CUCCINELLI THREAD PART TWO
Posted by Jeff Id on May 4, 2010
Guest post Ryan O
The first thread was fun. Assuming Jeff is willing to entertain me, I think a second part is in order.
My position is best explained with a little story.
The problem with climate science is not the individual scientists or even the work being performed. The problem with climate science is the politicization of the field. Your work takes on a whole new dimension if it can help form the basis for a massive redesign of the global economy. It is not just some neat math and interesting geophysics; it is now the foundation for remaking the world.
With that prospect comes the wholly human tendency to feel that it is not just the science that matters, it is also the message. Indeed, since the world is headed for certain catastrophe unless something changes, you now have to try to balance the purity of the science against the moral imperative to prevent a disaster. Stephen Schneider once expressed this difficulty in a not-so-eloquent fashion. Human nature being what it is, it is simply not possible for this to have zero effect on the decisions you make (with “you” being a collective).
This moral imperative is not just a product of your thoughts, it is one that has started resonating with the media, the government, and industry. No longer are you struggling to merely be heard, you are finally being understood. The call to action is being repeated everywhere. You are part of something important, something critical. In a small way, you can be a hero.
As time marches on, the signs that you are right become bigger and brighter. Your books are best sellers. Your opinion is sought by political leaders; not just of your own country, but of others as well. An international body is formed to communicate the science and the danger of allowing the status quo to continue unabated. You step outside your realm of expertise and find that you have much broader influence . . . your skills in climate science can be adapted to risk management and economics. You find yourself conversant not in the mere science, but also the policy that the science implies.
What were once small compromises to scientific purity become larger ones – without you realizing it is happening. It is not dishonest – you know the answer. CO2 is increasing. The world is warming. The basic physics is right. Unfortunately, in some cases, the data – which is known to be imperfect – does not quite say what you know to be truth. Sometimes the methods – which are known to be heuristic – do not quite yield accurate results. You must sort the good data from the bad; the proper methods from the faulty. Since you know the truth, the criterion for sorting is self evident. Most importantly, when this is done, the answer matches what you already know to be true.
Around you, others enable your success. A green industry sees an opportunity, lobbies on your behalf, and supports you with donations. The university sees a source of funding, an opportunity for prestige, and the possibility of making an important impact on the future of humanity. The politician sees a vehicle for promoting himself, his agenda, and his chance to leave his mark on society.
There are a few people, however, who cannot accept this truth. With every movement – no matter how well established – there is a counter-movement. Since the evidence that you are correct is overwhelming, the counter-movement must necessarily be fueled by ignorance and self-interest. Because your work is necessarily complex and beyond the ability of the layman to fully grasp, these people adopt the tactic of nitpicking irrelevant details to sow seeds of doubt. And because saving humanity from itself is an unarguably noble cause, this nefarious counter-movement must be fought.
So you band together against them. You label them as contrarians and deniers and turn skeptic into an evil word. You imply that their motives are immoral and selfish. Most importantly, you give no quarter. With any science as complex as yours, there will necessarily be small errors. When they find the errors, you quite justifiably minimize them. After all, if you fix this and change that, your result is still the same. And even if there are changes to the results, why, if you just look at it slightly differently, the results still support what you were saying all along! It is then quite obvious that the errors do not deserve to be published or acknowledged – it only gives credence to this band of ignorant fools.
Besides . . . who the f#$% do they think they are anyway? Who tells van Gogh that he used ugly colors? Or Monet that his work is too blurry? Or Picasso that his paintings are anatomical impossibilities? What you are doing is complex and critically important and must not be undone by a group of posers who criticize without understanding.
There is no giant, left-wing Marxist conspiracy bent on destroying modern life and sending humanity back to the stone ages. There is simply a group of mostly well-meaning scientists who found their work to resonate with a sizeable number of people – some of whom are well-meaning, some of whom are not. By and large, the scientists themselves are trying to balance objectivity with a moral imperative, and they are doing so to the best of their ability. This is not always a simple task, and some are far more successful than others. This is to be expected; they are not robots. They are human.
Given that fraud and corruption connote an intent to deceive, those terms do not apply. As much as you may choose not to accept this, these scientists are communicating what they believe to be the overall truth. While reality may differ from their truth, if the intent to deceive is not there, then their actions are not fraudulent or corrupt. Misguided, perhaps. Overzealous, almost certainly. Corrupt? No.
Of course, you may not believe this, but I do . . . and you will not change my mind.
The problem with the science is not one of wicked deceit. The problem is that the moral imperative has trumped healthy skepticism. It is a problem of confirmation bias and loss of objectivity.
Compounding the problem is that – whether you like to admit it or not – the present “consensus” may very well turn out to be correct. The basic physics of greenhouse gas behavior is readily provable. You do not see many arguments against this (except for the occasional misguided Gerlich and Tscheuschner paper) because those arguments are easily shown to be without merit. Remember that most of the arguments against the popular targets – like the surface temperature record and paleoclimate reconstructions – are arguments of uncertainty, not arguments of falsification. This uncertainty cuts both ways. It means they may be wrong – but it does not exclude the possibility that they are right.
That last sentence is important. Regardless of how much you feel certain individuals have cherry-picked data and methods, there is only a finite amount of information that can be gleaned from the available data. Because of this, the associated uncertainties are large. Are some of the methods suspect? Yep. Is some data subjectively set aside? Yep. However, even if all of this is corrected, with few exceptions, the “consensus” is still quite possible.
Contrary to what you may believe, this uncertainty and inability to falsify a hypothesis is the rule in science, not the exception. This is why science progresses in fits and spurts, why there are so many competing theories, why different studies provide wholly different results for no obvious reason. It is why research so often barrels headlong into dead ends; why it takes so much time, effort, and money to conclude anything with any reasonable degree of certainty. Especially when the data is poor, the researcher is forced to make seemingly arbitrary decisions about how to handle and process the data, and it is why even the brightest scientists can succumb to confirmation bias without even realizing they are doing so.
This difficulty is not unique to climate science. Agricultural research comes to mind, as does chemistry, as does theoretical and particle physics. The applied sciences are fraught with similar incidents, particularly in the area of clinical research. Many of the applied sciences are heavily regulated, yet the errors continue because the uncertainties are large.
And when the researcher “knows” that he is right, methods and data that yield contrary results are quite obviously wrong.
This is not fraud. This is not corruption, except in the most liberal interpretation of the word. This is a necessary consequence of limited data and human behavior.
You may disagree with me, but I believe that Dr. Mann feels that his answers are correct. He may know that the methods have deficiencies. He may know that the data is problematic. He may know that the uncertainties are larger than claimed. However, he still believes that his answer is right. While I cannot prove this opinion, neither can anyone else prove that he is knowingly and deliberately passing off false results as truth. What you see as underhanded tactics, he may see as a necessary means of ensuring the moral imperative is not diluted by irrelevant minutia.
Cuccinelli’s actions are misguided because Dr. Mann performed the work that the grants required. This is self-evident: Dr. Mann is quite a prolific researcher and the results of the grants are well-documented at the end of every paper he writes. That is the limit of the literal reading of the Virginia fraud statute used by Cuccinelli.
The only basis Cuccinelli has to go on is whether Dr. Mann is deliberately producing results that he knows to be false. This is a dubious proposition, and involves a rather questionable interpretation of the fraud statute. Even if the statute were interpreted in that manner, he would still have to prove intentional falsification of results. Dr. Mann did not magically generate data and conclusions from thin air. We might question the efficacy of his methods; we might question the uncertainties he assigns; we might question the data selected; we might question the adjustable parameters used. We might show that, in some circumstances, the method results in an answer that deviates from reality – and then Dr. Mann will promptly show that, in other circumstances, the method reproduces reality exactly.
The question is one of uncertainty and objectivity, not fraud.
Regardless of the legal outcome, using the court system in this manner is dangerous. Courts are ill-equipped to understand uncertainty. They prefer to see the world in terms of guilt and innocence, black and white. This issue is neither. The best evidence available is still statistically consistent with Dr. Mann’s results (albeit most likely with reduced certainty). Courts are not needed to establish this; mathematics already can. By allowing the courts to pass judgment, it establishes the precedent that the legal system can be used to trump fact and that government has the right to penalize beliefs. Ask the Soviets how well vernalization worked.
While the expedient solution to the hard-core anti-Mann community may seem to be public humiliation and effective censorship, this cure is likely to be worse than the disease. Once this tactic is given legal sanctioCUCCINELLI THREAD PART TWOn, you can count on it being abused. Climate science – like particle physics – must be fixed through academic pressures, either from within the community itself or due to influences from other sciences. There are only two possible outcomes: it will continue as it has, and relegate itself to irrelevance; or it will mature and re-establish the trust it once had. It may take an agonizingly long time, but it will eventually take one of those two possible routes.
Turning Dr. Mann into a scapegoat helps nothing. All it will accomplish is further polarization of the “true believers” and the “denialists”. Increasing politicization to counter past politicization is an endeavor fated for failure. Lawsuits will not fix science. Performing good science will fix science. What is needed is for both “sides” to understand the point of view of the other, to recognize that each has legitimate concerns, and to examine themselves for bad arguments, hyperbole, and unsubstantiated claims. Some people – like von Storch and Curry – have already made significant efforts in that direction. Others have taken smaller steps, but still noticeable (even RC has started to change).
Singling out Dr. Mann does not help this process.
And now I will watch the fireworks in the replies . . . haha!