I’ve been distracted over the last few months with all these attacks on climate science. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. I know enough about climate science to be skeptical of absolutely everything written on the topic in the mainstream media. And yet I still feel compelled to read about each new revelation trumpeted in the press, and I feel compelled to do the necessary digging to find out what’s really going on. Well, I’m done with it. I’ve seen enough. I’m finally looking away. And I’m taking away some lessons about human behaviour, and most of it isn’t pretty. Many of the people attacking the scientists are truly nasty people.

Take climategate, for example (please!). It really was a non-event – a series of trumped up claims with no substance. We already knew the contrarians talk nonsense. At worse, some requests for access to data were mishandled. By scientists who were being hounded by an army of attack drones. What did those FOI requests look like? Well mostly they looked the same, because when Steve McIntyre was told that some of the metereological data was not available to non-academics because of commercial licencing agreements, he threw a hissy fit and told the lunatics that follow his blog to fire off FOI requests at the CRU. Sixty FOI requests in one weekend! Which makes them all vexatious, and probably counts as harrassment. Which is bad enough, but some of McIntyre’s followers did worse, and started firing off death threats. Death threats?!? Sometimes Often I think I’m on the wrong planet.

Or take the hockey stick controversy. Michael Mann was smeared again as a result of the CRU emails, but on investigation his name was cleared. The previous attempts to smear him, through the Wegman Investigation, turns out to be nothing but a political attack, put together by staffers in Senator Inhofe’s office. While any errors in Mann’s initial attempts at dendrochronology reconstructions have been long since been corrected, and and the results confirmed by other studies (that’s how science works, remember?), a group of obsessive denialists just won’t let the issue drop.

David Brin calls it a war on expertise. A bunch untrained armchair climatologists think they know more about the field than geoscientists who have been studying it as a fulltime career for decades. Or, more precisely, they think they can do a little poking and find errors, and that those errors will invalidate the science. Because they really really want the science to be wrong. Actually, I really really want the science to be wrong too, but I’m not so stupid as to think I can poke holes in it without first becoming an expert. If the science is wrong, you’ll read about it first in the peer-reviewed literature.


  1. Pingback: There’s now an app for that, too | Serendipity

  2. Hi Steve,

    My sympathies over being distracted — and perhaps feeling a bit flummoxed — over this “war on expertise” as one of my favorite SF authors puts it.

    I may know how you feel. Possibly because being flummoxed is such a natural state for me.


  3. Hi Steve

    Nice post, seems to reflect my frustration at the CRU critics quite well. I’ve written a post about the Glaciergate episode and how it was blown out of all proportion. Might be of interest to your readers.


  4. From the linked ‘war on expertise’ article:

    That is because science itself is the main issue: its relevance and utility as a decision-making tool.

    I think this is the unfortunate mistake, Pielke Jr (whether you like him or not, this is actually his area of expertise) talks a lot about how both sides of the debate want to make science into the battle ground, rather than taking what insight science may give and then having a normal political discussion. Both sides take as an assumption that science demands a certain course of action, and then fight about what science demands. I happen to think that underlying assumption is logically incoherent and philosophically bankrupt. You may think that science is normative, ok, but allow me my different source of ethics (I like Kant’s theory of duty myself). Here’s a different take on the ‘war’ describing it as an extended peer community (that’s too dignified a term to apply to people making death threats and regurgitating talking points, I’ll grant), with all of the problems and difficulties that you’ve identified here. There’s also great opportunity though.

    It’s unfortunate that we have to sometimes listen to buffoons who wouldn’t know a PDE from a GRE, but we have the technology to overcome that! Filtering and moderation seem to work pretty well. My personal filter is equations and graphs, those are like moron repellent. If I look at the front page of my site and I can’t find an equation or a figure showing some numerical results, then I know I’m in danger of going too far towards the ‘stinky’ end of things and the ‘flys’ will start circling.

    In all the blogosphere, I’ve only found one skeptic (maybe he’s actually a denier, I’m not sure about all the labels yet, maybe I’m not a skeptic, maybe I’m a lukewarmer, who knows?) who actually has the combination of motivation and competence to download temperature/ice data, grid it, and run his own analysis/generate his own visualizations in R. Making the data available shuts most of the idiots up, because they don’t know what to do with it. I’m optimistic about Open Science, I think your concerns about DDoS attacks can be overcome.

    I don’t know about what the motivations for Wegman’s report were (since congress was involved nothing you could say would surprise me), but I have actually read it (rather than articles / derivative works about it). One of the interesting findings from a software perspective has to do with the roll-your own / use a library dilemma. There’s a pretty significant pressure for a scientist who wants to do cutting edge work that’s publishable to be biased towards rolling-your own (in this case principle component analysis) tool. Often the tools that are already written aren’t quite right for your special case, or they aren’t optimal (because they were written to be general), so they take too long on your big problem. Once you transition away from cutting edge research, towards state-of-the-practice type stuff (decision support), the natural pressure goes the other way towards using a pre-written library, because that tends to result in cleaner code, and you’ve outsourced the testing and development effort for that part of the calculation to someone else. You should read the report, his findings were reasonable, but they did get blown all out of proportion. Kind of like the difference between statistically significant and practically significant.

    I think this goes back towards that division of labor issue. In most fields that use these sorts of tools to support decision making, it is generally not academics running the codes and writing up the tech reports describing the analysis that supports decision recommendations. The level of detail / due diligence required for a report like that and the level of detail for a journal article are very different, and the purposes of the two are very different too. I think that’s one reason why using a big literature review as a decision support tool is probably not the best approach.

    (sorry if this adds to the distractions, our only hope is that something useful might get accomplished as a side effect)

  5. Josh – not a distraction: most of what you mention is directly relevant to my own research work. One quibble, about Pielke Jr (who occasionally talks great sense, but then blows it with a lot of intellectual dishonesty). “Both sides take as an assumption that science demands a certain course of action”. This is true only of the activist community (e.g. NGOs and thinktanks), but not of the science community itself. If you go to AGU & EGU meetings, it’s quite clear that there is no “both sides”, and the idea that this is a small insular community who have failed to critique their work is quite simply ludicrous. It’s is a huge diverse scientific community from a multitude of disciplines, with a healthy critical attitude, and a huge pile of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that all points very strongly in one particular direction. They don’t assume action is demanded; they spend their time assessing these sources of evidence, realise that the evidence is overwhelming, and then are completely baffled as to why society isn’t acting on this evidence. People like Ravetz (in the post you link to) are simply talking out their arses – they quite obviously haven’t spent any time at geosciences conferences, observing what this science is and how it is done (which is a real shame, because I have a great respect for those social scientists who do actually go and study this stuff).

  6. This is true only of the activist community (e.g. NGOs and thinktanks), but not of the science community itself.

    You are right, and in fact, contrary to what Brin claims there is really no serious debate over the utility of science to provide support for better decisions. The anti-intellectual noises from useful idiots in the blogosphere just happen to be politically convenient.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into Wegman’s report because I once got some advice (and a bit of a lecture) from a very smart statistician that was very similar to what he recommended, and I’ve since benefited quite a lot from it.

  7. The “Himalayan glaciers gone by 2035” business was a blunder, indicating some pretty dysfunctional authorship or editorship for that chapter of the WGII report. The rest of it? Nothing there.

    [You’ll enjoy my next post then. – Steve]

  8. To quote Stephen Colbert talking to Dubya:

    “Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.”

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