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The obvious answer

Filed under: — rasmus @ 28 January 2011

Climate science appears to be just like any other science. At least, this is the conclusion from a fresh publication by Marianne Ryghaug and Tomas Moe Skjølsvold (“The global warming of climate science: Climategate and the construction of scientific facts” in International studies in the philosophy of science). This finding is not news to the research community, but this analysis still hints that everything is not as it should be – because why would anyone report from a crime scene if the alleged crime has not even been committed?

The background of this story (the “crime scene”) is a ‘Science and technology Study’ (STS) by Ryghaug and Skjølsvold, who attempted to make some sense out of the leaked e-mails from CRU for clues on how climate scientists work. I must admit that I sometimes see some irony when reading texts from social sciences about the ‘tribalism’ of natural sciences. For instance, many of them use a very formalised language that can be hard to follow, while they describe different parts of the science community as ‘tribes’ with its own norms, codes, and dialects.

One real difference between the ‘tribes’ of natural scientists and STS scholars may be the perception of ‘facts’: Ryghaug and Skjølsvold conclude that “scientific facts are made and not just discovered”. In contrast, I think most natural scientists feel that facts are facts, whether we know about them or not. Nuclear reactions and atoms were real, even before people knew about them. But Ryghaug and Skjølsvold’s assertion that “Fact-construction relies on persuasive skills” may give some people the wrong idea about how things work, perhaps ironically a bit like the word “trick” in the CRU e-mails.

Denial or ignorance?

Our scientific knowledge embodies the most convincing description we have of our universe, so I think they really mean that science is a ‘knowledge construction’, which involved publishing in the scientific literature, testing, review, etc. It seems to me that ‘facts’ for them refers to ‘established facts’ in the scientific knowledge. And construction is in a sense a bit like traditional mathematics which to a greater degree is based on a logical construction rather than sudden discoveries (the final answer sometimes can be seen as a discovery nevertheless).

But facts are based on discoveries too – for sure! Like the discovery of penicilin, evolution by natural selection, the DNA, and the photoelectric effect. After the discovery, findings are interpreted, and the new knowledge must find a place in the framework based on all other knowledge since we like to think that our universe is self-consistent.

Ryghaug and Skjølsvold argue that science is about communication, discussions, and persuasion. That may come as a surprise to some people, but it is fairly obvious to me. The author of Don’t be such a scientist, Randy Olson, argues that communication is an integral and essential part of sciences that cannot be separated from the objective and analytical aspects. It does a scientist no good at all if their discoveries are not effectively transmitted to the wider community.

Communication, discussions, and persuasion play a role known as “experimenter’s regress“, and this is an obvious way for science to proceed. Ideas are re-examined and tested over again for different situations, times, and settings, and findings which are consistently replicated can be regarded as a manifestation of some universal natural order. As opposed to an ‘audit’ which is limited to just one particular case, science is about approaching universal truth. Mainstream science is the consensus simply because it is most convincing.

After having studied the discussions in the CRU-emails, Ryghaug and Skjølsvold find that they suggest that climate sciences appear to be doing scientific business-as-usual. As did earlier inquiries. But this is not really the interesting part. The interesting story concerns the reactions in the aftermath of the CRU-hack and the notion of manipulation and the absence of transparency. In this story, it is a paradox that we only have seen the tip of the iceberg – what lies below the surface is hidden – while questions of manipulation and transparency has been at its heart (and hence Ryghaug and Skjølsvold’s STS study).

Since there wasn’t any improper manipulation of scientific data, the ‘manipulation’ in this story involved taking the contents in the e-mails out of context and the generation of wild accusations devoid of any real evidence. The manipulation really was about the perception of the climate research community and how that was presented in blogosphere and the media.

When it comes to transparency, I cannot think of any more murky environment than that of think tanks in which many accusers thrive. In order to be taken seriously, they need to be open too, sharing their code and raw data as they have demanded of Phil Jones and the CRU. I wanted to reproduce some results of a solar-climate study, but the authors refused to divulge their code. I have also asked to see the methods of some Norwegians who claim that climate models fail to reproduce the recent trends and have made a big fuss out of climategate – all without a positive outcome.

I think that representatives from the contrarian community are the ones who really play the shady part in the story of “Climategate”. Has anybody ever seen the original data and methods from people like Scafetta & West, Svensmark, Lindzen, Michaels, Piers Corbyn, Lomborg, Easterbrook and Douglass? I haven’t. Similarly, I have seen no clamor in the contrarian blogosphere demanding it, even while their conclusions are eagerly accepted. I agree with Ryghaug and Skjølsvold that scientific knowledge is about persuasion, which implies that evidence must be presented in a clear and transparent fashion (divulging both method and data), published in the scientific literature, and tested over time. The evidence must sway the majority and create a consensus.

It is also a mystery to me why the mainstream media has not seen the real situation concerning who played the different roles and what was actually hidden – hence it could be appropriate to rename “climategate” to “climategåte”, where “gåte” means riddle in Norwegian. We still don’t know who the hacker(s) was (were) (and hack it was).

What does the media actually see?

The media’s inability to perceive the real situation is a concern because it often holds a powerful position. Furthermore, journalism is supposed to unveil questionable practices, but apparently the media itself does not practice openness and transparency. There are questions that are relevant to the information we receive, such as: What happens in the editorial rooms and how are decisions made? What are the criteria for selecting the ‘experts’ for debates, and hence frame them from the start? What part of the story is left out in news reports (which can be considered as manipulation if citations are taken out of context or video clips are cut and re-assembled in a way that gives the wrong idea) ? I would like to confront journalists and editors with these questions, because the real difference when it comes to power is not the scientific knowledge, but how it is communicated to the policy makers and the general public. Hence, I find it quite ironic that journalists I have talked to after the CRU-hack on the one hand were so preoccupied by manipulation and transparency and on the other didn’t seem bothered about these aspects when it came to how the story was told through the media.

Hopefully some of these questions will be discussed at a seminar organised by CICERO, British council, and Oxford Global Media (‘Science to Headlines’) in Oslo on February 8.

A question that remains is whether the “climategate”-incident will end up boomeranging so that the people behind the CRU-hack will live to regret it. When the sun shines on the trolls in the old fairy tales, they burst. Shedding light on this story may do the same.

118 Responses to “The obvious answer”

  1. 101
    Lynn Vincentnatnathan says:

    Another thought. What we also need — in addition to deconstruction of denialist and social deconstructionist arguments and claims — is deconstruction of climate science in the opposite direction (on the other side of denialism).

    For instance, what is this 95% confidence, the old golden .05 p-value of significance (on the null)? What is this null business anyway? For one thing my methods/stats students find it very difficult to learn and absorb, and some think I’m fooling them that it’s a standard way of doing science, whether physical or social; some even get mad at me.

    Even if there is “only” 10% confidence (the old .90 prob on the null) that AGW is real and dangerous to life on planet earth, we should have long ago been hopping to it and mitigating it….assuming anyone out there values life on planet earth, their progeny, and their own fate. We buy home insurance on far less probability of our homes burning down to a crisp.

    See, I even fall victim to this ridiculous framing that the argument is between the scientists and denialists. How about the concerned & conscientious people, and the victims and potential victims of AGW? Their voices never seem to be heard.

  2. 102
    Lynn Vincentnatnathan says:

    And BTW, “tribe” is actually a compliment in my books. It’s the sociopolitical level of society in which members are roughly equal regarding access to power, wealth, and prestige; and if they have leaders, these leaders do not have real power, only influence; they are persons that are considered wise, good, and respected by the people; and if they violate that trust and respect, they are replaced by other leaders.

    I’d think it would be more of an insult to say a group of people is a chiefdom or state — which are hierarchical, unequal (some might say oppressive, esp true of states), with leaders that have life & death power over the people.

  3. 103
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew, The Bohr-Einstein debates were more a mater of philosophy of science than physics. The formalism of quantum theory was pretty well determined. The question was whether it represented a complete description and what the probabilistic nature of the theory meant. They really didn’t change one thing about the science. The one exception may have been the Einstin-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox, which explicitly made the weirdness of quantum entanglement manifest.

  4. 104
    Septic Matthew says:

    102, Ray Ladbury: The Bohr-Einstein debates were more a mater of philosophy of science than physics.

    I wrote that scientific knowledge is both socially constructed and accurate. An episode in the social construction includes Bohr’s counter arguments to Einstein’s criticisms, and the intense interest paid to those arguments by the other scientists. Among the debate points, asserted by Einstein and refuted by Bohr, was the possibility that Bohr’s interpretation was inconsistent with general relativity. You are not saying, I hope, that the content of their debate disputes either the social construction of scientific knowledge or its accuracy.

  5. 105
    Barry says:

    Michael W:

    Point 1 is nonsense. A young science does not mean a wrong science.

    Points2 & 3 could have been worded better, but I do sympathise with what I think you are trying to say.

    We have serious problems now, concentrating on something that will happen at some point down the line can seem trivial compared to the daily grind.

    I seem to remember hearing that last year was the highest year for emissions on record while I was under the impression we had been reducing them like crazy. (Doesn’t instil much faith in those who do make the decisions, eh Gavin?)

    What’s the man on the street supposed to do?

  6. 106
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew,
    First, quantum mechanics is a nonlocal theory, while GR is inherently local, so there is a tension. Second,the question of whether two theories are consistent is more philosophical than scientific–unless the debate proposes tests to determine which one is correct. Indeed, you need to remember that Mach cast a much longer shadow than he does today, so it was not even clear whether two theories that applied in different regimes needed to be consistent. The fact is that the formalism of quantum theory was fully mature by the time Einstein and Bohr squared off. Indeed there was even a relativistic version due to Dirac.

    In quantum mechanics, one could contend that the wave function is a construct, as it is not directly measurable. However, the wave function is a reasonable interpretation of the observable behavior of light and particles.

    Kurt Godel even thought mathematics was an empirical science that discovered rather than constructed its structure.

  7. 107
    Septic Matthew says:

    106, Ray Ladbury,

    I gather that you are committed to the idea that scientific knowledge is not socially constructed.

    For an account of the Solvay Conferences, I recommend “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, by Walter Isaacson. Not to be missed are two books by Abraham Pais: “Niel’s Bohr’s Life and Times”, and “Subtle is the Lord”. Also excellent but broader in focus is “The Philosophy of Physics” by Roberto Torretti (matrix algebra and calculus required.) About statistical thermodynamics, “Physics and Chance” by Lawrence Sklar. Less demanding is “The Social Construction of What?” by Ian Hacking.

  8. 108
    bigcitylib says:

    Jim wrote at #82:

    [Response: I’m not quite sure what you’re saying here. The point is that whatever number we come up with for the global mean temperature, is not the “fact” we are referring to.]


    A bit of an unclarity in what I wrote. If I were to say it again, I would put it: “Yet I would say it is nevertheless a fact THAT the annual average temperature for year X was y.”

    Jim again:

    To come up with a single value from a number of other values is not the “construction” to which these authors (apparently), and the postmodernists in general, are referring. The latter are alluding to something entirely more radical–essentially that there are nothing but opinions, which we construct from our thoughts and language, which in turn are the products of our culture. Everything essentially spins out of our heads and mouths. Most physical and biological scientists reject this idea as utter nonsense.–Jim]

    Me again:

    Well, I’ve only read the abstract to Ryghaug and Skjølsvold, so I would not want to speculate too much as to what they are saying. However there are lots of ways to make constructivism sound less silly than your acount. For example, and as some have pointed out down-thread, there are a number of constructivists who would hold that scientific facts are both socially constructed and objectively true.

    Jim again:

    [Response: There’s nothing wrong with asking for data, raw or otherwise. Data should be as freely available as possible for science to advance. The problem is how it gone about with respect to the various restrictions, publication rights, time and money constraints and other particularities that the requester needs to understand before going off in a self-absorbed tizzy.–Jim]

    I think Pearce’s contention is that other researchers should have PREFERRED Jone’s raw data, indeed DEMANDED it of him. And I speculate that this contention stems from the idea that raw data is “pure” and “adjusted” data somehow tampered with, where in fact its more accurate to call it “value added”.

  9. 109
    Brian Dodge says:

    Rush Limbaugh

    – On the CRU hack
    “The reason there was outrage over the stuff from the climate research center at Hadley is the fraud was exposed, and everybody participating in the fraud for the media and everybody else was ticked off that their participation in a fraud had been exposed.”
    “They’ve hacked into some major global warming scientist’s computer and they’ve found e-mail evidence — over a thousand e-mails — that the science is ginned up”
    “I don’t care how it happened, whistle-blower or a hacker.”
    “The New York Times and Washington Post are more interested in tracking down and punishing the whistle-blower than they are in publishing the now-confirmed-as-authentic e-mails and documents. ”

    – On Assange/Wikileaks
    “This little gutless wonder hates this country and he’s doing his best to harm, damage, embarrass, and impugn the country….”
    “…Greg Palkot of Fox News interviewed Assange, which means that Roger Ailes knows where he is. Ailes knows where Assange is. Give Ailes the order and there is no Assange, I’ll guarantee you, and there will be no fingerprints on it.”
    “The New York Times is among the several newspapers selected by the criminals at WikiLeaks to publish their anti-American poison.”

    A little cognitive dissonance going on there? Remind you of anything? Like some of the skeptic arguments against AGW?

    – CO2 is saturated, so adding more won’t make any difference; (1) it’s the water vapor, a stronger GHG(even more saturated?) which controls the Greenhouse effect, or (2) CO2 is such a miniscule part(miniscule saturation, military intelligence, government help, free market tax policy?) of the atmosphere that it can’t have any significant effect.

    – Warming will produce higher humidity which will produce more clouds and higher albedo; higher humidity produces larger cloud droplets, darker clouds, lower albedo.

    – Warming causes CO2 to increase (exsolve from the ocean), increase in CO2 doesn’t cause warming; there was no increase in CO2 during the Medieval Warm Period, therefore CO2 doesn’t cause warming.

    – “It is getting warmer, but it is not warmer than it was in the Middle Ages…”; “Globally, temperature is not rising at all, and sea level is not rising anything like as fast as had been forecast. Concentrations of methane in the air are actually falling.” (Monckton quotes)

  10. 110
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim wrote (in reply to comment #82): “… postmodernists in general, are … alluding to something entirely more radical — essentially that there are nothing but opinions, which we construct from our thoughts and language, which in turn are the products of our culture. Everything essentially spins out of our heads and mouths. Most physical and biological scientists reject this idea as utter nonsense.”

    With all due respect, I think most students of postmodernism would also reject that characterization — or perhaps I should say caricature — of postmodernism as “utter nonsense”.

    I wonder how many physical and biological scientists are sufficiently knowledgeable about literature, aesthetics, drama, architecture, cinema, journalism, politics, law, culture, and religion — i.e. the domains of human thought to which postmodernism applies — to be able to intelligently compare and contrast postmodernism with other critical approaches to those fields?

  11. 111
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew,
    I don’t dispute that elements of scientific inquiry are socially constructed–hence the emphasis on consensus. This is pretty much inevitable given that H. Sapiens is a social animal. What I dispute is that it is purely a social construct. It is strongly constrained by an objective reality that tends to give very consistent answers when asked questions the right way.
    Everything humans do is a social construct–so much so, that it is essentially a tautology. The scientific method is a social construct. Markets are a social construct. Democracy is a social construct. In a real sense, all of these are also discoveries–about how to construct institutions that perform reliably despite, or even because of, human weaknesses.

    And as to your references, read all of ’em. I would describe scientific knowledge as the reliable (to varying extents) understanding of the physical world derived via the scientific method. Is that a social construct–yes, because it is a collective, human understanding. However, it is not an arbitrary construct.

  12. 112
    Septic Matthew says:

    111, Ray Ladbury:
    I would describe scientific knowledge as the reliable (to varying extents) understanding of the physical world derived via the scientific method. Is that a social construct–yes, because it is a collective, human understanding.

    What I wrote was that scientific knowledge is both socially constructed and accurate.

    “Purely social” and “arbitrary” came from someone else.

  13. 113
    jakerman says:

    Didactylos says:

    “The success of the denial campaign is evident in your refusal to believe that your opinions have been shaped by it.”

    I agree with this statement, but a word of caution, its actually (without contextual supporting evidence) a circular argument.

    The evidence that leads me to agree with Dida’s assessment is not pulled together in a referenced and articulate way. Would be valuable if it were. And highly relevant to this field of social science.

    Examples sources would be psychological studies into the power of advertising and propaganda. Studies on media consolidation and media bias. Studies of election spending, and the media congressional profit complex associate with election spending.

    Someone has already cited Noam Chomsky who addresses media and propaganda issues. But a broader input would be more comprehensive. What are Ryghaug and Skjølsvold planning for their next paper?

  14. 114
    Surfer Dave says:

    “Since there wasn’t any improper manipulation of scientific data, the ‘manipulation’ in this story involved taking the contents in the e-mails out of context and the generation of wild accusations devoid of any real evidence. ”

    Umm, but what about the “HARRY-READ-ME.TXT” file and all the amazingingly poorly written software? I am a professional software engineer and I had a good look at the source code and it was simply appalling. There’s your data manipulation right there, poorly designed code that can’t be proven to work correctly. But, I guess that’s not important, because their hearts were in the right place, even if they couldn’t do the actual software correctly.

    [Response: Umm, well “Surfer Dave”, what about the fact that the software does in fact do what it’s supposed to do, that efficiency improvements already completed in certain global temp reconstruction algorithms give essentially the same answer as the old code, and that several different temperature reconstructions from different organizations give substantially the same trends and variances. But you know, you are right about their hearts being in the right place, which is a helluva lot more than I can say for the people who stole the CRU’s emails and the climate change denial community in general! And by the way Dave, badly written code = data manipulation in your book does it? Thanks for the insight into the paranoid mind of the denialist–Jim]

    Side note: there appears to be absolutely no attempt to manage the inherent inaccuracies of standard Floating Point arithmetic in the software. Anyone interested should reference Knuth’s “The Art of Computer Programming” 2nd ed, Vol 2, section 4.2.2 “Accuracy of Floating Point Arithmetic”. Essentially, A + (B + C) does not always equal (A + B) + C in FP arithmetic.

    [Response: We’ll get right on that.–Jim]

  15. 115
    Didactylos says:

    Surfer Dave, can you tell us which operation in generating a global temperature product is reliant on perfectly accurate floating point numbers or appropriate tolerances?

    The thing about global temperature is it’s surprisingly simple. Maybe beyond the skills of the less competent undergrad, but still very straightforward.

    It’s not enough to smugly say “I know about floating point. See, I read Knuth!” You have to know when it’s appropriate.

    Oh, and the term from high-school mathematics that seems to elude you is associativity.

    So come on, then: why do we care about machine roundoff? Don’t you think it would be incredibly useless science if you got a different result because of something like that?

    Think. I know you can.

  16. 116
    Ric Merritt says:

    Surfer Dave, #114.

    I also am a professional software engineer, with an advanced degree from a well-known institution and decades of service, in case that matters to anybody.

    Your narrow point well-known to Knuth readers is perfectly valid. The context pointed out by Jim and Didactylos is the key part. Your outlook is about like proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Axis won WW2, because it’s well-known that the Allied armies perpetrated some bad decisions and forehead-smacking inefficiencies. Sorry, doesn’t work that way. Come back when you have a real point.

  17. 117
    Hank Roberts says:

    > what about … Harry …

    Dave, that was a list of problems, found and to be fixed.
    People make lists of problems.
    People get wrought up about problems.
    People fix problems.
    That was notes during a transition from one model to another.
    You could have looked it up.
    But you fell for the people misrepresenting it.
    Don’t be fooled again.

    Try Stoat, around this post for example:

  18. 118

    Brian Dodge #109 The really funny part about the Fox attack on Assange is he’s not even a US citizen. He’s an Australian. I know some of our politicians behave as if we’re the 51st state but we are actually another country. It’s also kind of incongruous after all the islamophobia on Fox that they’ve started issuing fatwas.

    Dave #114, if you really are a professional software engineer you’ll know the difference between a log and formal documentation. Managing associativity to minimise roundoff is a useful technique but what’s your evidence of a failure that invalidated any results?