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Science, narrative and heresy

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 November 2010

Recent blog discussions have starkly highlighted the different values and priorities for scientists, bloggers and (some parts) of the mainstream media.

For working scientists, the priority in any discussion about science should be accuracy. Methods, results, and interpretations must be clear, logically connected and replicable by others. For people who haven’t experienced a joint editing effort on a scientific paper, it might surprise them to see the strength with which seemingly minor word choices are argued over. This process is particularly stark in short format papers written for Science and Nature, (and increasingly for press releases), where every word is at a premium. For many scientists then, the first thing they look for in a colleagues more ‘popular’ offerings is whether the science is described clearly and correctly. Of course, this is often not the same as judging whether it succeeds in improving popular understanding.

Indeed, the quality of the science is almost always how a popular piece is judged by scientists, regardless of the final conclusion the author comes to. For instance, my review of Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers was very critical, because his conception of how the science worked was poor, regardless of the fact that his conclusions are aligned to my own in many respects. The furor over the Soon and Balinuas paper in 2003, was much less about their conclusions, than about the nonsensical manner in which they had arrived at them (combined with disgust at the way it was publicised and promoted). Our multiple criticisms of Henrik Svensmark have focused far more on the spin and illogic of his claims concerning the impact of cosmic rays on climate than it is on the viability of the basic mechanism (which remains to tested).

The underlying principle is that proposed by Daniel Moynihan, that people might be entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

The media on the other hand is mostly fascinated by the strength of the narrative. The enduring ‘heretic’ meme – the plucky iconoclastic individual whose ideas are being repressed by the establishment – is never very far below the surface in almost all high-impact scientific profiles, for instance, Freeman Dyson’s NY Times magazine piece last year. To be sure this is a powerful archetype even in how scientists see themselves (shades of Galilean hero-worship), and so it is no surprise that scientists play up to this image on a regular basis. Craig Venter is someone who very successfully does this, possibly with some justification (though YMMV). However, this image is portrayed far more widely than it is valid. Svensmark, for instance, has gone out of his way to mention that he works in a basement on a shoestring budget, having to work weekends and holidays (the horror!) to pursue his ideas. For such people any criticism is seen as the establishment reaction to the (supposedly revolutionary) consequences of their ideas. This of course would be the case for true revolutionaries, but it is a very common attitude among the merely mistaken.

It is not difficult to see the attraction in being seen as the iconoclast outside the mainstream in a scientific field that has been so polticized. There is a ready audience of misfits and partisans happy to cheer any supposed defection from the ‘consensus’, and there are journalists and editors who, in their desire to have ‘balance’, relish voices that they can juxtapose against the mainstream without dealing with crackpots. Witness the short-lived excitement a couple of years ago of the so-called ‘non-skeptic heretics‘, such as Roger Pielke Jr., championed in the New York Times. In truth, there is very little that is ‘heretical’ in any of these voices. Only someone with no experience with the way science is actually done — try going to an AGU meeting for example — would think that scientists being upfront about uncertainty and following the data where it leads is any kind of radical notion. The self-declared heretics do get criticised a lot, but not generally because of the revolutionary nature of their ideas, but rather because they often indulge in sloppy thinking or are far too quick to allege misconduct against scientists (or the IPCC) without justification, perhaps in order to bolster their outsider status. That does not go down well, but to conflate ‘mainstream’ expressions of distaste with this sort of behavior with the belief that the actual ideas of ‘heretics’ (about policy or uncertainty) are in some way special or threatening, is to confuse the box with the cereal.

There are a couple of tell-tale signs of this ‘Potemkin heresy’ that mark it out as not quite kosher. First, for the heretic who has a coherent alternative to the orthodoxy, it is very unlikely that this alternative will be in line with the thoughts of all the other outsiders. True heresy is actually very lonely. If alternatively, the ‘heresy’ consists of thinking that every idea that pops up is worthy of serious consideration, they are simply throwing away the concept of science as a filter that can actually take us closer to reality. If every idea must now and forever, be considered anew whenever someone brings it up, no progress is possible at all. Science works because it can use observations from the real world to move on from unsupported or disproven ideas. All ideas are in principle challengeable, but in practice, unless there is new information, old issues get resolved and put aside. The seriousness of a new ‘heresy’ then, can be measured in how much shrift is given to the crackpots. As Sagan said, one should always keep an open mind, but not one that is so open that your brains drop out.

The second sign that all is not well is in how well the supposed heretic understands why they are being criticised. Usually this is stated up-front by the critics – for instance, I have criticised Judy Curry for not knowing enough about what she has chosen to talk about, for not thinking clearly about the claims she has made with respect to the IPCC, and for flinging serious accusations at other scientists without just cause. Similarly, we have criticised Roger Pielke Jr. for frequently misrepresenting scientists (including me) and falsely accusing them of plagiarism, theft and totalitarianism. That both interpret these critiques as a disguised attack on their values, policies or scientific ideas would be funny if they were not so earnest. (For reference, we are just not that subtle).

Unfortunately, the narrative of the heretic is self-reinforcing. Once a scientist starts to perceive criticism as an attack on their values/ideas rather than embracing it in order to improve (or abandon) an approach, it is far more likely that they will in fact escalate the personalisation of the debate, leading to still further criticism of their conduct, which will be interpreted as a further attack on their values etc. This generally leads to increasing frustration and marginalisation, combined quite often with increasing media attention, at least temporarily. It very rarely leads to any improvement in public understanding.

The fact remains that science is hugely open to new thinking and new approaches. Indeed, it thrives on novelty. New data from new platforms, new calculations enabled by the increases in computing power and new analyses of the ever-increasing amount of observed data, each have the continual potential to challenge previously held ideas – if that can be demonstrated logically and with evidence to back it up. A recent example of a potentially dramatic new finding was the Haigh et al paper on solar forcing. If true, it would turn almost all work on solar effects on climate on its head, and they had no obvious problem publishing in Nature. This idea of knowledge sitting on a knife edge ready to flip whenever some new observation or insight arrives, is the reason why science is so exciting and fascinating. That is the reason why science deserves to be the story, and why journalists should be continuously searching for the ‘front page’ thought that will allow this story to be told to a wide audience. But all too often the real story is neglected in favour of a familiar well-worn, but inappropriate, trope.

It is clear that scientists’ obsession with clear thinking over narrative handicaps our attempts to communicate the seriousness of the climate change challenge. But since the media will continue to favor compelling narratives over substance, that is the method by which this debate will be fought.

542 Responses to “Science, narrative and heresy”

  1. 51

    Gavin’s response in 48 is of course absolutely correct. I was once forced by an editor to do a favorable review of a book about an eminent scientist which suggested he was dishonest. As far as I could tell, all the writer had shown was that the scientist was imperious and not a very nice person. Not the same thing at all–and to me, not a particularly astonishing or important thing to talk about.

    On the other hand, the competing efforts to sequence the human genome, and the clashing personalities of Craig Venter and Francis Collins, added what I considered a useful narrative element to get readers interested in the science. I’ve also used more benign personal narratives in service of getting the readers engaged. As long as it’s accurate, it’s reasonable to use human narrative and details of personality to pull in the reader. Nothing wrong with that.

  2. 52
    Hank Roberts says:

    > all educators are activists

    Tom Paine agreed. So did the hereditary rich of his time. So do they now.
    I’ve been _amazed_ nobody at liked this quote, from Paine:

  3. 53
    Maya says:

    SA, too bad that list didn’t get printed on the front page of every newspaper in the country instead of as an editorial in a scientific journal that the general public doesn’t read.

  4. 54
    Tim Joslin says:

    Kevin #44: thanks for your comments. Replying to your points out of order:

    “Two, it doesn’t sound as if you’re distinguishing clearly between policy papers and technical ones”

    The trouble is that the boundary has become blurred – very frustrating if you’re interested primarily in influencing policy. The paper I referred to in my earlier post (#39) was brought to my attention specifically because it was “peer-reviewed science”. A policy paper wouldn’t carry the same weight, even though, as I argued before, it would be likely to give a more complete picture. Like it or not, scientists have to accept that policy is being made by direct reference to their outputs.

    Tony Blair is famously fond of saying that the media are like the weather – you just have to live with it. (Actually, maybe that’s not quite so appropriate in this context – note he wasn’t thinking about climate change when he said this!). The narrative interpretation of specific scientific findings stems from what is in effect a weekly science reporting news cycle, based on when the most influential journals are published. Presumably Nature and Science even issue press releases to try to move product and these are picked up by New Scientist, daily newspapers and so on. Scientific orthodoxy does not in fact usually change a great deal from week to week.

    Collaborative processes like the IPCC operating over a longer timescale therefore make a lot more sense as ways of resetting public opinion – especially if they can become more than the sum of the disconnected papers that they rely on.

    Which brings me to your first point:

    “the ‘bigger picture’ is held mostly within the ongoing subculture of those doing the science”

    Indeed it is, and therein lies the problem. There is no one single bigger picture, so different disciplines, sub-disciplines, sub-sub-disciplines and schools or institutions within the same sub-sub-discipline can have different views of the world.

    As a result, contradictions are legion all over science. For example, the black hole “event horizon” concept is entirely inconsistent. On the one hand I’m told you wouldn’t notice anything if you travelled across the “event horizon” of a black hole – in which case the event horizon as far as you are concerned is actually nearer the black hole than the “event horizon”. Yet for the purposes of Hawking radiation the “event horizon” is actually at a fixed point (OK, plane) in space. Most writers on the topic treat the “event horizon” as fixed in space, except when they’re pointing out you wouldn’t notice crossing it. [The only way to reconcile all this is that the “event horizon” is where light can no longer escape to infinity, whereas a given observer’s event horizon w.r.t. a black hole is relative – where this leaves Hawking radiation beats me].

    Sorry, that took longer to explain that I anticipated. I won’t even start on whether an asteroid or the effects of flood basalt eruptions killed the dinosaurs (answer: IMHO the former caused or at least massively exacerbated the latter, so both the warring schools of thought are right).

    The point is the problem is with science, not just climate science. Collaborative exercises should overcome some of these differences in understanding and the IPCC succeeds in some places and not in others. One area it seems to me is riddled with inconsistencies is oceanic circulation and its effect on the carbon cycle (and Arctic sea-ice melt). For example, I think the consensus is that carbon entering the deep ocean via the biological pump is balanced (or would be were the system in equilibrium) by carbon brought to the surface by THC processes. This would imply that more circulation would increase atmospheric carbon levels. But some passages seem to suggest the opposite.

    Further, warming due to elevated GHG levels would be expected to strengthen the circulation as more heat is gained in equatorial regions than at the poles. Yet we hear more often about the danger of the circulation shutting down. This confuses policy-makers. Al Gore, for example, perhaps understood that the mechanism for slowing the circulation was a fresh-water injection. I guess he trusted that the scientists wouldn’t worry about a THC slowdown in the North Atlantic without that cause, so famously pointed to Greenland as the only source of sufficient fresh water he could see.

    What the IPCC process perhaps needs is independent moderation to ensure that each explanatory chapter is based on a single consistent high-level model of how an aspect of the climate system operates. Dissenters from such a model would have to go home or provide one or more alternative models. Maybe we’d end up with majority and minority reports with lists of supporters, but at least we might be clearer as to where we stood. Most importantly, the various findings quantifying and elaborating aspects of the model would be set in the only context in which they make sense – a logically consistent structure.

    I’d disagree that new data can’t challenge established thought.

    My point is that new data on its own is insufficient. It’s only because the boy Einstein proposed an alternative theoretical framework that the problem of the Mitchelson-Morley results was resolved.

    As we see in modern physics, more common reactions to anomalous results are either to hope they’ll go away – as in the case of the Pioneer anomaly, for example – or to tweak the theory to “save the appearances” as in the introduction of the “dark matter” and “dark energy” concepts. Meanwhile we await the new ideas that’ll show the current consensus to be complete twaddle. What a hoot it would be to repeat that History and Philosophy of Science course in 50 years time!

    Climate science doesn’t really have the luxury of decades in which to play glass bead games with string theory, M-branes and 10- (or is it 11-?) dimensional hyperspace. Hence I suggest it’s important to look at the processes and organisational structures that slow progress.

  5. 55

    TJ 54,

    If you don’t like dark matter, how do you explain the fact that the rotation of galaxies is non-Newtonian when you count only the visible matter?

    [Response: Enough dark matter thanks. Back to climate science please. -gavin]

  6. 56

    TJ 54:

    The rotation of galaxies is non-Newtonian if you trace it using only the visible matter. If you don’t like “dark matter” as an explanation, how do you explain it?

  7. 57

    BPL @55:

    The following note is actually relevant to the subject of climate science because it highlights a genuine scientific controversy that is alive and active at this very moment. Real research is being conducted and published in the peer-review literature that poses real challenges to the majority position in gravitational cosmology. These challenges come from a variety of places, but the most notable ones have to do with galactic rotations and the proposed explanations for observed phenomena.

    Dark Matter and Dark Energy are are purely ad hoc hypotheses introduced to save the Standard Model rather than engage in substantive revision to account for observations. However, these proposals have themselves proven to be egregiously unobservable, and exist only to save the existing theoretical structures of the Standard Model. Functional alternatives to the Standard Model already exist, however, and while they comprise a very small part of gravitational cosmology, they are robust scientific proposals that can be found in the peer-reviewed literature.

    To begin with, the rotation is much more Newtonian than not; it is the Einsteinian driven Standard Model that has all of the difficulties. Thus MOND — “MOdified Newtonian Dynamic” — theories readily account for this rotation without the introduction of gratuitous and grotesquely unobservable etities. Closely allied to the MOND family of proposals are the bimetric ones, which separate the contingent relations of physics from the necessary ones of geometry. These are distinguished from Einstein’s monometric general relativity, which collapses physics and geometry together and thereby fabricates an insupperable problem with the logic of measurement. While Nathan Rosen is commonly credited with the first bimetric theory, it was in fact Alfred North Whitehead who produced the first such in 1922.

    Finally, there is a third family of proposals based on the Tensor-Vector-Scalar approach called “TeVeS” for short. I am not familiar enough with this method to do anything beyond mentioning it.

    By entering the following string into the search window at, you’ll get some idea just how much work has been done in this area:

    (mond OR bimetric OR teves) AND (gravity OR gravitation)

    Again, these alternatives are thoroughly scientific in character, and provide a strong comparison with the denialist proposals which fail on so many accounts to constitute legitimate scientific challenges to the main threads of current climatology.

  8. 58
    Anand says:

    Gavin, firstly, JC’s so-called flag analytic framework is an attempt to bring a certain tool – which can certainly be used in assessment of evidence by non-probabilistic means (i.e., author expertise, attribution of distal outcomes in multifactorial systems to climate, e.g., malaria) – into evaluation of the main IPCC formulation about anthropogenic global change. The assessment process stands and operates outside the evidence.

    The main IPCC formulation in question, however, is derived from climate models – which are, as Tom Curtis points out, full-fledged and self-contained scienctific theories themselves. All variations in output – which are deviations from the aforesaid hypothesis – can be completely ascribed internally, because the model is inclusive of its underlying uncertainties.

    No wonder then, that applying another layer of meta-logic doesn’t seem to make sense but I think it needs to be done.

  9. 59
    Fred Magyar says:

    Tim Joslin @ 54,

    As we see in modern physics, more common reactions to anomalous results are either to hope they’ll go away – as in the case of the Pioneer anomaly, for example – or to tweak the theory to “save the appearances” as in the introduction of the “dark matter” and “dark energy” concepts. Meanwhile we await the new ideas that’ll show the current consensus to be complete twaddle.

    Dark matter and dark energy are tweaks for the purposes of saving appearances?
    You might enjoy listening to ‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009

  10. 60
    Septic Matthew says:

    14, Gavin: First, issues of the early century cooling are irrelevant.

    You need to provide some good reasons for why an inability to account for early century cooling is not evidence for important factors omitted from the model.

    Newtonian mechanics provides an excellent model for interplanetary travel (moon landing, etc); but the previous inability to accurately model the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and the current mismatch between observed mass and observed acceleration are both taken as evidence that the model omitted something serious.

    It is a point on which climate scientists (Gavin Schmidt, Judith Curry) disagree.

    [Response: Read what I wrote on the C-a-s thread. Some periods/events are easier to attribute than others: factors include the accuracy and distinctivness of the hypothesized forcings, the breadth of evidence for climate changes, the distinctiveness of the fingerprints of the drivers in the data that is available. On all counts, the modern period is an easier case. So why our inability to attribute cleanly a difficult case undermines our ability to do it for an easier case is supposedly a problem, is a mystery to me. There are lots of other events that are easier, and the models do good jobs there. – gavin]

  11. 61
    Septic Matthew says:

    53, Maya: SA, too bad that list didn’t get printed on the front page of every newspaper in the country instead of as an editorial in a scientific journal that the general public doesn’t read.

    Not to worry: the editorial has been discussed, with links, in the denialosphere. For example, Marc Morano’s Climate Depot

  12. 62
    Mike Roddy says:

    Gavin, I am in awe of your ability to write about this very squirrely subject. Wow!

    My thoughts are: let’s get over the word “narrative”. It trivializes the issues, and if scientists are trapped into counternarratives the public will lose. It reminds me of my short and failed attempt at writing a screenplay- all the books and advisors said “Think less about character and scenery; it’s all about the story”. By definition, a story, or narrative, confirms either imaginary or entrenched emotional needs, and usually includes straying from the evidence as a result of these needs. That’s why movies tend to be three act plays designed to masturbate theatergoers.

    My other thought is that, while scientists will give a nod to reporters’ tendencies to create conflict and popularize their results, too little attention is paid to the darker influences behind the scenes. These of course include oil and coal companies, banks, and timber companies. It is quite stressful and often futile to confront these forces, but scientists are going to have to step up and do it in public a lot more, including outreach in the mainstream media. Hansen is way too out on a limb here.

  13. 63
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Tim Joslin, I’m afraid I have to take issue with your depiction of how science works–or at least with the motivations behind why it works the way it does. First, I think that you need to realize that the IPCC is not primarily concerned with cutting-edge science. It is concerned with uncertainties of maybe 30-50%, not orders of magnitude or even factors of 2. Most of the most interesting research in climate science is irrelevant to the IPCC’s mandate. I mean, really, if you showed current CO2 levels to Arrhenius, he would have expressed concern! The only questions left to answer wrt the “science” of anthropogenic climate change are
    1)how bad will it get
    2)what will be the consequences

    In general, though, the reason one tweaks a theory when observations disagree with it is not because you hope the observations will go away, but rather because usually the theory has already proved its worth, and so minor tweaks or incorrect data are more likely to be the answer than is a “revolution”. Most scientists I know would love to live in a time of scientific revolution. They’re exciting, and they give young turks an opportunity to distinguish themselves as “brilliant”.

    The IPCC is a political body. Its conclusions are mainly looked at as old news by the scientists, who wonder how they can be at all controversial. The chances of the consensus being found to be “twaddle” are nil.

  14. 64
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Oh, btw, String theories differ. Some require 10 spatial dimensions (also the number in Kaluza-Klein theories), while others require 26. Coincidentally (?) the dimensionality of the largest of the extraordinary groups is also 26. The significance of this is left as an exercise to the reader. ;-)

  15. 65
    Susan Anderson says:

    Hope you don’t mind, I am copying almost the entirety of this article into DotEarth. I can “get away” with this as a commenter rather than owner/author, in a way that professionals can’t, but hope you don’t mind my presumption in doing so (with proper attribution).

    Others might like to weigh in, as DotEarth often provides quality reporting, and Andy Revkin, even if you are annoyed with him, is involved in an uphill battle with a dedicated cadre of people we are not allowed to say are professional denial experts.

    It may be a while before my comment(s) show up, as as noted, it is almost a total borrow.

    (captcha black humor: ketrutbr electoral)

  16. 66
    John Mashey says:

    1) “Heretical” ideas that actually work out, or might, normally arise from experts, not amateurs.
    I’ve met Jo Haigh and thought she was good.

    Bill Ruddiman’s hypotheses on early anthropogenic effects were strikingly outside the mainstream view, but no one would ever mistake Bill for a whacko heretic and he’s followed up with much careful work.

    2) Ray Ladbury notes that science works despite imperfect humans.

    Folks expect modern computer hardware to work reliably. It does, despite the fact that individual components are not perfectly reliable. Some systems (like telephone switches) have long had elaborate hierarchies of fault-recovery software. Memories, disk and communication channels use Error-Correcting Codes … or else none of this would work for more than few seconds.

    Science is the ECC of human discourse, it tends to detect errors quickly, fix some and keep them from propagating too far. However, it runs slightly slower as a result.

    Sadly, some other areas of human discourse seem to lack even simple parity bits.
    They can be cheaper and faster, but then they crash.

  17. 67
    Alex Katarsis says:

    BPL 55:

    Quantum Physics is non-Newtonian, too. Dark Matter may simply be a convenient definition for something that is undefined – like the square-root of negative 1. Just because someone gave it a name, doesn’t give it any more validity than something which simply doesn’t exist. I’m all for making guesses by defining unknowns (I couldn’t have finished my Linear Algebra homework without that method), but I wouldn’t invest any tax money on a guess. Where is the predictability? There lies the problem. How else to explain it? The number of possibilities are infinite.

  18. 68
    Susan Anderson says:

    DotEarth link (and the more recent article that follows it):

    I don’t think this particular article needs your time, which I know is valuable, but the overall slant is being biased by the dedicated fake skeptic effort over time as are all public largely unedited blogs on the subject. Lubos Motl, for example, is very busy there and everybody “loves” him. sigh …

    sorry, will desist on re captcha, luscious: confessio bruther

  19. 69
    Tim Joslin says:

    My previous post was in reply to Kevin’s #42, sorry. His #44 was a shorter addition.

    Re. #55 and #58 replying to my #54, we’re going too far off-topic – I didn’t realise I was being controversial. ;-) Of course dark matter and dark energy are concepts invented to “save the appearances”, just like Ptolemaic epicycles before heliocentric Copernicanism came along. They introduce more complexity into the theory, i.e. more “theory points” that have to be proved, without any additional concomitant experimental verification (“data points”). The theory is logically weaker than before. History tells us that such “tweaks” rarely survive the test of time and more usually indicate the imminent (or at least eventual) breakdown of a theoretical paradigm. But hey, maybe this time is different!

    All this is fairly tangential to my argument – I was merely substantiating a subsidiary point – so feel free to try to convince me of the existence of your dark materials without fear of me replying again on this point.

    Though perhaps the state of modern physics – “Not Even Wrong” according to Peter Woit – does bolster my argument that scientific discussion might sometimes benefit from tough, independent mediation.

  20. 70
  21. 71
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Tim Joslin: “Not Even Wrong” according to Peter Woit – does bolster my argument that scientific discussion might sometimes benefit from tough, independent mediation.”

    Actually, no. It bolsters the argument that Peter Woit could benefit from learning about string theory. Some types of string theory are on the threshold of being testable using astronomical observations.

    Rumors of the death of science are greatly exaggerated.

  22. 72
    Radge Havers says:

    Mike Roddy @ 62

    “too little attention is paid to the darker influences behind the scenes.”

    I tend to agree. The current environment certainly offers succor to those darker influences. The media are now saturated with the incessant gabbling of confabulation artists.

  23. 73
    Leonard Evens says:

    Alex Katarsis says

    “Dark Matter may simply be a convenient definition for something that is undefined – like the square-root of negative 1. Just because someone gave it a name, doesn’t give it any more validity than something which simply doesn’t exist. I’m all for making guesses by defining unknowns (I couldn’t have finished my Linear Algebra homework without that method), but I wouldn’t invest any tax money on a guess. Where is the predictability? There lies the problem. How else to explain it? The number of possibilities are infinite.”

    The need for dark matter arose when astroners studied the mechanics of galaxies. We have a very good understanding of gravity, either from the earlier point of view of Newtonian mechanics or more recently through general relativity. These theories are consistent, and, within the domains to which they are applicable, they make very accurate predict ions, which are verified by observations. For example, our system of GPS satellites depends on applying general relativitic considerations.

    The square root of -1 is not undefined. It is defined (up to a sign) as a (complex) number whose square is -1. It exists as part of a mathematical system which is employed in many, many application. Schroedinger’s equation, in quantum mechanics, can’t be stated without it. Needless to say, our enitre information cociety would be next to impossible without using quantum mechanics. Of course the square root of -1 is not something which you can hold in your hands, but without it as a concept we would be out of luck.

    Many concepts in physics are abstractions, e.g., energy and entropy. Dark matter was invented to explain observable effects. To do without it, we would have to decide instead, that gravity doesn’t operate on the scale of a galaxy as it does, for example, in the solar system.

    Finally, I’m not sure what tax dollars have to do with the matter. It is true that tax dollars are spent to fund astronomers, to put telescopes in orbit, etc. But that money is necessary if we want to learn more about how the world is. The US decided after World War II to fund science. Were we to stop now, or base it on politiacal considerations, we would fall behind the rest of the world in doing science, and ultimately, that would make us a second class nation.

  24. 74
    BBP says:

    Dark Matter was added in astronomy to account for gravitational effects; rotation curves of spiral galxaies (as BPL notes) and observed radial velocities of galxies in clusters. It was not (then) something exotic – it was simply matter (something with mass) that we couldn’t see visually (hence dark) was required to explain the observed velocities. Over time, as various proposed ideas (such as WIMPS and MACHOS) could not account for all the observations without causing problems for the standard Big Bang model it developed exotic overtones. To get back on the topic of this thread – in science Dark Matter is an interesting problem to be solved, but it is reported to the public as a mysterious and exotic form of matter that science has discovered.

  25. 75
    Tim Joslin says:

    Ray #63: my “tweak” point is not really relevant to climate science at present, I was speaking to a point made by Kevin in #42 which itself responded to what I thought was a gimme point in response to a passage in Gavin’s original post. He wrote:

    “New data from new platforms, new calculations enabled by the increases in computing power and new analyses of the ever-increasing amount of observed data, each have the continual potential to challenge previously held ideas – if that can be demonstrated logically and with evidence to back it up.”

    to which I replied:

    “Actually only new ideas really have the ‘potential to challenge previously held ideas’.”

    This itself relates to a passage in a previous Realclimate blog entry by Gavin, Climate code archiving: an open and shut case?, which has been bugging me:

    “First, the practical scientific issues. Consider, for example, the production of key observational climate data sets. While replicability is a vital component of the enterprise, this is not the same thing as simply repetition. It is independent replication that counts far more towards acceptance of a result than merely demonstrating that given the same assumptions, the same input, and the same code, somebody can get the same result. It is far better to have two independent ice core isotope records from Summit in Greenland than it is to see the code used in the mass spectrometer in one of them. Similarly, it is better to have two (or three or four) independent analyses of the surface temperature station data showing essentially the same global trends than it is to see the code for one of them.”

    This is fine as far as it goes. The problem comes when you’re trying to explain an anomalous finding, one that doesn’t fit in with the theory you espouse. Then you need repeatability and not replicability.

    If you’re a naive falsificationist you’d have to reject a theory in the face of a contradictory result, but luckily that’s not the way the world works. Science usually progresses when one theory explains the limitations of another, e.g. Einstein explained why Newton was right as far as he was, and wrong outside certain parameters. (This is why we should keep pointing out to the denialists that they need to prove, for example, why elevated atmospheric GHG levels wouldn’t cause the warming predicted).

    In order to show where incorrect conclusions have been drawn and thereby make progress, it’s vital to be able to reproduce results as well as replicate them. This may mean delving into the detail of precisely why a researcher has reported a particular anomalous result. This introduces a need for the storage of code and data additional to published results and Gavin made some sound suggestions in that regard.

    My point is that scientific progress doesn’t rely on more scientists saying one thing than another at a given point in time. It relies instead on a communal understanding of the validity of a complex set of conjectures and refutations. A lot of the knowledge used to assess this body of information is tacit – the general understanding in people’s heads – and perhaps more of this could potentially be made explicit.

    I take your point that the IPCC doesn’t do cutting-edge science, rather it takes stock of science that has already been done. My argument, though, is that the IPCC reports are more valuable to the policy process than series of independent papers which tilt the media this way and that over a short timescale. The IPCC reports might be more valuable still if ways were found to explicitly, rather than implicitly, bind different pieces of research together.

    Sometimes I find myself musing that the way science works is a case of “I wouldn’t start from here”. Comparing the scientific process to that of software development, for example, suggests to me that the balance needs to be shifted to more generalists and more high level work ensuring the consistency of aspects of the science and if necessary allocating resources to fill in the gaps.

    I mentioned before the scientific evaluation of the worth of biofuels which I have found less than totally satisfactory. If I was given the task of reporting to decision-makers as to the effectiveness of a policy of promoting the use of biofuels to reduce atmospheric GHG levels, I wouldn’t, as I say, start from here. I’d hope I’d identify any implicit assumptions, look at the issue on a global level, not from the point of view of an individual field, making sure all impacts – water use, biodiversity and so on – had been accounted for. This would mean identifying a number of topics for research and parameters for quantification. Teams would then be tasked with finding the answers to these detailed questions. This is not how science usually progresses. It is much more a “bottom-up” than a “top-down” process.

    Maybe I should give an example of a pure climate issue that bothers me. The dominant idea in climate science is (if I may deliberately simplify) to add up the forcings and make long-term climate predictions on that basis. It seems to me, though, that the internal variability of the system may obscure the warming signal over timescales that are politically important. I’d personally like to see more emphasis on understanding that aspect of climate and at least more clarity as to when it is being ignored and when it isn’t. And more accurate near-term (months to years) predictions would of course bolster the standing of the climate science community.

  26. 76
    Septic Matthew says:

    60, Gavin. What is the C-a-s thread? It should be obvious to me, but I can’t think what it is.

    [Response: Here. – gavin]

  27. 77
    Harold Pierce Jr says:

    RE: AGW not Possible.

    Here is a comment that I posted over at Joe’s Place, a trendy climate bar in downtown Manhattan.

    [Response: Might it not have been more effectively placed in an oscillatory climate bar? Mind you, I’m no expert on climate bars, whatever those be.–Jim]

    After studying a recent atlas of the earth I have concluded:

    1. There are few humans on the earth.

    2. Humans occupy are small portion of the earth’s surface.

    3. Humans have irreversible changed a even smaller portion of the earth’s surface by construction of cities and urban areas.

    4. About 50% of humans live in urban areas.

    5. Humans are migrating in ever increasing numbers from rural to urban areas, i.e., they are abandoning the countryside.

    Humans living in urban areas experience an apparent “global warming” due to UHI effect.

    There are vast areas of the earth that are unpopulated by humans such as Siberia, Canada. Alaska, the polar regions, the surface of the oceans,etc.

    The earth appears to be over populated because most televisions broad casts orginate in cities and urban areas. That the earth seems small and there seems to be more extreme weather events is due to instant world wide communications systems in particular satellite TV.

    Humans have modified portions of the earth’s surface for agriculure. For example, much of the Great Plains have been modified for farming. Where there was once native grasses and wild animals, there are modified grasses such cereal grains and domesticsted animals but this appears not affected climate much In the Northern Great Plains, the temperature still drops down to -30 to -49 deg C and the summers still heat to +35 deg C on occasion.

    For today,

    RE: What Climate Change?

    After watching weather reports on the TV and reading numerous articles in newspapers and magazines (e.g., Sci. Am., Nat. Geo., etc) for about 60 years and more recently on the web, I have concluded that there has been little climate change. That is to say, the pattern of weather and the magnitude of various weather events in most all regions of the earth are more or less about the same. In any region weather can be very variable from year to year and there can be extreme weather events that persists for an long periods suchas droughts. Over time, however, climate and weather patterns usually settle down and return to normal

    Gavin et al: why don’t you guys go to a nearby Amish settlement and ask the elders about climate. They have no TV’s and radio’s to influence thier views on climate.

    [Response: Harold, why don’t you go to small settlement in Arctic Canada (as I have) and ask the elders about climate?–eric]

  28. 78

    Tim Joslin @68: “scientific discussion might sometimes benefit from tough, independent mediation.”

    One problem with such a notion is that the only way such mediation can be of any real service is if the mediator(s) are as competent in the subject at hand as the mediated. Otherwise, alll you have is an outside influence peddaling argumentum ad vericundiam conclusions in a manner not unlike the politically motivated activists attempting to legislate climate science while wrapping themselves in the flag of “skeptic” or “heretic.”

    On the other hand, if they DO have the requisite level of expertise to make a meaningful judgment, then they are not “independent;” they are, in point of fact, members of the scientific community they are supposed to mediate. But then, you have exactly the situation we have now, in which the broader peer-review system plugs along and corrects its errors by the built in feedback loops of the system.

    The point you seemed to miss in your discussion @54 are exactly the challenges to the Standard Model of cosmology that are so ready to hand in the peer-review literature. When I first began looking into this subject in 2004, the number of articles that would come up using the search string I gave in my @57 was in the neighborhood of 75. When I did that same search just a few minutes ago, I came up with 1545 independent hits. John Moffat (from U. Toronto, I believe) just published a book on alternatives to the SM.

    There is pretty obvious tension in the ranks of gravitational cosmologists. The system is doing what it is supposed to do.

  29. 79
    Sean Hutton says:

    One of the problems for scientists in entering public debates is we do not operate on a level playing field. Scientists strive for honesty (or at least try to present data which is accurate). To falsify data is to commit scientific fraud – a crime which usually (quite rightly) leads to the end of a scientists career. In public discourse people are not held to the same level of honesty. This has implications well beyond the issue of global warming. How can democracies function if the public is lied to or miss informed. I would be interested to know what readers here think. Do we need enhanced defamation laws to prevent the distortion and misrepresentation of scientific research?

  30. 80
    Mike Palin says:

    The last few lines from the documentary “Out of Thin Air” ( mentioned in Richard Somerville’s recent piece in Climate Change summed it up nicely: “Knowledge is power and we have got to find a way to empower every one of our citizens. If they understand the basic principles about the world, they will manage their lives better.” To which I would add, the ability to see through emotive advertising designed to manipulate economic, social and political choice. Reason and reasonableness are under assault in the US. It started with public education being denied sufficient funding, introduction of mindless standardization, and fear to teach subjects such as evolution. It has now gotten to the point where the willfully ignorant can not only run for political office, but have a good chance of winning.

  31. 81
    Mike Palin says:

    Oops, got the documentary title wrong. It is “Minds of our Own—Lessons from Thin Air.”

  32. 82
    Snapple says:

    I just read that Victor Chernomyrdin the former head of the Soviet Gas Ministry and its post-Soviet reincarnation Gazprom has died.

    The Koch-funded Cato Institute denialist Andrei Illarionov used to work for Chernomyrdin. And Putin.

    Did you scientists know that during Stalin’s time the father of the Koch brothers helped Stalin build oil refineries in the Soviet Union?

    Greenpeace wrote that.

    I added these two bits of information onto my latest post.

    [I would be very interested if some experts would comment about this article. Does what I wrote make sense to you?]

    You scientists don’t say much at all about the Russian role in denialism.

    Here is a good quote that explains a lot in a nutshell.

    “In Western Europe, Moscow has operated by making lucrative arrangements with foreign energy companies that become de facto lobbyists for the Kremlin within their own countries.”—“Why The Russia Spy Story Really Matters” (RFE/RL, 7-9-10)

  33. 83
    SecularAnimist says:

    Harold Pierce Jr. wrote: “That the earth seems small and there seems to be more extreme weather events is due to instant world wide communications systems in particular satellite TV.”

    So, when the World Meteorological Organization stated in August that “diverse extreme weather events are occurring concurrently around the world, giving rise to an unprecedented loss of human life and property … all the events cited above compare with, or exceed in intensity, duration or geographical extent, the previous largest historical events … The occurrence of all these events at almost the same time raises questions about their possible linkages to the predicted increase in intensity and frequency of extreme events, for example, as stipulated in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007”, it is your view that the scientists of the WMO said this because they watch too much TV?

  34. 84
    David B. Benson says:

    Harold Pierce Jr @77 — That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all day.

    Thanks for the chuckle.

  35. 85
    John Byatt says:

    Bet ya $50 {Australian,its worth more} that this comes out as

    “Gavin backs down”

  36. 86
    Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Eric says: Harold, why don’t you go to small settlement in Arctic Canada (as I have) and ask the elders about climate?

    Good idea. If I ever win the BC 6/49 Lotto for megamillions, I’ll lease a really big cruise ship for trip up the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Alaska. I’ll invite all the regulars from the blogs that I visit everyday. All expenses paid including first class air travel to and from Vancouver.. Even Joe and Rommans will get an invite

    This would have been a great year for such an event. A near record-breaking 35 million salmon returned to the Fraser River. This is the biggest run since 1913. So much for the claims that the plankton populations have been reduced by ca 40% due to “global warming”.

    RE: Cryoconite Dust in Greenland.

    There is an interesting artice in the June Nat Geo that has pictures of cryoconite, a brown mineral dust that orginates from NA continents and is carried by wind currents and is deposited on the ice sheets on Greenland.
    This causes the ice to melt at an accelerated rate.

    I ask this simple guestion: Since 1900, where have all the many billions of pounds of rubber and asphalt dust gone? The short simple answer is anywhere and everywhere like the snow in Arctic.

  37. 87
    Septic Matthew says:

    76, gavin

    Thanks again.

  38. 88
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Tim Joslin,
    I’m not sure where you are getting your ideas of how science works. They don’t bear much correspondence with my experience as a scientist. First, when looking at repetition vs replication, you have to look at the errors you are trying to minimize/estimate. It doesn’t matter whether the data favor the theory or not. You still treat them with the same probabilistic techniques and models.

    And your characterization of scientific consensus as “more scientists saying one thing than another at a given point in time” is simply naive. The understanding I’ve arrived at of scientific consensus is that it consists of those ideas, techniques, theories… without which one cannot make progress in a field. Science is hardly democratic. One Enrico Fermi trumps hundreds of also-rans.

    Finally, I’m glad you want to see scientists looking into natural variability–because that is precisely what they are doing. It is one of the most active areas of research AT THE CUTTING EDGE of climate science.

    I’m not sure where you are getting the idea that science is broken. It is working just fine–it’s the politics that are jamming up the works.

  39. 89
    Menth says:

    @SecularAnimist #83

    While I’m sure you’re no Pielke Jr fan he had a post about that back in August, it’s kinda his forte.

  40. 90
    Thomas says:

    John Massey@66:
    I love your analogy about scientific method as ECC code, and much current public debate as not even have a parity bit. I fear the later is a design feature, not a bug.

  41. 91
    John N-G says:

    #77 Climate bars, eh? Personally I prefer to patronize error bars. Unfortunately, they’re always screwing up my drink orders, and the best ones are so small I can’t even fit inside.

    Come to think of it, “Box & Whisker” would make a great name for a bar.

  42. 92
    Alex Katarsis says:

    To 73, 74

    Yes, I know.

    I guess everyone missed that I was using Dark Matter as a metaphor for AGW – as have others before me. In my case, it began with BPL’s question, “…how do you explain” it? To which I answer, “The number of possibilities are infinite”. Scientists hate saying “I don’t know”, so they take the undefined and define it. E voila, credibility where there was none!

    I don’t have to discover a better solution than the vaguely defined “Dark Matter” abstraction (or some imaginary number for that matter). I just have to watch for predictability and consistency – because i’m the one you’re asking to fund the research.

    And Schroedinger’s equation is the antithesis of all this. Boundless application, high predictability and, as yet, no logical explanation, beyond…”it must BE, because…there it is”. Just try saying it once in a while. It will make you all feel better. “We don’t know.”

  43. 93
    Matt Camp says:

    Dear Climate Scientists. Just call out the climate denial what it is: an advertising campaign…thats it. Don’t waste your time with numbers…the denialists are doing that to drain your energy.

    The choice to the public is between a group of intelligent people who work hard for most their lives looking at millions of data points….and something some guy posted up on the internet.

    We the public don’t have to believe the denialists…its just one of the millions of internet conspiracy theories posted up there.

    Make your arguments simpler, don’t let the denial crowd tie you up in knots. This is more about standing up to the school bully than it is about putting out good numbers. All you have to do is pop them a few times and they’ll leave you alone.

  44. 94
    dhogaza says:

    Harold Pierce:

    This would have been a great year for such an event. A near record-breaking 35 million salmon returned to the Fraser River. This is the biggest run since 1913. So much for the claims that the plankton populations have been reduced by ca 40% due to “global warming”.

    Cherry pick much? Or only always …

    But I am curious, on the one hand you argue that global warming isn’t happening, but on the other hand, you seem to be gloating over the fact that non-existent global warming has led to (in your pinhead mind) a large salmon run in the Fraser River this year.

  45. 95
    Gilles says:

    Gavin : “An example: for the IPCC statement that P(AGW > 50% of 1955-2005 trend) > 95%, the situation is best visualised as a Gaussian of the total AGW trend of that period. This is uncertain of course (dependent on the forcings, magnitude of internal variability, sensitivity of the model, ocean heat uptake etc.), but based on the AR4 modelling is something like N(0.6,0.1) (i.e. the forced trend estimate is centered around 0.6ºC, but with 0.1ºC standard deviation in the estimates) (numbers reasonable, but not precise).”

    as far as I understand, this probability is deduced from a statistics over a sample of models : do you mean that it depend on this sample? for instance, it would change if you added a number of wrong models in the sample, and if these false models would overestimate the real CO2 sensitivity, P(AGW > 50% of 1955-2005 trend) > 95% would actually increase, the more wrong models you add ?

    [Response: If you widened the spread of sensitivities you would be increasing the sd and so you will reduce the the confidence. -gavin]

  46. 96
    Donald Oats says:

    This is why I still enjoy reading RealClimate…always an education.

    In Australia our media – print media that is – are too obsessed with political mileage in a story, and consequently the facts are only incidental to the narrative, as they refer to it. Now and then a really good piece of science journalism slips by the chief editor, fortunately. These days, I usually google a story’s quoted sources in order to get to the scientific source: if google() is a function it sometimes feels like google(google(google(source))) is necessary, in order to get past the layers of PR and Media Release variants and to the scientist(s) at the other end of that piece of string!

  47. 97
    Edward Greisch says:

    Don’t let the denialists get away with the “Galileo was a heretic” argument for spouting nonsense. The proper response is: “Video proof David Koch, the polluting billionaire, pulls the strings of the Tea Party extremists”
    The Koch brothers own Koch Oil Company. Each of the Koch brothers, David H. and Charles, is worth $21.5 Billion.

    Koch Inc. also deals in coal. My second ex-wife/girlfriend was involved as a negotiator in a $6 Million deal where Koch sold a shipload of Chinese coal to Italy. She is a native speaker of Chinese. She quit working for Koch a long time ago.

    Of course you want to shoot down Potemkin heresies. But like all propaganda, the soldier-words are intended to be killed. They are there to keep you from targeting the real enemy, just as Potemkin’s village was a decoy. My suggestion is that you should ignore the decoys and direct your attention to the perpetrators.

  48. 98
    Edward Greisch says:

    Snapple: We hear you and the government hears you. My guess is that your information will hit the fan at a time determined by a politician.

  49. 99

    There are three issues which need to be addressed when talking about the media and science reporting. The language (Lakoff does a wonderful job in in defining its importance of in the media), consolidation of the news sources (means shorter stories and manufactured consent) and the type of medium. The upshot of this is that there is no escape for scientists. We have to become involved in the mainstream media and understand its workings as a visceral extension of our normal scientific work. The media interface to the public, whether we like it or not is there and without scientific participation, we leave it to the hacks and vested interests. Though there are now science courses available for the media to “brush up” on science so to speak, it is not enough. However some post secondary institutions have realized (like Mount Saint Vincent University) that training scientists to communicate through the media is a major step in the right direction. It doesn’t matter that we don’t like the current state of affairs and silliness that is the media. We have to set about taking control of the messages we send out, not only for our own purposes, but also for media purposes.

  50. 100
    Alan of Oz says:

    Gavin – A great article that could not be written without a deep understanding and passion for science. Sagan himself could not have done a better job.