by Judith Curry
True courage is knowing when you’re wrong but refusing to admit it. – The Onion
I’m a big fan of The Onion, and I have been looking for an opportunity to incorporate some of their material into a post. This new article provides such an opportunity: True Courage is Knowing You’re Wrong But Refusing to Admit it. Excerpts:
Courage requires us to remain steadfast in our beliefs. It asks that we stand by the convictions we express and never give an inch, no matter what the cost. However off base, wrongheaded, or patently false a position we’ve staked out may be, courage nonetheless demands that we blindly pound home our stupid fucking point, never letting up.
True valor is the moment in a conversation when you realize that what you’re saying is completely and utterly wrong, but you continue to say it over and over again anyway, only louder.
Another part involves having the mental strength to steel our minds against any reasonable argument that might challenge one of our beliefs. This means cultivating the ability to remain totally impervious to logic, so that when someone points out a blatant error in our line of thought, we can simply shrug and ignore them.
Anyone can fold in the face of facts, or listen to a well-reasoned argument and say, “You know what? You’re right, I never thought of it that way.” But that’s the coward’s way out. Listening carefully to a friend’s point, synthesizing the new information, and letting it influence your own perspective—these are all gutless acts.
Is courage scary? Sure. It can be terrifying. Do you think it’s easy to suddenly realize that everything you’ve been saying is moronic, but to forge ahead anyway, no matter what bullshit comes flying out of your mouth?
No, that takes balls of steel. But courage has its rewards, too. Sticking to your guns means never, ever having to own up to your mistakes. And it’s hard to put a price on that.
The Onion article triggered a memory of an article by Robert Socolow titled High-consequence outcomes and internal disagreements: tell us more, please. This article was published in the special issue of Climatic Change on the IPCC and uncertainty. The particular statement that I recollect (and I quoted this in my paper No Consensus on Consensus) is this:
It will take courage to disclose lack of consensus, just as it will the courage to describe poorly understood high-consequence outcomes vividly. But the coexistence of contending views (“low agreement”) is normal in science, not a cause for embarrassment, and users of the report need this information.
There is an underlying expectation (and pressure) for the IPCC not to pull back from its previous positions, and to increase the confidence level of its main findings. One notable pull back occurred in the AR4 relative to the TAR, regarding the warmest years in the past millennia. Jean Goodwin put it this way (again, quoted in my No Consensus paper):
“Once the consensus claim was made, scientists involved in the ongoing IPCC process had reasons not just to consider the scientific evidence, but to consider the possible effect of their statements on their ability to defend the consensus claim.”
When anyone asks me what I expect from the AR5 and what I will be looking for, I respond that I am looking to see (and understand) if they have changed their mind relative to the AR4 and to previous leaked drafts of the AR5. If their mind is changed in the direction of reduced confidence or decreased alarmism, which seems to me to be justified by the evidence and observations over the past 5 years, then to me that would constitute an act of courage, particularly in face of sociopolitical and peer pressure to do otherwise.
In U.S. politics, flip flopping has been used as a potent accusation against politicians, notably against John Kerry when he was a presidential candidate. Personally I prefer some flip flopping in politicians; it is often a good thing when policy preferences change in response to new evidence, changing situations and political realities.
What about flip flopping by scientists? In the climate debate, this doesn’t happen too often, and people that ‘switch sides’ is often newsworthy, notably Richard Muller’s ‘conversion’ from skepticism.
Apart from the public debate, what about the more purely scientific debate? I find it relative rare that a scientist who finds new evidence that is contrary to their previous finding actually provides the context of the new finding relative to what they previously thought. One particular example that I recall, almost a decade later, is a statement that Kerry Emanuel made circa 2004/2005 regarding pulling out from a paper on the topic of hurricanes and global warming. When asked about this, he said simply: ‘I changed my mind.’ The stark eloquence (and rarity) of this statement has made it stick in my mind. A scientist changing his mind as a result of new evidence and different ways of analyzing the previous evidence: this should be a routine occurrence. Its not routine in climate science, where post-hoc rationalization of inconvenient observations reigns.
My own emphasis on uncertainty in discussing climate science has been characterized as ‘wimping out’. But a focus on the uncertainties, and not making overconfident statements, means that there is rarely a need to flip flop on a scientific judgment, and you avoid the bias inducing effect of feeling the need to defend a previous claim.