Archive for February, 2010


Yes, Our Press Corps Is That Bad

February 15, 2010

I’ve seen the claim that Phil Jones has “admitted” that there has been no climate change since 1995  in several places, but I was startled tonight when my mild-mannered father — a scientifically-inclined, but otherwise disinterested and innocent dentist in quasi-rural Virginia — raised the question with me. “What’s the deal with one of the supposed great figures in climate science saying that there is no more climate change?” he asked.


Evidently, many in the press don’t bother much to parse the language of statisticians, or less charitably, some interpreters of science are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to bend a statement to suit their purposes. Real Climate, I think, nicely disassembles the bullshit. Here’s a quick quote of their analysis:

What Jones actually said is that, while the globe has nominally warmed since 1995, it is difficult to establish the statistical significance of that warming given the short nature of the time interval (1995-present) involved. The warming trend consequently doesn’t quite achieve statistical significance. But it is extremely difficult to establish a statistically significant trend over a time interval as short as 15 years–a point we have made countless times at RealClimate. It is also worth noting that the CRU record indicates slightly less warming than other global temperature estimates such as the GISS record.

Amazing how handily some statements can be twisted.

Plainly, this should serve not as an indictment of Jones or climate science, but of the reporters of climate science, of the mouthpieces of disinformation and obfuscation. It is also a warning about accuracy and nuance. Jones was being mighty nuanced in that interview. Such nuance yields gaping holes for sophists to exploit and for most people to peer through.

As a dentist, my father is actually reasonably familiar with statistical significance, but the nuance of Jones’s comment was lost on him. He just didn’t want to bother to dig much deeper, so he let it slide and went with the press’s narrative. For reasons that escape me, it’s an easy narrative to swallow, particularly if one is already inclined that way.

LATE ADDITION (moved up from comments):

The question posed to Jones, as it happens, is a loaded (or complex) question. There have been many such questions in recent months.

Here’s a parallel:

“Do you agree that from January 2009 until January 2010 there has been no statistically-significant global warming?”

That’s a question with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t response. “Yes, I agree” is accurate, but it’s accurate only because the scale is too small and it gives a misleading impression about climate science. “No, I don’t agree” is inaccurate, because it is wrong about statistical significance, and it too gives a misleading impression about climate science. Even to say in blanket fashion: “Yes, but only just” or “Yes, but only because your statistical significance is harder to demonstrate across shorter timespans” which is pretty close to what Jones said, gives a misleading impression.

I think it’s too much to expect that someone can identify some of these fallacies on the fly. I actually traffic in fallacies on a daily basis, and it can be very hard for me to identify them and call them by name.


Fallibility and Reason

February 14, 2010

Looks like there’s one more tail to pin on the IPCC donkey, and you can bet that the usual suspects will make a great to-do about this — that is, when they’re not busy seeding other storm clouds.

The IPCC has said in response that “errors in the 2007 report of about 3,000 pages do not affect the core conclusions that human activities, led by burning fossil fuels, are warming the globe.” (That’s a quote from the article, not directly from the IPCC.)

Their response, of course, is probably correct. That there are flaws in the document should come as no surprise. The conclusions of the report don’t hang on any single premise; but rather on the abundance of evidence and the strength of inferences between those bodies of evidence.

The evidence, I am told, is substantial, despite a few flaws here and there.

Oh, spare me the “but, but, buts…” Sure, I can even accept that the flaws weren’t just here and there, but that there have been multiple flaws, and some on the IPCC have taken political steps to downplay the importance of correcting those flaws. That’s a non-insignificant political matter, and maybe one to sort out with Roger. Addressing these concerns deftly and appropriately will help to support the body of research in the mind of those who don’t have much of the information.

No. One flaw will not undo the IPCC report. Why not? Because just as weather ain’t climate, so too is data or evidence not science.

What holds the abundance of existing evidence together is the strength of the reasoning. And, as it happens, the conclusions of the IPCC currently offer the best explanation of the body of evidence. We’re not looking here for mere alternative explanations of the evidence. Such theories would be useless. Plus, there are an infinite number of plausible explanations that can explain the evidence. Maybe the Great Hippo of Sydney is tinkering with our instruments, for instance. No, we’re looking for the best explanation of the evidence; and that is what the IPCC offers.

If the skeptical community truly wants to take down the IPCC bear, they’re going to have to do a lot more than tackle the evidence. They’re going to have tackle the reasoning, and they haven’t done that yet. They may be chinking the armor in the scientific community, but if they’re winning any battles they are winning only public and political battles; battles in the minds of the lumpen proles who, when aggregated around a voting booth, determine how we respond to the science.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a big friggin’ deal. If we hope to make any progress with the policy, we’re going to have to handle those political issues as well. As a little note to the folks at RealClimate and elsewhere, I’m not at all persuaded that leaning into the science alone will do the trick. It’s only one part of a very big job.

Setting the right policy is a monumentally pluralistic undertaking. I think that’s gotta come through a very wide public discourse about not just the science, but also the nature of the science, the uncertainty associated with the science, and the reasoning behind the policy responses.

As a good little Habermasian, I’m a fallibilist at heart. I don’t mind a few lumps in my oatmeal. I just want to make sure that what I eat is nourishing. Acknowledging fallibilism, I’d think, would help the IPCC maintain the high ground.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.


Cherry Partial

February 13, 2010

Cordiality aside, one of the central concerns of peer review is that any given expert peer is likely to have a stance on whatever given topic is facing scrutiny. Why might that be? Well, because expert peers tend to be experts in their areas; and experts in their areas, over the course of becoming experts, tend to form reasoned positions based on their expertise.

Believe it or not, I’m an expert, and you’d better believe that I have views. Roger’s also an expert, and as many know, he too has views. Max and Tom are experts as well. Do they have views? You bet your sweet bippy.

In betting your sweet bippy, you might also throw a few more clams down on the wager that we experts are sometimes asked to sit on panels of experts. (Well, I’m not ever asked to sit on panels of experts, but that’s because very little hangs on my area of expertise. I’ll take “turpitude” for 500, Alex.)

In some cases, these panels are supposed to be impartial, but at they same time rely on significant expertise. Which brings us to the CRU hack.

Turns out, there’s this guy, Philip Campbell, who is the editor of Nature. By many accounts Nature is a pretty spankin’ good journal, and so, by extension, Campbell is a pretty spankin’ good expert. One problem: he’s supposedly not impartial. Why? Because he has views. Here, read the gory details for yourself.

Yeah, so, long story short, he resigned and the supposed independent panel of six that was theretofore investigating climategate is now a piddling independent panel of five. Not enough for a hockey team, but still one too many for a game of Parcheesi. The indignity!



February 12, 2010

Democracy Now offers a good example of what I was talking about yesterday. (Hat tip to Max.) Actually, the discussion of climate-vs-weather seems to be everywhere. Here’s another example of it, and Yulsman, as usual, is on the case.  The NY Times also adds a nice little bulletin board of bullshit — otherwise known as the “Room for Debate” (never mind that there’s no actual debate) — suggesting that somehow the connection between weather and climate is better understood psychologically. (Seriously? WTF?)

Recall that the issue here is that some have been claiming that the weather on the east coast is “inconsistent with” global warming models. The charge, if accurate, would be damning.

In response to these charges, many have replied that these weather events are perfectly “consistent with” the models.

And there, my little piggies, is the rub.

Here’s an interesting quote from the editors of Democracy Now:

We speak to climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who argues the extreme weather is in fact a part of global warming.

How are we to understand this? What are we to say?

More after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry ?


The Benevolent Lie

February 11, 2010

For all prospective PhD applicants, this article bears reading. Lucky as I feel to have the job I have, I know many exceptionally talented and driven academics who are never so smiled upon. A taste of what it’s like:

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)

Unable even to consider that something might be wrong with higher education, mom and dad begin to think there is something wrong with their daughter, and she begins to internalize that feeling.

Prospective grad students, undergrads, parents, friends of the afflicted… take heed. Your misery keeps the rest of us feeling powerful.

We make our admissions decisions in the next few weeks. Best to know what awaits you. Do yourselves a favor and read the whole piece, including the very, very long set of comments.


Weather or Not

February 11, 2010

Vodpod videos no longer available.
People have been spinning the climate issue for some time now, and Roger makes a point that really needs to be made over and over again: weather ain’t climate, no matter how much we might like to pretend (believe?) that any given weather event is or is not the result of shifts in the climate.

I might however offer this addendum to his post. He says, at one point, this:

Further, it is professionally irresponsible for scientists to claim that some observed weather is “consistent with” long-term predictions of climate change. Any and all weather fits this criteria. Similarly, any and all weather is also “consistent with” failing predictions of long-term climate change. The “consistent with” canard is purposely misleading.

If the suggestion (S1) that ‘some weather event (W) is “consistent with” climate projections’ is taken as (or employed in the) affirmation of the strength of the models, then Roger is correct to point out that S1 is both misleading and false.

But if the suggestion (S2) that ‘some weather event (W) is “consistent with” climate projections’ is uttered in response to claims that somehow recent weather events undermine the climate science, then S2 is not misleading and false.

What matters is not whether W can or cannot be taken as evidence for climate change, but whether the utterance (either S1 or S2) is employed in the service of defending or supporting the governing position. That is determined by the use of the utterance, and not strictly by the semantics of the statement. S1 and s2, it should be clear, are identical statements; they are not, however, identical utterances.

UPDATE: Here’s what David Roberts at Grist has to say.


Conflicts of Interest

February 9, 2010

Rajendra Pachauri has been getting a fair bit of heat recently for alleged conflicts of interest. He has coyly denied any such allegation. There are many strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest, of course, and those are specified by the NAS rules that Roger cites over at his blog. Among them, the rules are in place to protect a person from giving the impression that his/her objectivity has been compromised.

There is, in principle, nothing wrong with having a conflict of interest. We’re not determined by our circumstances, after all. It’s entirely possible to conduct research, or to argue on behalf of a position, while contemporaneously being employed by, or funded by, some entity that shares your interests. In fact, it would be near impossible not to do so. We all ride on waves of normativity (whatever the hell that means).

What strikes me as interesting about reactions to the recent COI flap are the kinds of arguments that support it.

For one, someone might say that we have strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest. The lumpen masses might well misunderstand our conclusions, or falsely challenge our claims, if we are conflicted. That political line of reasoning is different than the claim that most existing institutions have COI rules, so therefore the IPCC ought to have binding COI rules. That is also a different line of reasoning than the line that suggests, as the NAS COI rules suggest, that one ought not to have conflicts of interest to “protect oneself” from defamation.

So there you have at least three lines of argument: the political, the conventional, and the prudential. But there are more.

The NAS also offers the justification that COI rules are objective (meaning procedurally impartial, I’d guess) and that they are prophylactic. They are in place, it appears, to steer a practitioner (any practitioner) away from temptation. That’s yet a fourth line of argument.

Seems to me that there are other important lines of argument too, and maybe these need quite a bit more attention.

One reason to have COI rules is to ensure that the procedure by which information is introduced and validated is immune from scrutiny, independently of whether the fickle individuals, or the fickle facts, caught up in that procedure are. It’s not that procedures themselves necessarily need to be cleansed of all normative pollutants, but rather that that’s what would make a conclusion (arrived at through such a procedure) valid. The validity doesn’t hang on the conclusion’s correspondence with the world, but rather on the extent to which the means of arriving at the conclusion are subject to an appropriately wide scrutiny.

And that’s where it gets damned tricky.

An “appropriately wide scrutiny” is a sufficiently vague notion. Calls to make the scrutiny wider than is appropriate, as some are charging, may equally undermine the authority of the critics. More on this in a bit. Right now? I’m off to class.


More Fodder

February 9, 2010

People seem to love tales of philosophers who make laughing-stocks of themselves, so here’s a brand new one. Looks like Barnard-Herni Lévy has really stepped in it this time.

When France’s most dashing philosopher took aim at Immanuel Kant in his latest book, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”, his observations were greeted with the usual adulation. To support his attack, Bernard-Henri Lévy — a showman-penseur known simply by his initials, BHL — cited the little-known 20th-century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul.

There was one problem: Botul was invented by a journalist in 1999 as an elaborate joke, and BHL has become the laughing stock of the Left Bank.

There were clues. One supposed work by Botul — from which BHL quoted — was entitled The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. The philosopher’s school is known as Botulism and subscribes to his theory of “La Metaphysique du Mou” — the Metaphysics of the Flabby. Botul even has a Wikipedia entry that explains that he is a “fictional French philosopher”.

But Mr Lévy, a leader among the nouveaux philosophes school of the 1970s, was unaware. In On War in Philosophy, he writes that Botul had proved once and for all “just after the Second World War, in his series of lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay, that their hero was an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance”.

I’m not about to defend Lévy, as I haven’t seen the text in question and it does sound fantastically ridiculous, but there is something to be said about the method of citation in philosophy. Generally speaking, we cite not because we want to conjure the great wisdom of a given hot-shot philosopher, but rather because we want to refer our readers to a given line of argument.

Again, Lévy’s position strikes me as manifestly stupid — I’ve got a strain of Kant running through me, fwiw — but I think there’s a general difference in approach. Citations should be understood more like hot-links to interesting side-notes than as page references to the book of knowledge.

At any rate, harde-har-har. Philosophers are idiots.


Dancy with the Wolves

February 8, 2010

Claire Danes talks about the exceptionally prolific moral philosopher Jonathan Dancy on the Craig Ferguson show. Daines is married to Jon Dancy’s son, actor Hugh Dancy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

FWIW, I rarely wear cardigans, I do not smoke a pipe, I do not indulge in tweed, I do not sport a beret, and leather pants? I’m strictly a leather long-johns kinda guy.

Incidentally, what the hell is up with the camera shot? Why so much headroom?


At Your Service

February 8, 2010

Looks like the Obama administration will announce today the formation of a National Climate Service. At this point, it’s only hearsay, as there are plans to announce a ‘major climate initiative’, but many little birdies lead this particular observer to conclude that the rumors are correct.

The concept of a “National Climate Service” dates back decades, but it found new life in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration and has been embraced by the Obama White House. The idea is to create a central federal source of information on everything from projections of sea level rise to maps of the nation’s best sites for wind and solar power.