What is science and why should we care? — Part I

And Then There's Physics:

Since I’ve written about the relationship between the physical sciences and the social sciences (Science and Technology Studies in particular) in the past, and have engaged in a number of discussions on the topic (annoying some people in the process I think), I thought I would reblog this recent post by Alan Sokal called “What is science and why should we care? – Part I”. There are 2 others parts to this, which you can find on the original site. It essentially addresses the issue that some in the social sciences seem to think that physical science doesn’t actually allow us to determine objective truths. I find this a remarkably odd view, but it does seem consistent with some of what I’ve encountered and – in my opinion at least – those who hold these views, do us no great service. I may write something more about this in due course, but it does seem that this kind of view allows some to regard all supposedly scientific views as having the same validity in the public sphere, even if some of these views violate the fundamental laws of physics. I fail to see how this makes any sense, but maybe others who know more than me can convince me that it does.

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

sokal.alanby Alan Sokal

I propose to share with you a few reflections about the nature of scientific inquiry and its importance for public life. At a superficial level one could say that I will be addressing some aspects of the relation between science and society; but as I hope will become clear, my aim is to discuss the importance, not so much of science, but of what one might call the scientific worldview — a concept that goes far beyond the specific disciplines that we usually think of as “science” — in humanity’s collective decision-making. I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence — especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions — are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century, and especially so in any polity that professes to be a democracy.

Of course…

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Select committee report

I know Eli’s already covered this, but I have to say that I’m quite impressed with the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee’s first report on the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report. From the written evidence that I’d read and the oral evidence I’d heard, I was worried that it would be an unmitigated disaster.

The Summary of the Select Committee’s report says,

AR5 provides the best available summary of the prevailing scientific opinion on climate change currently available to policy-makers. Its conclusions have been reached with high statistical confidence by a working group made up of many of the world’s leading climate scientists drawing on areas of well-understood science.


The IPCC has responded extremely well to constructive criticism in the last few years and has tightened its review processes to make AR5 the most exhaustive and heavily scrutinised Assessment Report to-date.

Finishing with,

Of course there are those who will continue to be critical of the conclusions and the process through which the IPCC produces its Assessment Reports. But our conclusion here is clear. There is no scientific basis for downgrading the UK’s ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Select Committee report concludes with

It is important to consider all lines of evidence together when assessing climate change rather than focusing on particular aspects of the report. The overall thrust and conclusions of the report are widely supported in the scientific community and summaries are presented in a way that is persuasive to the lay reader.

and recommends that

The Government must renew its commitment to achieve a global deal on climate change.

So, from what I’ve read it seems pretty sensible. They were reviewing a report written by hundreds of leading scientists, based on the work of thousands, so maybe it’s not that surprising that even our policy makers are not silly enough to heavily criticise such a report just because there are a few dissenting voices. Given the nature of the topic, it’s actually not surprising that there are some that dissent. Given that there are some (as expected) but that they are few in number, might actually give us some extra confidence that there are aren’t any major issues with the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Global warming, IPCC, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Holiday almost over

I’m finally home after being on holiday for two weeks. Apart from responding to some comments when I got the chance, I haven’t written a blog post for over two weeks. It’s the longest break I’ve had since April last year, and it’s been wonderful. It may actually take a while before I have the energy or inclination to write anything substantive. Apart from thinking a little about the definition of radiative forcings (motivated by the later comments on this post), I also haven’t given climate science much thought at all. This post certainly isn’t going to be about anything meaningful, and is really just a chance for me to say that I’m back and to post one of my pictures that I quite like. No prizes for guessing where it is :-)


Posted in Climate change | Tagged , , , | 26 Comments

Community-driven solutions to climate change

I thought I’d write a post while AT is away which he hopefully won’t mind me doing. I feel a bit frustrated by the lack of discussion about solutions for climate change. There’s much pointless bickering about things we shouldn’t really be arguing about, like whether there’s a pause, when instead we should be discussing what we’re going to do about climate change.

A movie called 2 Degrees was recently released which highlights the failure of the international climate negotiations. Here’s a preview of this film:


It starts with a quote from President Obama:

Climate change will post unacceptable risks to our security, our economies, and our planet.

If we can’t rely on our leaders to make the tough decisions for the future of our children and grandchildren then what hope is there? One thing the movie suggests is that instead of looking for top-down solutions, perhaps we should be searching for solutions from the bottom: community-driven results from people like us who are concerned about climate change and want to do something about it. In the film, they follow the community of a small Australian town called Port Augusta and their fight to replace an ageing coal-fired power station with solar thermal power. It looks as though they’re close to winning the fight.

One lesson from this town’s battle is the need to get the majority of the population on board to get politicians motivated to do something. Our politicians are not going to do anything while we have 63.9% of the population who are unmoved. We need to convince these people that climate change is a serious problem and that we must take action.

How do we do that?

Posted in Climate change, Global warming | Tagged , , , , , | 122 Comments

On Holiday

I’m off on holiday in a couple of hours and, this time, won’t have much – or any – internet access. I’ll keep an eye on things if I can, but I don’t plan to post anything. So, the blog will probably be quiet for a while.


Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Play the Ball

Dear ClimateBall ™ player,

Me and AT have been discussing for a moment now the possibility that I help him moderate the blog. I just recently accepted, not without warning him that unintended consequences might follow. We shall see them in due time.


A comment on last thread provoked the beginning of my service as a moderator. The comment, in my opinion, contained a personal attack. Let’s recall AT’s rule:

I would like to see avoided are vitriolic, unpleasant, personal attacks. As they say, play the ball not the man/woman.

I will focus on this single rule: play the ball. Here is an example of something I would moderate:

Doug says he hopes you will research things more thoroughly – he’s probably not familiar with the style of your blog.

The first version of this post contained many examples, but the fantastically new WordPress Dashboard swept them all. I’ll try to provide more examples in the comment thread. If I’m lucky, my explanation will be as rock solid as NHL’s Department of Player Safety; cf. the videos for the explanations.


My main objective is to collect examples. (You know me, I like to do that.) I expect you, dear ClimateBall ™ player, to play the man even if I’m telling you to play the ball. That’s OK. I accept this, but please don’t push it. At the very least, try to abide by Doug McNeal’s rule:

If you wish to be offensive in the comments, please make it funny, or true. Preferably both.

While I acknowledge my bias toward style, your mot juste may still be deleted. In any event, other ClimateBall players might appreciate the effort before I moderate it. (No, the example above does not meet that criteria.)

Some cases are clearer, some others are less so. Most rest on a judgment call, and my decisions are definitive. I can’t promise to backup your prose: this is your responsibility. I can only promise to delete every single sentence that tries to play the ref.

This applies to this comment thread. Don’t come here to whine about something elsewhere in the blog. You can contact me via @nevaudit or via my Contrarian Matrix.


To finish this first post, I’ll simply pull this quote from Robert Rowland Smith:

To put it in tabloid terms, your enemy is you, or at least that bit of you you can’t stand. No wonder that we feel so attached to our enemies, that we can become so preoccupied with them. Just as hate can make you as obsessed with someone as love, having enemies is a negative form of bonding – attachment in a minor key.

ClimateBall ™ is a game. Games are supposed to be fun. Please keep that in mind next time that you, dear ClimateBall ™ player, try to side tackle your opponent.

Beware your spikes, and play the ball.

Good luck!


PS: This includes you, AT.

Posted in ClimateBall | 82 Comments

We need a better class of climate “skeptic”!

When I started this blog, it was mainly to address the – mostly – scientific nonsense presented on Anthony Watts’ blog, Watts Up With That (WUWT). After a while this became a little too stressful, and the association with such nonsense became a bit too hard to take. So, I changed the name of the blog and have largely ignored WUWT since then. However, I do still sometimes comment on “skeptic” nonsense when it comes to my attention and when it seems appropriate to do so. However, even this is getting a little hard to take.

In the last week we’ve had David Rose in the Telegraph discussing the significance of the increase in Antarctic sea ice (well, it is interesting, but not in the way that he thinks it is). This article also included Judith Curry largely contradicting her own research, and included a lengthy section by Andrew Montford, possibly the person with the greatest difference between how much some think he understands this topic, and how much he actually understands it.

We’ve also had Matt Ridley (the Rational Optimist?) arguing in the Times that The BBC has lost its balance over climate change, because it has decided that inviting non-experts to talk about climate science is probably a bad idea. Today we had Ben Webster in the Times suggesting that Voices of dissent drowned out by climate change scientists, because a reviewer of a paper published 4 years ago suggested removing some comments that were not supported by the analysis in the paper. This is despite the author commenting

the reviewers who objected to the questions were technically correct because they “were not explicitly based on our results”.

The author rather spoiled it by then saying

However, he said: “We had a right to discuss it . . . If your opinion is outside the broad consensus then you have more problems with publishing your results.”

No, I think that one role of peer-review is to prevent authors from simply presenting their opinions in their papers, especially if these opinions are not actually based on the work they’re presenting. In this regard, I particularly liked this tweet from John Kennedy

Also, if the Times thinks this is newsworthy, then they really must be scraping the bottom of the barrel.

I’ve also spent the last few days playing yes, but random walk with Andrew Montford and Doug Keenan. Well, not really playing since they both largely ignored me as – apparently – I’m a troll. Today I actually read Doug Keenan’s Statistical Analyses of Surface Temperatures in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, which is a beautiful example of utter balderdash and includes a a discussion of Doug Keenan challenging Phil Jones to pass a statistics exam. Doug Keenan even offers to pay :

I then offered to pay £500/minute to have Jones write the examination. My offer was not accepted.

How old is Doug? Twelve? It also includes this somewhat ironic quote

People are not honest, they don’t admit their ignorance, and that is why they write such nonsense.
—Sigmund Freud

Words to live by, Doug, words to live by!

So, the problem I’m having is that this is all getting so nonsensical that I’d really rather not be associated with it in any way. In some sense, one could argue that it’s brave of these people to have the courage to look ignorant and foolish. I, however, do enough by myself to look ignorant and foolish, without looking even more ignorant and foolish by associating with them. That’s why it would be nice if there were a better class of climate “skeptics”. People who it would be worth having a serious discussion with, rather than people who resort to some form of conspiracy ideation whenever they get challenged (or, sometimes, even without being challenged).

The problem, I think, is that there is actually no sensible middle ground. If you have sufficient knowledge to understand the science and how science works, and have a sufficiently open mind, you end up largely agreeing with the mainstream position. The alternative is to simply look like a crackpot; sometimes with enough knowledge to make a fool of yourself, but not enough to know that you’re doing it. Clearly not everyone who agrees with the mainstream position agrees about everything or about all the details, but they agree about the basics and broadly agree with the IPCC projections. There are some who are seen as being on the more skeptical side of the spectrum, but most of this is healthy skepticism, rather than yes, but conspiracy theory.

So, that’s the problem I’m facing at the moment. There are certainly people with whom I can have interesting and worthwhile discussions about the science, but when it comes to people like Rose, Ridley, Montford, Keenan, Webster, it all seems rather pointless. They either don’t know enough to know that they’re wrong, or they’re being dishonest. In either case, it’s really not worth taking a discussion with them seriously. Of course, one could choose to not take it seriously, but I’m not sure I can really be bothered or have the stomach for that. All I can say is that I’m looking forward to the end of this week, when I start a two week holiday.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, IPCC, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 656 Comments