by Judith Curry
Motivated by a post by David Roberts at Grist, there has been some interesting reflection on Climategate this past week. Roberts’ post entitled “What we have and haven’t learned from Climategate” says:
The lesson we’ve learned from climategate is simple. It’s the same lesson taught by death panels, socialist government takeover, Sharia law, and Obama’s birth certificate. To understand it we must turn to agnotology, the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt. (Hat tip to an excellent recent post on this by John Quiggen.)
Beck, Palin, and the rest of Fox News and talk radio operate on the pretense that they are giving consumers access to a hidden “universe of reality,” to use Limbaugh’s term. It’s a reality being actively obscured the “lamestream media,” academics, scientists, and government officials. Affirming the tenets of that secret reality has become an act of tribal reinforcement, the equivalent of a secret handshake.
The modern right has created a closed epistemic loop containing millions of people. Within that loop, the implausibility or extremity of a claim itself counts as evidence. The more liberal elites reject it, the more it entrenches itself. Standards of evidence have nothing to do with it.
The notion that there is a global conspiracy by professional scientists to falsify results in order to get more research money is, to borrow Quiggen’s words about birtherism, “a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe.” Once you have accepted that shibboleth, anything offered to you as evidence of its truth, no matter how ludicrous, will serve as affirmation. (Even a few context-free lines cherry-picked from thousands of private emails.)
Typical blame the deniers and merchants of doubt stuff. Andy Revkin picks up on this at dotearth, and focuses on Robert’s arguments about whether or not the unauthorized release of the emails was a crime. Randy Olson of The Benshi posted an interesting comment at dotearth, here is Randy’s comment in its entirety:
The media were irrelevant and largely blameless in Climategate. The whole incident was a case study in the absence of effective leadership in both the science and environmental communities.
For science, there are no clear leaders, just countless acronymed organizations who stood, stared, and weeks later put out milquetoast statements about how this sort of stuff shouldn’t happen.
For the environmental community, there is no unity. Why couldn’t the CEO’s (eh hem, still can’t believe they call themselves that) of all the major environmental groups, who rake in millions of dollars annually on the backs of polar bear photos, have gotten together and held a joint press conference stating the truth about what transpired with Climategate. Actually, I’ll tell you why — because their marketing departments wouldn’t allow them to share the stage with the other competing “brands” — so don’t look for that sort of leadership from them.
In contrast, as Roberts points out, the right wingers instantly spun the story into the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Drudge Report and all the rest of the army that walk in lock step.
But there was simply no loud voice emerging from the science and environmental worlds. And this is really what Roberts should be bemoaning. The journalists should have been forced to report that “this incident is being called at least an unethical ploy and at worst a crime,” by this, this, this, this, and this science and environmental organization. All of whom would be following whatever the clear voice of leadership is. But there simply was no voice of leadership. There ended up being LOTS of angry senior members of the National Academy of Sciences — I know, I’ve spoken with several. But no leadership with regard to this aspect of the issue emerged from NAS at the time.
The only clear voice I recall hearing spouting this message of it being a crime was Nancy Pelosi from the House, but she did it in a crude and inarticulate manner — not as a voice of leadership for the community.
And just look at what Jon Stewart did with the story on December 1, 2009. He did the best he could. He’s not a climate skeptic. He would gladly defend the climate science community if he were given any ammunition. But he wasn’t hearing ANYTHING from the science world in terms of loud messaging, telling the world this was possibly a crime. So all he could think to do was make fun of the bumbling scientists who had their email stolen.
And what’s sad is that this wasn’t even a case of scientists and environmentalists needing to engage in “spin doctoring.” If the truth is on your side, then you need to understand that the truth HAS TO BE SHOUTED in today’s noise-filled society. It no longer works to just mumble it.
And of course the definitive tragedy of it all was last fall when Bill Maher, who is also a climate science fan, propagated the right’s message when he said, “what’s the big deal, so a few scientitsts got caught fudging some data.” By then 5 investigations had cleared ALL scientists. He should have had that fact clear in his mind, but how could he when all the science world knows how to do with things like this is mumble them to the public, thinking that’s good enough. It isn’t.
The press is not to blame. It is plainly the ineptitude of the science world — a profession that has never had to deal with the irrationality of the public at the level of today’s Charlie Sheen-obsessed world. And shows no interest in changing as evidenced by the poor communication skills of the current top leaders. And the environmental world that is too often more consumed with branding than issues.
This has become one of the central points of my talks lately. EVERYONE wants to know, “How can we best communicate elements of uncertainty?” My answer is, “Very carefully, if at all.”
I say this because of simple logic with regard to storytelling. We know that the most effective means of mass communication is through storytelling. What we also know is that the teller of a story is expected to be all-knowing — i.e. omniscient. So what kind of omniscient voice is uncertain about what is being told?
This is a problem. It isn’t even about whether the warnings come true or not. This is long before that. This is about if you even MENTION something for which you are not certain, you’ve already entered into a realm of decreased credibility.
I’m not saying you can’t do it, or that it won’t work. I’m saying that you simply need to know that EVERY time you enter into communicating uncertainty, you are entering dangerous ground. Basically a minefield. And the truth is, you can go dancing through a minefield and never hit a single mine. But before you do that, it’s a nice idea to be aware of the risk.
The first option is to focus more on certainty (namely the past) than uncertainty (the future).
JC’s comments: I think David Roberts gets it wrong in his analysis, but his essay provides good insight into why and how Climategate proved to be so damaging to the public credibility of climate science and scientists. I think Olson’s comment at dotearth is on the money: Climategate illuminated a serious lack of leadership from the scientific and environmental communities. Upon first reading, Olson’s post on uncertainty seems flat out weird not to mention wrong, sort of “uncertainty denialism.” On second reading, maybe there is an insight here: The first option is to focus more on certainty (namely the past) than uncertainty (the future). Climate science should focus on doing a much better job on the historical and paleo datasets (the flaws of which were illuminated by extensive scrutiny of these data sets largely motivated by Climategate). And on the attribution of 20th century warming. And on understanding the causes of historical extreme events. And less on predicting things for which there is overwhelming uncertainty. By all means study climate sensitivity, but climate predictions and particularly climate impact predictions are highly uncertain. If I am reading him correctly, Olson says that we should not deny this uncertainty, but rather put less emphasis on future predictions.