13 December 2009

Clive Crook on Climate Science and Public Trust

Clive Crook is an extremely thoughtful columnist and commentator on American politics. In the Financial Times today he has a smart piece on climate science and public trust. Here is an excerpt:
Any fair-minded person would regard those [CRU email] exchanges as raising questions. On the face of it, these are not the standards one expects of science. Nor is this just any science. The work of these researchers is being used to press the case for economic policies with colossal adjustment costs. Plainly, the highest standards of intellectual honesty and openness are called for. The e-mails do not attest to such standards.

Yet how did the establishment respond? It said that this is how science is done in the real world. Initially, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defended the scientists and played down the significance of their correspondence. Al Gore said he had not read the e-mails (they were stolen, for heaven’s sake) and that they were reassuring.

When, inexplicably, that did not quell the scandal, the climate-science establishment argued that even if CRU’s work was excluded from consideration, plenty of other evidence supported its findings. Maybe so, thinks the fair-minded voter. But the independence of other big research groups is not entirely clear. In any case, many scientists had just called the e-mailers exemplars of best practice. Why should one expect other researchers’ standards to be any different?

Which leaves smearing the doubters as opponents of science itself. They are either stupid or evil; “flat-earthers” or “deniers” (akin, that is, to Holocaust deniers). Supporters of the consensus no doubt lap this up. The voters who need to be convinced are less likely to. On the whole, people object to being called ignorant or evil. That is not how you bring them round.

Here is how Crook ends his piece:

Once scientists are engaged as advocates, science is in trouble. Like intelligence agencies fitting the facts to the policy, they are no longer to be trusted. The IPCC may be serving a righteous cause, but it is not the honest broker this process needs. It has made itself a political agency – at times, a propaganda unit. All this, the public can see.

For the sake of their own credibility, scientists should maintain a cautious distance from politics, and those who take up politics should not expect the deference to disinterested scholars they would otherwise deserve.

Governments should be honest and base their case for action on what they know – that is, on a balance of probabilities, not on exaggerated certainties. The public, they will find, can cope. Voters are not fools.

Read the whole column here.

7 comments:

  1. "Once scientists are engaged as advocates, science is in trouble. Like intelligence agencies fitting the facts to the policy, they are no longer to be trusted. The IPCC may be serving a righteous cause, but it is not the honest broker this process needs. It has made itself a political agency – at times, a propaganda unit. All this, the public can see."

    I guess that this paragraph could have been taken out of your book, that I didn't to read yet.

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  2. Roger,

    Crook was right when he points out the stupidity of those who tried to defend the e-mails as normal scientific practice. But I want to emphasize that it shouldn't have taken the leaks from CRU for the scientific community to address the failure of the scientific method in climate science.

    We've known for years that they refused to share data, code and methods. We've known for years that adjustments account for the majority of the rise in temps in the USA and that the station siting is a travesty. We've known for years that Mann et al resort to slander to attack anyone who disagrees. We've known for years that the statistical and software work was amateurish garbage. We've known for years that the peer review system was badly skewed. We've known for years the climate models are unfit for the purposes for which they've been used. We've known for years that no one ever bothers to audit or replicate anyone else's studies (even when they have a track record of shoddy work). And we've known for years that the IPCC's and other assessments were badly slanted.

    In light of all they knew, how many scientists demonstrated integrity by insisting on science by the scientific method? Damn few.

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  3. "Voters are not fools". That's what I'm saying all the time. AGW advocates underestimate (if not insult) the intelligence of the people. As Lincoln said: "You can fool some people all the time and all of the people some time, but you can't fool all people all of the time."

    Especially after the Climategate Papers the whole climate science is becoming a a very suspicious society.

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  4. "The public, they will find, can cope. Voters are not fools."

    The public is not ignorant and know what is important or not. The public knows when they are told 'stories'. We see that in all today's governments and IMHO is a danger for a stable society. History has numerous examples.

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  5. It's amazing to me that so few understand this. The strategy seems to be to admit as little as possible as late as possible. We know how that strategy worked for Bill Clinton, among others.

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  6. Whether voters are fools or not, the real problem is the sparsity of honest politicians. We are always faced with making the least worst choice from a collection of individuals with no moral compass and no intention of doing what they promised.

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  7. This is a great piece, that I wouldn't have otherwise seen. Thanks, Roger.
    My favorite sentence was..
    "For the sake of their own credibility, scientists should maintain a cautious distance from politics, and those who take up politics should not expect the deference to disinterested scholars they would otherwise deserve."
    This is so true; yet, I would expect that most scientists are not clear where the boundary is. Perhaps you know of some helpful reference.

    I would also argue against making judgments outside my field of expertise- say agricultural science or economics if I were a climate scientist- and claiming the scientist mantle of truth. I have found that is where the slippery slope to politics sometimes starts.

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