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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. 101
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Matt Camp,
    You’re almost right. It’s an advertising campaign telling people something they desperately want to believe. The messengers carrying good news rarely became martyrs–whether the news was true or not.

  2. 102
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Alex Katarsis,
    We do know what is causing the climate to warm–with 90% confidence. Maybe you should look into it.

  3. 103
    MrHenderson says:

    I’ve heard and read people who explicitly claim that they always back the ‘heretics’ because ‘all new ideas start out as heresies’. I always wonder what such people would do if the heresy overturned the orthodoxy, and became the new orthodoxy. Wouldn’t they be forced by their own logic to reject the very idea they’d supported, and look for a new heresy to champion?

  4. 104
    Kevin C says:

    Secular Animist #49:

    Thanks for drawing attention to that paper. I think you’ve highlighted a bigger point too though.

    Gavin’s done a good job of raising a different perspective on the climate issues in this post, but a lot of the content is not climatology, but sociology, with a bit of political science and epistemology thrown in.

    Which highlights a problem. We’re now blundering about in someone else’s field making assertions all over the radar.

    There seems to be an active literature of the sociology surrounding climate science. Is now the time to look for some guest authors to put together a series on the issues? A better understanding of how different groups of non-scientist think and how they perceive climate may also give us a better perspective on how to communicate science effectively.

  5. 105
    Snapple says:

    I would really appreciate it if some climate scientists who run this blog could read my article and the supporting links and tell me if I got this right. I can’t tell if some of the science makes sense or is pseudoscience.

    But one thing stands out.

    An RIA Novosti article Cuccinelli supposedly “cites,” in his brief to the EPA (“Russia affected by Climategate”) claims:

    “Climategate has already affected Russia. On Tuesday, the Moscow-based Institute of Economic Analysis (IEA) issued a report claiming that the Hadley Center…had probably tampered with Russian-climate data.”

    Cuccinelli found it necessary to “fix” the “proof” he “cites” from his RIA Novosti article (RIA Novosti is the official press agency of the Russian government):

    Cuccinelli’s brief claims:

    “On December 15, 2009—the very day that EPA announced the Endangerment Finding—the Russian Institute of Economic Analysis (“IEA”) reported that CRU probably tampered with Russian climate data and that the Russian meteorological station data do not support human-caused global warming. ”

    Cuccinelli is mischaracterizing his official Russian “experts.” He changes Hadley to CRU. Novosti says Hadley “tampered.” Cuccinelli says CRU “tampered.”

    So why would he quote a Kremlin mouthpiece as “proof” that scientists are cooking the books and then find it necessary to “fix” what his “experts” wrote?

    I think he probably did this because Hadley is responsible for sea-surface temperatures and the accusation was that Hadley ignored temperatures from weather stations (on the land).

    Cuccinelli is such a tool. He accuses scientists of fabricating but he mischaracterizes the sources in his own footnotes.

    Here is how it seems to me, but maybe you understand some of the Novosti article that I don’t understand. Or maybe the “science” in the RIA Novosti article Cuccinelli cites is just garbage.

    I was a Republican for 40 years, but now I voted Democrat because I saw that these people are mouthpieces for the Russian petrostate.

    They only want smaller government so that these big companies and their bought politicians can rule over us and not have any rules. At least with government, you can vote them out. We can’t vote out Koch or Cuccinelli’s father the gas lobbyist with “European clients.”

    Corporations have to be good citizens and think of the good of society and the world. I think they are just collaborating with the propaganda of the Russian petrostate.

    Cuccinelli’s observation here about the “very day” actually suggests that Illarionov is a Kremlin mouthpiece, in spite of his “falling out” with Putin:

    “On December 15, 2009—the very day that EPA announced the Endangerment Finding—the Russian Institute of Economic Analysis (“IEA”) reported that CRU probably tampered with Russian climate data and that the Russian meteorological station data do not support human-caused global warming.”

    The IEA is Illarionov, although RIA Novosti just refers to “experts.”

    Illarionov used to be an adviser to Putin. He also worked for Victor Chernomyrdin, who was the head of the Soviet Gas Ministry and its post-Soviet reincarnation as a stock company, Gazprom. The government owns more than half the Gazprom stock. They are glad for you to invest, but they will control things.

    Illarionov is also a denialist for the Koch-funded Cato Insititute. Koch built the Russian oil refineries during Stalin’s time.

    It seems to me that the Cato Institute is an outpost of the Russian petrostate’s propaganda apparatus.

    I wonder if the Tea Party rank and file who think that their leaders are for states’ rights and smaller government know who is behind their movement.

  6. 106
    Tim Joslin says:

    @Ray Ladbury #88:

    You wrote:

    “And your characterization of scientific consensus as ‘more scientists saying one thing than another at a given point in time’ is simply naive.”

    whereas what I actually said in #75 was:

    “My point is that scientific progress doesn’t rely on more scientists saying one thing than another at a given point in time.”

    Note the use of the word “doesn’t”.

  7. 107

    I find the most compelling argument against the denial case is that the fossil fuel industry (the most profitable in the world though Apple is catching up) could easily afford to fund real science to take down the mainstream if it were seriously flawed. Instead, they give relatively minor funding to lobbyists, cranks, amateurs and retired scientists to confuse the media and hence the public. Why? Because they asked their own world-class scientists, who told them they don’t have a case. A NY Times article April 2009 reported that exactly this has happened. More here.

    Repeating this line is a stronger argument than trying to educate the public about the science. It’s easy to understand than any scientific argument.

    A first for me: Captcha has one of the words upside down.

  8. 108
    Walter Pearce says:

    Mr. Machanick (106)–I apologize for mentioning this here, but are you aware that your blogspot site is running Google ads for the Heartland Institute?

  9. 109
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    I read a lot of the “C-a-s” thread alluded to above. For as long as I wanted to read, Curry never acknowledged that her position was based on a non-sequitur. In the face of every objection, she just repeated her point.

    That’s good old science like Grandma used to make.

    Why is Curry considered a good critic?

  10. 110
    Mike Roddy says:

    Snapple, you’re on to something with the Russians.

    Climategate was a joint operation of the Koch brothers and KGB remnants, acting in concert with Russian oil interests. CRU emails were loaded onto a Russian server. The CIA, with its own ties to the oil industry, has shown little interest in investigating. Russian and US oil companies have many common interests, especially including denying global warming and retaining their markets.

    We’ll never be able to prove this. If a reporter even looked into it in detail, he would be murdered. If somehow the truth emerged, our newspapers and TV outlets would not broadcast the information.

    Look what they did a year ago. It’s as if the Washington Post reported the Watergate breakin like this: “Phone conversations and meeting notes have proved that Larry O’Brien and Democratic Party leaders are saying bad things about the Republicans. These snarky scientists need to be investigated”.

    Scientists are not going to be inclined to run with our even ponder this theory, which is logical but impossible to prove. But somebody should.

  11. 111


    Am I the only one no longer permitted to post about dark matter? Because there seem to have been about 20 posts on the subject since you warned me.

    [Response: I’m currently a long way away from my office, and with only intermittent access to the net. Thus, I am just trying to shepherd discussions, rather than actively manage them. Please, let us not get further involved in a discussion of dark matter here. There are other places for that. – gavin]

  12. 112
    Steve Fitzpatrick says:


    This is a well written and interesting piece, much of which makes a great deal of sense. I only comment on one part:

    “It is clear that scientists’ obsession with clear thinking over narrative handicaps our attempts to communicate the seriousness of the climate change challenge.”

    It seems to me that attempts at narrative have caused climate scientists some problems. I just don’t think scientists in general are good at a narrative, and attempts at narrative are often counterproductive. Narrative is just too political; rightly or wrongly, narrative makes people question the science.

    [Response: But if the media don’t use narratives, no-one ever gets to hear about the science in the first place. You see the problem. – gavin]

  13. 113
    Dan H. says:

    Talk about disinformation. While the Koch brothers indisputable started and continue to fund the Cato Institute. Claiming that they are an arm of Russian propaganda is ludicrous.
    Let me see if I follow your logic. Koch funds Russian oil refineries, Koch fund Cato. Therefore Russian propaganda runs Cato. Something is missing here. Maybe we should add that atmospheric CO2 is not really increasing, but is just Russian propaganda.

  14. 114

    Dan, I wouldn’t say I thoroughly “believe” all of Snapple’s conclusions. However, I think your summary (currently #113) rather understates his points.

    He’s provided facts–I haven’t checked them but will provisionally call them that–that would reasonably suggest a long-term relationship between the Koch family and the Russian oligarchy (or some subset thereof, at least.) He’s demonstrated the existence of a Russian denialist effort, though he may be overstating its pervasiveness–maybe not, too, Russia is clearly a petrostate par excellence and has a huge stake in the status quo. He’s pointed to Illarionov contributing denialist talking points to both Cato and IEA.

    I don’t think this proves that Cato is just “an outpost of the Russian petrostate’s propaganda apparatus,” as Snapple puts it. It seems more likely to me that it’s more a case of entities with common interests sharing resources/personnel, despite the existence of significant differences in other areas. In other words, my guess would be that it’s more a case of Cato playing footsie with the Russians than anything else.

    But either way, it makes a pretty piquant narrative–especially WRT those denialists who consider themselves to be uber-patriots.

  15. 115
    Leonard Evens says:

    Alex says

    “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.”

    I’m not sure what he would accept as knowing something.

    Schroedinger’s equation was derived from the idea that there was some sort of wave controlling behavior at the atomic and subatomic level, which developed by analogy with the behavior of light which in some ways seemed a particle (photon) and other ways a wave (interference). But like any other basic equation used in physics, it can’t be derived by purely logical deduction from something “we know”. Newton’s first law of motion F = ma is similar. It was postulated by Newton, not derived logically from something else. In logic, you have to start somewhere, i.e., with what are often called axioms. In Physics the starting points are justified, not by applying pure logic, but because logical deductions from them correspond to observations. The human brain arose by a complex evolutionary process during our prehistory. It helped us as a species survive, at least for a time. It was not formed through direct experience with atomic and subatomic level processes. So that our intuition fails when we study such processes is not surprising.. Fortunately, mathematics gives us a mechanism for doing so. Why that is so is not clear, and there are lots of theories about it. It could be said that we don’t really know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use what it tells us profitably. The hope in physics is to derive a one set of “equations”—actually mathematical structures—from which all phenomenon can in principle be derived. At present it is not clear if that will succeed. But in any event, physics will continue to use “equations” and mathematical derivation in order to study physical processes.

  16. 116
    richard french says:

    Re Snapple. I am not defending Koch’s politics, but I believe that the reason the Koch family became supporters of right wing causes was the elder Koch’s experience in the Soviet Union in the ’30s. Yes, Koch worked for Stalin, but it didn’t make a fellow traveller (to use an antique term) of him; rather, it made him a founding supporter of the John Birch Society.
    The more time Real Climate spends on science, and the less on ad hominem arguments/discussions, the better, because there is no shortage of ad hominem argumentation in our public discourse, but there is an acute shortage of science education and argumentation.

    [Response: Well stated. Back to the topic at hand everyone.–Jim]

  17. 117
    Radge Havers says:

    Steve Fitzpatrick @ 112

    Just my two cents here. There are techniques of presentation that borrow from the arts which scientists could use effectively with the general public. That the proper application of them is a slippery work in progress shouldn’t discourage efforts in that direction.

    Personally I’d just caution against blindly accepting all the grotty baggage that comes with current media culture as–for example–in certain circles ‘narrative’ seems to have become a life-sucking buzz word and a way to avoid expending mental energy.

  18. 118
    Snapple says:

    “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)

    My question is not about Russian “active measures” against climate science.

    My question is about the accuracy of my interpretation of the reason that Cuccinelli changed Hadley Center into CRU when he “cited” the RIA Novosti article in his EPA brief.

    Why does Cuccinelli change Hadley Center “probably tampered” with data to CRU “probably tampered” with data.

    If a scholar did this, it would be called mischaracterization. He would have to explain himself.

    I would like a scientist who runs this blog and is an expert on what Hadley and CRU do with their data to read the RIA Novosti article and explain what it is saying and why it is nonsense.

    Why did Cuccinelli cite this official Russian source and then change what it said–or so it seems to me.

  19. 119
    Snapple says:


    I am trying to get my science question answered.

  20. 120
    Susan Anderson says:

    I love reading these articles and the comments, which when I have time I go through in detail, including looking at links. Due to some difficulties with a new favorite over at DotEarth, Lubos Motl the string theorist from Czechoslovakia the “Marc Marono of Cz.. I’ve been closing following the Russian side with its links to the original hack, not established I know, and some of you have helped with info.

    I think the facts about multi-denialist think tanks includew deep roots in the decades, back to big tobacco and the Luntz doctrine “create doubt”. Russia has only emerged in the light as a kind of uncontracted partner recently.

    However, this is way too political and mostly what I wanted to say was thanks.

  21. 121
    Dan H. says:

    Hadley and CRU are the same entitiy, often abbreviated HadCRU. It is a research unit of East Anglia University in the U.K. I would not read any more into the change.

    [Response: Total nonsense. They are two entirely separate entities. It really isn’t that hard to check these things. “HadCRU’ refers to a joint product based on the combination of CRU (part of the University of East Anglia, in Norwich UK) and Hadley Centre (part of the UK Met Office, in Exeter UK) products (historically, CRU has produced the land air temperatures, while the Hadley Centre has processed the ocean SST data. The global combined land+ocean product is HadCRU). –mike]

  22. 122
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Snapple, I might suggest going over to Deepclimate. He and John Mashey have found some rather interesting connections and might be able to help provide insight and context.

  23. 123
    SecularAnimist says:

    Climate scientists have, in fact, about the most gripping and compelling “narrative” one can imagine:

    Our carbon pollution is destroying the capacity of the Earth to support life and if we don’t do something about it fast, we are going to face horrific consequences ranging from (at a minimum) human suffering on an unthinkable scale, to a worst-case scenario of the mass extinction of most life on Earth.

    That’s a pretty powerful narrative, and it elicits very powerful responses, from an urgent desire to address the problem, to spontaneous “denial” in the psychological sense of that term.

    The problem is not that scientists don’t have a good “narrative” on which to hang the details of climate science.

    The problem is two-fold.

    First, wealthy and powerful corporations with a billion dollars per day in profit riding on continued business-as-usual consumption of fossil fuels are flooding the mass media, the political process, and the public discourse in general, with a phony, deceitful “counter-narrative”, namely that scientists are corruptly perpetrating a massive hoax and/or are incompetent idiots.

    Second, scientists are unwilling to forthrightly state their own powerful “narrative”, preferring to dispassionately and — sorry to be blunt — rather boringly and pedantically lecture the public about the nuances of the scientific process.

    When asked, “is this most recent unprecedented, highly destructive extreme weather event a result of anthropogenic global warming”, the RIGHT answer — the “narrative” answer — is “This is exactly the sort of event that theory predicts will result from global warming, and just as predicted we are seeing unprecedented, increasing numbers of such events all over the world, and if we keep going as we are, it’s going to get a whole lot worse.”

    The WRONG answer — the “non-narrative” answer which scientists love to give — is “Well, you can’t attribute any individual weather event to AGW. Now let me explain to you how science works …”

    Nobody has a clearer view of the actual ongoing planetary catastrophe that is unfolding before our very eyes than do climate scientists. That’s what they need to bring to the public discourse.

    People don’t need to “understand climate science”. They need to understand that terrible things are happening to the Earth, right now, which will impact their lives in hideous ways.

  24. 124
    Edward Greisch says:

    Jim: I think you are wrong on Snapple in 116 richard french. It isn’t about ad hominem arguments/discussions. And the Kochs are not “conservative” in the sense of American patriotism or anti-communism. Communism is long since dead.

    It is that corporations are QUASI-GOVERNMENTS. RealClimate is a “revolutionary” society that “is trying to take power” away from the billionaires. Corporations are multi-national and loyal to no national government. The billionaires want to shrink the national governments to zero so that the corporations will be the only government. If that happens, the rest of us will be slaves. Already the top 1% has more money than the bottom 95%. The US already has as much inequality as some third world countries.

    You, Jim, are a “subversive.” You need to realize this so that you can plan your life realistically. Koch, Inc. tried to tell my wife how to vote, saying that voting for Democrats would cause the Koch employees to be unemployed. She was a new citizen at that time and didn’t understand how wrong that is. I wouldn’t put it past Koch to use their employees to create Tea Party rallies.

    It is no use to quit talking about this because you are already marked as a subversive.

  25. 125
    Maya says:

    SA, wow, that’s a VERY good distinction between answers. Both of them are correct, both of them (eventually) give you the same information, but one of them 1) sounds a lot more urgent than the other, and 2) fits in with the 144-character attention span of most of the public.

    Climate science needs a really good marketing campaign…

    ReCaptcha says “morally cohadjoi” :D

  26. 126
    Paul Melanson says:

    My thanks for addressing this subject here. Recent events have been disturbing to say the least. I always believed that “at the length, truth will out,” but we may not have the luxury of waiting.

    I went to a college that required study in depth outside the school your major was in. Perhaps there needs to be a movement to not only get nascent climate scientists to study communications and politics, but to get journalists and politicians to study science. Oh yeah, and a way of traveling back in time 50 years to start it when it could have some effect today.

  27. 127

    Gavin (112) comments:
    “[Response: But if the media don’t use narratives, no-one ever gets to hear about the science in the first place. You see the problem. – gavin]”

    Exactly! Many scientists don’t appreciate this at all. Doesn’t mean it’s always, or even usually, done properly, but the principle is important to keep in mind

  28. 128
    CM says:


    Whether ‘CRU’ or ‘Hadley’ isn’t the point, and it really isn’t worth the scientists’ time. What matters is whether the allegations of ‘tampering’ with Russian met station data make sense — they never did, as was plain from the Russian think-tank’s own report.
    But the “narrative” did get a lot of traction, unfortunately.

  29. 129
    Maya says:

    Menth, I don’t think the average person thinks the politics precede the science. The average person doesn’t think about it at all, and wouldn’t have any idea what preceded what, even if they did.

    I fail to see your point, so I guess I’ll never understand, either, but you could at least TRY to explain it?

  30. 130
    Hank Roberts says:

    “menth” — which “this way of thinking” do you mean?

    Is this (edited) part understandable to you?

    “This is the sort of event predicted with global warming.
    As predicted we are seeing more such events.
    If we keep going as we are,
    it’s going to get a whole lot worse.”

  31. 131
    SecularAnimist says:

    @Menth #123:

    If you can’t bother to explain what you think is wrong with what you think I think is some “way of thinking” then why should I bother to read your comment?

    And I understand quite well what is “wrong with climate politics”. It’s not hard to understand:

    The fossil fuel corporations have have spent many tens of millions of dollars over the last three decades to buy off politicians and deceive the public about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

    That’s what’s “wrong with climate politics”.

  32. 132
  33. 133
    Radge Havers says:


    Er, if you can’t be bothered to elaborate then you will never, ever understand why the average reader would think your comment puts political posturing before contributing to the discussion.

  34. 134
    Edward Greisch says:

    123 SecularAnimist is correct. The “scientific” answer causes the average person to turn off and never hear the second sentence. Sorry, but perfection is the enemy of communication. I agree with RC that the more scientific answer is better and is required if you are talking to scientists. Sorry again, but we live in the age of sound bytes. We live in the world of Twitter. I don’t use Twitter, so I must be anti-social.

    The average person doesn’t think and doesn’t read. The average reader is NOT the average person. People who think RC is doing political posturing do so because that is what the Koch brothers told them, not because they did any of their own thinking. Much of the hassle you get is probably from paid disinformers. Do you realize how many people you can buy for a billion dollars?

    IF anybody is still listening for a second or third sentence, THEN is when you can add the caveats.

  35. 135
    Didactylos says:

    SecularAnimist said “the RIGHT answer — the “narrative” answer — is …”

    Of course it is. The problem isn’t the question or the answer, but the follow-up question which completely ignores the helpful answer and shrilly insists, “But what about this specific event? Was global warming to blame?”

    And at some point, the scientist’s brain explodes, and the journalist gets their soundbite. Even if the scientist stays completely level-headed, unethical journalists are quite able to spin (lie and misquote) the scientist’s answers to suit whatever narrative the journalist favours.

    I think the RIGHT right answer must focus on probability. People like hearing the odds, and journalists love that sort of stuff. “This sort of storm used to be a 1 in 100 year occurrence. Thanks to global warming, it is now a 1 in 5 year occurrence.” The problem is that such attributions are terribly difficult to calculate, and if events are unfolding, scientists are unlikely to have the right numbers to hand.

  36. 136
    Radge Havers says:

    Edward Greisch @ 135

    Just for the record, I mostly argree with Secular Animist and was responding (@134) to Menth’s criptic stub @129.

    If I had to quibble with SA’s comment, I’d say that both examples are ‘narrative’, just that one is better than the other for certain audiences.

  37. 137
    Radge Havers says:

    Hank @ 133

    Government organization hasn’t kept up with advances in science and technology. Maybe something like adaptive management writ large is needed. A better informed public would help too.


    Re my previous comment: that should read ‘cryptic’ not ‘criptic’.

  38. 138
    SecularAnimist says:

    Starting in 1966, packs of cigarettes sold in the USA were required to have a warning message from the US Surgeon General printed on them.

    The original warning read “Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health”.

    In 1970 the required warning was changed to “The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health”.

    In 1985, the required warning was changed to “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy”.

    Would it have been better if the warning had read “No individual case of lung cancer, heart disease or emphysema can be proved to be caused by smoking cigarettes”?

  39. 139
    Alex Katarsis says:

    Ray says, “We do know what is causing the climate to warm–with 90% confidence. Maybe you should look into it.”

    Evidence that global warming is an actual crisis gives us nowhere near that level of confidence. Now the MWP is getting increasing hot and sticky in the Southern Hemisphere as well – thanks to some very solid peer-reviewed evidence coming from Peru, Brazil, South Africa, and soon Australia. [edit]
    With what level of confidence do you “know” why that period was as warm as it was?

    Of course, the new thorns in your side are probably from fossil Larch stem fragments found in Piancabella Rock Glacier in the South Swiss Alps. It puts the tree line 200 meters higher than the mid 1900s. The calculations indicate that the mean summer temperature in the Southern Swiss Alps, between 1040 and 1280 AD, was 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than the same area in 1950. [edit]

    In terms of Quantum Mechanics, which are becoming increasingly macroscopic by the day, we don’t know with a 90% surety that the moon is actually there when we no one is looking at it – let alone can we attribute GW primarily to human activity within a similar level of confidence. Pardon me for having little faith in modern science’s ability to fully comprehend something as complex as Earth’s Climate within that narrow margin. I just find that attribution to be evidence of bias.

  40. 140

    Evidence that global warming is an actual crisis

    Since you don’t actually define ‘crisis’ in this case, I find your scientific reasoning to be poor. I define crisis as any disruption of global or regional agricultural production, that puts further strain in the global economic system, which is demonstrably already very close to its own ‘tipping point’. Thus I find few problems with the concept of global climate disruption driven by physical weather changes as reaching a ‘critical transition point’, as a viable hypothesis well supported by the evidence.

    Pardon me for having little faith in modern science’s ability to fully comprehend something as complex as Earth’s Climate within that narrow margin. I just find that attribution to be evidence of bias.

    Science isn’t about faith, with the exemption that is we can’t continue to design and construct instruments which give us useful results, then the entire house of cards still hasn’t fallen, we just need to work on the precision and reproducibility of the results. I find it remarkable that you think you can bring down the house of cards with such weak evidence.

    Yes, science deals with evidence, not faith, so your faith is irrelevant. Good luck with bringing down the house of cards that you think is science. Even after civilization collapses, the methods of science will endure.

  41. 141
    tamino says:

    We’re in a fight for the health and safety of the world.

    The best defense is a good offense.

  42. 142
    Harold Pierce Jr says:

    SecularAnimist on 5 November 2010 at 5:35 PM

    I have walked twenty miles a day for over 40 years, have throughly enjoyed every step of the way, and my blood pressure is 110/70.

    The incident of disease from smoking is low for consumption of less than a pack day. Increased consumption of more than one pack (e.g., two packs per day) results an very large increase of the incident of disease.

  43. 143
    tamino says:

    Re: #140 (Alex Katarsis)

    I’ll bet you also have “little faith in modern science’s ability to fully comprehend something as complex” as the effect of cigarette smoking on the human body. What’s more complex than that? Perhaps you find the attribution of lung cancer to cigarette smoking to be evidence of bias.

  44. 144
    Snapple says:

    I’m glad to see I’m not the dumbest one on this blog.

  45. 145
    David B. Benson says:

    Snapple @145 — :-)

  46. 146
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Alex Katarsis says, “In terms of Quantum Mechanics, which are becoming increasingly macroscopic by the day, we don’t know with a 90% surety that the moon is actually there when we no one is looking at it – let alone can we attribute GW primarily to human activity within a similar level of confidence.”

    You know, I was going to go through your whole argument and shred it, but the above statement illustrates your astounding ignorance better than any argument I could ever make. Dude, do you even know what quantum mechanics is?

  47. 147
    Alex Katarsis says:

    The fine editor will publish comments such as 145 and 146, while similarly [edit]ing my own sarcastic remarks. So here is a truthful opinion (which like my faith in climate science, is personal): blogs such as this one, while powerful devices for intercommunication in many fields of study, create worrisome currents of group thought which adversely bias the advancement of science. By tuning in so regularly to a blog in which only dissenting points of view are allowed to be casually demeaned, each scientist learns very quickly which “what-ifs” are fair game for discussion and which are not. We would do well to remember that many heroes of science from the past have been dissenters – not from the opinion of the public or clergy alone, but from their own peers.

    As for the evidence of our smoking problem causing cancer, I personally refer back to the Medieval Smoking Period, where literally thousands of people were coughing and keeling over in the grape vineyards. Apparently, it was an uncomfortable time to be an agriculturalist – let alone a human.

  48. 148
    Hank Roberts says:

    > I have walked twenty miles a day
    Mail carrier?

  49. 149
    Alex Katarsis says:

    Ray.. I aced the class…as well as Special Relativity. A course you apparently did not ace was Elements of Poetry. I know precisely how successful the mathematics behind Quantum Mechanics has been. I am also well versed professionally in its application, and therein lies my point. I also know that well-buried behind it is a skeleton in the closet of science. I wasn’t the first to use that phrase by the way. Let me think…who was it? Oh well…we may yet “mathematically” unify Quantum Mechanics and Newtonian Physics. We probably just need to eliminate a couple of troublesome variables first – mostly notably Space and Time. It’s much easier to solve the equation without that pesky pair. Now feel free to shred the argument. The editor will likely cover your back.

  50. 150
    Edward Greisch says:

    138 Radge Havers: The government would have trouble with adaptive management because adaptive management requires continual change. Bureaucrats [federal employees] are required by law to do exactly what the law says to do exactly the way the law says to do it. Change is always in steps determined by congress and the election cycle. Elections cause changes in ideology and massive forgettings. You just can’t put continual change into a law.