by Judith Curry
Richard Feynman has famously stated: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.“
The popular image of the Renaissance Man is one that is curious, well-read, multi-talented, and imbued with a certain ambition to expand the frontiers of knowledge and experience. The Renaissance Man is one part scholar, one part public servant and good neighbor, one part scientist and inventor, and one part entrepreneur (either of ideas or technology). He is a philosopher in the classical sense, for he loves wisdom and knowledge both for its own sake and for the sake of what they can produce. He is not confined by specializations or disciplinary boundaries, and hence he enjoys a breadth of vision and practice.
It has become difficult to identify clear examples of Renaissance Men since the 19th century, and for very good reasons. Knowledge has exploded at exponential rates in all fields. Men’s minds, experience, and ambitions have been disciplined by increasing degrees of specialization. The university reflects explicitly this disciplinarity . . .
The contemporary world, in short, defines expertise primarily by depth, not breadth.
The litmus test for credibility was agreement with this statement:
“anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century.” Given the list of over 1000 scientists whose publications were examined, I wonder how many of these scientists actually understand in detail the IPCC’s attribution arguments and have the expertise to personally evaluate this? Especially since a substantial number of the climate experts were ecologists, economists, atmospheric chemists, and other scientists without any obvious expertise related to climate change detection and attribution.
I continue to return to the collide-a-scape thread on disinformation, which I find to have many insightful comments. Here are excerpts from a comment by Jeremy Harvey, that provides some interesting insights:
When all is going smoothly in science, the argument from authority is a good one, strangely enough. There are so many papers, so many ideas, so many players that it really helps to have loads of filters in place that allow you to focus on things that are likely to be interesting. So you mostly only read the major journals, and mostly only attend to papers from recognized high-quality groups, or to ones that have been pointed out to you by such authority figures. If you want to use Kuhn’s language, this is a way of working that is effective within “normal science” – when everyone agrees on the paradigm for the field (here, the Earth is warming, anthropogenic CO2 is to blame, there’s a significant risk that the warming will be dangerous), and set out to work out the details within that paradigm.
What Gavin hints at is that Judy Curry thinks that climate science is not normal science. He disagrees. I do not. What that means is that all these filters do not work so well. Papers that are described by the mass of people working within the consensus as “bad” or “uninteresting” may not be either (though I sense that the Ludecke paper is probably not so interesting). That makes things a lot harder for everyone: open-minded scientists need to attend to a much broader range of papers, as publication in a “crappy” journal is no longer a quasi-automatic sign of low quality. Likewise, papers in major journals can be partly wrong, especially in terms of their unspoken assumptions. And for outsiders, relying on the views of the opinion-leaders can be very misleading. In such a context, wielding authority is a much less innocent exercise, hence all the arguments about who is allowed to say this, who should exercise judgement before talking about that, etc. Science becomes a power game.
The “climate expertise” problem
The challenge regarding “climate expertise” is the extreme complexity of the problem (physical basis, impacts, solution strategies). It is very difficult for one person to wrap his/her head around the entire thing. Nevertheless, when one self classifies or is otherwise regarded as a “climate scientist,” there is an expectation that the individual has expertise across the entire domain.
When I first started posting at Climate Audit on the topic of hurricanes, I was expected to answer questions on the “hockey stick.” I told people that I had no expertise on that topic, and (at the time) no particular interest in that topic. The ClimateAuditers were incensed at me for this attitude, they seemed to think it was a cop out and an implicit defense of Mann.
The fact that I, along with arguably most of the broader climate community, had no expertise on paleo reconstructions, tree rings, etc., allowed that segment of the community to push forward the hockey stick, with little apparent controversy until M&M.
Once Climategate broke, I began to perceive that individual depth of expertise, when integrated across a range of subdisciplines, does not add up to genuine breadth or integration. Since then I have taken it upon myself to try to broaden my personal understanding to encompass the subject matter covered by the IPCC WGI and WGII reports, along with relevant social science and philosophy of science literature. The challenge is to not be tempted into thinking that once you have expanded your breadth by reading a couple of review articles, that you have an actual expert opinion on the topic. Developing depth and expertise takes time, effort, and struggle.
At the same time, establishing breadth can enable vision in seeing beyond the purview of a narrow expertise, and change and deepen the way you think about the subject (both areas of deep expertise and shallower familiarity).
Returning to the closing paragraph in the Next Gent article:
The largely unanswered questions at this point seem to be: how is the expertise of breadth cultivated? What are the processes and technologies of integration? What new competencies does this synthesis call for?