Bosh, Squared

October 6, 2009

My dear colleague Roger Pielke Jr. had this offhand remark on his blog yesterday:

Of course evaluating scientific arguments according to their perceived political implications happens all the time, but rarely do you see a scientist admitting as much publicly….

You should read his very short post for more.  He basically distills this conclusion from the following quote by Wallace Broecker, plucked out of a San Francisco Chronicle article:

“I think it’s a bunch of bosh,” said Wallace Broecker, a professor at Columbia University. Broecker said he worried that the idea of pre-modern people as carbon emitters would turn into an argument that the modern world need not worry so much about its own pollution. “I get really upset with him because people who oppose global warming (legislation) can use this as some dodge.”

Whoa, horsey.  Roger’s is not necessarily the correct interpretation of Broecker’s statement. Broecker can obviously identify the political implications of Ruddiman’s hypothesis and also impartially evaluate the scientific arguments. I can say, for instance, that I think the anti-nuclear crusaders are throwing up a bunch of objections that will have the undesired effect of undermining policy responses advocated by people like Socolow and Pacala, while also saying that their objections have no scientific merit.  Can’t I?  Matter of fact, I might be more inclined to look to the political implications if I think that the objections they’re throwing up have no scientific merit.


  1. Hi Ben!

    I certainly accept this distinction that you raise. But that is not how I read the SFC piece which says:

    “he worried that the idea of pre-modern people as carbon emitters would turn into an argument that the modern world need not worry so much about its own pollution”

    It does not say that Broecker objected to the “scientifically incorrect idea” but rather “idea”.

    Further if you want to maintain in another context that the onus of proof falls upon the critic of peer reviewed research (i.e., in the McIntyre-Briffa) case, then I think consistency dictates that the same onus falls upon Broecker in this case, as Ruddiman’s work is peer reviewed and Broecker’s opining is, well, opining. Broecker certainly has not proved or even begun to show flaws in Ruddiman’s work. he mere has asserted he does not like the idea of it.

    Has Broecker “impartially evaluated the scientific arguments”? I don’t think so. Could he? Yes. Could he do this while also commenting about the political implications? Certainly. Has this happened here? Absolutely not.

    So while one is opining I don’t think it a good idea to conflate the empirical and political as Broecker appears to have done here for the reasons I highlight in my post.

  2. Yes, I know. This is the distinction, I suspect, between our disciplinary areas. You’re trained as a cynic, and I’m trained as a rube. Political scientists have a way of seeing everything through a politicized and rhetorical lens, where philosophers are taught, and teach, the principle of charity. We try, where possible, to give the very best, most charitable interpretation of another person’s statements.

  3. As for Broecker having shown the flaws in Ruddiman’s work, I suspect that, if pressed, he could give strong scientific reasons why it is bosh. At least, I would hope he could.

    • OK, now reconcile this with your McIntyre thread, can’t McIntyre give “give strong scientific reasons why [Briffa] is bosh”.

      Why the apparent inconsistency?

      Why no charity for McIntyre?

      • Because he has a long history of playing Nigel?

        More to the point, Ruddiman’s ideas are not only controversial, they are interesting and damn hard to test. To understand and test them we will have to get better at paleoclimate analysis and gather a lot more data. So you would be justified to say that “An interesting possibility, raised by Warren Ruddiman, is that. . .

        And you would be a political scientist if you said “Warren Ruddiman has proved that. . . “

  4. Hey, McIntyre gets all the charity he needs. I never once said that he isn’t correct. I said I’m not qualified to judge whether he’s correct. What I also said is that he needs to have his analysis run through the proper meat grinder, to have someone who is qualified look at it.

    I certainly take him seriously, as on the face of it, his analysis is compelling; and I read his position charitably, as I’m not attributing to him a quirky ulterior motive; I just don’t know if his objections have the scientific merit necessary to undermine Briffa’s conclusions.

    • Oh, come on; Briffa’s conclusions undermine themselves. He has an inadequate sample.

  5. Does Broecker have to run his analysis through the meat grinder?

  6. I assume so. Again, though, it’s Ruddiman who bears the burden of proof. May not be fair, but that’s the way it is. Ruddiman has to demonstrate what’s so compelling about his view. If Broecker were to present some position that was not the accepted view, then he too would have to run his position through the meat grinder.

    I woulda thunk you’d be more interested in the question about whether the meat grinder is sufficiently lubricated. Seems like the same question, I guess, except that as both you and I know, and I think we agree, that the burden is on those who challenge the establishment. I suspect our differences are on what grounds the legitimacy of that established view.

  7. I’m just curious as to how you have decided what is and what is not the “accepted view.”

    In the McIntyre-Briffa case (I thought that) you were arguing that the “accepted view” could be determined via the legitimacy conferred by the peer reviewed scientific literature.

    But in the Ruddiman-Broeker case you are arguing something else (what?), specifically that the peer-reviewed literature is not the correct arbiter of what is the “accepted view” — n this case it is the non-peer reviewed view that is the “accepted view”.

    What criteria determines the “established view” if not the peer reviewed scientific literature?

    • Aren’t you assuming here that this testing wrt the peer reviewed literature has not happened? Did you think that Ruddiman’s thesis has been accepted on that basis?

  8. Ah, good point. I suppose I don’t know enough about the Ruddiman-Broecker case to say that it hasn’t met with at least some standards of peer review, but I’m under the impression that the established view is that pre-historic man was not a substantial cause of climate change and that Ruddiman’s article was aimed primarily at establishing that, given agricultural practices at the time, it is possible — emphasis on possible — that there were enough people around to generate that much pollution. If that’s true, then I think it’s probably fair to say that Ruddiman may have at least tentatively established this minor point, but this minor point isn’t enough to secure the much wider thesis that prehistoric man was in fact creating changes in the climate. So it’s the same established view in both cases.

    But on to your bigger question: I’m not so sure the “established view” can be isolated by simple criteria (like whether any given paper has passed peer review). That would be too easy… and it would also be a problem if you want to hold something that both you and I want to hold, which is that peer review is a flawed system. I think instead we have to be satisfied by much more amorphous criteria — criteria which apply ontogentically and phylogentically, at the individual level and at the social level. Supposing I have some false belief X, that’s a view that needs to be tackled by an engaged interlocutor (or group of interlocutors). The burden of proof is on he who challenges, and in doing so wants me to change, my view. (I know where you’re going to go with this, so fire away… but bear in mind the next sentence.)

    Supposing that some culture/society/social grouping has some false belief X, that’s also a view that needs to be tackled by an engaged interlocutor (or group of interlocutors). The burden of proof is on they who challenge, and in doing so want me to change, the established view.

    I think that peer review and the standards of the scientific method provide a reasonably strong framework to build on. Fortunately for me, that also happens to be a position widely shared by a good many people in the western world.

  9. Yes, I think you see where I am going . . .

    If it is possible that “more amorphous criteria” might include notions of political expediency, then we risk substituting non-empirical judgments for those empirical, and science risks losing something important that it does well, and along the way some legitimacy.

    How you arrived at the following is worth some thought:

    “I’m under the impression that the established view is that pre-historic man was not a substantial cause of climate change”

    I think that there is a connection between this issue and the corruption of processes of science arbitration (to take a term from The Honest Broker), such as documented here:


  10. Roger’s thesis here is dependent on one not knowing much about both Wally Broecker and the prior treatment Ruddiman’s hypothesis has received.

    Re Wally’s testy reaction, note that this is the second round of major publicity for Ruddiman’s hypothesis. Obviously there’s a strong non-scientific appeal to it (why that’s true has interesting “hockey stick” implications), but I (and I suspect Wally) would be surprised if Ruddiman weren’t engaging in some pretty irresponsible self-promotion.

  11. Just for the record, see here. Ruddiman also had a guest post at RealClimate a few years ago. He’s working the refs.

  12. And how could I fail to note that Ruddiman wrote a popular-press book (2005) promoting his idea, but in the concluding chapters took the further steps of endorsing Lomborg’s stuff and generally downplaying the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change? Wally would not have been amused. See the discussion here.

  13. Whatever about what pre-historic man did or did not cause in emissions,
    notice that the current justification of energy efficiency regulation:
    Billions of dollars saved, power plants saved, emissions saved,
    has indeed the ultimate justification of living in caves and using candles
    (zillions of dollar savings and megatons of gas, as long as we don’t bring any cows with us).
    The argument that energy efficient products are necessarily better does not hold since many desirable product features (performance efficiency,
    appearance, construction as well as lower purchase cost and indeed overall savings) can be tied up with increased energy use of a product.

    Where there is a problem, deal with the problem:
    The postitive alternative strategy is of achieving the efficient generation and distribution of energy with whatever emission criteria needs to be put on it (for all else in the emissions too, whatever about CO2)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: