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Curruption Eruption

April 18, 2010

While our friends across the pond are wrestling the Icelandic smoke monster, Judy Curry (Georgia Tech) has piped in with a few of her own words on the recent CRU exculpations. My colleague Roger Pielke Jr. has the original scoop, and my other colleague Tom Yulsman takes a mini-scoop out of the original scoop to highlight the impending scoop explosion. I thought I’d grab a spoon for my own dollop off the mini-scoop, however, and unscoop some of the mini- from that explosive mini-scoop. [UPDATE: I have been corrected by Keith Kloor that my chronology is wrong here (see below). There's some enigmatic chain of scooping and re-scooping -- I can't quite figure it out -- but the long and the short of it is that all the climate people, including Keith Kloor, who originally scooped the scoopers, are talking about this.]

Here’s Curry’s incriminating language:

The corruptions of the IPCC process, and the question of corruption (or at least inappropriate torquing) of the actual science by the IPCC process, is the key issue. The assessment process should filter out erroneous papers and provide a broader assessment of uncertainty; instead, we have seen evidence of IPCC lead authors pushing their own research results and writing papers to support an established narrative. I don’t see much hope for improving the IPCC process under its current leadership.

Roger just lets this cherry macerate. Tom, however, digs in, following Gavin and Keith:

“Corruption” is a mighty strong word, and Gavin Schmidt over at RealClimate has already criticized it. But just because he takes exception to it does not mean that journalists should ignore what Curry has to say.

In any case, to prepare yourself for what’s in store in coming days as climate scientists, climate skeptics, journalists, bloggers — in short, the gantse megillah on climate change — weigh in on this, you absolutely must read “Some Spicy Curry” by Keith Kloor.

Let’s parse the language, shall we?

First, Curry didn’t say that climate scientists were corrupt, she said that there were “corruptions of the process.” (I’ll get to her second clause next.) There’s a big difference between claiming corruption as a character trait and claiming that the long and elaborate IPCC process has been subject to corruptions. Matter of fact, one of the reasons that we have a process in the first place, whether it’s with climate science or with any other matter, is in an attempt to minimize corruptions, which are to be expected. Since we’re more or less all aware that humans can make mistakes, that our perceptual apparatus sometimes goes blinky, or that we may even be subject to the pulling and tugging of our beastly desires, we try to formalize systems and processes so as to minimize the distortion. Seems to me that this is a perfectly reasonable statement.

Second, Curry dives in slightly deeper when she claims that “the question of corruption (or at least inappropriate torquing) of the actual science by the IPCC process” is the real question, because this seems to indict (on an extremely uncharitable read) specific actors and their intentions, though even this doesn’t indict the character of any specific actor; but on another more literal read, it suggests that she’s somewhat Socratic in her understanding of science and the process. The very Laws of Athens (or in this case, the Laws of the IPCC) may distract from the science (where Science = Truth). If that’s the case, it is not the people involved in the scientific process who are in need of an adjustment, but the process itself.

It gets foggier still when Curry says that “we have seen evidence of IPCC lead authors pushing their own research results and writing papers to support an established narrative,” as this would appear to indict the character of the perpetrators. But again, as I said above, processes are in place to cope with deficiencies in character and the enticements of whimsy, weaknesses which are known to all but the most deluded idealists. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which an individual actor wouldn’t push his own research results and write papers that support the established narrative. If it’s my research, and it supports the established narrative, what the hell else am I gonna push?

The big question here is not whether there was corruption, but whether this is a mere “narrative,” as Curry has put it. We know from Curry’s earlier statements that she doesn’t think concerns over climate change are a mere narrative. Instead, she’s trying to shore up the process, to secure integrity so that the results are more robust. I think others, like Roger, are trying to do that too, much to the consternation of those who are not in the fold.

Fortunately, Curry is a living, breathing climate scientist, so we can ask her what she meant. It may well be that the IPCC process is, at this point, beyond repair… but that is likely as much due to the corruptions of the process from external sources as from internal sources, due to political factors like the CRU hack that interfere with the apparatuses of an otherwise workable scientific machine. Many branches of science, like medicine, say, endure the hiccups and belches in their own unique processes, but I’m not about to throw out the results of these branches of science as mere narratives. That would be folly. Most of the time, we look past the hiccups and belches and move on.

It is only because the stakes with climate change are so high that the hiccups and belches in the process become indictments of the entire body of research… but that’s a political move, a shifty way of changing the topic. The general thesis of the vast body of research remains unscathed, just as most climate scientists claim. Unfortunately, this is a political fact that many in the climate community are also aware of, and I suspect that, because of this awareness, they circle the wagons, defend their own, and further, gads, corrupt the process.

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9 comments

  1. Ben,

    Actually, you have your scoop chronology wrong. I published my post on Saturday night, in which I highlighted Curry’s explosive comment. But I had hoped to give it greater context by mentioning how Real Climate was starting to rev up over it.

    The next day (Sunday), Roger isolated Judith’s comment in a blog post. (In all fairness, she made the comment at his site on an earlier post. But Roger was kind enough to link to my own commentary from the night before.)

    Anyway, when it comes to scoops–or in this case, who first started putting the strands of a story together–we journalists can be proprietary to a fault. :)

    Whether those strands amount to anything or even should, is another story that others will pick up on, no doubt.


    • Apologies. I’m no journalist, to be certain. I’m not even sure that these count as scoops… but i’ll fix things up top.


      • Ben,

        One other thing. You write: ‘Fortunately, Curry is a living, breathing climate scientist, so we can ask her what she meant.’

        Well,in a comment at my site, Curry elaborates on herIPCC comment, or at least what motivated her to say it. Not sure it answers your question, though.

        But forget me for the moment: as Roger now notes on an update at his site, Judith has also engaged with her RC critics earlier today. Perhaps that exchange may provide some of the cairns you are looking for.


  2. Your analysis is crap, Ben. To what percentage of people reading Judy’s remarks would your fine-grained reading occur rather than one more commensurate with the ordinary inflammatory meaning of words like “corruption”? Granting that Judy intended such a sophisticated reading, should we assume that she’s at the same time sufficiently clueless as to not understand how most people would react to such words? It’s hard to have that both ways.

    Note, by the way, that Judy’s specific charges are aimed at fields other than her own.


    • I think you’re wrong on this one, Steve. Maybe they won’t engage in a fine-grained reading, and it’s likely that there will be significant political hand-wringing over Curry’s comments, but that’s just the point. There has got to be space to improve the process… That there will be crazy people like Morano to distort what she says ought not to factor too heavily into the discussion. There MUST be a space for improving the scientific discussion that is immune to concerns about the political implications.

      Fact is, all I’ve said above is that there’s nothing really all that damning about what Curry says… and for some reason, it’s viewed as damning, not only by those who are contrarians, but by those who are also climate die-hards. What gives?


      • Sure there’ll be hand-wringing when a senior climate scientist uses language like that (actually my favorite so far is “cargo cult science” — parse that!), but there can hardly be anything damning since she’s provided no specifics. By itself, an instruction from Judy to take McIntyre and Montford (Hill) seriously isn’t going to get much traction. IMHO she knows that, and it’s precisely why she’s resorted to that rhetoric.

        (Just to add that denialists are upset at her because she hasn’t turned into another Dick Lindzen.)

        FYI there is a process underway to consider reforms to the IPCC, regarding which the NAS is in the driver’s seat, and the current public push from Judy makes me suspect she’s already decided she has no traction with them. If so, boo-hoo. But regardless, she’d have to make a specific case if she expects to see commensurate action from anyone about anything. I await it with baited breath (ouch!).

        Speaking of the national academies process, I assume that fills the bill for you? If not, what would?

        BTW, I thought my disagreement with your analysis was over whether there’s a non-technical non-inflammatory reading of her statements, but your response just confused me about whatever point you were trying to make.


  3. Meanwhile, Lake Powell is at like 63%, and Mead is even lower. A “call” on the Colorado Compact seems inevitable — which would be historic. (Although in today’s mass media environment, I’m not sure anyone will notice.)

    As I like to say, “the climate bats last.”


    • What are you talking about?


      • I’m pretty sure he’s presenting this as compelling evidence of human-induced climate catastrophe.

        I find such comments fascinating, actually. I’m sure that if I related an anecdote about some random lake or region that had above-average water levels, he’d not find that compelling evidence *against* AGW. Indeed, it’s likely that *that* would be even further evidence supporting his beliefs.

        Like I said, “fascinating.”



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