highly subjective judgment calls.

Thomas Friedman had an insightful column about wikileaks, in which he argues that the US lacks leverage on the geopolitical scene. He writes:

America lacks leverage in the Middle East because we are addicted to oil. We are the addicts and they are the pushers, and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.


We also lack leverage with the Chinese on North Korea, or with regard to the value of China’s currency, because we’re addicted to their credit.

(based on my comment at Stoat)


“Climategate”: lessons learned

November 23, 2010

These are some of the take-home messages or lessons from “climategate” as I see it.  They are strongly related to each other, with the overriding theme being that disagreements about climate change are not so much about the science, but rather about a clash of underlying values, ideas (e.g. related to risk perception) and ideals. Scientists are caught in the middle of this trying to defend the science against various distortions (while also having their own values, ideas and ideals of course).

– There’s no strong relation between knowledge/information and people’s perceptions: Just the facts won’t do. It’s all about the narrative. Climategate resonated because it could easily be spun into the underdog fighting the mean establishment. Scientists and those communicating the science should take a lesson from this: Don’t be such a scientist when communicating with non-scientists. Tell a story rather then flooding people with facts, numbers and uncertainty intervals. Steven Mosher, in a comment at Judith Curry’s, points to another lesson to be taken from this: Focusing on the consensus feeds into this underdog-versus-establishment narrative. I think he’s got a point there, though of course it is based on a faulty dismissal of a scientific consensus as being meaningless. Perhaps we should stress that the consensus is not monolithic, but rather concerns the big picture only, and even there it is still a bell curve of viewpoints rather than unanimous agreement.

– Climate science is embedded in a wild sea of culturally differing views, where values and ideals clash. Scientists should consider this (partly hostile) public environment when communicating about climate science. Retreating in the ivory tower of academia would be a detriment to the public discussion. I think we should consider strategically effective ways to convey scientific insights to the public and policymakers.

– The animosity towards climate science is even greater than we thought it was. Those who object to the perceived policy consequences of the mainstream scientific view go through great lengths in order to try to discredit the science. This has had an effect on how scientists and their supporters communicate (or not) with the public: Many have gotten afraid for speaking out publicly, while some others have gotten more strident or even defensive. Both reactions are understandable, even though neither are useful imho.

– Not directly a consequence of climategate, though it did bring it into clearer focus, is that there are many other aspects besides science that influence one’s policy preferences. It applies to those who argue the science as a proxy for arguing the politics, but it also applies to defenders of the science; it applies to everyone. Endless arguments about sea level rise in 2100 are perhaps not so useful when the underlying disagreement is much more about different values (e.g. about valuing the present versus the future; freedom versus responsibility; how to deal with risk) than about the Greenland ice sheet. This is tricky though, because scientists and their supporters (I really need to come up with a proper word) will still feel the need to defend the mainstream scientific view against distortions. I don’t know how to best deal with that catch 22.

– The need for increased transparency and openness of data and code is now widely shared. I think this is an inevitable and inevitably difficult process, but “climategate” reinforced the importance of such transparency for public trust and credibility. It will not convince the more fanatic “skeptics” out there, nor will it prevent such smear campaigns from happening again in the future. But it will help to make the wider public, who are more or less agnostic about the topic, more immune to various accusations of secrecy and fraud. And that’s important.

Citizen science has taken off over the last year. I’m not sure if it’s just anecdotal evidence based on my blog reading or a sign of a real trend (where’s VS if you need him ;-) but I have a feeling that there’s much more interest and participation amongst non climate scientists in actually doing analyses themselves, most notably related to the temperature record. And some good work is coming out of that. I don’t regard it as a dramatic change in how science overall is conducted (its effect is much more on the public trust and perception), but it’s an interesting development nevertheless, and a more productive way of using one’s energy than blogospheric shouting matches.

Other reading:

Visit climatesight for a good and readable summary of “climategate”. See the Yale forum for an interesting collection of scientists’ view on lessons learnt. I get a sense that overall, many of them don’t disagree with my rant about how low of an action this was. Gavin retells the story of what happened over at RC.


Update: The second installment at the Yale forum is up, about science journalists’s views of lessons learned. Elizabeth Kolbert’s answer to what journalism should have learned is noteworthy (my comments in […]):

The obvious lesson of faux scandals like “climategate” is that they tend to be created by groups or individuals with their own agendas, and journalists ought to be very wary about [uncritically] covering them. The notion that there is some huge scientific conspiracy going on, involving dozens of researchers at different institutions, is pretty implausible on its face. This goes for climate science as for all other scientific disciplines. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it’s just hard to imagine how it would work. Conversely, it’s very easy to imagine why an individual or a group with an economic or political [or ideological] interest would want to claim that such a conspiracy existed. The burden of proof ought to be very high. Instead, it seems the bar was placed ridiculously low.

Mike Hulme on the impacts of “climategate”

November 19, 2010

Mike Hulme has an editorial in the Guardian about “climategate”. It is a thoughtful piece, where he tries to take some distance from the events and see what impact they’ve had, focusing mostly on the positive:

I believe there have been major shifts in how climate science is conducted, how the climate debate is framed and how climate policy is being formed. And I believe “climategate” played a role in all three.

How climate science is conducted

As to the first, “climategate” may indeed have spurred the inevitable transition to more open source computer code and increased transparency. With the increased public and political interest, it is only natural to expect increased openness and transparency, to the extent possible and desired by scientists themselves (that last addition is not unimportant). The hope is that this could aid in the understanding of and respect for science, though that may be a little naive.

Efforts to re-examine the surface temperature record don’t signify a major shift in how climate science is conducted; they are replication exercises which, unsurprisingly, come to pretty much the same results as CRU or GISS do.  This seems merely a response to the misplaced decrease in trust in the temperature record. Overall, I don’t think the way climate science is conducted has changed dramatically as a result of this affair. It probably made a lot of scientists more afraid to speak out or more defensive when they do, neither of which is a good thing. That is the most significant impact as I see it.

How the climate debate is framed

Second, there has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of “here’s the consensus science, now let’s make climate policy” has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: “What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?”

The ‘ambiguous frame’ as Hulme calls it makes a lot of sense, and it always has. Does that signify a change? I don’t think so. Isn’t it common wisdom that there is more than just science that influences what policies are enacted? Consider e.g. this quote from the late Steve Schneider via mail to Andy Revkin:

To be risk averse is good policy in my VALUE SYSTEM — and we always must admit that how to take risks — with climate damages or costs of mitigation/adaptation — is not science but world views and risk aversion philosophy.

And as I wrote in a comment at the polarization and ideology thread:

One’s value system and circumstances influence how this risk is perceived. (…) How do you value the future vs the current (encapsulated in the discount rate), how is your sense of responsibility vs freedom, how do you weigh small probability – high impact events, those are the issues there, and they are inherently tied to one’s value system.


The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.

This is puzzling to me, as it seems to imply a straightforward relation between scientific certainty and policy making, whereas he just made the obviously correct point that there are other things that influence this relation. Update: I think I misinterpreted what Hulme said. Even if the science were 100% certain (which it will never be of course, by its very nature), it would still not ‘force’ a particular policy, exactly because contested values and human ideals will still enter the picture of decision making.

In effect, the big picture of what we know is clear, at least as to the ‘needed’ direction and thrust of policies (paraphrasing Herman Daly). But this direction and thrust apparently clashes with the values and ideals of a not unimportant segment of society.

The increased polarization between supporters of science and contrarians over the past year did probably contribute to putting this ‘ambiguous frame’ more into focus:

The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can’t be homogenised through appeals to science.

Very true.

How climate policy is being formed

Hulme’s third point, the lack of faith in reaching a global agreement on emission reductions, has much more to do with the failure of Copenhagen than with “climategate”, I think. During CoP 15 in Copenhagen, the overhyped expectations collided with the harsh reality of nations thinking mostly about their own short to medium term self interest. This classic tragedy of the commons on a global scale proved much too viscous to be easily solved.

Hulme argues that

with scientific uncertainties and complexities about the future proliferating (…) further policy fragmentation around climate change is inevitable.

Here again, Hulme seems to suggest that scientific uncertainty is the primary cause for the differences in opinion about the policy direction, in apparent contradiction to him stating earlier that contested values and ideals are also important. Is lack of scientific certainty really the limiting factor in reaching political agreement? I don’t think so. Policy fragmentation will be inevitable because people will continue to have different values and ideals and live in different circumstances, not because of scientific uncertainty (which concern the details rather than the big picture anyway).

Hulme continues:

But if such fragmentation reflects the plural, partial and provisional knowledge humans possess about the future then climate policy-making will better reflect reality. And that, I think, may be no bad thing.

Here I’ll quote a comment by Lcarey over at CaS, which captures my take quite well:

My conclusion is a little different.  IF the prevailing conclusions in a number of related fields within climate science are broadly correct, then humanity faces a global scale problem beyond the power of any given nation or small group of nations to address [except perhaps by geoengineering as a risky bandage-type strategy. BV].   In that case “fragmentation” translates into “pursuing our own short term interest, and not doing anything of great significance regarding CO2 emissions anytime soon”, which translates into “we’re screwed”

“Climategate”: The scandal that wasn’t and the scandal that was

November 17, 2010

It’s a year ago now that email correspondence of the British CRU was illegally released (*) on the internet. Over the course of heated discussions that followed, this became known as “climategate”, implying some sort of scandal.

The scandal that wasn’t

The emails were spun as if they uncovered some massive conspiracy to hide the truth. For example, some “skeptical” people and articles were badmouthed in the emails. But not because they didn’t toe “the party line” (whatever that may be); rather because some papers were deeply flawed (as is also apparent from the reviewer comments) and the behavior of some people was strongly disliked (I wonder why). Scientists in general voice their criticism without sugar on it (sorry, Willard). Steve Easterbrook gave some good insights back then into how scientists are used to communicate with other.

Of course, some unwise and some not-so-nice things were said. Haven’t you over the course of 13 years of emailing? If you had worked in a field about which there is a heated public and political debate, would people who are very hostile to your views be able to find something that they could shame you with in all those emails?

The scandal that was

The real scandal was that some people, for whatever reason, are so hostile to the science that they took this illegal step of breaking into an institute’s computer system and released private email correspondence. This was a day that the attack on science (and on scientists) arrived at a new low. Such an attack has nothing to do with sincere skepticism. Those who did this –and those who celebrate it- follow the adage of the end justifying the means, where the end apparently is to bring science on its knees. Needless to say, I hold science to be an important part of a healthy, modern society, and ignoring its insights is not a good strategy. Attacking it in ways as was done in “climategate” is scandalous.

Nature did not read the hacked emails.

(*) A recent Nature News feature about the event and how it influenced Phil Jones sais it was most likely an outside hack rather than a leak from inside:

Although the police and the university say only that the investigation is continuing, Nature understands that evidence has emerged effectively ruling out a leak from inside the CRU, as some have claimed. And other climate-research organizations are believed to have told police that their systems survived hack attempts at the same time.

Judith Curry on climate science: Introspection or circling the wagons?

April 27, 2010

Climate scientist Judith Curry has regularly spoken up about the rumblings in climate science, especially in light of the CRU emails and the alleged IPCC errors. And when she speaks, people listen. She’s a respected academic, and subscribes to the consensus view that climate is changing in (large) part due to human activity (so supporters of the consensus take her seriously). But she’s also increasingly critical of mainstream science, especially the way in which the consensus has been achieved and the way certain individuals have acted (so those disagreeing with the consensus listen as well; even more so, they love her as someone from within the establishment who’s openly critical).

Journalist-blogger Keith Kloor has a good Q&A with Judith Curry which is well worth reading. As I also wrote over there, I appreciate Prof Curry’s constructive criticisms and calls for introspection. However, I find it disconcerting that she doesn’t call out the many baseless and exaggerated attacks on climate science for what they are.

In the comments, Judith Curry writes

“To see such a respected academic accused in this way (with the accusations so obviously baseless) is absolutely reprehensible.”

With “respected academic” she means Wegman (one of the main hockey players of the ‘skeptics’). I have no opinion about him, but I do note that many respected academics, pretty much a whole profession even, have been accused in often baseless, and if not entirely baseless, surely exaggerated ways. I’d say, reprehensible is the right word to describe it.

Actually, Curry has been the target of ‘skeptics’ herself. In a newer post, she recites from what she calls ‘the hurricane wars’ that were the result of a paper of hers that was (coincidentally) released a few weeks after Kathrina hit New Orleans:

“While global warming was mentioned only obliquely in the paper, the press focused on the global warming angle and a media furor followed. We were targeted as global warming alarmists, capitalizing on this tragedy to increase research funding and for personal publicity, a threat to capitalism and the American way of life, etc.”

These are similar charges as are now levelled against the whole field, together with baseless charges of misconduct, fraud and data manipulation (*). What puzzles me is the apparent disconnect between her own experiences (of being viciously attacked on her science, clearly for extra-scientific reasons such as an appeal to the ‘American way of life’ etc.) and how she judges (or doesn’t judge at all) the current wave of attacks on climate science.

Perhaps the explanation is in the following:

“I learned several important lessons from this experience: Just because the other guy commits the first “foul” doesn’t give you the moral high ground in protracted academic guerilla warfare. Nothing in this crazy environment is worth sacrificing your personal or professional integrity.  After all, no one remembers who fired the first shot, all they see is unprofessional behavior.”

That is very true. But it doesn’t quite explain why not to call out reprehensible behavior for what it is. Something she isn’t shy of doing, clearly (e.g. regarding Wegman in the comments following the Q&A, and in a more subtle manner regarding the CRU emails).

Apparently she doesn’t find the way climate science is being attacked in the blogosphere and the mainstream media problematic, or if she does, she choses to focus on ‘cleaning up our own house’, while not letting the fringe talk get to her (she’s ‘been there, done that’). A commendable position actually. But I do sense a lack of critically assessing the criticism. ‘Corruption of the IPCC process’ is way too string of a statement in my mind. It’s not a very constructive start at ‘cleaning up our own house’ either, as it feels more like yet another attack on our house. The consequence, of course, is that the shutters will be closed, again.

Because that’s something where I do agree with Curry: There is a tendency of ‘circling the wagons’ within the scientific community, in response to the continuous attacks on the science. Attacks that are mostly based on smear and insinuation rather than solid arguments. It in no way resembles a scientific argument, and shouldn’t be treated as such. So while I have no straight answer to the obvious question of ‘what else than cicling the wagons could we possibly do?’, Curry’s own part- answer is a good start: Do not engage in the guerilla warfare that you feel being drawn into. But that again states what not to do. What do you do instead? is the difficult part. Engaging with skeptics is only useful insofar as they are interested in constructive knowledge building. No doubt some are. But no doubt many aren’t. E.g. a commenter at climateaudit writes:

“It only takes one honest (wo)man to bring the whole rotten edifice crashing down.”

I’d wager that people referring to climate science as a ‘rotten edifice’ are not interested in constructive dialogue or in serious scientific inquiry.

Curry is much more positive about McIntyre than most climate scientists. While indeed he’s done quite a lof of analysis of climate related data himself, he also often engage in ‘dog whistle’ politics; making subtle insinuations of data manipulation, bias and misconduct. Sometimes it’s less subtle (e.g. a headline under an image of Mike Mann saying “try not to puke”). That behavior doesn’t invalidate the occasional good point he may or may not have (I’m not opining on that), but it does cause a near-continuous stream of messages that lowershe credibility of climate science. McIntyre’s influence on the latter (lowering science’s credibility) is much larger than his constructive influence on knowledge building. Even if McIntyre may have a point on details, most of his audience and the mainstream press gets away with a totally exaggerated and erroneous impression that the science is abysmal.

It is slightly ironic that back in 2002, Phil Jones provided McIntyre with data no problem. It’s only after he found out what McIntyre is all about that he stopped being helpful. Which leads McIntyre to ask the rhetorical question: “What has changed since 2002?” At WUWT, Steve Mosher takes issue with this change in Jones’ attitude as well. Looks like the scientific community is not the only place that could do with some more introspection.

Curry finds preaching to the converted not very interesting. But preaching to people who won’t listen (except when you criticize what they dislike) is even less useful. The challenge is to distinguish those who have genuine concerns from those who are merely slinging mud and will never accept anything, no matter the strenght of the evidence. And I think a similar tendency (a defensive attitude or ‘circling the wagons’) is happening at the ‘skeptical’ side of the fence: Also those with genuine concerns regarding the science or data analysis sling around accusations of misconduct, corruption, manipulation, etc. That’s a sure way of not getting heard by the scientific community. Which adds to the defensive attitude, and the circle is round.

I think both ‘skeptics’ and scientists feel they deserve more respect than they’re getting, and as a result adopt a defensive us-versus-them attitude. If anything, I applaud Judith Curry for highlighting this in the scientific consensus ‘camp’ and calling for more introspection and a critical look at ourselves. Perhaps someone could also step up to the plate at the ‘skeptical’ camp?


(*) CRU’s data handling has not inflated the warming trend, see e.g. here and here. The HadCRU temperature reconstruction agrees with those of other institutes, with those currently undertaken by bloggers (some ’skeptical’; some ‘consensus’), and also with satellite reconstructions.

Alleged errors and wrongdoings have been greatly exaggerated (e.g. RC and MT and this blog on the glacier issue).

As a whole, climate science stands up very well to the various the scientific methods (Oreskes; slides here (from slide nr 30 onwards)).

Partly based on my comment at Kloor’s.

See also William Connolley’s rather critical comments. His main point is that Curry’s allegations (towards individual scientists and the IPCC) are vague and unsubstantiated.

CRU inquiry: Published results still credible; focus on Phil Jones misplaced

April 9, 2010

The UK Parliamentary Committee released its report on the CRU email affair (I’m a bit late to the game, I know…)

Before going to the summary, let me highlight this important point made in the report:

Even if the data that CRU used were not publicly available—which they mostly are—or the methods not published—which they have been—its published results would still be credible: the results from CRU agree with those drawn from other international data sets; in other words, the analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified.

Comparisons with other surface based datasets here; with satellite data sets here; with several bloggers’ reconstructions here.

CRU’s data handling has not inflated the warming trend, see e.g. here and here.

Here’s the summary:

The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in November 2009 had the potential to damage the reputation of the climate science and the scientists involved.

We believe that the focus on CRU and Professor Phil Jones, Director of CRU, in particular, has largely been misplaced. Whilst we are concerned that the disclosed e-mails suggest a blunt refusal to share scientific data and methodologies with others, we can sympathise with Professor Jones, who must have found it frustrating to handle requests for data that he knew—or perceived—were motivated by a desire simply to undermine his work.

In the context of the sharing of data and methodologies, we consider that Professor Jones’s actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. It is not standard practice in climate science to publish the raw data and the computer code in academic papers. However, climate science is a matter of great importance and the quality of the science should be irreproachable. We therefore consider that climate scientists should take steps to make available all the data that support their work (including raw data) and full methodological workings (including the computer codes). Had both been available, many of the problems at UEA could have been avoided. [I think that is a very naïve preposition. BV]

We are content that the phrases such as “trick” or “hiding the decline” were colloquial terms used in private e-mails and the balance of evidence is that they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead. Likewise the evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticized for making informal comments on academic papers.

In the context of Freedom of Information (FOIA), much of the responsibility should lie with UEA. The disclosed e-mails appear to show a culture of non-disclosure at CRU and instances where information may have been deleted, to avoid disclosure. We found prima facie evidence to suggest that the UEA found ways to support the culture at CRU of resisting disclosure of information to climate change sceptics. The failure of UEA to grasp fully the potential damage to CRU and UEA by the non-disclosure of FOIA requests was regrettable. UEA needs to review its policy towards FOIA and re-assess how it can support academics whose expertise in this area is limited.

The Deputy Information Commissioner has given a clear indication that a breach of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 may have occurred but that a prosecution was time-barred; however no investigation has been carried out. In our view it is unsatisfactory to leave the matter unresolved. We conclude that the matter needs to be resolved conclusively—either by the Independent Climate Change Email Review or by the Information Commissioner.

We accept the independence of the Climate Change E-mail Review and recommend that the Review be open and transparent, taking oral evidence and conducting interviews in public wherever possible.

On 22 March UEA announced the Scientific Appraisal Panel to be chaired by Lord Oxburgh. This Panel should determine whether the work of CRU has been soundly built and it would be premature for us to pre-judge its work.

See also James Annan with a good dose of British sarcasm. Also Eli, Stoat. Image Nick Anderson.

Update: Another report investigating the CRU has been released, headed by Lord Oxburg of Liverpool. Its main conclusions are that they saw

no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it.

and they remark that

it is very surprising that research in an area that depends so heavily on statistical methods has not been carried out in close collaboration with professional statisticians.

The last conclusion seems very relevant in light of the recent discussions on this blog.

RealClimate on the IPCC errors and their significance

February 15, 2010

RealClimate has a good post on the recent string of (alleged) errors in the IPCC report. It explains the IPCC proces, the nature and significance of the errors, and highlights the spin put on them by several media outlets.

Excerpt about the reported amount of land in the Netherlands that is below sea level:

Sea level in the Netherlands: The WG2 report states that “The Netherlands is an example of a country highly susceptible to both sea-level rise and river flooding because 55% of its territory is below sea level”. This sentence was provided by a Dutch government agency – the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which has now published a correction stating that the sentence should have read “55 per cent of the Netherlands is at risk of flooding; 26 per cent of the country is below sea level, and 29 per cent is susceptible to river flooding”. It surely will go down as one of the more ironic episodes in its history when the Dutch parliament last Monday derided the IPCC, in a heated debate, for printing information provided by … the Dutch government. In addition, the IPCC notes that there are several definitions of the area below sea level. The Dutch Ministry of Transport uses the figure 60% (below high water level during storms), while others use 30% (below mean sea level). Needless to say, the actual number mentioned in the report has no bearing on any IPCC conclusions and has nothing to do with climate science, and it is questionable whether it should even be counted as an IPCC error.

 And wrapping up the context of this whole manufacured controversy:

Do the above issues suggest “politicized science”, deliberate deceptions or a tendency towards alarmism on the part of IPCC? We do not think there is any factual basis for such allegations. To the contrary, large groups of (inherently cautious) scientists attempting to reach a consensus in a societally important collaborative document is a prescription for reaching generally “conservative” conclusions. And indeed, before the recent media flash broke out, the real discussion amongst experts was about the AR4 having underestimated, not exaggerated, certain aspects of climate change. These include such important topics as sea level rise and sea ice decline (see the sea ice and sea level chapters of the Copenhagen Diagnosis), where the data show that things are changing faster than the IPCC expected.

Tom Fuller’s advice for “warmists”

December 27, 2009

Tom Fuller had a post on how science minded folk (“warmists” he calls them) should talk with “sceptics”. Well meant, but coming from the perspective of the “skeptics” having a lot of useful things to say about the science, which is only rarely the case if you ask me. Below are his main points with my replies:

1. Tom: Without ‘reaching across the aisle’ you will not have adequate support to implement your policy preferences.

Me: Coming from a scientist point of view, my prime concern is to advance the public understanding of the issues, and to fight efforts at increasing misunderstanding. From a policy advocacy position, you’re surely right. Though it’s an illusion that you could possibly get 100% of people to agree with your position. Some people are just dug in too deep.

2. Tom: What most skeptics want more than anything else is a seat at the table–to be listened to and taken seriously.

Me: Play by the scientific rules, and you have a seat. Publish, come to meetings, use real arguments.

Tom’s comeback: Climategate seems to show that the rules can be bent, and that some of those saying skeptics should get published in peer-reviewed journals are conspiring to prevent that from happening.

Me: “Climategate” shows that scientists are human too. I’ll concede that some unfortunate statements were made in a minuscule fraction of these emails. However, concerning peer review, the major problem discussed in the emails was how peer review broke down at Environmental Climate Research, by letting a methodologically flawed paper sail through review. See e.g. a recount of the story by then editor-in-chief Hans von Storch, who is as close to a non-alarmist climate scientist as you can get. See also an opinion piece on the stolen emails by him and Myles Allan in Nature. Specifically, they write: ”Even we —the two authors of this piece — find it impossible to agree whether or not some people went too far to ensure dominance for particular points of view. We do agree, however, that it is absurd to suggest there is some kind of global conspiracy involving all climate scientists.” And “What the e-mails do not prove — or even suggest — is that the main product of the CRU, namely the record of global surface air temperature based on thermometer readings, has been compromised.”  This commentary is also very insightful. The widespread attack on science and on scientists is entirely uncalled for.

3. Tom: It has been convenient for ‘warmists’ to class all opposition as ‘denialists,’ usually adding such terms of endearment as ‘flat-earthers,’ etc. This has had the unfortunate effect (for ‘warmists’) of uniting the opposition.

Me: Although I try to refrain from using that term for pragmatic reasons, it seems befitting for more than a few. ‘Denialism’ relates to using certain tactics, and it exists in other areas as well (e.g. health issues). See also here.

Tom’s Comeback: I think ‘denialist’ is a political term used for political reasons, to class anyone who doesn’t agree with the activist point of view alongside those who denied the Holocaust. I don’t like it.

Me: The phrase “being in denial” is common English AFAIK, and is not only attributable to holocaust deniers. There are more things being denied by people than the holocaust. It is unfortunate that the term “denier” brings up associations with these characters, but it does not mean that the term doesn’t also apply to others.  See e.g here, where they argue that denialism is based on conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic. What other name could be given to those engaging in these types of tactics? It’s clear that it has nothing to do with sincere scepticism. For lack of a better word, and to avoid angering people who are not aware of the ins and outs of the internet debate, I usually refer to them as “sceptics” in quotation marks. Where I agree with you is that it is not smart nor correct to class everybody who disagrees as a denier or denialist. Disagreement comes in many flavours, and not all amount to denialism (though some do, unfortunately).

4. Tom: Acknowledge error. Start with Steve McIntyre.

Bart: Genuine errors should, and are usually acknowledged. It’s a tricky thing to do so with people who are overtly hostile and having smeared you through the mud though. Scientists are human too: Accuse them too often of fraud, and they’ll stop listening to you.

Tom’s Comeback: Bart, is there any way you could justify hiding the divergence of proxy temperatures from real data in a presentation for non-scientists? For politicians debating on whether or not to spend $1 trillion a year of our money in response to what the graphic showed them?

Me: Admittedly I haven’t followed the details of the divergence discussions, but AKAIK, it was discussed in the IPCC report back then. In speaking to the public, the message necessarily has to be adapted, and it often means simplified. If I go to a scientific talk even remotely outside of my field, it’s incredibly hard to follow. Let alone if I were to go to a talk of a totally different discipline. There’s a catch 22 for scientists talking to the public.

More importantly, the decision to spend a trillion dollars doesn’t hinge on one graph. The importance of the hockeystick graph has been overstated to the extreme. Initially also by the IPCC itself, but since then mostly by the “sceptical” camp.

5. Tom: Free the data. Free the code. Open up the debate. From what I’ve seen of the people you think are your bitter enemies, they will respond with help, kindness and forgiveness of your boorish behaviour in the past.

Bart: There are more data and code available than you think. And your second argument that the response will be helpful, kind and forgiving is utterly naïve. It won’t change a single thing in the witch-hunt and anti-scientific attitudes.

Tom’s Comeback: Try us. Specifically, try Steve McIntyre. Ask him for help in his area of competence.

Bart: If McIntyre were sincerely interested in contributing to the science, he would do so. I looked in some detail into his role in the Yamal-debate. I was not impressed. For a more recent example, see eg here. He has made a niche for himself, and it is to provide fodder to “sceptics” and harass scientists. Whatever you say can and will be used against you, seems to be his motto. I completely understand why scientists are loath to try and accommodate him, even if at instances it may be counterproductive, and even if at instances he has a point. Basically, you’re damned it you do and damned if you don’t accommodate.

Constructive criticism is one thing; harassment is quite another. Do too much of the latter, and your efforts at the former will be stonewalled. Misguided? Perhaps. Human? Certainly.

6. Tom: Say a fond but firm farewell to those who have served you poorly in the struggle to gain public support. Al Gore. Joe Romm. (Not Jim Hansen or Gavin Schmidt.) Michael Mann. Phil Jones.

Bart: Scapegoating is not the answer.

Tom’s Comeback: I’m not saying get rid of them because I don’t like them, or even because I think they have acted wrongly. I’m saying get rid of them because they are a hindrance, not a help to your cause.

Bart: There is no board of scientist-directors anywhere who have the power to “get rid of” anyone as they seem fit. Apart from that, I disagree about the people you mention all having been a hindrance to advance public understanding; in some cases quite to the contrary (even if not without faults). There could be some (rather unethical) pragmatism to get rid of people who are receiving the most blame, in an effort to clean our plate, at least in the mindset of the “sceptical” public. But I disagree with such scapegoating.

7. Tom: Abandon the tactic of artificial deadlines and panic attacks. We have more than 10 minutes to save the Galaxy.

Me: There is no strict deadline. OTOH, the longer we wait with taking measures, the more drastically we have to reduce emissions later, which in the end will probably be more difficult and more expensive. Not to mention it increases the chance of crossing dangerous tipping points. So time is of the essence.

Tom’s Comeback: It will be more expensive, but we should be richer, right? As for tipping points, I think this is the core of our disagreement on the future of our climate in the near term. I just don’t see it happening.

Me: “Tipping points” is perhaps too loaded of a term. The world doesn’t end after it is crossed, nor is everything fine when it’s not crossed. Consider for example the increasing melt of both the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets. The dynamics of these melt processes are very uncertain (and potentially worrisome), but it’s very likely that once big changes are set in motion, it’s very difficult to reverse them. Even more so because the CO2 concentration responds only very slowly to emission reduction efforts. So by the time society realizes “whoops, we’re in serious trouble now”, it may be too late to reverse it by ordinary means. Warning signals from the science are ignored at our peril.

The costs of reducing emissions doesn’t rise linearly with the amount of emissions to be reduced. It rises more or less exponentially. That makes your argument that we’ll be richer in the future moot, at least beyond a certain level. There are arguments made that 4% emission reduction per year is more or less the maximum achievable; beyond that the regular way of innovation and change (learning curves etc) doesn’t apply anymore. It would necessitate much stronger and much more costly and invasive measures to go beyond that. Typically the kind of measures that the “sceptics” oppose most strongly.

Those who oppose strong control by the government, should really favor emission reductions to start sooner rather than later, to reduce the pain that the measures would otherwise cause. That point is easily overseen.

The last point, and in addition the fact that more uncertainty should make one more, not less careful, are the key concepts that “sceptics” are missing the mark on, I think.

8. Tom: Accentuate the positive. Almost all of the measures you advocate to help bring about a greener world are justified without a trace of global warming. Emphasize the common-sense approach

Me: True, but it risks painting a rosier picture than it really is. If solar energy is expensive, people won’t do it just because it’s cool or because it creates jobs. They may because it gives an innovation advantage down the road (but that already implies the reality of AGW).

Tom’s Comeback: I have no comeback. I will actually have to think about this for a while…

9. Tom: Don’t ever again be trapped into untruths by a desire to shorten the story line.

Bart: I don’t’ understand the “again” in this context. Which untruths? If anything, scientists are way too long winded and fond of weasel words as it is. (Guilty as charged…)

Tom’s Comeback: True, but they stayed out of trouble (and the limelight) most of the time before.

10. Tom: Be the first to bring this debate out of the morass of partisan politics. This isn’t a left vs right debate.

Me: Entirely correct. CO2 absorption isn’t influenced by political leanings. This is mostly a message though for those who let their political views blur their judgment of the science.

A mirror story, advice for “skeptics” is here.

Sceptici: Houd op met het verdraaien en misbruiken van de wetenschap

December 14, 2009

In de Volkskrant van zaterdag 12 december stond een heel goed artikel van Martijn van Calmthout, chef wetenschap, te lezen hier. De beste passages heb ik hieronder samengevat.

“De meeste klimaatsceptici reageren steevast verontwaardigd op suggesties dat ze in feite politiek gemotiveerd zijn. Ze hangen liever de wetenschapper uit. Het wordt tijd dat ze daarmee ophouden, en dat eindelijk wordt erkend dat het klimaatdossier vooral een politiek dossier is.“

PVV-er Richard de Mos ging tekeer tegen de wetenschap bij Pauw en Witteman, en probeerde het doen voorkomen alsof de gestolen emails de hele wetenschappelijke bewijsvoering op losse schroeven zette. Net als de meeste andere “sceptici” probeert hij het ook doen voorkomen alsof hij op wetenschappelijke gronden argumenteert. Maar daar is zijn optreden wat al te doorzichtig voor.

“Voor de beter geïnformeerde televisiekijker waren zijn interventies vooral een bloemlezing uit het rijke en overbekende oeuvre van de klimaatsceptici. Het wordt niet warmer, er is wel meer CO2, dus kan dat de oorzaak van klimaatverandering niet zijn. De zeespiegel stijgt niet. Al Gore is een leugenaar die in zijn film beweert dat heel Nederland onderloopt. De grafiek van het vroegere klimaat is een vervalsing. En van zure regen hebben we uiteindelijk ook nooit meer iets vernomen. En dat wist de wetenschap ook zo zeker. Nou dan.”

Het wordt wel warmer: De jaren 2000 – 2009 zijn warmer dan de het decennium ervoor, en dat was weer warmer dan de 10 jaar daarvoor.
De zeespiegel stijgt (en sneller dan de modellen hadden voorspeld)
– Al Gore moet blijkbaar altijd even worden genoemd. De pot verwijt de ketel.
Van vervalsing is geen sprake
– Het zure regen probleem hebben we grotendeels opgelost door goed naar de wetenschap te luisteren en maatregelen te nemen.

“De enige serieuze interventie die de redactie van het programma via het oortje van Jeroen Pauw tussen het gekijf door wist te wringen, was wel een goeie: wat, meneer De Mos, zou het belang van de klimaatalarmisten kunnen zijn om iedereen de stuipen op het lijf te jagen, desnoods door glashard te liegen?”

Goeie vraag. Het antwoord van de Mos:

Eenvoudig, zei de PVV’er na enkele valse starts. Er is een paar jaar geleden afgesproken dat het warmer moet worden om gewone belastingbetalers in de tang te nemen. Onder aanvoering, uiteraard, van Samsons eigen PvdA. Dat was gek genoeg een bevrijdend moment in de historie van het Nederlandse klimaatdebat. Jarenlang al hebben klimaatsceptici ook hier van zich doen horen, (…) maar daar was het wapen niet de ideologie. Daar was het wapen de wetenschap. Of het moest er op lijken. (…)

De enige momenten dat het klimaatdebat echt politiek werd, was als het ging over de motieven van de klimaatsceptici. (…) Zeker in de begintijd waren de steenkoolindustrie en oliemaatschappij Exxon Mobile belangrijke financiers van tegengeluid tegen de wetenschap die almaar alarm sloeg over klimaat en de uitstoot van CO2.

Daarbij, toonde Amerikaanse onderzoeksjournalist Chris Mooney in zijn boek The Republican War on Science aan, werden tactieken ingezet die decennia eerder door de tabaksindustrie waren gebruikt om wetgeving tegen (mee)roken te frustreren. ‘Twijfel is ons product’, aldus een memo van een betrokken pr-bureau, dat adviseerde deskundigen met afwijkende opvattingen te helpen met het krijgen van publiciteit.

De Nederlandse klimaatsceptici spelen sinds jaar en dag de kaart van de wankele klimaatwetenschap. (…) In de media doet het idee van tegenstand tegen de arrogante wetenschap het goed. Iemand als Labohm klaagt weliswaar stelselmatig dat de kranten en media hem doodzwijgen. Maar in de praktijk hebben hij en zijn medestanders weinig te klagen. Sterker: ze krijgen geregeld de ruimte om tegenwerpingen te publiceren die in eerdere wetenschappelijke discussies al hoog en breed zijn weerlegd. Zo secuur volgen veel media de klimaatwetenschap namelijk ook niet.

De meeste krantenlezers en televisiekijkers maken uit hun optredens tenminste op dat er ook binnen de wetenschap andere opvattingen bestaan over het broeikasverhaal. In die zin is de strategie van de klimaatsceptici bijna geslaagd te noemen. Op zich hebben sceptische interventies zelden tot iets wezenlijks in de klimaatwetenschap geleid.

Maar de route via de wetenschap is een slimme. Die ondermijnt het vertrouwen in de gevestigde inzichten, en komt ook nog eens objectiever over dan zuiver ideologische bezwaren tegen klimaatmaatregelen die geld kosten of individuele vrijheden aantasten. (…)

Op zich is de wetenschap ervan simpel: meer CO2 warmt de aarde op. Het gaat erom of daar wat aan te doen valt, hoe dan en wie er betaalt voor wat er gebeuren moet. Dat is politiek. Daar botsen ideologieën. Daar gaat het om keuzes over solidariteit, over technologie en landsinrichting, kosten.

Het is wel zo helder als populisten als PVV’er De Mos zich nu openlijk in het klimaatdebat manifesteren: tegen de bemoeizucht van de klimaatmaffia, niet meer of minder. Minister Cramer zei donderdag in de Tweede Kamer dat de politiek zich geen oordeel over de wetenschap moet aanmeten. Dat kan nog sterker: laat de quasiwetenschappelijke klimaatsceptici eindelijk eens gewoon zeggen waar ze politiek staan.

Dat scheelt een hoop tijd, gehannes en verwarring.

Naschrift: Er klopt iets niet aan het plaatje dat twee politici over een wetenschappelijk onderwerp debatteren. Ligt het nou aan mij, of zou het niet logischer zijn dat de politici de uitgekrisalliseerde wetenschappelijk kennis aannemen, en op basis daarvan debatteren over de vraag wat er dan gedaan moet worden? De wetenschappers bedrijven wetenschap; de politici bedrijven politiek. Over politiek kan iedereen een mening hebben; over wetenschap is dat veel minder het geval. Daar draait het om feiten en verklaringen.

Science /-tists under attack

November 26, 2009

(Nederlandse versie hier)

What do you do if you don’t agree with the science (or with the perceived political implications thereof), but don’t have any real evidence to back up your position?

You could try breaking in the computer system of a renowned institute, to then release the stolen emails and documents via internet. If your catch is big enough, there will surely be something that could be spun to embarrass the scientists in question (and, by extension, discredit the whole field). Especially emails written before they had their morning coffee serve that purpose really well.

That must be the line of thinking of the hackers who broke into the web server of the Climate Research Unit (CRU in England), and released an enormous amount of emails of the past 13 years.

This (illegal) activity led to quite a “blog-storm” on the internet, with partly predictable reactions, as if suddenly all evidence for the human impact on climate change has been swept away. It is indicative of the speed with which so-called “skeptics” come to their conclusion. As if the conclusion was already in the drawer, waiting to be opened. Perfect timing, just before the Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Even the most eye catching emails, as discussed on several blogs, are relatively innocent if put in the proper context. Some do show a peek in the kitchen of how the scientists in question communicated with each other (not much different from other people, actually) and here and there is some dirty laundry. That scientists do not think highly of so-called “skeptics” comes as no surprise. Many emails are (logically) multi-interpretable: As Ben Hale noted, through ideological glasses it may look like there’s a lot of shady business going on, but –as an example- the same email could also be seen as a more direct way of saying the same as what was later described in a scientific paper. Some climate scientists have also reacted and provide come highly needed context (e.g. Gavin Schmidt at RC).

It is clear that in many discussions about this a mountain is made out of a molehill. No conspiracy of anthropogenic global warming being a complete hoax, or anything of that kind, has been uncovered. The scientific basis for our current understanding of climate change is as solid as it was before, in spite of all the screaming to the contrary.

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