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Archive for March, 2010

Disunity yet again plus impolite scientists

March 30, 2010 6 comments

A couple quick points.  First, check out Joe Romm’s post on this recent Times article.  Apparently most meteorologists neither have training in climate science nor have Ph.D’s.  Romm obviously dismisses them as a source of authority.  While I more or less agree with him, I’m also somewhat more sympathetic to the meteorologists.  It’s not too unreasonable to think that expertise in weather forecasting makes you at least a little qualified to speak of its long-term trends.  We’ve returned to Paul Newall’s problem with modern science: it has become so specialized that almost no one can comment on anything.

On an somewhat different note, check out blogger Steve Easterbrook’s great post on rude academic scientists and peer review.  I’ll definitely have more to say later, but let’s highlight this for now:  “And scientists don’t really know how to engage with these strange outsiders. Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives; they don’t call it the ivory tower for nothing.”

Part of the problem is that scientists, and academics more generally, like it this way.  They (we?) don’t really want to worry about mundane, everyday concerns.  Harvard professor Louis Menand touched on this in his article on the professionalization of the academy.  Interestingly, this desire for isolation exists side-by-side with our self-proclaimed desire to be “the foundation of decision-making.”

This attitude especially leads me to say that Easterbrook is only partially correct when he writes “The scientific community doesn’t have the resources to defend itself [w.r.t. the C.R.U. scandal], and quite frankly it shouldn’t have to.”  While the opposition to climate change has been particularly rabid, in many cases I think we deserve some of the blame.  We can’t simultaneously say we’re the most important component of policy and then be surprised when people attack what we say.  That’s kind of like complaining when the opposing team plays defense.  It’s their job to do so, just as it’s the job of anti-regulatory zealots to distort the science.

On a final note, please take note of the elegant simplicity of Easterbrook’s blog.  Remind you of anything?  I guess great minds think alike!

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The many dimensions of doubt

March 29, 2010 1 comment

I’ll respond yet again to Paul Newall at the Galilean Library.  Paul asks:  “What, then, is the difference between someone who seizes on doubts to develop a new theory and someone who is merely a contrarian or else actively opposes a theory because of its perceived consequences?”

If by “perceived consequences” we mean the standard solutions offered for climate change (cap-and-trade, carbon tax, efficiency standards, etc.), then we’ve made an implicit and somewhat problematic assumption here.  We’ve assumed, as does everyone else in this debate, that everything hinges on the presence or absence of scientific doubt.  On one hand, environmentalists insist that cap-and-trade inevitably follows from sound science.  Denialists argue that doubtful science undermines any possible action.  It’s important to note that both sides make essentially identical arguments by placing science at the center of the decision-making.  They simply conceptualize the science differently.

What’s missing is the idea that climate change manifests different types and degrees of doubt that aren’t necessarily coupled.  There’s very little doubt over the basic concept of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), somewhat more doubt over the climate sensitivity, and a high degree of doubt about economic projections and the rate of technological innovation.  These questions accompany another layer of doubt about the appropriate policy response.  There’s significant doubt about the effectiveness of cap-and-trade and carbon tax, doubt about the use of offsets, and even doubt whether we should respond at all.

As Dan Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr have argued repeatedly, eliminating doubt in the first set of issues doesn’t help us move forward on the second.  Improved global climate models will not automatically bring us intelligent climate policy.  Some would even say that focusing on them distracts from us from more important problem.

I know I haven’t at all responded to Paul’s question.  But perhaps his question would never be asked if we confronted and decoupled the many dimensions of doubt that climate change presents us.  It should be possible to reject any action on climate change even if you agree with the IPCC.  As I’ve just said, wait-and-see may be a perfectly rational response.  While this approach will surely not end debate, at the very least it might undermine the need to emphasize and distort scientific doubt.

Categories: Climate Change, Policy

The IPCC does work

March 26, 2010 2 comments

Let’s continue with Paul Newall’s great post at the Galilean Library.  Paul writes that “if science has become so deeply specialised that even scientists in the same discipline can barely speak to one another…interdisciplinary projects like the IPCC could never work.”

I’ll politely push-back on this argument.  As I described previously, I believe we’re already at the point where even scientists in the same discipline can barely speak to one another.  I bet that the physicists, climatologists, ecologists, and hurricane experts in the IPCC really do not understand one anothers’ disciplines.  I suspect that in the end they largely rely on trust.  But despite this specialization, it’s important to note that the interdisciplinary IPCC does in fact work!  Pretty much all IPCC scientists agree with the basic idea of anthropogenic climate change.  Lindzen and Christy might disagree with magnitude of the effect, but I don’t think they dispute the main thesis.  Naomi Oreskes’s study showed 100% agreement in the peer-reviewed literature.

Earlier on in the post Paul writes:

I would say that all talk of a consensus is an example of this rhetorical pushing; another example is demanding that only suitably-qualified scientists can speak credibly about ACC, which immediately runs into the “Lindzen problem” and leaves us counting numbers, which is – or should be – obviously a ridiculous way to conduct scientific debate.

I agree that counting numbers is a ridiculous way to conduct a scientific debate.  But this issue has never been entirely about science.  ACC has always intersected with deeply political and contested beliefs.  And for these aspects of the debate, I believe that counting numbers can be reasonable as long as we count the right numbers.

It should matter that the overwhelming majority of IPCC scientists support ACC.  It should also matter that most of these 9,000 odd Ph.D’s really shouldn’t have any credibility on ACC.  The IPCC is not on equal footing with arbitrary lists of PhDs and shouldn’t be treated that way.  In the end it is important to identify “suitably qualified scientists.”

Categories: Climate Change, Philosophy

Do scientists unintentially screw over black people (part II)?

March 26, 2010 2 comments

On Wednesday I went to a panel on science education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  It was a fascinating exchange.  To highlight just one point, Andrew Rotherham discussed how the recent focus on competition from China and India echoes previous concerns with the Soviets and Japanese.  Then as now, a narrow focus on science education risks misdiagnosing the problem and supporting false solutions.

We currently use an incentives-based approach to an alleged shortage of scientists.  That is, we offer scholarships and forgive student loans to entice people into technical careers.  Rotherham argues that such policies simply reward people for choices they would have made anyway.  We end up fiddling at the margins rather than confronting the real issue.  The main problem isn’t a lack of incentives for a few rich white kids.  It’s that most poor and minority kids are so woefully unprepared to make the choice.  No amount of incentives will help them pass multivariate calculus if they can’t do basic algebra.   To quote an article Rotherham co-wrote a few years ago:

Unless we believe that a substantial number of such students are failing to choose science careers for want of proper inducements, many of the scarce resources devoted to new scholarship programs may well reward people of means for choices they would have made anyway. In fact, the richest untapped source of future talent will likely be found in our underserved cities and among low-income and minority students who are failing to receive a good education in our public schools. A college scholarship is worthless unless you graduate from high school, but only about half of America’s minority students even finish high school on time.

Likewise, few students can handle college-level science without first completing a high-quality secondary math and science curriculum, but many disadvantaged students attend high schools that don’t even offer those classes or where the courses are often taught by teachers who do not know the material themselves. Consequently, minority students who do reach 12th-grade lag behind their white peers by four grade levels, on average, on national tests of reading and math.

As a result, the best long-run strategy for boosting America’s global economic standing isn’t giving more students a reason to choose careers in science. It’s giving more students the ability to choose careers in science. Without expanding the pool of well-prepared students who can take advantage of them, no amount of scholarships will make a difference.

All of this has got me wondering.  Science organizations themselves are the ones often pushing these incentive-based policies.  We also do nothing to temper the sky-is-falling-rhetoric about the threats from India and China even though the facts aren’t straightforward and more nuance is needed.

Given that poor minorities most benefit from education reform and are most hurt from misplaced attention, are we unintentionally screwing over poor black people by focusing on incentive-based policies?  It’s a distinct possibility that our rhetoric distracts from a broader education reform agenda.  As I’ve argued before, it may be that the public voice of science negatively impacts race in America.

I know I’m being a bit provocative here.  In this case I’m not really convinced our actions really have that much of an impact (although I’m more convinced in this one).   Education reform is and will be a major national issue, and one that scientists usually support.  Scientists clamoring for more scholarships will not change the situation and most of us are happy about that.  That said, I do think we should be more hesitant about promoting the need for more scientists and these incentives-based policies.  I’d need several to articulate all the reasons we should be more circumspect.  But even the slightest chance that we divert resources from the poorest Americans should make us pause and think.

Who can comment on global warming?

March 25, 2010 4 comments

Paul Newall of the Galilean Library has a great comment on doubt and disunity in science.  He raises a particularly interesting point on expertise:

If everyone has to possess specialist knowledge in order to be permitted to comment on a scientific theory, and if science has become so deeply specialised that even scientists in the same discipline can barely speak to one another, then perhaps no one can really comment on anything? In particular, interdisciplinary projects like the IPCC could never work…I will come back to this but the question remains: is this the kind of science – and political discussion of science – we really want?

Hyperspecialization may not be a good thing and may in fact corrode public discourse.  That topic is several blog posts in and of itself (check out this Facebook thread for diverse perspectives.)  But right now it is an incontrovertible fact that we must account for.  Consider recent PhD theses from my  former research group.   I can assure you that people involved in hardware design aren’t familiar with the details of space plasmas and vice versa.  Whether or not we ultimately want this environment, it does exist already.  So if “comment” means speaking authoritatively, I think we’ve already reached the point where “no one can really comment on anything.”

Given this state of affairs, I subscribe to a rather extreme epistemic modesty.  I believe that only the IPCC should be trusted with regards to anthropogenic climate change (ACC).  As  I’ve argued before, this approach sharply contrasts with the current situation.  We all use the words “science” and “scientists” as if they’re coherent concepts.  But I don’t think it is.  A single word cannot describe an enterprise that involves hundreds of billions of dollars and several million people in the U.S. alone.  It’s similar to talking about athletes without recognizing the immense differences among swimmers, runners, and football players.

Applied epistemology

March 21, 2010 2 comments

My recent philosophical musings along with Ben Hale’s suggestion that climate change conflicts can partially be explained in terms of philosophy has got me wondering. What, exactly, are the relevant philosophical ideas that scientists should know? I’m clearly biased, but I think disunity is a pretty key idea. I don’t completely understand why we speak of science as if it’s one thing that follows a single set of rules. Methodological diversity is rarely if ever discussed.

The difficulty (if not impossibility) of demarcating science from non-science and the limits of falsification also deserve more attention. I’ve engaged in and witnessed enough debates over the definition of science to realize how uninformed most of us (myself included) are on these matters. Check out the comment thread on this old Prometheus post to see how heated the debate can get.

The subjective nature of these debates is, I believe, the most important lesson from all this. There are simply no clear data telling us how we should define science and what constitutes persuasive evidence. Oftentimes the answer depends on the questions we’re interested in and there can be reasonable disagreement. In the end, there are few scientific answers to questions about science.

Categories: Philosophy

The wait-and-see approach to climate change

March 18, 2010 8 comments

RickA graciously responded to my calling him a denier:

I would like to avoid the term denier however.

It should be reserved for people who do not believe that the Earth has warmed since 1900 – which does not describe me.

I actually agree that the Earth has warmed since 1900 and even agree that it will warm an additional 1.3 degrees C by 2100 – assuming the current temperature trend continues.

So I do not think I am a denialist.

I merely question the additional feedback driven warming.

Unlike you, I do not agree with “experts” simply because they are experts.

The appeal to authority is a commonly used argument technique – but just moves the argument to a higher plane – namely argument among the experts.

The problem is that in advocating change – the experts are now trying to convince the public to spend trillions of dollars changing our energy production over to a carbon free form – and some of their arguments devolve to “trust me – I am an expert”.

Because of the amount of money and potential harm to others (caused by more expensive energy, food, fuel, taxes, etc.) I would like to wait for 25 to 30 years to gather better, more accurate, widespread data.

The world has now begun the process of rebuilding the temperature data from source records – with an open process so every adjustment to the data can be viewed, understood and critized.

This is a good thing – and will give us a lot more confidence in the data, which has been tweaked in a number of ways which are questionable.

With better data going back to 1900 and better data gathered in the future – we will be in a much better postiion in 25 or 30 years to answer the question of how much warming we will experience by 2100.

In addition to insisting that he is not a denier, Rick raises two issues with respect to expertise.  First, he doubts scientists’ judgments on the effects of additional feedback-driven warming.  Second, he disagrees with their proposed solution (change energy production) because of potential costs and disruptions.   These two doubts taken together lead Rick to argue for a wait-and-see approach.  That is, let’s collect better data for the next few decades and then decide what actions to take.

As far the word denier goes, I define it to be someone who doesn’t believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are largely responsible for the post-industrial revolution temperature rise.   In that sense, I’m still not sure of Rick’s position.  It’s possible to agree with the warming while denying human agency.

It’s important to note that Rick’s beef with the experts is qualitatively different on the two issues he raised.  In the first, Rick questions what is (or should be) a purely scientific question.  Given our understanding of the basic physical mechanisms, what will the amplifying feedback be?  As I’ve said before, I don’t think I’m qualified to answer.  People like James Hansen and Steve Schneider should be answering this.  I’ll simply accept Rick’s skepticism on the matter.

In the second case, determining that we should change our energy supply necessarily involves value judgments.  Someone decided that it’s worth spending money today to prevent warming tomorrow.  This calculation inevitably assumes a certain relative and subjective worth for present and future lives, mathematically expressed in terms of the social discount rate.  The overtly normative dimensions of this analysis makes it easier for me to understand Rick’s opposition when it’s presented as objective and obvious.

I believe this raises an important point.  Is it possible to accept the basic thesis of ACC while still denying that any action is needed?  Why isn’t wait-and-see more widely discussed?  Paul Higgins of the American Meteorological Society does offer it as one of four basic approaches to ACC, but I haven’t heard of it anywhere else.

I can’t help but wonder if ACC denialism has increased precisely because wait-and-see isn’t viewed as a legitimate perspective.  Those instinctively opposed to regulation and taxation, e.g., then have no choice but to reject the basic science.  Perhaps including wait-and-see at least would offer them a way out without forcing them to distort the next IPCC report.

This approach almost certainly will not end debate.  We will still have to contend with those who do not want to risk broad changes.  Cap-and-trade is politically difficult for the same reasons all major legislation is difficult:  it runs against deeply vested interests.  No amount of science can fix that problem and those who think otherwise are denying the evidence.

*I’ll also point out that these same experts identify benefits to decarbonization, which Rick doesn’t account for.

Categories: Climate Change