Cosmopolitan knowledge

I’ve been reading a recent paper by Sujatha Raman and Warren Pearce called Learning the lessons of Climategate: A cosmopolitan moment in the public life of climate science. I’m always a little uncomfortable writing about climategate, partly because it’s been blown completely out of proportion and should probably be mostly ignored, and partly because – having watched last year’s BBC show about it – it’s clear that it was a rather traumatic experience for some of those involved.

Although I don’t want to delve into what was presented about Climategate, I thought I would just present some quotes from the paper that my readers can mull over.

For example

…and alleged data manipulation by the scientists to “hide the decline” in global temperatures.


Conventionally, policy is meant to follow from science that has been validated within the scientific community alone and authorized by a passive and trusting public.

What about

Second, while the scientific norm of openness has been re-established, and extended peer review become more accepted, there could be greater openness about the inevitable flaws and limitations of scientific knowledge about climate change.

and finally

The legacy of Climategate may be mixed….

What I thought I would briefly discuss instead is what was presented in a section titled The promise of cosmopolitan knowledge. Now, I realise that scientific knowledge alone cannot tell us what we should do; there are many other factors that play a role in establishing how we should respond to information. However, the ideas presented in this section seem to be going beyond just suggesting that broader views should be taken into account when considering the implications of some scientific knowledge

Importantly, this means not just paying attention to attitudes, opinions, or even values, but to how different cultures, professions, movements, and faiths “know” the world.

To be clear, I don’t think that research should only be undertaken by those employed in formal research positions; there are plenty of examples of people who’ve made positive contributions even though they don’t hold a traditional research position. I also think there are plenty of examples where the general public have been involved in helping to undertake research. There are also examples where science has ignored something culturally relevant that should really have influenced how some evidence was interpreted, or how some research should have been undertaken. Science also has lots of issues with diversity and inclusion that we should be dealing with and taking much more seriously.

However, there’s a difference between the above and suggesting that our overall scientific understanding should incorporate other peoples’ knowledge of the world. I can see value in debating what we should do about sea level rise, but our estimates of sea level rise shouldn’t be influenced by those who think it isn’t happening because they haven’t noticed anything yet. We should certainly be much more inclusive when considering what to do about the possibility of an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, droughts, floods, tropical cyclones, or damage to ocean and land ecosystems. However, I don’t see any value in incorporating the views of those who think climate change can’t be happening because the greenhouse effect violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Maybe I misunderstand what is being suggested by a promise of cosmopolitan knowledge. If not, then I really don’t see how it really is something that would be of benefit to society. I don’t think we should put scientists onto pedestals and allow then to have undue influence over decisions that will influence society. However, I also don’t think we should elevate the views of those who don’t have the skills, or expertise, to develop reliable knowledge about a complex topic.

I do think that we have to do a better job of both interogating expertise so as to establish reliable “knowledge” and how to then incorporate this “knowledge” into decision making processes. In this context, there may well be a benefit to broadening who is regarded as providing relevant “knowledge”. However, understanding complex physical systems typically requires a skillset, and a level of expertise, that takes years to develop. This doesn’t mean that those who have developed this expertise are somehow special, but it does suggest that maybe we should be cautious of taking seriously views presented by those who very clearly have not developed the relevant expertise.

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108 Responses to Cosmopolitan knowledge

  1. A few additional comments.

    The paper mentions Andrew Montford in a couple of places and seems to suggest that he was someone who at least presented credible public critiques of climate science. Andrew Montford is an accountant who ran a blog (Bishop Hill) that many would regard as having promoted climate science denial, wrote a book called The Hockey Stickk Illusion, and is now the Deputy Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. If this is an example of someone who has cosmopolitan knowledge, then I’m not a fan.

    Another point I’d make is that researchers are typically publicly funded. In a sense we’re doing the research on behalf of the public. Of course, we should make this available and we should aim to provide value for money, but if we start to value this development of knowledge as somehow equivalent to some kind of cosmopolitan knowledge, then what’s the point of all the publicly funded research? Again, I’m not suggesting that researchers have some special place when it comes to making societally relevant decisions, but why are we funding this researc if we don’t regard it as having some particular relevance/importance?

    Finally, in my experience, those who promote these ideas about cosmopolitan knowledge do not, themselves, seem to be particularly good at addressing critiques that come from outside their discipline. Responses I’ve seen have been along the lines of “scientists don’t like to be challenged”, “you don’t understand what’s being presented” and they even invoke consensus arguments – “there’s strong social science evidence against the linear model” – despite arguing against the importance of a consensus. They either don’t really believe their own arguments or, for some reason, think it doesn’t apply to them. I’d be more convinced if they set a better example.

  2. Everett F Sargent says:

    Over here the URL is broken …

    Correct …

    Also paywalled (?) so went to the usual source.

    Short reply: No good can come from revisiting old stuff like this. Same as for the so-called hockey stick.

  3. Everett F Sargent says:

    Works now.

  4. EFS,
    Thanks, I fixed it.

    It shouldn’t be paywalled, since it says “full access”.

  5. Everett F Sargent says:

    Access from your Uni? I still see paywall. Maybe it ts just me but I don’t see Full Access anywhere.

  6. This link for me says “full access”, although maybe that is because I’m logged in to the university system.

  7. Everett F Sargent says:

    “Until recently, such arguments for cosmopolitan knowledge on climate were largely played out as a critical riposte to familiar science-led terms of engagement that defined Climategate as a scandal.”

    I am at a loss here. Do not understand that sentence. There are at least two trains of thought there IMHO. Should be ,,,

    “Until recently, such arguments for cosmopolitan knowledge on climate were largely played out as a critical riposte to familiar science-led terms of engagement.”

  8. 1. I do not understand what is meant by cosmopolitan knowledge. I really don’t.

    2. Their comment about ‘hide the decline’ is pretty ridiculous. It was not that anyone tried to hide a decline in global temperatures. Some researchers did successfully conceal a decline in late 20th century values for one proxy used in the creation of the infamous Hockey Stick. This led to a glossing over of the uncertainty inherent in the iconic chart. It was bad behavior.

    3. Andrew Montford’s book on the Hockey Stick extravaganza is quite good. Whatever you think of his behavior before or since, or what has transpired at Bishop Hill, his book is quite good.

  9. with regard to folks like Montford, it might be useful to identify folks who are credible and distinguish those folks who are influential. No need to distinguish the credible and influential from others. The key feature is credibility. Thanks for the post.

  10. Everett F Sargent says:

    “The trauma of Climategate clearly made it difficult for scientists to distinguish between climate skeptics associated with fossil fuel funding and extraction (Leber & Vicens, 2017; Oreskes, 2010; Richardson, 2010) and others with a broader range of reasons for engaging with the content of climate science (Hulme, 2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly given the pressures for scientific consensus identified above, challenges to prominent scientific claims were associated with ideologically motivated skepticism. However, in recent years, we have seen evidence that Climategate has prompted some changes in public communication around climate science. Increasing numbers of climate scientists have been engaging in public debate through blogs and social media platforms. This willingness to engage in public suggests a new era in which climate science is no longer “a matter only for an elite community of experts” (Pallett & Chilvers, 2013, p. 1178).”

    However, in recent years?
    a new era?

    It would appear that these two so-called authors were rather ignorant of all things climate science related prior to say 2009.

  11. Everett F Sargent says:

    “Climate science has produced extensive volumes of knowledge but it is not self-evident which sources should be selected to frame participation events or how knowledge should be connected to climate futures.”

    Well, at least the authors of this so-called paper acknowledge their lack of knowledge and understanding. 🙂 Here let me help them, CO2 go up, run CO2 run, see CO2 run, temperature go up, run temperature run, see temperature run, ice sheets go down, run ice sheets run, see ice sheets run.

    Oh and other than using Climategate as an excuse to write another mostly harmless paper on a roadway to nowhere, perhaps we should get about reducing CO2 emissions …

  12. Since it’s an ongoing topic, “hide the decline in temperature” was always a psychological projection of hiding the decline of a much more important number.

  13. Steven Mosher says:

    “If Climategate has accidentally led us towards a cosmopolitan moment, what else might this moment signify? Seizing a cosmopolitan moment might mean scientists having the freedom to bridge the is/ought stricture (Walsh, 2010)
    both in their capacity as citizens and as experts reasoning across this boundary to articulate other grounds for action. It
    might allow some to go where the data takes them and explore the ambiguous and complex nature of climate phenomena without being constrained by fear of damaging a consensus that is expected for climate action (Edwards, 2019).
    Others may also bridge the relationship between fact and emotion (Readfearn, 2020; Wang, Leviston, Hurlstone, Lawrence, & Walker, 2018) or indeed, reconstruct scientific norms altogether by “thinking like a climate” (Knox, 2015).
    Likewise, publics may act as “experts” engaging with scientists on scientific matters where appropriate and also carve
    out forms of public reasoning on climate action that do not only start from scientific consensus.
    Following such a cosmopolitan transformation, science-advisory modes of representation of climate change would not
    be dispensed with. Indeed, the IPCC and others may be needed more than ever to engage with these different voices. However, they would take their place alongside a more diverse spectrum of modes of representation which is characteristic of
    how democracy works. Science advisory institutions such as the IPCC would also devote more attention to constructing
    arguments bridging facts around vulnerability or inequality as well as, or indeed more than, a restatement of facts centered
    on temperature records. As Kenny Walker (2013) has argued, uncertainties around science do not need to curtail action;
    they may equally well be used as a site for mobilizing public participation and policy action.”

  14. Steven Mosher says:

    You probably should have included this

    Science First Cosmopolitan
    Justifying policy: Scientific consensus Epistemic diversity
    Validating science: Open data Openness to uncertainty
    Engaging publics : Trust in science Public reasoning

    The basic argument

    “We argue that the CRU
    emails became a public scandal only because of an embedded assumption that science must set the terms of debate on
    biophysical matters that become politically significant. This assumption underpins three tacit norms that have habitually shaped how science, policy, and the public are supposed to engage. ”

    the three norms are listed above.

    In short Climategate became an scandal because of our idealization of science
    In this idealization politically disinterested actors (scientists) show their work (open data) reach
    consensus and establish a truth the public should passively trust.

    In contrast they propose an approach in which participants are open to uncertainty, where they can
    breach the divide between is and ought (be activists) and where we all reason together.

    like twitter ( just kidding)

  15. Willard says:

    > the three norms are listed above

    Two of them are not norms tho.

    Openness can be a norm.

    Consensus? That’s just “but consensus.”

    A passive public? The authors are just bulldozing their way into the normative.

  16. Joshua says:

    Anders *

    Can’t get access.

    But I’m curious…

    > This Advanced Review assesses the impact of Climategate on public talk…

    Can you briefly describe their method for assessing the impact of “climategate” on “public talk? “

  17. Willard says:

  18. Joshua,

    Below is a summary from one of the authors. Having read it, though, I’m still not entirely sure whay analysis they actually did.

  19. Steven,
    What I would be interested to hear is an argument that explains how promoting cosmopolitan knowledge, or epistemic diversity doesn’t just end up validating motivated reasoning, or cherry-picking. You don’t like what some scientific evidence implies? No problem, take advantage of epistemic diversity and simply select some other scientific position, even if you have to use your cosmopolitan knowledge to select it. You want a higher public profile? No problem, develop some cosmopolitan knowledge that will allow you to promote ideas that don’t have much evidential support, but which will demostrate epistemic diversity and will appeal to a particular audience. etc. Of course, I’m assuming that those who promote these ideas do want to avoid motivated reasoning and cherry-picking.

  20. Everett F Sargent says:

    “These are not abstract concerns. A cosmopolitan perspective is essential for recognizing that these debates and resolutions will play out differently in different national and local settings. In Australia, for example, the bushfires of 2019–2020 have brought about an extraordinary outpouring of collective sense-making from tragedy, bridging the gap between climate change as universal phenomenon brought to us by science and the world of everyday perception (Jasanoff, 2010; O’Connell, 2020). While commentators in this national conversation refer to the scientific consensus, many also call upon a wider range of epistemic and normative resources including the observations of knowledgeable locals (Armstrong & Logue, 2020) and the need to learn from knowledge forged over millennia by Indigenous Australians (Keneally, 2020). At the same time, some also reconnect Australian experiences with those of asylum-seekers from Pacific countries where climate change was already experienced as happening in the present (O’Connell, 2020). These examples perhaps show a willingness to begin to grapple with the politics of climate change in new ways.”

    I guess we all in the US need to call upon Native Americans (the ones we did not kill or move onto reservations 😦 that is) to talk about … Ancient Aliens … and Bigfoot … no wait, I meant their oral histories wrt forest wildfires in the western parts of the US.

    That 1st sentence should have been a separate one sentence paragraph imho, but. what exactly ‘are not abstract concerns’ anyways, answer ‘These’ kind of makes one wonder who decides what ‘These’ are anyways. Or just omit that sentence entirely.

    Getting the so-called locals involved and attempt to try to solve the problem at the local levels? We are talking about an international global problem. Bottom-up thinkers I guess.

    I guess one can be hopeful of fooling the deniers. But then again, there is no hope of fooling those same deniers, no how/who/what/where/when’why will ever move that form of bedrock ideologies imho.

  21. Dave_Geologist says:

    Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

    ― Isaac Asimov

    And that’s true even when it comes from intellectuals. Especially when it comes from intellectuals.

    ― Dave_Geologist

  22. Dave_Geologist says:

    It is of course possible for people to make sensible contributions outside their field. A biochemist on climate science for example:

    Isaac Asimov on the Greenhouse Effect: 1977

    Isaac Asimov on the Greenhouse Effect: 1989

    Although in fairness he was probably a dab hand at infrared spectroscopy in his research days.

  23. Dave_Geologist says:

    And this is probably a better contribution to the philosophy of science than that paper I haven’t read (naughty of me to speculate without reading, I know, but they all seem so samey-wamey when I do read them): The Relativity of Wrong, by Isaac Asimov.

  24. Jon Kirwan says:


    I hadn’t read that particular Asimov quote before. (Or I forgot I did.) But I created a shorter way of saying what Asimov did:

    “An equal right to an opinion is not a right to an equal opinion.”

    Been using it as a email byline, off and on, for a few decades now.


    Enjoy the following link:

    Just FYI about what’s happening over here.

  25. Jon,
    Thanks, I saw that news. I worked at the University of Delaware for a few years.

  26. Everett F Sargent says:


    Rootless cosmopolitan (do not go there. as it is not a good place to be, like forever even)

    “In the 21st century, the epithet became a weapon used by Vladimir Putin in Russia, and by nationalists in Hungary and Poland. In modern times, Stephen Miller, a Trump administration senior policy advisor, has publicly criticized CNN reporter Jim Acosta as exhibiting “cosmopolitan bias” during a discussion on the government’s new immigration plan.

    Which sort of shows that cosmopolitanism will never fool denialism, populism or nationalism. There are opposing forces with knowledge of cosmopolitanism, sad but true. In the end just another ideology. although a good one imho, but humanity has just a little bit of growing up to do first.

  27. Dave_Geologist says:

    Jon: A Cult Of Ignorance, Newsweek, January 21, 1980, p. 19. PDF.

  28. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    After reading that summary, I think I’m even more in the dark as to how they measured some kind of differential outcome of “climategate” – as now, not only do I not know *how* they measured the effect I’m even more confused about what the effect is that they were measuring.

  29. izen says:

    There has been a steady trickle of these papers advocating an alternative methodological praxis, or differently rooted epistemology over the years. They invariably claim this would enhance public understanding or acceptence of sciewnce, or even generate better science.

    What is always missing is ANY real world actual example of this happening.

    Just one citation of how an alternative approach has led to an improvement in the understanding of phenomena would avoid the suspicion that all this ‘research’ is being generated to assuage some need for publication credits and provide confirmation bias for those resistant to the mainstream conclusions.

    Or can anyone suggest a credible example ?

  30. Willard says:

    > a better contribution to the philosophy of science than that paper I haven’t read

    For the nth time, STS ain’t no philosophy of science.


    Here’s the authors’ methodology:

    The objective of this Advanced Review is to carry out an“issue review”that assesses the impact and legacy of Climategate on public debate over climate change (Hulme, 2018). To obtain relevant literature, we used a two-pronged strategy. First, we used “climategate” as a search term in Scopus (by Article Title, Abstract, Keywords) and Google Scholar (by Title). While both are academic databases, we found that the results included a significant number of media articles reports […] and blog posts […] by climate journalists, scientists and [contrarians]. Second, we drew on our own archives accumulated during the Making Science Public (Nerlich, Hartley, Raman, & Smith, 2018) and Making Climate Social (W. Pearce, Niederer, Özkula, & Sánchez Querubín, 2019) research programs to supplement the database searches with relevant material that did not mention the term “climategate” directly. This widened the source material to include radio programs […], TV programs […], and the official reports […]. After removing items we found to be insufficiently relevant, we were left with 184 items which we reviewed within the context of identifying the impact of Climategate on the public life of climate science (see Supporting Information for a full list). We note that the material collected is almost exclusively from English-speaking countries, suggesting that Climategate was not necessarily a global phenomenon.

    A few observations:

    The first author they cite is their editor-in-chief: MikeH. That author has a leading role in post-CG stuff. MikeH is in fact a central actant in the CG emails. One might argue that he’s taking his “champion” doctrine very seriously. Read the CGs for more on this.

    The authors simply read a few papers to corroborate their narrative. There’s nothing much to it. Considering the generality of their narrative, the corroborating step is more or less vacuous. The main result of the paper makes this vacuousness looks shaky, however:

    Check the oppositions. Consensus versus diversity is conceptually fine. Open data versus Openness to Uncertainty? That’s just crap. Trust in science versus public reasoning looks like a stretch, but can at least be understood. That’s still a false dilemma.

    All in all, we had better tables of opposites in Pythagoras’ times.

    So I wouldn’t read too much out of it. Warren does what Warren does, which is to raise concerns that amount to little once again. He fails at conceptual analysis, but who cares really.

  31. Joshua says:

    > The authors simply read a few papers to corroborate their narrative.

    So here’s part of what I don’t get…

    > This Advanced Review assesses the impact of Climategate on public talk about climate change in the last decade. Reviewing academic articles, blogs, reports, books, and media articles, we identify three norms that set the foundations for Climategate to be seen as a scandal: (a) using scientific consensus to justify climate policy; (b) that openness is fundamental to validating scientific knowledge; (c) that the public was conceived as passive recipients of scientific knowledge rather than participants in dialogue. We then review developments since Climategate,

    As near as I can tell, the entire review focuses on post-“climategate.” If so, how does it measure the effect of “climategate” (if there is no pre-“climategate” ?)

    And the idea is to measure the impact of “climategate” in a more general frame by only looking at material that specifically references “climategate?”

  32. izen says:

    “He fails at conceptual analysis, but who cares really.”

    Those players of the game that require some sort of vaguely scientific legitimacy for appointing someone like David Legates to a senior position dealing with climate prediction at the NOAA.

    As in –
    “It’s important to have a diversity of views when connecting the science to public policy.”

  33. Willard says:

    We need a diversity of views on the Arctic:

    C’mon, Warren. You can do it.

  34. Willard says:

    We need moar Public Reasoning:

    Go, MikeH! Go!

  35. Joshua,
    Yes, something that’s always bothered me about analyses of climategate is that if you want to infer something about how climate scientists behave – compared to other disciplines – then you should probably be trying to access emails from other disciplines, in particular others that have societal relevance. Also, as you say, if you’re going to claim that climategate had some impact on climate science, post-climategate, then you presumably have to do a comparison with climate science pre-climategate.

    There has been a shift in the last few years towards more open science, open data, making codes publicly available. This doesn’t, however, apply only to climate science. Climategate may have played a role, but my guess is that science was moving in this direction anyway.

  36. izen says:

    “There has been a shift in the last few years towards more open science, open data, making codes publicly available.”

    I think that shift well predates ‘Climategate’. It was underway in the field of medical research as a response to some of the more egregious episodes of big Pharma shaping the findings.
    When HIV treatments were first researched in the 1980s the patients/subjects rebelled against the secrecy imposed by the drug companies and demanded the data so they could participate in the clinical choices.

    Since then various institutions have set out protocols for the best practice of open data allowing for the two issues of patient/subject confidentiality and commercial interests.
    With limited success. The agencies like the European Medicines Agency and the US FDA have both tried to set criteria for open research data. Against significant resistance, requests for data show compliance is still just over 50%.

    “Another milestone was the announcement by the EMA Director in November 2012 to the effect that the agency was committed to broader data sharing in order to ‘rebuild trust and confidence in the whole system’.19 This was followed, in July 2013, with the release of a draft policy on the publication of and access to clinical trial data—defined as both clinical study reports and de-identified individual participant data- …
    … The recent EMA policy has already faced multiple legal challenges from pharmaceutical companies. The issue of commercial confidentiality was also recently adjudicated in the General Court of the European Union. The court recently delivered three well-considered judgements in cases brought by companies objecting to the disclosure of their documents and data submitted to the EMA. The court dismissed all three cases and considered the companies had failed to provide any concrete evidence of how the disclosure of the contested documents would undermine their commercial interests. “

  37. izen,
    Yes, I agree that these shifts towards more open data, publicly available codes largely pre-dates climategate. It may have had some effect, but not – in my view – a particularly significant one.

  38. Steven Mosher says:

    What I would be interested to hear is an argument that explains how promoting cosmopolitan knowledge, or epistemic diversity doesn’t just end up validating motivated reasoning, or cherry-picking. ”

    if I had one I would have made it. I am struggling to find a good example of “cosmopolitian”
    One example might be: Instead of leading with science, one leads with “morality”
    say “anti capitalism’, or ‘de growth’ ect.

    They are not here to make their strongest argument, but I can make an effort. Let me think a bit

  39. KenH says:

    When I read of books or ideas similar to those of Raman and Pearce, I always have the impression that the authors haven’t worked in science and have little understanding of how science works. They want to change the way science works but never explain how their approach doesn’t simply open the door to fringe and debunked ideas.It seems to me that one of the strengths of science is that it eliminates those ideas and allows scientists to explore more plausible paths.

    Does “cosmopolitan knowledge” have the data and depth of study that science does? How do we compare the results of “cosmopolitan knowledge” to the results of scientific studies?

  40. Steven,

    One example might be: Instead of leading with science, one leads with “morality”
    say “anti capitalism’, or ‘de growth’ ect.

    Yes, but they seem to be arguing that it’s more than incorporating values/opinions/etc into the decision making process. They seem to be suggesting that we should incorporate this cosmopolitan knownledge into our actual understanding of the science. I can understand that if you were doing anthropology you might want to actually talk with those who are familiar with the culture you are studying before interpreting the evidence. If you’re studying fundamental cosmology, then I don’t see how some kind of cosmopolitan knowledge should influence how we interpret the evidence. Similarly, I don’t see how this should influence our interpretation of evidence associated with climate science, but I can see how it should influence how we interpret the significance of what climate science is implying.

  41. I think one problem we have with keeping the science of climate pure and clean is the longstanding that many unfortunate events are “acts of God.” This is usually used in reference to unfortunate and disastrous stuff like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earth quakes. I think one of the drivers of that meme is about accountability and liability. If terrible things are simply acts of God (or nature), then no one is liable for the damages. Nevermind the extensive fracking that preceded the earthquake, or the mining tailings or coal ash that gets washed into neighborhood, or the monstrous greenhouse emissions that precede the increases in extreme weather. But aside from the liability dodge, once God is in the mix, we have to consider and discuss that possibility in a serious manner with all the folks who think the planet is six or ten thousand years old and that there were probably dinosaurs on Noah’s ark. I think we will hit the limits of my tolerance for cosmopolitan and inclusive discussion pretty fast. I think I prefer my science rigorous and serious, rather than cosmopolitan and inclusive.

  42. Ken,
    Yes, that’s an impression I have too. I sometimes end up thinking, “that sounds as though it might be appropriate in some circumstances, but what you’re describing isn’t science”.

  43. Willard says:

    So, what would be the best “but CG” objections and quotes?

    Time to make my ClimateBall Bingo page.

  44. But “open data”.

    But “extended peer review”.

    But “scientific norms”.

  45. izen says:

    All these calls to ‘improve’ the scientific process by incorporating extra factors like cultural beliefs, ethical points of view, or stakeholder interest have it completely axx-backwards.

    The history of science from Lysenko, Eugenics, and big Pharma onward shows that it is improved when it SHEDS political, ideological, and moneyed interests.

  46. anoilman says:

    This all seems wishy washy to me. Behind the scenes, scientists can be sh*ts and make serious mistakes. They are still human after all. I don’t particularly care about what goes on behind the scenes, and I don’t demand or expect perfection. This is the reason we have peer review.

    I’m not sure what the relevance is of a bunch of malcontents misrepresenting behind the scenes communications of a bunch of scientists. I would think that the conversation should start with a discussion of those malcontents, and why they intentionally pushed their political agenda at the expense of trust in the due process of scientific research.

    What was the new result of all the damage those malcontents caused? I don’t know.. ask someone at Q anon.

  47. “Andrew Montford is an accountant who… is now the Deputy Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. If this is an example of someone who has cosmopolitan knowledge, then I’m not a fan.”

    Neither am I, but that applies as well to pop climate polemics in Cosmopolitan itself , and the woker shades of editorial green long in fashion in Teen Vogue and Vanity Fair.

  48. Everett F Sargent says:

    But “Ancient Aliens”

    That is an inside joke. If you have never seen this History Channel US-centric show, well then don’t. But, I watch it all the time, shouting at the devil the entire way. The basic premise is that humans are/were too stupid to make Stone Age items (or really anything up to the present and into the future) without some outside influences. Basically an argument from incredulity. My personal tagline for the show is “And If So” because the narration uses it so often.

    But “And If So”

    It is a form of so-called alternative facts. :/

  49. Willard says:

    > that applies as well to

    Not sure who is deferring to all these hippies, Russell, but anyone who would should get the memo.

    Interestingly, our STS authors did not cite the proper Bishop opus. The 2010 one does not cover CGs, but the HS bedtime stories. Here’s the proper post-CG one:

    [OUR BELOVED BISHOP] The messages, sent between some of the world’s most prominent climatologists revealed an extraordinary array of malpractice, with scientists manipulating data, breaching freedom of information laws and trying to crush dissenting views.

    Not sure why that political hit job is not on sale.

    It goes without saying that I added it to my “but CG” page:

    I’ve ran out of steam for the moment. Comments and suggestions welcome.

  50. anoilman says:

    To my eyes, the things that global warming deniers complained about back then haven’t aged well. You know, since they were all completely wrong. If there was something significant or relevant, I’m sure it would have been published in a scientific journal by now.

  51. David B Benson says:

    Willard, comments and suggestions about what?

  52. David B Benson says:

    Willard, too obscure for me. I’ll pass…

  53. Steven Mosher says:

    “Interestingly, our STS authors did not cite the proper Bishop opus. The 2010 one does not cover CGs, but the HS bedtime stories. Here’s the proper post-CG one:”

    yes that struck me as odd

  54. Steven Mosher says:

    Yes, that’s an impression I have too. I sometimes end up thinking, “that sounds as though it might be appropriate in some circumstances, but what you’re describing isn’t science”.

    part of their point is this
    The technocrat model is
    science expert gives objective science evidence to politician
    communicates it to the public as well
    public passively agrees and never questions.
    Policy makers follow the science that the public agrees with.
    we did it because of the science.

    They are arguing for not science first and not policy maker simply decides.

    In a way they are arguing for the conversation we are already having.

    which can be long and potentially dangerous in things like pandemics for example.

  55. Everett F Sargent says:

    “BOX 1 Cosmopolitan knowledge and the IPCC

    The IPCC has continued to produce consensus reports, a means of establishing expert authority seen in other domains of science advice. Although recent years have seen more visible questioning of the IPCC’s purpose and future (), the main structure of its Assessment Reports remains unchanged. The numerical and chronological primacy given to physical science through WG1 has been shown to have material effects on the public communication of climate change. O’Neill () found that in the release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report much more media attention was given to WG1 than WG3, despite the latter containing much more potential for public discussion about political responses to climate change. They argued that this sequential release of IPCC reports was detrimental to WG3, and that there was also an absence of narratives and visuals linked to the political questions underpinning WG3.

    The IPCC’s presentation of climate knowledge as “science-first” is understandable in terms of its attempts to establish the evidence for a phenomenon that is not amenable to human perception and crosses space and time at unfamiliar scales (). Yet this framing is now long past its “use by” date. IPCC reports have amassed significant symbolic power and remain crucial in directing political and media attention towards climate change. Such attention opportunities are infrequent. To capitalize on them, the IPCC should reconstitute climate knowledge away from a focus on “settled-science” toward an approach that prioritizes a wider range of questions and knowledge most relevant to human responses to climate change, rather than those questions of atmospheric physics around which narrow agreement can be found.

    To do so would be to learn a key lesson of Climategate: that justifying climate policy needs arguments more than a narrow set of scientific data and consensus if it is to prevent another decade of polarized debate.”

    Well you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I believe that there are no pathways that avoids ‘another decade of polarized debate’ AND mainly coincidental/subsequent inaction wrt BAU.

  56. Steven Mosher says:

    “This all seems wishy washy to me. Behind the scenes, scientists can be sh*ts and make serious mistakes. They are still human after all. I don’t particularly care about what goes on behind the scenes, and I don’t demand or expect perfection. This is the reason we have peer review.”

    until you corrupt peer review.

    and from the other perspective some folks even perceive the IPCC as being biased –too conservative, too insistent on higher levels of certainty

    One way to view this is: you have a hierarchical model of truth.
    The fallible human with his awful mails produces the fallible science
    But that’s ok, because it goes to the next level, where anonymous and less self interested
    fallible humans peer review it. Still here we see the opportunity for bias to creep in
    ( editorial boards and such)
    But wait, there is another level above that: the grand meta review that is the IPCC
    in the end you poop out truth, scientific truth utterly untainted by any human bias.

    Oh and maybe throw a skeptical red team into the mix. The dream in this model of truth seeking
    is that every level removes more error and we get “closer” to the truth.

  57. Steven Mosher says:

    Speaking of truth… oilman

    “Asians love their masks… but I wouldn’t read too much into that.”

    Those of us with cosmopolitan knowledge knew otherwise.

    Now you want to know something really weird?

    Despite the mounting evidence of the effectiveness of Vitamin D in reducing infections
    ( one of many
    and reducing hospitalization
    Despite the fact that Faucci himself takes Vitamin D,
    The CDC has yet to make any recommendations?

  58. mrkenfabian says:

    Seems like there is a big difference between private, unofficial communication and published science. The former includes exaggeration, mutually understood to be false falsehoods, inversions of meaning and other wordplay. Published science and public communications occur within contexts where professional standards apply – not only because of those standards, but because it all gets published and made widely available for review and critique. And it it there forever. Worse than sports drug cheats contemplating the possibility that preserved samples from Long Ago will come back to haunt them.

    If the worst that can be found is selected quotes with arguable meaning or intent from private communications then the critics are really short of genuine material of real significance. Which leaves me with a lowered opinion of such uncritical critics rather than presuming their criticisms have substance. Were I less informed by science that opinion likely will be different – perhaps even more “cosmopolitan”… where published and reviewed and widely accepted and applauded science can be deemed secondary to popular political ideology or religious conviction.

  59. Steven,

    They are arguing for not science first and not policy maker simply decides.

    If this is their argument, then they’re making it badly.

    Firstly, I don’t think that many actually believe that it should work like this

    The technocrat model is
    science expert gives objective science evidence to politician
    communicates it to the public as well
    public passively agrees and never questions.

    I think anyone involved in any societally-relevant/policy-relevant science understands the process is not linear.

    Secondly, if this is what they’re arguing for, then there are huge underlying values that they seem to be sweeping under the carpet. What does this imply about representative democracy? We already mostly live in countries where we elect policy-makers to represent us when it comes to decision making. A great deal of them currently seem to be pretty awful, but if people want to argue for a different process, then why not just come out and say it, rather than hiding behind some semi-technical critique of how science informs policy?

  60. Willard,
    The subtitle for the Hockey Stick Illusion is “Climategate and the corruption of science” in some cases, but not all.

  61. Steven,

    until you corrupt peer review.

    Peer review is what it says on the tin – review by your peers. A group of researchers pointing out that a paper should probably not have been published isn’t really a corruption of peer review.

  62. izen says:

    Corruption of peer review is when you send the paper to a lower tier journal that is relatively unfamiliar with the subject and ‘suggest’ appropriate (like-minded) reviewers. Even better if the editor happens to be sympathetic to your take on the matter.

    Can anyone think of any candidates for this procedure ?

  63. The potential irony about suggestions that peer review has been corrupted is that this paper is essentially arguing for a form of public review, which would – by design – have to happen after formal peer review. If so, what’s wrong with scientists also getting involved in this? What’s wrong with scientists suggesting that a paper shouldn’t be included in a report because it’s a poor piece of research? Why restrict post publication review only to those outside a field?

  64. Chubbs says:

    The issue I have is the focus on scientists. Would like to see the email stealers and all the other CG participants covered as well. Difficult to have a “culture that can reason together in the public good”, when spinning science misinformation is the best strategy.

  65. Chubbs,
    Indeed, it does seem rather one-sided. It’s as if there’s assumption that there are norms of behaviour that scientists should satisfy, but not norms of behaviour that those who challenge science should satisfy. My own view is that anyone who thinks they’re in a position to challenge science should also be satisfying whatever norms those who do science should satisfy. If science should be open, then the same “rules” should apply to all (i.e., if you think that scientists don’t hold some special place in this overall debate, then you can’t apply some rules that apply only to some group that you define as “scientists”).

  66. Everett F Sargent says:

    “The Project also has an explicit normative objective: to identify processes of democratic decision making by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policymaking.”

    Which ounds rather familiar, a Dan Kahan type approach. That was the 1st thing that came to my mind when reading this paper. Just wanted to get that off my mind. Word association … chairs … Titanic,

  67. Willard says:

    My own word association is that Warren’s team is rediscovering PONO:

    We can understand the root cause of [CG] as a case of scientists constrained to attempt to do normal science in a post-normal situation.

    The difference is the shift between is and ought. In Warren’s team’s case, there’s a prescription.

    Here’s a clear counterexample:

    As an Open Science guru and an auditor (he wrote a book called Science Fictions on cases of bad science), Stuart should be all for PONO, cosmopolitanism, whatever. Yet he’s acting like a silly cop.

    Contrarians who are whining about the tenor of the CG emails don’t seem to realize that we can find worse daily between scientists on the Twitter. We’re social animals. Status competition is here to stay.


    > The subtitle for the Hockey Stick Illusion is “[CG] and the corruption of science”:

    This was added after most of the book has been written. I can look back to see where our Beloved Bishop made his addenda. The main book on CG is our dynamic duo’s.

    One about post-CG could be Warren’s, but I have not read it. If someone buy it for me I might, but I can live an happy life without reading it.

  68. Which ounds rather familiar, a Dan Kahan type approach. That was the 1st thing that came to my mind when reading this paper. Just wanted to get that off my mind. Word association … chairs … Titanic,

    Certainly Dan Kahan is another who is anti-consensus messaging because it’s polarising and is a “culturally assualtive form of advocacy”. However, in one of my few encounters with Dan Kahan he claimed that I simply wasn’t trying to understand his argument, that I couldn’t comprehend it, and that he’d explained it clearly a 1000 times. It seems to me that that is a form of consensus messaging (my interpretation of the evidence is correct), an example of a linear model (I’ve explained it a 1000 times), and not very receptive to viewpoint diversity (you simply aren’t trying to, or can’t, understand it). Again, it seems to me that those who promote that we should be more receptive to a diversity of views are not always that good at doing so when it comes to someone challenging their viewpoint.

  69. Something else I was going to say, is that I can see why Dan Kahan might frustrated by random old me challenging his argument, or why Warren might decide not to respond to me because of how we’ve interacted in the past. What I don’t get is why they then don’t consider the climategate emails through a similar lens. Do they illustrate some violation of the norms of science, or do they simply illustrate that scientists are also people who get frustrated and don’t always behave as ideally as they should and sometimes say things in private that they might not say in public (and, just to clarify, I think most of the emails that dissenters highlight are mis-represented, rather than illustrations of anything remotely unacceptable)?

  70. Jon Kirwan says:

    Thanks, I saw that news. I worked at the University of Delaware for a few years.

    Got it. Thanks.


    I don’t know, but I suspect that the current administration has been decimating climate research in the US on a variety of fronts and in a continuous push-back. It’s almost as if there’s a committee somewhere with little else to occupy their minds. Just another example here:

    I do speak with scientists involved in some activity within climate science. Infrequent, but on average more often than twice a year. (Sometimes I want to know something, such as some of the detailed elements regarding carbon storage in boreal forest systems, not so long ago, as an example.)

    Recently, I’ve been asking them if they can seriously consider staying in the US, at all. They cannot afford to sit here in this current environment, as by the time the presidency is over they will have fallen behind too much and others in the world will have meanwhile maintained their proficiencies.

    I’m a little bit worried, I guess. Maybe I shouldn’t be.

  71. Jon,
    I should have probably expanded on my comment about working there :-). I didn’t ever meet Legates, but because I had worked there I was maybe somewhat more aware of Legates than I might have been had I not worked there.

  72. Jon Kirwan says:

    I just wrote, Sometimes I want to know something, such as some of the detailed elements regarding carbon storage in boreal forest systems, not so long ago, as an example.

    Speaking of which, living in Oregon very close to the largest fire here and having the entire family thinking about leaving for a while, another question about boreal forests has arrived. On my property, there is a layer of carbon about 1/3rd of a meter down. It was due to a fire that swept through (I live in a boreal forest system and have bobcat and deer on my property here) in 1966. The layer is about 5 mm thick and is continuous. No matter where I dig, it is there. (The entire property burned back then.)

    Last time I discussed boreal forest systems with someone at Woods Hole, I had missed this question. Natural fires have been a part of the environment. I know that much carbon dioxide is released (let’s avoid discussing everything else that’s released, too) during such an event. But much carbon is also trapped in these layers that I’ve seen, too.

    There are details we’d discussed earlier about carbon storage above ground in the forest system and below ground as part of many other processes and part of the accounting he discussed with me for the Canadian forests he studied was that more was in-ground than above, which was different than from deciduous forest systems found in the US southeast (his example) where more is stored above ground, than below.

    But now I’m interested in further details we’d missed discussing — about fire and carbon layers they lay down and get buried. (Perhaps that was part of his overall thinking about what we discussed, but I just failed to think about asking the question, then.) So I may call him back this year to ask about this detail, now, and to see where it takes our discussion.

    I very much enjoy listening to what some really good folks know and learning just a fraction of it. Of course, as things settle deeper in mind and I think more about it, new questions arise.

    This is why I said that I do have conversations, from time to time. If I have a question, I find the better person I can find on the topic and just ask, using a phone call. The two way discussion quickly gets things across to me. I let them call me at their convenience and I honestly can say that in each case they’ve been very helpful and, I think, even interested in communicating with lay people on their topics.

    I’ve never been turned down, yet. And I’ve loved every moment I’ve been offered.

  73. Willard says:

    Speaking of Oregon:


    I’ve searched for the CG word in Stuart’s tweets. There is zero occurrence of it. While this is just anecdotal, it’s quite amazing that CG isn’t mentioned by one of the Open Science gurus.

  74. Everett F Sargent says:

    “Openness to uncertainty” should just be “Openness” following the open science movement then. Also, uncertainty should be handled within the science itself and publications thereof (just as it has always been done imho).

  75. Bob Loblaw says:

    “until you corrupt peer review.”

    Yeah, that sucks. Behavior such as described in the link below is very unacceptable.

    O course, “pal review” is a frequently-heard accusation from the “skeptics”. Possibly a case of “accuse your opponent of what you are doing yourself”? For an additional perspective, try this link.

  76. Bob Loblaw says:

    Then there is the question of extended review after publication. For example, you could have a paper published and have people blog about it.

    Or you can have web sites specifically devoted to post-publication review. Authors can even respond to people’s questions and comments.

    It sure is nice in the example above to see an author engaging fruitfully in an open environment, carefully considering the criticisms that were made, and showing such obvious respect for people that disagree with the author. Wouldn’t climate science discussions be so much more constructive if the “consensus’ side behaved as that “skeptic” author behaved?

    [Does anyone know what the end-sarc html tag is?]

  77. Willard says:

    That’s some fine if-by-whiskey right here:

    Has [CG] been a good thing? Probably not for some of scientists caught in the conflagration. There has been some reputational damage both to individuals and institutions. The real answer though depends on one’s beliefs about the nature of science and its place in public life. If one thinks of science as a pure disinterested pursuit of knowledge whose truths can then coerce social actors, whether individual or collective, into value adjustments and behavioural change, then one probably sees [CG] as a set-back. If however one understands that science only ‘works’ because it continually evolves norms and practices which can be rhetorically defended in public and its knowledge therefore becomes powerful through beliefs and behaviours, then [CG] should be seen as a creative episode.


    An alternative if-by-whiskey: if one considers the Copenhagen Summit, CG was not a Good Thing; but if one considers that in its aftermath MikeH became the head of the Tyndall Center and that many of his ulterior contributions to STS centered around CG, it was a Very Good Thing.

  78. Bob Loblaw says:

    Jon Kirwan:

    Yes, your description of boreal forest carbon stores is generally correct. A lot of carbon in the soil (often more than in the overstory) – although it is not typically in layers such as you describe. A cubic metre of mineral soil will typically weigh a tonne or more, and only a few percent (by weight) of organic matter adds up to a lot of carbon. When you consider how many tonnes of mineral soil there is in a hectare, it is easy to get up into the 100 t/ha range that frequently exceeds the biomass in the forest. When you add in the leaf and branch litter, there is often a lot more carbon. Slow decomposition is the key – in warmer climates the soil carbon and woody debris doesn’t last anywhere near as long.

    When disturbed (fire, logging) there is usually accelerated decay of these carbon pools (sunlight exposure, higher soil temperatures). Even during the following period of rapid regrowth of trees and vegetation the forest is a source of carbon, not a sink.

    Dated now, but the BOREAS project is an excellent source of information.

    I can also suggest further reading by looking at the Carbon Budget Model – Canadian Forest Sector. It includes biomass, debris, soil, etc. and incorporates time-sequences of fire and logging.

  79. Jon Kirwan says:

    Thanks, Bob. I appreciate your thoughts!

    The first site appears to require developing some developing navigation skills and the second link will require an account (no indication that this is difficult, just yet, scanning the site), followed probably by yet more navigation skills.

    I think I may call Scott or Andrew (or whomever is available these days), though. It’s easier and I can skip some of the difficulties. Plus, they may be able to point me better on those two sites, too.

    That said, I’ll read through those when I get a moment, too. All is appreciated!

  80. Bob Loblaw says:

    Jon: Google “Boreas” along with boreal forest and you should find lots of hits, especially if you use Scholar. It was a large, multinational project based on field campaigns in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, in the 1990s. The web site I linked to will eventually lead you to raw data and such – probably publication lists, etc. Here is a link to an overview paper that was part of a special issue of JGR:

    Natural Resources Canada (Canadian Forest Service) was heavily involved in the project, and you can search their online publication list for “Boreas” here. I see a few links that relate to field data with overstory, understory, and soils information “Biometry and auxiliary sites”).

    The same search site can find you publications related to carbon budgets (many more hits than “boreas”).

  81. Dave_Geologist says:

    I see we’ve digressed into Open Science. Best not to make it so open that your brain falls out, as they say.

    It gives me an excuse though to mention the coolest science news of the last week or so: phosphine in the Venusian cloud deck. Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus. A potential biosignature where we least expected it (actually, no: Life in the Clouds of Venus? Morowitz & Sagan 1967).

    Commentators are being measured, and not letting their minds be too open (we can’t think of an inorganic source, but maybe there’s one we haven’t thought of). There is an Open Science zinger related to it, but I’ll split the posts so as not to include too many links.

  82. Dave_Geologist says:

    If you can access it, it’s well worth watching the BBC Sky At Night episode dedicated to the topic. It has interviews with the main researchers, and from the dialogue had obviously been recorded before publication but embargoed. The title Life on Venus was a teaser but unless you were in the know, like me you probably assumed it would be one of their retrospective pieces.

    The team was large and spread across multiple institutions, and they’d sat on their initial results from 2017 observations until they’d independently confirmed them using a different telescope in 2019. Should they have rushed out the results earlier? Remember the NASA life-in-Martian-meteorite fiasco? Obviously lots of people knew about it in the astronomy community – I wonder if out host did? – but recognised the intense public interest that would follow premature announcements. It could hardly be otherwise, with collaborations and, IIRC, three earlier failed attempts by the lead researcher to get observing time on the ALMA telescope to confirm their finding. I suspect that also means that people respected the priority of the discovery team and did not rush something out to gazump them (although they spent three months writing the code to filter signal from noise, so it’s not the sort of think you knock out in a weekend…).

    The code and the data is all open-source, bash scripts to run the Starlink software and python scripts for further processing.

    The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. The raw data are publicly available at (JCMT) and (ALMA). Source data are provided with this paper.

    That seems reasonable to me, given the work involved, the casual interest “life on Venus” would generate, and the desire not to be bothered by dilettantes. Serious Auditors can do the hard graft themselves using the raw data and source code. (I’m reminded of the story about another Auditor who was nonplussed at the fact that you can’t just click on an R script and have it open in a GUI like Excel.) Starlink also appears to be a long-standing open and collaborative project which long predates CG, as ATTP pointed out applies more generally.

    I reckon they’ve struck the right balance, in public outreach as well as in science.

  83. Dave,
    Yes, a very interesting result. I think they’ve been suitable cautious, but some of the media coverage has gone a bit too far. I do think that some of the press release titles went a bit far (hints of life?). I know most of the authors quite well (I shared an office with the lead author, and Clara Sousa Silva – who has done a lot of work on phosphine as a potential biosignature – worked with me while a student in Edinburgh). They’re certainly very good researchers and the author list includes people who are probably the go-to experts when it comes to analysing observations from the JCMT and ALMA.

  84. Dave_Geologist says:

    It piqued my interest so I looked around the subject and there are perhaps a few hints that something was coming. Some of the authors had proposed phosphine as a biosignature on rocky planets back in January, but teasingly didn’t mention Venus. Phosphine as a Biosignature Gas in Exoplanet Atmospheres. Perhaps they were floating it ahead of the observation as a form of pre-come-post-publication peer review? Just in case someone said “duh, there’s an obvious inorganic pathway you’ve missed”. Members of the team had also published a proposed life cycle for Venusian cloud-deck life in August. The Venusian Lower Atmosphere Haze as a Depot for Desiccated Microbial Life: A Proposed Life Cycle for Persistence of the Venusian Aerial Biosphere. But no mention of phosphine, although they did talk about bioavailablity of phosphorous in the clouds.

    There does seem to have been some thought put into how to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. I can imagine the anticipation of those in the know as they waited for the final shoe to drop! Kinda makes science sound like fun.

  85. Dave_Geologist says:

    It also led me to a paper (Was Venus the first habitable world of our solar system?) which I’d missed when we had the runaway-greenhouse thread a while back. Simple models had tended to suggest that Venus went quite early into runaway, so there might not have been time to develop life on the surface before the only habitable place left was the clouds (I’m not a fan of the old Carl Woese model of life originating in a Urey-style atmospheric haze – everything in the decades since has pointed to the need for isolating and concentrating conditions in places like smokers and clay particles, and access to essential minerals). But a full 3D model allows billions of years with a habitable surface if the rotation rate is low enough (it’s currently very low, almost tidally locked, but a rate 16 times slower than Earth’s would have it above the moist greenhouse threshold by 2.9 b.y. ago). So there could have been time for life to evolve on the surface, and to escape to the clouds as the oceans boiled or before.

    Present-day Venus is an inhospitable place with surface temperatures approaching 750 K and an atmosphere 90 times as thick as Earth’s. Billions of years ago the picture may have been very different. We have created a suite of 3-D climate simulations using topographic data from the Magellan mission, solar spectral irradiance estimates for 2.9 and 0.715 Gya, present-day Venus orbital parameters, an ocean volume consistent with current theory, and an atmospheric composition estimated for early Venus. Using these parameters we find that such a world could have had moderate temperatures if Venus had a prograde rotation period slower than ~16 Earth days, despite an incident solar flux 46–70% higher than Earth receives. At its current rotation period, Venus’s climate could have remained habitable until at least 0.715 Gya. These results demonstrate the role rotation and topography play in understanding the climatic history of Venus-like exoplanets discovered in the present epoch.

    There’s an interesting analogy with modern climate models: simple models have the benefit of being easier to understand and can give a guide to the general outcome. But especially where threshold behaviours are involved, detailed models can have quite different outcomes and so simple models should not be pushed too far.

  86. Dave_Geologist says:

    Thanks for the insight ATTP. As you can probably tell, I’m at the excitable-puppy end of the media response spectrum 🙂

  87. Clara Sousa Silva has been presenting phosphine as a potential biosignature for a while. A saw her give a talk on this a year or so ago. IIRC, they can’t find an obvious abiotic origin (except, I think, under quite extreme conditions). I think there was an explicit attempt to see if they could then detect it.

  88. Sorry, I missed that you’d found Clara’s paper on phosphine from earlier this year.

  89. izen says:

    Unless they discover a big loophole in the phosphine results, there is going to be a big motivation to send a probe for a closer look.
    Time to dust of all that work on airships from a few years back ?

  90. I’m puzzled by the assertion that there’s no abiotic route.

    Most metal phosphides release PH3 on reaction with acids or acidic atmospheres, and some , like calcium phosphide, do so on contact with water.

    Schreibersite, an iron-nickel phosphide, is a common mineral in iron meteorites, and an impact on the scale of Earth’s K-T boundary event could conceivably deliver enough for the 20 ppb just observed in our neighbor’s atmosphere

  91. ” they can’t find an obvious abiotic origin (except, I think, under quite extreme conditions)”

    The conditions are extreme enough to justfy paying for diamond windows for lander optics- the Magellan probe required a type II A gem the size of a nickel.

    After decades in that atmosphere, it may be the only component left intact.

  92. izen says:

    “Most metal phosphides release PH3 on reaction with acids or acidic atmospheres, and some , like calcium phosphide, do so on contact with water.”

    But has a half-life of a few hours ??
    The level detected on separate occasions would seem to require a continual source.

  93. Dave_Geologist says:

    Yes izen, the issue is not the ability to generate phosphine, but its half-life under those atmospheric conditions and the potential rate of production from abiotic sources (it’s apparently expected deep in the atmospheres of gas giants, but at P,T conditions which would be underground on Venus). Hence phosphine as a biosignature on rocky planets only.

    The loophole I’ve seen mentioned in commentaries is that they’ve made both observations in the same spectral window. Two telescopes rules out some sort of freak hardware artefact (shades of Penzias & Wilson’s pigeon droppings!), and presumably the data reduction processes are sufficiently different to make a common algorithmic error unlikely. And the second observation allowed them to get better spatial and temporal resolution. But to rule out some weird chemistry they haven’t though of, they need to confirm a phosphine signature in a different part of the spectrum. Presumably that would rule out pretty much anything that doesn’t have P-H bonds. It’s not like an ester, say, where you have large, complex units at either end of the bond and multiple ways to skin the cat. Apparently they had infrared observations planned for this year but they were scuppered by Covid.

  94. Dave_Geologist says:

    If I may be permitted to advertise another recent paper, since it’s relevant to climate change: you’ll recall me saying that the Carnian Pluvial Event is a past episode that, like the PETM, saw a greatly enhanced hydrological cycle. Mike Benton was doing the rounds talking about the CPE as the sixth mass extinction which led to the expansion and diversification of the dinosaurs. My first reaction was “we knew that already Mike*, and it’s not like you to over-hype stuff”. But I gave him a pass when I saw it’s a review paper and meta-analysis. The conclusions will have come as no surprise to those in touch with recent advances in the field, but it’s probably a good place to go if you want a primer on them. Extinction and dawn of the modern world in the Carnian (Late Triassic).

    The Carnian Pluvial Episode (Late Triassic) was a time of global environmental changes and possibly substantial coeval volcanism. The extent of the biological turnover in marine and terrestrial ecosystems is not well understood. Here, we present a meta-analysis of fossil data that suggests a substantial reduction in generic and species richness and the disappearance of 33% of marine genera. This crisis triggered major radiations. In the sea, the rise of the first scleractinian reefs and rock-forming calcareous nannofossils points to substantial changes in ocean chemistry. On land, there were major diversifications and originations of conifers, insects, dinosaurs, crocodiles, lizards, turtles, and mammals. Although there is uncertainty on the precise age of some of the recorded biological changes, these observations indicate that the Carnian Pluvial Episode was linked to a major extinction event and might have been the trigger of the spectacular radiation of many key groups that dominate modern ecosystems.

    Understandably (he’s a dinosaur guy) the media focus was on dinosaurs because, well, because dinosaurs. Shades of ATTP’s comment on the phosphine paper about the media commentary and the press release over-dramatising the actual content of the paper. He’s also more cautious about the timing and cause-and-effect than I’d be, which is proper. The dinosaurs were the big winners then, just as modern primates (and ultimately, us) were after the PETM. It stands to reason that if there were winners there were also losers, but science demands higher standards of proof and causation.

    * Although you might debate whether it really is a mass extinction on the scale of the Big Five. I’m wary of over-stating the impact of the CPE and PETM when we’re using them as worst-case analogues for AGW. There’s no need to say “as bad as the Great Dying”, or “as bad as the Dinosaur-Killer” to make it bad. “A substantial reduction in generic and species richness and the disappearance of 33% of marine genera” is quite bad enough. As is “(i) profound transformation or interruption of carbonate sedimentation and increase in terrigenous input into marine basins and (ii) shifts in sedimentation indicating a major variation of the hydrological regime in terrestrial depositional settings”. To a geologist, hydrologist, planning engineer or agriculturalist the second change (which no doubt helped cause the extinctions) should be scarier than the first.

  95. Dave_Geologist says:

    For anyone interested in following up on the CPE, there was a major conference in 2017, summarised here: FIRST WORKSHOP ON THE CARNIAN PLUVIAL EPISODE (LATE TRIASSIC): A REPORT; and for lay readers here: Triassic extinctions and explosions (not paywalled, AFAICS).

    Several papers from the workshop are in a Thematic Set of the Geological Society of London Journal.

  96. Dave_Geologist says:

    I did find one loophole for phosphine preservation with the suggestion that it’s present at higher concentrations in the upper atmospheres of Saturn and Jupiter than thermodynamic predictions because of shielding against photochemical dissociation by aerosol haze. Phosphine on Jupiter and Saturn from Cassini/CIRS. But Sousa-Silva refers to that paper so has presumably thought about that possibility.

    This overabundance of PH3 occurs because chemical equilibrium timescales are long when compared with convective timescales (Noll and Marley, 1997). PH3 forms in the hotter deep layers of the atmosphere (temperatures above 800 K) and is mixed upward, so that the PH3 inventory at the cloud-top is replenished.

    There appears to be very little convection from the deep Venusian atmosphere to the phosphine detection height, even if it could be made deeper down.

  97. David B Benson says:

    Dave_Geologist, …and insects…
    What was there before insects?

  98. Dave_Geologist says:

    Insects were around before, David, just not very diverse. Ditto dinosaurs, and primates before the PETM. Insect Family Tree Maps 400-Million-Year Evolution. Phylogenomics resolves the timing and pattern of insect evolution

    Prior to the late Silurian or early Devonian, there were very few land insects because there were very few land plants so no food for herbivores thus no food for carnivores. There were diverse marine and freshwater arthropods of various types, most famously trilobites and sea scorpions*. But most were probably small, shrimp-like critters just as today. There are always more wildebeest than lions.

    I have the impression, although I’m sure someone has looked at it properly, that the winners tend not to be “chosen” in the immediate aftermath of a mass extinction, perhaps because ecosystems are too disturbed and depauperate, but in a subsequent radiation event when habitats opened up due to climate change, continental rifting or collision, etc. The winners, at least if you’re counting species, are the ones who don’t just make it through but spread out into multiple ecological niches. They may not be the winners in terms of biomass, but it’s a lot easier to count species in the fossil record than to measure biomass.

    *Scorpions are of course not insects, and are related to spiders. And sea scorpions were not true scorpions although the later ones, when there was stuff to eat on land, may have been amphibious. Some had stings like true scorpions, but most just settled for being really big and let their claws do the talking.

  99. David B Benson says:

    Dave_Geologist, thank you for the prompt and informative reply.

  100. Russell Seitz says:

    “The level detected on separate occasions would seem to require a continual source.”

    The continuing surface corrosion and reaction of a kilometer sized impactor ( the KT meteorite was on the order of 10 cubic kilometers) may satisfy that criterion on time scales though short geologically, are far longer that this set of observations.

    OTOH the dense ( 10 megapascal ) atmosphere my decllerate and shatter meteorites or comet nuclei more violently than Earth’s can. Look what happened to Shoemaker-Levi !

  101. izen says:

    “Positing a large enough recent asteroid impact containing sufficient metal phosphides to produce similar and significant amount of Phosphine in the equatorial wind belts for around a year, from the surface in the extremely corrosive/eroding atmosphere, sounds about as unlikely as there being some form of life in the Venusian upper atmosphere.

  102. izen says:

    using VERY rough figures, please correct me if wrong…
    They detected 20ppb in the upper layer of the Venusian atmosphere where the pressure and temperature (although not the chemistry) are similar to Earth’s.
    Given the area at that altitude a 1 meter thick layer would mass around 500 Trillion kg.
    So 20ppb of that is 20,000 kg of Phosphine, or 20 tonnes detected twice about a year apart.
    It seems unlikely the Phosphine is restricted to a 1 m layer, so much greater quantities are probably present.

    How big is this asteroid you are suggesting could be a source ?

  103. izen says:

    Ooops, I am wrong I think, and nobody corrected me.
    I forgot to multiply by the 500 (Trillion kg of atmospheric mass of a 1 m layer.
    So that would 10,000 tonnes of phosphine (at least) detected twice, of a chemical that by all conventional chemistry should decay in a few days…

  104. We’ve just had a group talk by a colleague who is an astrobiologist who argues that it probably can’t be life, because the other conditions aren’t suitable. In particular – IIRC – the amount of water available and the PH.

  105. Dave_Geologist says:

    One of the papers has a solution to that ATTP, the “Life Cycle” one, but it does involve living in 85% H2SO4/15% H2O droplets, and having some sort of molecular pump that draws water in through an acid-proof membrane. The energy required to extract one mole of water from 85% sulfuric acid is about 25 kJ/mol, but there is plenty of sunlight. “Energy from on the order of seconds to minutes of
    illumination for a microbe 1 mm in radius would be sufficient for life to extract sufficient water from its sulfuric acid environment to fill the organism”. They do go into why regular Earth extremophiles are not a valid analogue: the droplets are water dissolved in acid, not the other way round, so pH is undefined. But it’s -11.5 in the Hammett scale, so “the clouds of Venus are a hundred billion times as acidic as the Dallol geothermal area”.

    Elemental sulphur would be a suitable cell-wall material (and also is an inorganic explanation for the unknown UV absorber which was speculated decades ago to be UV-photosynthesis, so it would be neat to keep it but make it organic). But it’s hydrophobic so does not fit with the particular life-cycle they postulated, which requires the cells to nucleate droplets because the water vapour content of the atmosphere is very low. If they don’t use UV for photosynthesis they argue the cell contents could be protected from UV damage by a melanin-analogue, but I think an elemental sulphur shell or similar would do it the same way tropical plants do. They can’t use pigment on their leaves because they have to let sunlight in, so they use waxy cuticles with fine layers which give an iridescence or diffraction grating effect, and reflect or scatter UV but let visible light through. That’s why there’s a lot of UV in the understory: in UV light a tropical forest is like a hall of mirrors and glitterballs.

    I do find this sort of speculation fascinating, more so the Discovery Channel CGI aliens, but that’s probably the chemist in me 😉 .

  106. Dave_Geologist says:

    On the downside, the chemist in me seems to remember that when it gets as concentrated as that it’s not really an acid any more because there are no hydronium ions. It is, however, a ferocious oxidising agent. Also a ferocious dehydrating agent: when it turns sugar into tar, it’s not burning it. It’s stripping the H22O11 off the carbon backbone.

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