Posts Tagged ‘dogma’

Science, dissent, polarization and ideology

November 9, 2010

Judith Curry has followed up her post about a positive feedback between politics and science, with which I strongly disagreed, with a number of other posts trying to explain where she’s coming from.  The latest, “no ideologues, part III”, makes a lot more sense than her previous “dogma” posts, and sounds a lot less adversarial. This post is based on my comments over at her blog (here and here).

Her thesis is that climate scientists, the UNFCCC and the IPCC seem to adhere to a certain political ideology. In the case of the IPCC that seems a bit of an absurd notion, but in the case of individuals it seems almost self evident that everybody has some sort of political ideology. She writes:

It is fine for people (and scientists) have political ideologies.  The problem comes in when you use politics to defend your science, and you use science to demand policies. This whole thing seems to me to boil down to the traditional clash of values between the greens and the libertarians.

So does this make more sense?  I think a fairly large number of scientists will sign up to believing this ideology, but few will want to be regarded as ideologues.  Are we getting closer her to clarifying this?  I think so (hope so).

I am wondering to what extent her critique would be better described as the overly defensive attitude and ‘circling of the wagons’ strategy of many mainstream scientists and perhaps the community as a whole. She has described it as such before, and to a certain degree I agree.

She gives Michael Mann (who else?) as an example of voicing a political ideology that exemplifies that of the wider community/UNFCCC/IPCC. The headings she provides above citations from Mann give a certain twist to his words though, and provide more fodder to the label ‘political ideology’. Which may give the appearance of wanting to put his words in a certain light. (perhaps for ideological reasons? – just kidding)

E.g. In #2 on the list Mann talks about what can still be done, whereas in her heading Judith characterizes it as what needs to be done.  #5 has a large disconnect between her heading (action is needed) and Mann’s retelling of historical environmental threats.

She is right though that overall, Mann’s words as quoted are not purely in the realm of science, but nor are they intended to I think. It would be helpful if scientists are more clear as to when they’re talking about science and when they’re talking about something else (their personal opinion about the public debate, politics, ethics, etc). Hansen and the late Schneider are good examples of that IMO. Some may respond that those differences are very obvious already: Why spell them out. Which has (more than) a nucleus of truth as well of course.

I wrote about distinguishing these kinds of issues in a conversation I had with Tom Fuller a while ago, about what the next generation questions regarding climate change are:

Let’s distinguish the following main issues:

– To what extent is climate change occurring, and to what extent is it man-made?

– To what extent is that (going to be) a problem?

– What can or should we do about it?

The first questions are strictly scientific; the middle has a judgment value to it (besides being also based on the forever tentative answer to the first question), and the latter is primarily a political/moral judgement (and has more to do with technology and policymaking than with climate science).

We have made much more progress in addressing the first question than in addressing the last one. The limiting factor in addressing the issues relating to climate change is IMO not a lack of knowledge about the exact nature of the changes; rather, it is the unwillingness of society to deal with (the consequences of) this knowledge. Even if, within realistic boundaries of the uncertainty, climate change is less bad than currently expected, we need to dramatically step up our policy response.

Needless to say, that last sentence is a value laden statement, based on my understanding of the science combined with my value system, risk perception and risk aversion. Or perhaps that is not needless to say? (that’s not a rhetorical question btw).

Judith responded by saying that what she has a problem with is when people or institutions use their ideology “to stifle dissent and scientific debate”. Well, who wouldn’t have a problem with that?

That’s the broad brush again. The dissent from the mainstream scientific view takes a lot of different forms. E.g. there are the arguments such as voiced by Bob that AGW is bunk because of the hockeystick and surface temperature issues (my paraphrasing). I hope you’ll excuse me for not taking such criticism all that serious, where a minor detail is blown up as if it falsifies a whole theory, not unlike claiming that gravity doesn’t exist because that bird in the sky disproves it (argumentum ad absurdum; I’m aware that gravity is a better established (though also still not 100% known) topic than climate change).

These kinds of arguments are very common, whereby the conclusion (AGW is wrong) is miles and miles apart from the reasoning that supposedly led the writer to that conclusion. Which leads me to think that maybe, just maybe, they may have been really arguing in the other direction: from their desired conclusion to an narrative that fits with it. Because in the direction as the argument is stated, it doesn’t make sense.

Am I stifling scientific dissent by saying this? I would hope you agree with me that I’m not. I’m arguing against a (to me) nonsensical critique of the science, which IMO isn’t actually a scientific critique at all (though it’s dressed up to look like it). I.e. I’m not stifling anything and the dissent I’m primarily arguing against is hardly scientific (or charitably only partly scientific).

What most mainstream scientists get so worked up about are these nonsensical critiques on the science and the amount of traction they seem to have gotten.

If you have examples of where *scientific* dissent and debate is being *stifled* (no emails please), I’d like to hear about it.

As I stated before, I agree that in this highly polarized environment scientists have sometimes gotten too defensive in their reaction to the various critiques, because of course, some of the criticism does make sense, and even if the conclusion doesn’t, perhaps the premise purportedlyleading up to the conclusion contains some grains of truth. It doesn’t hurt acknowledging that.

Postscript: Simon Donner has an excellent post on the role of the blogosphere in these kinds of climate discussions and how it relates it to the themes of introspection, de-polarization and letting down our defenses. This is the road towards bridge building.

Aikido: The way of harmony. That’s me doing the throwing (in full harmony of course).

Update:

Michael Tobis has a related post, citing an interesting lecture by Mike Mann:

“We have to make it clear that the ice sheets are not Republicans or Democrats – they don’t have a political agenda as they disappear,” said Michael Mann. MT asks: “why the politicization of the non-political parts of the question?” That would be a good question for Judith Curry to ponder.

Chris Colose, who also chimed in over at Curry’s blog, has a post on her ‘dogma’ and ‘ideology’ framing. He finishes by saying:

Finally, we’re going to be endlessly stuck at a cross-roads if discussion is stifled, (…) but a glance into the refereed literature clearly shows this is not the case. (…) We’re also going to be stuck at a cross-road if you perceive the progression toward unanimous [I would have said “broad”] agreement by the informed as a sign of dogma as opposed to robustness of the conclusion. [link added by me]

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Judith Curry goes from building bridges to burning them

November 5, 2010

In her recent post, Judith Curry takes issue with the politicization of science. But rather than making a well reasoned argument backed up by evidence, her post comes across as a strong but largely unfounded allegation of widespread bias and dogmatism.

What to think of a passage like this:

Once the UNFCCC treaty was a done deal, the IPCC and its scientific conclusions were set on a track to become a self fulfilling prophecy. The entire framing of the IPCC was designed around identifying sufficient evidence so that the human-induced greenhouse warming could be declared unequivocal, and so providing the rationale for developing the political will to implement and enforce carbon stabilization targets.

This sounds like an accusation that the IPCC conclusions were predetermined before it even started assessing the science. That is a far reaching and very bold claim. All that Curry presents in favour of this claim is her narrative of a trio between UNFCCC, enviro advocay groups and scientists. The actual history and mandate of the IPCC however look quite different to me. Btw, that doesn’t mean that no valid criticism could be leveled against the IPCC, see e.g. Eric Steig’s comment at Judith’s or James Annan‘s frequent critiques.

And then:

When I refer to the IPCC dogma, it is the religious importance that the IPCC holds for this cadre of scientists; they will tolerate no dissent, and seek to trample and discredit anyone who challenges the IPCC.  Who are these priests of the IPCC?

Excuse me? Is this a respected scientist talking? Someone who is trying to build bridges between scientists and their critics? By calling respected scientists “high priests of the IPCC”?

This kind of accusatory framing, based on mere innuendo and speculation, is the main reason that she gets a lot of flack from other scientists. It increases, rather than decreases, the polarization, and it starts to overshadow those issues where she does (or at least did) make valid points.

I was actually quite sympathetic to Curry’s attempts at building bridges, and see a lot of truth in her criticism of circling the wagons. Keith Kloor, in an interesting post contrasting Judith’s post with Gavin’s at RC, aluded to an over-defensive reaction to criticism which is occurring both amongst those who portray themselves as heretics (such as Judith Curry) but also amongst mainstream scientists (quite understandably so, but probably counterproductive).

Her unfounded allegations are insulting for the whole profession. It increases the polarisation and doesn’t add to the building of bridges (perhaps a one-way bridge). And I’m saying this as someone who, on the “pro-AGW” bloggers side, was probably one of the most receptive to her ideas. I am sincere and anti-dogmatic and I take great issue with her painting a whole scientific field, at the edge of which I work myself, as quasi religious dogma.

Update:

Eduardo Zorita – not a big fan of the IPCC – agrees that “Curry’s reflections are too broad-brushed” and add to the polarization.

Some more stunning things from Curry, e.g. when she wrote

The media also bought into this [blind support of the IPCC against its critics], by eliminating balance in favor of the IPCC dogma.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The media has actually suffered from the opposite, creating an image of false balance by giving minority viewpoints equal footing with the mainstream evidence based outlook.

She also aludes to there being no sign of a climate change problem in 1992 when she wrote about that time period:

Wait a minute, what climate change problem?

whereas she is quite aware of e.g. the National Academy of Science writing in 1979

A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use.

Update 2:

Coby Beck has a detailed critique of Curry’s “positive feedback loop” post.

Judith Curry has had quite a few follow up posts in the meantime, trying to explain where she’s coming from. The posts on “dogma” were not very helpful, but her recent post on “ideology” makes more sense. My reply to that post is here (I may try to make it into a post some day).

Update 3:

Judith,

For it to be a bridge to some outside world, the bridge should remain grounded at the original place as well.

Your strong and broadbrush accusations towards your professional peers, and the lack of criticism towards empty talking points and conspiratorial thinking
make you lose that grounding imho. You’re pushing herself away it seems. It’s your choice of course, but I can’t square it with your stated objective.

I think the core of your argument as I see it (the need for scientists to be less defensive, less circling of the wagons, more introspection, more communication and collaboration with “outsiders”, taking criticism seriously, etc) is important and valid. But the way you go about airing it, with broadbrush accusations towards mainstream science/ists (RC en the IPCC process are squarely in the mainstream), give the impression of a one way bridge, where as you walk along you burn the bridge behind you.

See as an example how different (e.g. constructive rather than destructive) John Nielsen-Gammon voices his criticism. Granted, your criticisms may be stronger, but the way they come across, I tend to think that an increasing number of climate related scientists will be put off by it, at the same time as an increasing number of true skeptics, pseudo-skeptics and conspiracy theorists will cheer you on.

In effect, your accusatory framing comes across as very tribalist.


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