Out of the lab and into the field?

This is probably going to be another of those rather confused posts, which doesn’t really say much and in which I illustrate my own confusion, more than anything else. I’ve been reading (a few times, now) a Nature article by Dan Kahan and Katherine Carpenter called Out of the lab and into the field. Dan Kahan also highlights it in this blog post.

I’ll state upfront that I still don’t quite get the significance Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition ideas, even though it does seem to be given quite a lot of credence by people whose views I do largely respect. I get that some people are culturally pre-dispossed to reject certain ideas and that, therefore, convincing such people of a certain position can be extremely difficult. What I don’t quite get is what one is meant to do, given this information, especially when it comes to semi-formal science communication, rather than advocacy. Of course, knowing something of the audience can help to tailor what you might say, but you’re still constrained by the actual scientific evidence; there are quite strong limits – in my view – as to how much you can tailor your message to account for people who might be culturally pre-dispossed to reject it.

However, in Kahan & Carpenter’s Nature article they say

Decision scientists have identified remedies for various cognitive biases that distort climate-change risk perceptions. Researchers must now use the same empirical methods to identify strategies for reproducing — in the tumult of the real world — results forged in the tranquillity of their labs.

I must admit that I haven’t come across the term decision scientists before, and am not entirely sure what they are. Also, I’m still not clear what these strategies – that have been forged in the tranquility of the theirs labs – actually are and who they’re aimed at. Are they aimed at traditional science communicators (which I would regard as those, often scientists, who communicate scientific information to the public and to policy makers) or at what I would regard as something like scientific advocates (those who are using scientific information to try and convince the public, and policy makers, that there is something that we should be doing, given that information).

Again, maybe I’m confused, by my understanding behind getting out of the lab and into the field is to actively get involved in helping organisations/science communicators that are trying to, for example, convince people of the significance of anthropogenically-driven climate change. The article also gives an example of the Cultural Cognition lab working with such an organisation. This is where I get a little confused/uncomfortable; is the underlying Cultural Cognition idea simply a clever marketing strategy, a way of getting people who won’t typically accept your views, to ultimately do so?

Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this; those trying to adovate for something will want the most effective messaging strategy. But is this necessarily appropriate for what I would regard as science communication; people – often scientists – engaging in public discussions about science? It’s one thing to find effective ways to better communicate the information, but another to utilise strategies aimed at convincing people of your position. It seems, to me at least, that Cultural Cognition is focussed more on the latter, than the former. Again, nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it would nice if this were clearer.

I think I’m going to stop here (I told you it would be confused). I think I get the basics of the Cultural Cognition idea (some people are culturally pre-dispossed to reject certain scientific views) but I’ve never been quite sure what this implies with respect to how we should actually conduct scientific communication. It’s, of course, possible that I am confused about the fundamental idea, and that I’m missing something obvious about how this information can be utilised. If so, maybe someone can clarify things in the comments; it does seem that many people give quite a lot of credence to these ideas, so I would quite like to know what it is that I’m not getting.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, Policy, Research, Science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , | 232 Comments

97% vs 99.99%

We’ve just had another consensus paper published. The paper is called Does It Matter if the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming Is 97% or 99.99%? (pre-print here). The lead author is Andy Skuce, who has a nice post about it. Dana Nuccitelli is also one of the authors and has written a Guardian article.

Our paper is mostly a response to a paper by Jim Powell, which concludes that Climate Scientists Virtually Unanimous, claiming

the consensus on AGW among publishing scientists is above 99.99%, verging on unanimity.

Powell’s paper also claims that the Cook et al. (2013) 97% was obtained by ignoring a large number of papers/abstracts (those that took no position) which Powell argues should be rated as endorsing the consensus. His paper also claims that the Cook et al. method would return a nonsensical result if applied to a topic for which their is actual unanimity (plate tectonics, for examples) – it would lead to, Powell claims, dividing zero by zero.

Dana and Andy’s articles (linked to above) provide very clear explanations of our response, so I don’t need to say much. One issue is simply related to defining what’s being determined. Powell determined what fraction of abstracts/papers rejected anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and concluded that the rest endorsed it. Cook et al., however, established what fraction of abstracts that took a position with respect to AGW, endorsed that humans are causing global warming. Powell, therefore, gets that 99.99% of abstracts/papers don’t reject AGW, while Cook et al. conclude that just over 97% of abstracts/papers endorse that humans are causing global warming. These are not quite measuring the same thing. In fact, if you apply Powell’s method to the Cook et al. data, you also get that more the 99% do not explicitly reject AGW.

Powell’s claim that Cook et als method would return a nonsensical results for a topic about which there is unanimity is simply wrong. Cook et al. rated papers as to whether they took a position, or not, and – if they took a position – if it was explicit or implicit. The consensus was then the fraction of papers that took a position, that endorsed (implicitly, or explicitly) the consensus. Even if explicit endorsements are unlikely for topics about which there is unanimity, a reasonable fraction of papers/abstracts still implicitly endorse the consensus. We tested this in our paper using plate tectonics as the topic, and did indeed find that a reasonable fraction of abstracts do indeed implicitly endorse the plate tectonic consensus. Of course, none reject the consensus (explicitly, or implicitly) and so the computed consensus is – as expected – 100%.

One could argue that maybe it doesn’t make much difference if the consensus is 97%, or 99.99%; it’s still almost all. Personally, I think it is important to be clear about what is actually being determined; the 97% and 99.99% are determining slightly different things. Also, that 99.99% of abstracts/papers do not reject AGW does not tell you what fraction endorse the stronger position that humans are causing global warming. The result does depend on what position is actually being tested – and whether you assess papers, abstracts, or people – but if you consider relevant experts, or the relevant literature, you find that more than 90% agree that humans are causing global warming. Showing that more than 90% (and typically around 97%) endorse that humans are the dominant cause of global warming, seems stronger than showing that virtually all accept some human contribution. Of course, the latter is still a very useful metric as it does show that explicitly rejecting AGW is now extremely rare.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, Research, Science, The philosophy of science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , , | 77 Comments

Isn’t this also kind of an own goal?

Yesterday’s post was about the recent New York Time’s (NYT) Op-Ed by Bret Stephens. Some people, including a number of climate scientists, are sufficiently disappointed in this that they’re publicly cancelling their NYT subscriptions. Tom Yulsman, a journalism professor and journalist, seems to think that this is essentially cutting off their noses to spite their faces. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that it’s their money and they can do with it as they wish.

I had been minded to ignore this aspect of the issue, but in his post, Tom Yulsman quotes from a brief conversation I had with him on Twitter. Rather ironically, in my view, he somewhat twists it to try and make his point. His point seems to be that we should be careful of scoring own goals; his argument is that

….initiating campaigns to punish the Times plays right into the false claims of climate change deniers who say most scientists are rigid ideologues opposed to free speech.

He then quotes a response of mine that suggests that we shouldn’t care. Well, that wasn’t quite what I was getting at, which I thought I had made clear. I was more suggesting that if you’re dealing with those who will almost certainly twist what you’ve said/done, maybe you should simply do what you think is right, rather than worrying about how it might be mis-used.

Having said that, I don’t actually disagree with the idea that we should be somewhat careful of scoring obvious own goals. However, if Tom Yulsman thinks that we essentially have two teams who are trying to score goals, and avoiding own goals, isn’t his own post essentially another own goal? Hasn’t he just provided more ammunition for those who want to criticise those who’ve publicly cancelled their NYT subscriptions? Personally, I don’t like the analogy with soccer (football?), so I think Tom Yulsman is as entitled to write his post as others are to cancel their NYT subscriptions.

I’ll make, however, a broader point. Tom Yulsman’s basic argument is that

the cure for false speech is more truth telling — not less speech.

Well, this has little to do with more speech, or less speech, or free speech (as Tom Yulsman suggests climate change deniers will claim). It’s entirely about people exercising their right to spend their own money as they see fit, and – if they wish – to make a point about how they’re choosing to do so. What’s more, we regularly hear from social scientists that simply presenting more facts/information is an ineffective way of addressing the spread of misinformation. However, almost every time scientists do something more than simply presenting more facts/information, someone will pop up to tell them that they shouldn’t do that either.

My own view is that noone really knows how best to address this kind of thing. My personal preference is, in fact, to simply try and counter misinformation, by providing more information. However, if some wish to cancel their subscriptions to a newspaper that they no long regard as being reliable, that’s their choice. And, if someone thinks this is some kind of game, maybe they should be careful of publicly criticising those that they regard as being on the same team? However, since I don’t claim any special understanding of what works, and what doesn’t, why not just do what you think is right?

Posted in advocacy, ClimateBall, Personal, Scientists | Tagged , , , , , | 149 Comments

We might not be certain, but…..

Bret Stephens, the newly appointed Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, has released his first column to much criticism. It’s a rather strawman-laden column in which he essentially argues that it’s okay to doubt climate science, and/or climate policy, because some people are too certain.

Credit: Armour (2017)

Rather than commenting on what Stephens’ article says, I thought I would – instead – point out what I think the key issue is. The figure on the right shows some recent estimates for equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). The ECS is essentially an indicator of how sensitive our climate is to external perturbations, which is often quantified in terms of the resulting change in global average surface temperature.

So, what does this figure tell us? Well, it tells us that there is a range for climate sensitivity from possibly quite low (< 2K) to what most would agree is very high (> 6K). What will largely determine how much we warm is how much we emit (mostly CO2). So, even if we manage to limit our total emissions, we could still warm substantially if climate sensitivity turns out to be high. Similarly, we have the potential to emit enough to produce substantial warming even if climate sensitivity is low.

There’s another factor that is often not discussed; the sensitivity of the carbon cycle itself. At the moment, the oceans and biosphere have taken up just over 50% of our emissions. We don’t expect this to continue and would expect a smaller fraction to be taken up by the natural sinks if we continue to increase our emissions. There is, however, some uncertainty and we could end with a larger increase in atmospheric CO2, for a given emission pathway, than expected. Therefore, we could still see a substantial amount of warming even if we manage to limit our emissions and climate sensitivity is low.

Of course, it could all work the other way; we could be lucky and climate sensitivity could turn out to be low and the natural sinks could continue to take up a significant fraction of our emissions. However, none of this changes that we could see substantial warming and, consequently, substantial changes to our climate. These changes will include surface warming, changes to precipitation, and changes to extreme weather events. This is on top of other factors like sea level rise, and ocean acidification. There is another factor that is also important to recognise; these changes are probably irreversible on human timescales.

What I’m trying to get at is that even if we aren’t certain as to exactly what will happen, we are certain that there is a possibility (and not a negligible one) that we could see substantial, and probably irreversible, changes to our climate if we simply continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere. We are also not certain of the impact of these changes, but there is a clear possibility of them being severe and negative. Being dismissive of this possibility is what most people regard as now largely unacceptable, especially coming from someone who has been hired by a newspaper claiming that Truth: It’s more important now than ever.

None of the above, however, tells us what we should do, or how we should do it. There are valid debates to be had about the various policy options and also about the various technological solutions (some of which include continuing to use fossil fuels). However, such discussions are difficult if they involve people who think there isn’t really anything to discuss, because everything could be fine. The possibility of everything being fine doesn’t somehow negate the possibility of it being severe and negative, especially as the outcome will depend on what we chose to do. The irony (as I may have mentioned before) is the more that we dismiss the possibility of it being dangerous, the more we are likely to emit, and the greater the probability of it ending up being dangerous.

Ken Caldeira: Climate of Risk and Uncertainty.
Greg Laden:Out of the gate, Bret Stephens punches the hippies, says dumb things.
Sou: Bret Stephens lowers the bar for intellectual honesty and more @NYTimes.
Tamino: Cancelling the New York Times, because truth is now more important than ever.
Roger Jones: Trolling. It’s more important now than ever.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Climate sensitivity, ClimateBall, Global warming, Policy, Science, Severe Events, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , , | 144 Comments

The War on Science … Not?

For the last week or so, I’ve been reading, and re-reading, an article called perspective: It’s not a war on science. The reason I’ve been doing this is because I noticed that a number of people seemed to regard it as an excellent article, and I’m trying to work out why. It’s not that I disagree with it specifically, it’s that I’m just not sure why it seems to be regarded as so good. I’ve also been – at times – rather dismissive of the sociology of science, and I’m wondering if maybe I’m missing something (which is entirely possible) and I thought I would use this article to try and see if I can work out if I am missing something and, if so, what it is (I’m hoping that my more informed commenters might help).

The article is very US-centric, but the basic presmise is essentially that

[w]hat appears to be a war on science by the current Congress and president is, in fact, no such thing. Fundamentally, it is a war on government.

I’m not entirely sure I quite see the distinction. I don’t think anyone regards the war on science as being driven simply by an intrinsic objection to the science; it’s because of what the science implies. So, why does that it is motivated by an objection to the government somehow make it not a war on science?

The article then says

To be more specific, it is a war on a form of government with which science has become deeply aligned and allied over the past century.

I realise that a great deal of research is now publicly funded, but I suspect many researchers would argue that this doesn’t imply that their research is somehow deeply aligned and allied with their governments. However, that governments utilise knowledge is not really a huge surprise. I’m not quite sure what the alternative is; be less well-informed so as to prevent governments from becoming too powerful?

The rest of the article is really just various ways in which science has influenced society, and seems to present an unduly negative perspective. Science has produced many benefits for society, even if some have benefitted more than others and even if, in retrospect, we would have done many things differently. We don’t have a control, so we can’t really say if the net effect of scientific knowledge is positive or negative; we can only really try to learn from what we regard as past mistakes and try not to make them again.

It was, however, the final two paragraphs that I had the biggest issues with (Victor, I think, also has some issues with this, so would be good if he could expand on his views).

Science is not some magic force for progress and democracy. It is a powerful agent of global social and environmental change. Our choices are stark and not entirely happy. We can continue to place the full burden of supporting social values on government, further centralizing power to regulate technology, industry, and society. Alternatively, we can reject the claims that modern technological enterprises are “too big to fail” and seek to dismantle them.

There is one other path. Much as we have sought over the past two decades to put sustainability at the heart of technology, business, and policy innovation, now is the time to do the same for social responsibility, and to redouble our efforts in support of both objectives. Science, business, and government have together made the modern world what it is. All three must step up to ensure that future societies are worth inhabiting—and they must do so in concert with global publics. None of the three can any longer pretend that they stand outside politics. Democracy depends on it. So does the future our children will inherit.

What is this actually suggesting? How do we dismantle modern technological enterprises? How do science, business, and government step up to ensure that future societies are worth inhabiting? I’m not even necessarily disagreeing with these as goals (the future societies are worth inhabiting especially) but I don’t know how this is meant to happen? Is it meant to happen within our current framework? If so, that would seem to require either convincing current governments to do what would be deemed necessary, or electing those that will do so. If not, then how is these goals meant to be ensured without violating important norms of democracy?

To be clear, I do think that science plays a big role in our societies, and that there are things we could do to try to ensure that scientific knowledge is used in a way that is optimally beneficial (however we might define that). I’m all for people getting involved in advocating for what they think would make society better, but I don’t really see how science, or scientists, have some special mandate to ensure this. However, as I said at the beginning, maybe I’m just not understanding what is really being presented here. If anyone has a better idea of what is being suggested (and aren’t put off by what has become a rather long and convoluted/confused post) feel free to elaborate in the comments.

Posted in Research, Science, The philosophy of science | Tagged , , , | 198 Comments

Red Team vs Blue Team

Having some kind of Red Team exercise, to test and challenge the climate science consensus, seems to be gaining a small amount of momentum. Steve Koonin (who I have discussed before) has an article in the Wall Street Journal called A ‘Red Team’ exercise would strengthen climate science. Judith Curry, who brought the idea up during her testimony to Congress, seems to approve.

So, why isn’t this idea of there being some kind of adversarial challenge to mainstream climate science being embraced? Well, one reason is that this is kind of how science works all the time. People are constantly challenging our understanding so as to either improve, and strengthen it, to modify it, or – in some cases – to completely overthrow it. If a consensus has developed, it is quite likely that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to seriously challenge the fundamentals of the consensus position, even if many of the details are still not completely understood.

There are also already examples of this ‘Red Team’ kind of thing. Berkeley Earth was a recent attempt to re-analyse the surface temperature datasets and, guess what, it got basically the same answer as everyone else. The CLOUD experiment is looking at a possible link between cosmic rays and could formation. Although there is a link between cloud formation and cosmic rays, the effect is marginal. There have even been tests of the Iris Hypothesis and, again, even if there is an effect, it is probably small.

So, maybe those who think that this ‘Red Team’ idea is worth pursuing can actually explain what is being suggested.

  • Who would make up the team/teams? I don’t think that those who are publicly promoting this are really planning to get all that involved themselves. In fact, one of the strongest proponents of this idea has been involved in a Red Team project and – to date – appears to have achieved absolutely nothing. Are there lots of other researchers who are keen to be part of such a team? Would we try to force some to become part of such a team? I can’t see how the latter would work as researchers are normally free to decide what they’d like to pursue. If the former, who are these people?
  • How would this work be funded? The norm, whatever the funding source, is to write a proposal that lays out what work will be done, what the goals are, and what might be achieved. Given that this would be fundamental research, there isn’t a need to say – in advance – what the results would be, but some kind of justification for why it should be funded would normally be expected? Given the nature of the topic, I would imagine that anyone who could put together a half-decent ‘Red Team’ proposal would find someone to fund it, even if the normal funding routes were unlikely to be successful.
  • How would the programme be assessed? How would we decide if the ‘Red Team’ had successfully challenged the mainstream position? Who would decide this? The norm would simply be that the community would slowly accept those ideas that are supported by the evidence, and largely reject those that are not, but that’s the position we’re already in. What special process would we follow to determine if the ‘Red Team’ exercise had been successful, or not?

Given the above, my general impression is that those who are proposing this are not planning to get all that involved themselves, and have no idea who would make up the ‘Red Team’. They’re not actually planning to present any details of what they’re proposing; they would just like some of the funding to go to ‘Red Team’ projects (whatever those might be). Also, they have no real idea of how this would be assessed and – given past experience – I would fully expect them to propose a ‘Green Team’ if it appeared that the ‘Red Team’ was not having much success in challenging the mainstream position.

My impression is that this is simply an attempt to sow doubt, rather than a serious suggestion for some major new research projects – I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though. Since I would like to be helpful, where possible, where they could start is to at least provide some plan for how they might address Judith Curry’s non-attribution argument. All that would be needed, to start with, is just some ideas as to how one might test whether or not most of the observed warming could be natural. I shall not hold my breath waiting for these ideas to be presented.

Eli’s take on Koonin’s idea for a Team B.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Gavin Schmidt, Judith Curry, Research, Science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , , , | 110 Comments

A day of activism … sort of

I discovered via Rachel’s blog that today was Pedal on Parliament 2017 (Scotland, only). Rachel has a new post about the event in Abereen. It’s also the day for the Marches for Science. So, we thought we’d go and spend the day in Edinburgh and just wander around. We walked through the park where the cyclists were gathering (we had decided not to bring our bikes – my wife isn’t really a cyclist) and watched them go past.

We then headed off to the museum for a while (the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, is both free, and excellent) and then found somewhere to have lunch. After lunch we meandered down the High Street to the Parliament, where the Pedal on Parliament was winding up.

The March for Science was due to start, so we found our way up to the route, joined up with a colleague who we happened to bump into, and made our way back down to the Parliament. I really didn’t know what to expect, and was quite surprised by how many people were taking part; more than I was expecting. There wasn’t much chanting, or even much noise (I suspect scientists are just a bit too reticent) but it was a very pleasant, and cheerful, walk.

Once we arrived at the Parliament, there were a number of speeches about the importance of science, and evidence, and how this should be the start of scientists doing more to address the misinformation that seems to becoming ever more prevalent (I, obviously, agree and am trying to do my bit). I did find it quite invigorating to see a whole lot of other people who seemed passionate about scientists engaging publicly, so maybe this will be the start of something positive. It ended with an impromptu ceilidh, but we decided we’d done enough and headed home.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Science, Scientists | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments