Climate science: forgetting to question the answers

There are two kinds of expert: those whose experience is very focussed and those who are expert in ‘the big picture’, the overview. Climate science has both. Spanning many disciplines, it needs both.  However, it has two other kinds of expert: the professional scientist and the expert layman.

According to Wikipedia,  “professional” traditionally means “a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field. The term professional is used more generally to denote a white-collar working person, or a person who performs commercially in a field typically reserved for hobbyists or amateurs. In western nations, such as the United States, the term commonly describes highly educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, economic security, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work. Less technically, it may also refer to a person having impressive competence in a particular activity.

“Tonight, WUWT has reposted and article about Steve McIntyre, an expert layman in climate science (but professional engineer in his own field (mining)). I’ve done little more than quote sections of the article, because the words echo my experience of collaboration with many in this category who are examining the science underpinning climate change.

Revenge of the Climate Laymen

Global warming’s most dangerous apostate speaks out about the state of climate change science. (by Anne Jolis) Link to original article

…should a moment for self-reflection arise, campaigners against climate change could do worse than take a look at the work of Stephen McIntyre,who has emerged as one of the climate change gang’s Most Dangerous Apostates. The reason for this distinction? He checked the facts.

His work… illustrates the uncertainty of a science presented as so infallible as to justify huge new taxes on rich countries along with bribes to poor ones in order to halt their fossil-fueled climbs to prosperity. Mr. McIntyre offers what many in the field do not: rigor.

…the best science should stand up even to outside scrutiny. And if Mr.McIntyre has a credibility problem with climatologists, climatologists’ predictions are increasingly viewed skeptically by the public.

Mr. McIntyre declares no interest in debunking The Theory in toto, nor in discouraging efficient energy use. His blog will disappoint those seeking anything more political than technical analyses.

I asked 10 climatologists what they thought was the most reliable method of predicting climate, and got nearly as many answers. People in the field compare climate studies to health studies—another complex mechanism with uncontrollable factors, where best practices will always be debated.

Climate researchers know their prescriptions don’t carry the certainty laymen assume from that which is labeled “science,” yet most shy from a straightforward account of this uncertainty.

I agree wholeheartedly Ms Jolis.  I started this blog after a very intense period of doing my own research. I am a professional, but just not in the field of climate science. I do know ‘scientific method’ and I use it in my professional life. I am in touch with many ‘expert laymen’.  Each is a professional, just not a climate scientist; their particular skills are brought to their ‘spare time’ research on climate science. Like Steve McIntyre, they inhabit ‘the skeptics camp’ and their findings are dismissed by many because they are not published in peer-reviewed journals. Their approach to climate research is ‘professional’ (although the output is often merely a summary that belies the detail checked and calculated. Yet politicians make films about global warming and celebrities appeal to us to change our ways. So it is fine for the pro-climate change lobby to have their non-experts promoting the cause but it howls in protest when anyone who is hot a climate scientist dares to challenge the science behind the so-called consensus.

Scientific training is about asking questions, then questioning the answers.  Climate science seems to have forgotten that.

“I never said I was proving or disproving anything…. I just don’t think we should be thanking the people who make it harder to find out what’s true,” Mr. McIntyre says.

The climate establishment will probably never thank Mr. McIntyre, much less follow his example. The rest of us should do both.

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9 Responses to Climate science: forgetting to question the answers

  1. Anonymous says:

    Verity

    Some interesting stuff here and I await with enthusiasm to find out more about ‘Climategate’.

    Your ponderings on experts are thought-provoking – the usual definition of an expert is the old someone who knows more and more about less and less.

    I’ve been reading Harry Collins’ recent book on expertise which has its flaws but raises two types of scientific expertise – contributory expertise and interactional expertise. For more see http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/contactsandpeople/harrycollins/expertise-project/expertise.html

    This is a useful way of looking at the sharp end of a discipline but doesn’t allow for your other point, the big picture expert, to appear.

    In fact very few typologies recognise the big picture expert. The “helicopter view” that management theorists talk about is less robust as a concept. But I’d agree that it is a potential problem at the heart of the whole climate issue.

    Collins has also (see the Golem) found case studies of lay expertise (sheep farmers post Chernobyl and AIDS campaigners) which are fascinating and tend to pop the bubble of most of those simpletons who try to invoke some idea of professional status being actually relevant to science.

    P.S. I am a chemist with many years of working in environmental consultancy who became a skeptic over 2 years ago and has been trying to answer the question of how this could be. Part of the answer to this seems to be falling out of the CRU e-mails.

  2. VJones says:

    @Anonymous

    We value experience. More often than not that brings breadth rather than depth. We need a balance between expertise and experience to produce workable solutions. You see this again and again in industry, whereas the term ‘Ivory Towers’ is not used of academia for nothing.

    The problem with climate science is that fantasy got in the way of reality. Model designers tell me that when you design a model it usually does what you want it to do. Fantasy in; fantasy out. Oh and if reality is a bit too inconvenient you can always find QC justifications for changing input data. Sorry if that seems a bit obscure. I’ve spent too much time today examining how models are tweeked to improve the apparent fit to real data. Just enough you understand. It was a real eyeopener.

    Thanks for the book links. Looks like just my kind of thing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes it was the same for me, I have previously done molecular modelling and it was amazing how quickly everyone got drawn into the delusion that you knew what reality did, despite many reactions not actually occuring in the lab. I’m always amazed at the lack of backcasting of the climate models as well without band aids (add in more SO2 etc). Harry Collins (it’s not me by the way) has an interesting paper on Hawkeye (the sports camera thingy) and reality.

    As well as HC, I would also recommend a trawl around Douglas Allchin’s work (http://my.pclink.com/~allchin/papers/ ) and, if you want to look at the “scientific method” try googling Steve Shapin’s “how to be antiscientific” – reading the first few pages of that is most enjoyable.

    Shapin made a poignant comment in an article once saying that scientists are not really interested in the public understanding of science but rather the public awe of science – cue dropping caesium into water, laser, son et lumiere etc etc.

  4. tonyb says:

    I found Shapins book here-p99. It is incorporated into a lot of other interesting material by other authors including Harry Collins himself

    http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/docs/shapin-Antiscientific_1999.pdf

    Tonyb

  5. VJones says:

    Thank you for the links Anonymous, whoever you are. I like things that make me think.

    Technical Connoiseurship – like a wine buff or an art critic. That is very apt. Can’t ‘do’ but understands the technicalities and experienced enough to comment on the results.

    I sat in a long meeting today listening to experts from various fields. My small contribution was pulling in perspectives from two other fields that people needed to ‘keep in mind’. I wasn’t one of ‘the experts’ but I was thanked afterwards.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Verity

    You’re welcome.

    The other interesing line of thought relating to expertise is about a hierarchy of “facts”. I don’t know what you’ve read previously about the scientific method etc so forgive me in advance if I patronise.

    I heartily recommend Ludvik Fleck’s book “The Genesis and Development of a scientific fact”. (BTW One meta-story around the author is complex and emotive with attempts to smear his name but these have more recently been squarley rebuffed **)

    Judging the book on its own content, Fleck, a microbiologist, used the history of knowledge of syphilis to show how moral judgement (frequently with a religious undertones) caused bias around even this fairly simple (scientific) issue.

    Where he draws general conclusions, he talks (and this is all of the top of my head) about the esoteric core of a scientific discipline and how this knowledge becomes more exoteric through journals, textbooks, vade mecum (even today to New Scientist, papers, R4 etc). He shows how the further you get from the core (where there may still be considerable disagreement) a process occurs which has been summarised as “distance lends enchantment”. He also coined the term Denkcollectiv – groupthink by any other name.

    Note this all has many parallels in relation to the CRU hacks. Those who have leapt to the defence have not been within this esoteric sphere on the whole.

    My fall to climate skepticism (I’m an apostate) was quite a tough one. I simply couldn’t believe my own lack of belief. Like those 2-faces or one candlestick gestalt shift illustrations I was able to see both sides clearly, yet fall back to the one conclusion. Yet armed with cod-Kuhn and angstrom-thin Popper I was really unequipped to explain how this situation could have occurred. (clearly I was no creationist flat earther, I knew that).

    So I read my dusty copy of TSoSR by Kuhn from cover to cover for the first time and the penny began to drop. The Gallileo affair is taught to us to show Kuhn was right about paradigm shifts etc but it is an extra-scientific fight not an intra-scientific one, it’s also extra-scientific against religion and I now see that religion is just a special case of belief. (I also to my shame finally read Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum where he talks about four deceptions or idols… it’s all there). I also recommend Robert Merton’s “Science, Technology & Society in Seventeenth-Century England”.

    And from there it gets more complex by the day. I’ll keep popping back and would welcome your thoughts.

    ** the debunk of the rather nasty attempt to besmirch Fleck – “Medical Science in the Light of a Flawed Study of the Holocaust: A Comment on Eva Hedfors’ Paper on Ludwik Fleck” can be found online. It’s not referred to in his Wikip entry but in these ad hominous sourcewatch-type days it’s always good to recognise potential meta-issues. It no longer seems to matter what is said, just who says it.

    Hence, whilst I also post on other blogs under the remarkably witty and deep pseudonym “Luke Warmer” which was actually a spur of the moment thing when adding a comment to a thread involving “Lucy Skywalker”, I need to retain anonymity for a bit longer. Because rather cowardly, I work in a knowledge field and my reputation is all that I have. Once I can explain both the context and the science it will be different.

  7. VJones says:

    Anonymous,
    I admit I don’t have much time to read these days (other than ‘must read’ stuff for work). Although I am not familiar with much of what you are saying, it is very clear and I think I will add some of this to my reading list (for when I do get some time off).

    One recent ‘popular’ read has been “Risk; the science and politics of fear” by Dan Gardiner; intersting as I have worked as a technical specialist in relation to risk in the environmental sector.

    I too am an apostate (of about two years); now turned zealot I suppose. This makes for a much quieter dinner table and my husband’s satisfaction that he managed to turn me eventually. It also sent me ‘underground’ because of the sector I work in.

    When starting to explore the skeptic literature, I met a lot of stuff I found difficult to read – either because it was technical in a new area for me, it was just too ‘in your face’, or just too dense and overwhelming. I’d like to provide short accessible pieces based on communicating good science or providing something memorable and quirky, but already the blog has developed a life of its own. I want to get back into data soon, but do keep the comments coming…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Verity

    Interesting to hear your story. I haven’t seen the Gardiner book (yet) but I would also add media as a critical link for the science and politics chain. Flat Earth News is a good take on that.

    I hope that the CRU hack might have helped to expose the belief issues a little, tipping the balance back to a proper scrutiny of the data, but we’ll see.

  9. tonyb says:

    It would be very nice to believe that the Copenhagen summit will be used as the opportunity to draw back and carry out a proper audit of the Earths temperature history, with particular reference to instrumental records.

    The way the individual station data has been manipulated then glued together to make a meaningless global temperature is disturbing in itself. When these highly flawed records are used to ‘prove’ the hypotheses that modern temperatures are rising in step with co2, with no mention of historic climate variability (other than to diminish it) we have truly entered a shameful period whereby politics and the social sciences are dictating the agenda.

    Temperatures are the Achilles heel of the whole AGW proposition which is why I personally spend so much time on this aspect.

    Tonyb

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