Saving science?

After my discussion about Reiner Grundmann’s Nature Comment, someone made me aware of an article called saving science. It’s rather long and has already been described as the the largest (and most verbose) strawman ever. His basic argument seems to be that science isn’t self-correcting and that to save it scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.

One immediate issue is that the author appears to have largely mixed up science and engineering and appears to be suggesting that to save science, it must become engineering. Well, that’s not really saving it, it’s changing it. As a society, if we decide that [a]bsent their real-world validation through technology, scientific truths would be mere abstractions, then we could choose to change what we support, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this would somehow save science. Of course, I think this would be wrong; I think there is merit in fundamental science, applied science, engineering, and technology and we should be careful of assuming that the only research that has value is that which has an obvious application.

However, I have a few more fundamental issues with the article. The author is Daniel Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University. The topic of this article is – as I understand it – his research area, and yet it all seems rather sloppy. He doesn’t do – in my view – a good job of distinguishing between the different research areas and between applied and fundamental research. He also makes a number of assertions that seem poorly justified. For example:

While most of the evidence of poor scientific quality is coming from fields related to health, biomedicine, and psychology, the problems are likely to be as bad or worse in many other research areas.

On what basis does he conclude that it is likely to be as or worse in many other research areas. Does he have any real evidence for this? He also suggests that

… the system that each year generates twenty-five thousand promising new Ph.D. scientists and nearly two million new articles of mostly dubious value ….

On what basis does he conclude that the two million new articles [are] of mostly dubious value? I appreciate that there is probably a lot of poor research out there, but suggesting that they are of mostly dubious value seems a rather strong claim. There are many reasons why we undertake research, and quantifying the value of a piece of research is extremely difficult.

However, some of what he says does have merit. There are clearly some problems that we could aim to resolve. Universities are now run much more like businesses than they once were and, hence, they certainly value research that can bring in funding over that which might still be good, but won’t attract as much money. There is a definite publish or perish mentality. What we value can also incentivise behaviour that may not be ideal; we’re all expected to show that our research has impact and this pressure can lead to a tendency to over-hype results.

But let’s think about this for a moment. The author of this piece is a Professor of Science and Society who is claiming that science is self-destructing and must be saved by coming out into the real world. Could this be? Possibly, but on the other hand a Professor of Science and Society who says “there are some problems with how we conduct research, but – overall – it’s been amazingly successful and we must be careful not to fix what ain’t broke” won’t have nearly as much impact as one who claims that it’s fundamentally flawed and needs a complete overhaul.

Of course, this is clearly a complex topic, and some of what he says does have merit. I may also misunderstand some of what he was suggesting. So, if anyone has any views of their own, feel free to make them through the comments. Standard moderation/comment rules apply:-)

Posted in Research, Science, The philosophy of science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , | 76 Comments

Katie Mack, Brian Cox and Eric Idle

I was going to post this yesterday, but then Willard beat me to it. I thought I would post it now, but it’s all a bit disjointed, so apologies. Anyway, a couple of my fellow physicists/astrophysicists have been quite prominent in the public climate science debate in the last day or so. Brian Cox was on the Australian Question Time and did an impressive job of countering the claims of the newly elected Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts.

As a result, Katie Mack, a theoretical astrophysicst at Melbourne University who is also quite a high profile science communicator, started tweeting about climate change. As one might expect, Katie then encountered a number of what I shall politely call “skeptics” and responded in a manner that appealed to J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame (as if that wasn’t obvious).

Even a Python got involved

I actually found all of the exchanges very amusing, which I do think is probably the optimal way to deal with those who are clueless, but are very unlikely to ever recognise their ignorance. It was also interesting how much impact these have had. Brian Cox’s exchange with Malcolm Roberts is all over the news, and – as you can see above – more than 70000 people have retweeted J.K. Rowling’s tweet about Katie Mack’s response. Maybe it really is becoming more and more obvious that climate denial is ridiculous and that the only suitable response is to mock those who promote it.

It was also good to see some other scientists commenting on this topic. We certainly shouldn’t expect climate scientists to shoulder all the burden. It might also make some more aware of the kind of crap that some have had to put up with when they do communicate about this publicly. I sometimes get the sense that many don’t realise just how difficult it is to discuss this topic publicly and what you have to put up with if you do. Certainly, in my view, the more who get involved, the merrier.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Global warming, Science | Tagged , , , , | 197 Comments

Dialog On Nature

Reficcug 0.2 released the ACTUAL transcript of the Chatham ruled negotiations between the Hartwell Brokering Ship (HBS) and a Throng of Tepid Physicists (TTP).

HBS: You created a conceptual mess – please leave the AGW problem to us.

TTP: Recommend you stop excluding practitioners of the hard sciences. Besides, please beware that teh stoopid modulz contain both hard and soft bits and that Nature bats last.

HBS: This is the captain of an Hartwell Brokering ship. Come back without the attitude of knowing better than others, or go home to your barracks and deliver the field to otters.

TTP: It’s not up to you to exclude anyone and, to repeat, Nature bats last.


TTP: Mr. T’s our own designated hitter. Citizens are already on our island, and Nature (who bats last) could not care less for quarrels over scientific divisions of labor submitted to Nature (the journal). In the voice of Harrison Ford:


Posted in ClimateBall, Satire | 62 Comments

Less science, more social science!

Stoat has a new post called climate science identifies the problem – it can’t tell us what to do in response and – as he says – this is pretty bleedin’ obvious. Science can clearly provide information as to how a system might respond to various changes, but it can’t really tell us whether or not we should do anything to avoid these changes, and – if we should – how we should do so. Evidence can – and should, in my view – inform decision making. It can’t, however, define the actual decision that are made.

Stoat’s post, however, lead me to a recent Nature Geoscience Comment by Reiner Grundmann called Climate change as a wicked social problem. If I was being charitable, I would say that Grundmann’s article is essentially saying the same as Stoat’s post, but that would be incredibly generous. What it’s really arguing is that climate change has been mischaracterised and that it is not a scientific but a social problem, even going as far as to say

If social scientists had been involved significantly and from the beginning, this crucial error in categorizing climate change might have been avoided.

I find it hard to believe that if there had been more involvement from social scientists who had managed to define climate change differently, that we’d somehow have achieved more in terms of addressing climate change than we currently have. I can well believe that we might have convinced ourselves that we had – while being in the same position as we are now – but that hardly seems an improvement. Also, as far as I can see, there are lots of social scientists involved in addressing this issue already, many of whom are doing very interesting and worthwhile work. What was stopping others from getting involved; were they wanting some kind of special invitation?

He then says

The key issue lies with the fact that scientific insights are being used to derive policy. If climate policy is justified with science, opponents of the policy will attack the science.

Well, yes, this does indeed seem true. I, naively, had assumed that one role of social scientists might be to address this problem, not suggest that [t]his line of argument also highlights that the climate problem is not a scientific problem, but a social problem: one cannot derive climate policies from climate science. So, rather than helping to find ways to addres this issue, Grundmann argues that we should simply accept that climate change is really a social, not a scientific, problem. In other words, if any evidence suggested that we should consider policy options that might be inconvenient to some, they can simply attack the evidence, and we should then say: “fair enough, let’s treat this problem differently”. Seems pretty much guaranteed to ensure that evidence-based policy making will be the exception, rather than the rule.

The article then suggests that climate change is really – as the title suggests – a wicked problem, not a tame problem. The argument being that climate change doesn’t have a stopping rule:

We do not know when we have succeeded solving the problem, because we do not have an agreed metric.

Well, this seems rather confused. I don’t think there is much dispute as to what it would take to address climate change; reduce emissions and eventually get them to zero, or close to zero. Doesn’t seem too wicked to me. The difficulty comes in deciding whether or not to do so, how to do so, how fast to do it, and whether or not to possibly bank on technologies we have yet to develop. Of course, we will also have to adapt to various changes, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some kind of stopping rule.

Having said that, addressing climate change is not easy, the available evidence does not define what we should do, and clearly many different disciplines will inform the decision making process. That doesn’t mean that

climate science provides no help to meet this challenge, once it has been acknowledged.

There are still many policy relevant aspects to climate science, even once the science has been acknowledged. For example, how do we plan for sea level rise, if we don’t have any idea of how much sea level rise to expect?

The article ends with Grundmann arguing that there are potentially serious consequences to the various policy options and that the social sciences can play a crucial role in understanding these consequences and helping to inform policy. Well, this seems pretty obvious and, as far as I can tell, is already taking place. What’s odd is arguing that we should essentially now dismiss the scientific evidence, while focussing only on the evidence from social science. So, only evidence-based when the evidence suits you?

The crux of the article appears in the final sentence:

[i]t is high time the expertise of the social sciences is recognized and assembled.

My impression is that a lot of good social science is already recognised. In my opinion, one way to ensure that more is recognised would be to write stuff worth recognising, rather than simply insisting that people do so.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Comedy, Policy, Politics, Research, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 198 Comments

Murry Salby in London

Joshua has pointed out that Judith Curry has written a post about Murry Salby’s recent presentation in London. There was some hope that Judith might actually express some views about his ideas, but she just seems to find it interesting.

For those who don’t know, Murry Salby has been suggesting that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is natural, and not anthropogenic. This is so obviously wrong, that I can’t really be bothered going through all the details again. Tom Curtis has a very nice post explaining the different lines of evidence as to why it is anthropogenic. I’ve written some posts about Murry Salby. Eli has a couple of posts too. Stoat has a lengthy post, and a much shorter one. Tom Curtis has another post about the Salby Ratio. There’s a lengthy Bishop Hill Discussion Thread (Gavin Cawley’s comments are worth reading).

The bottom line is that Murry Salby’s suggestion that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is natural, not anthropogenic, is clearly wrong. You would like to think that he’s simply confused, but some of what he presents is so obviously wrong and – in the case of the Salby Ratio – rather deceptive, that it’s hard to conclude that someone with his background, doesn’t realise his error. I think anyone with a basic understanding of data analysis and a basic understanding of the carbon cycle should recognise that his suggestions are wrong. I think it’s unfortunate that Judith Curry seems comfortable promoting his presentation without commenting on the scientific credibility of what he suggests.

Update: Richard Telford’s posts are also good (H/T Dikran).

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Global warming, Greenhouse effect, Judith Curry, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 92 Comments

Emission reductions, negative emissions, and overshoots

I was wanting to briefly discuss a paper I ran across that looks at What would it take to achieve the Paris temperature targets? The basic idea is to develop emission pathways that depend on three basic parameters; the time at which emission reductions start, the time it takes to get halfway between the initial and final emission levels, and the target emission level.

Credit: Sanderson et al. (2016)

Credit: Sanderson et al. (2016)

I thought I would just shows some of the results. The figure on the left illustrates the temperature thresholds for emission reductions starting in 2015 and 2020. The y-axis is the emissions in 2030, and the x-axis is the time of emission neutrality (anthropogenic sources and sinks are net zero). The yellow region is likely below 3oC, the green region is likely below 2oC, and the blue is likely below 1.5oC. The horizontal lines are RCP8.5 emissions in 2030 (red), current policy (yellow), unconditional INDCs (orange), and conditional INDCs (green).

There are few interesting things in the figure. For example, if we have emissions in 2030 of around 50GtCO2, then we could likely keep warming below 2oC if we get to emission neutrality between 2050 and 2070. However, the white contours indicate the final emission level. They show that the earlier we reach emission neutrality, the lower (more negative) the final emission level needs to be. This is a little counter-intuitive, but I think the reason why is illustrated in the figures below, which are only for emission reductions starting in 2015. The slower the initial emission reductions, the sooner we need to reach emission neutrality and the more negative the final emissions need to be.

The green and blue dashed contours also indicate regions where we can have temporary temperature overshoots. Given that these pathways include the possibility of negative emissions, it becomes possible to overshoot a target, and then use net negative emissions to bring temperatures back to the target level. Example emission pathways are illustrated in the right-hand panels of the figure below.

Credit: Sanderson et al. (2016)

Credit: Sanderson et al. (2016)

What I think is interesting is that negative emissions and temperature overshoots seem to now becoming part of the narrative. One obvious reason for this is that we’re on the verge of leaving it too late to achieve these targets without them. We could still do so, but it would probably require drastic emissions reductions starting now: the figure above indicates that achieving these targets without negative emissions, and without a temperature overshoot, would require 50% reduction in emissions by around 2030. So, I guess we have to hope that negative emissions of the level required are actually possible, or that – if we don’t achieve these targets – the impacts will be less severe than might be the case.

In a sense, I’m reasonably optimistic. I think it’s at least becoming clearer that emission reductions are necessary, and it seems as though this is being taken seriously. On the other hand, I don’t have a good sense of whether or not negative emissions of the level required are viable or not. Some of what has been suggested (BECCS, for example) seems unrealistic, but maybe there are other possibilities, and we can’t discount our natural ingenuity. Maybe someone who knows more about this than I do, could comment.

Posted in Climate change, Climate sensitivity, Global warming, IPCC, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 66 Comments

Science Wars

I’ve finished reading Shawn Otto’s book The War on Science. It was a bit US-centric, but I still found it interesting, and it covered a lot of ground. What I found of particular interest, was the discussion of the role of postmodernism. Eli discussed this in a recent post, and I’ve discussed it in a few posts.

The basic idea behind post-modernism is that scientific theories are somehow social constructs. As I understand it, this is essentially a suggestion that there isn’t really an objective reality; somehow our understanding of reality is strongly affected by societal/political influences. Shawn Otto’s book suggests that this basic idea has now made its way from academia into the media, society, and also into politics. Essentially, if there is no objective reality, then any representation of reality has validity. Typically this manifests itself as people arguing that if there is some evidence that supports their position that that then makes their position as valid as anyone else’s.

The obvious problem is that this then means that people can simply look for evidence that supports their position, rather than using all the available evidence to inform the position that they hold. Of course, I should stress that I’m not suggesting that the evidence defines what positions one should hold; simply that – ideally – evidence should inform how we view the world. There may, of course, be situations where we still chose to hold certain views despite the evidence, or where other factors, that are hard to quantify, play an important role in defining our views. It’s, of course, also entirely acceptable to hold views that appear to be completely at odds with the evidence; this doesn’t, however, mean that there isn’t some kind of objective reality.

My own view is partly similar to that expressed during the Science Wars; some of those discussing science have limited understanding. On the other hand, some of it also seems to simply be a lack of clarity. For almost every field, there will be details that we still don’t understand. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good understanding of the fundamentals associated with that field, and that we couldn’t present a coherent description of our basic understanding. It’s also clear that our understanding does change with time, but that doesn’t mean that we would expect radical changes, or that our future understanding will be completely different to what it is today. Clearly there are also examples of bias influencing research, but there is a difference between a single study (or a small collection of work) and our overall understanding of a topic that may have been developed over many, many years. Clearly societal/political influences also play a role in deciding what’s of interest and what to research, but this doesn’t mean that the results of that research are somehow interpreted through a societal/political lens.

However, the key point as far as I’m concerned, is that we live in a world in which we believe that what we observe is real, that we can make observations of this real world, and that we can develop an understanding of what we observe. Given this, it’s certainly my view, that we should be using our understanding to inform our views of the world and to inform the decisions that we might make. Of course, this does not mean that our understanding defines our view or the decisions that we might make, or that those who develop this understanding have any kind of special place in society. I’m simply suggesting that society benefits from being informed.

If it is indeed the case (as it seems) that this postmodernistic thinking has influenced views within society, is there anything we can do to change this? My impression is that it’s not simply that people don’t always understand science all that well, they also don’t really understand how it is undertaken, or the basics of the scientific method. One issue might be that when scientists engage publicly, they tend to see their role as explaining their own research. This is clearly important, but maybe we also need more people who just discuss science in general, rather than simply focusing on the specifics of their own work.

Of course, that would probably lead to accusations that they were speaking outside their area of expertise and, potentially, that they were engaging in advocacy and – hence – destroying their objectivity. My cynical view is that some of this is intentional attempts to prevent more researchers/scientists from speaking publicly as that might highlight views that are based on the slimsiest of evidence, if any evidence at all. I do think, however, that researchers/scientists have an obligation to communicate with the public and that the public would benefit from a better understanding of how science works and the basics of the scientific method. That’s only my view, though. Others may think differently.

Posted in ClimateBall, Politics, Research, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 85 Comments