Alert readers will have noticed the fewer-than-normal postings over the last couple of weeks. This is related mostly to pressures associated with real work (remember that we do have day jobs). In my case, it is because of the preparations for the next IPCC assessment and the need for our group to have a functioning and reasonably realistic climate model with which to start the new round of simulations. These all need to be up and running very quickly if we are going to make the early 2010 deadlines.
But, to be frank, there has been another reason. When we started this blog, there was a lot of ground to cover – how climate models worked, the difference between short term noise and long term signal, how the carbon cycle worked, connections between climate change and air quality, aerosol effects, the relevance of paleo-climate, the nature of rapid climate change etc. These things were/are fun to talk about and it was/is easy for us to share our enthusiasm for the science and, more importantly, the scientific process.
However, recently there has been more of a sense that the issues being discussed (in the media or online) have a bit of a groundhog day quality to them. The same nonsense, the same logical fallacies, the same confusions – all seem to be endlessly repeated. The same strawmen are being constructed and demolished as if they were part of a make-work scheme for the building industry attached to the stimulus proposal. Indeed, the enthusiastic recycling of talking points long thought to have been dead and buried has been given a huge boost by the publication of a new book by Ian Plimer who seems to have been collecting them for years. Given the number of simply made-up ‘facts’ in that tome, one soon realises that the concept of an objective reality against which one should measure claims and judge arguments is not something that is universally shared. This is troubling – and although there is certainly a role for some to point out the incoherence of such arguments (which in that case Tim Lambert and Ian Enting are doing very well), it isn’t something that requires much in the way of physical understanding or scientific background. (As an aside this is a good video description of the now-classic Dunning and Kruger papers on how the people who are most wrong are the least able to perceive it).
The Onion had a great piece last week that encapsulates the trajectory of these discussions very well. This will of course be familiar to anyone who has followed a comment thread too far into the weeds, and is one of the main reasons why people with actual, constructive things to add to a discourse get discouraged from wading into wikipedia, blogs or the media. One has to hope that there is the possibility of progress before one engages.
However there is still cause to engage – not out of the hope that the people who make idiotic statements can be educated – but because bystanders deserve to know where better information can be found. Still, it can sometimes be hard to find the enthusiasm. A case in point is a 100+ comment thread criticising my recent book in which it was clear that not a single critic had read a word of it (you can find the thread easily enough if you need to – it’s too stupid to link to). Not only had no-one read it, none of the commenters even seemed to think they needed to – most found it easier to imagine what was contained within and criticise that instead. It is vaguely amusing in a somewhat uncomfortable way.
Communicating with people who won’t open the book, read the blog post or watch the program because they already ‘know’ what must be in it, is tough and probably not worth one’s time. But communication in general is worthwhile and finding ways to get even a few people to turn the page and allow themselves to be engaged by what is actually a fantastic human and scientific story, is something worth a lot of our time.
Along those lines, Randy Olson (a scientist-turned-filmmaker-and-author) has a new book coming out called “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” which could potentially be a useful addition to that discussion. There is a nice post over at Chris Mooney’s blog here, though read Bob Grumbine’s comments as well. (For those of you unfamiliar the Bob’s name, he was one of the stalwarts of the Usenet sci.environment discussions back in the ‘old’ days, along with Michael Tobis, Eli Rabett and our own William Connolley. He too has his own blog now).
All of this is really just an introduction to these questions: What is it that you feel needs more explaining? What interesting bits of the science would you like to know more about? Is there really anything new under the contrarian sun that needs addressing? Let us know in the comments and we’ll take a look. Thanks.