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).
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.