Taming the Uncertainty Monster

by Judith Curry

The concluding section in my draft paper on “Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster” (discussed previously on this thread) is entitled “Taming the uncertainty monster.”

Uncertainty monster refresher

In case you missed my original post on the Uncertainty Monster, here is a brief recap:

The “uncertainty monster” is a concept introduced by van der Sluijs (2005) in an analysis of the different ways that the scientific community responds to uncertainties that are difficult to cope with. A monster is understood as a phenomenon that at the same moment fits into two categories that were considered to be mutually excluding.   The “monster” is therefore the confusion and ambiguity associated with knowledge versus ignorance, objectivity versus subjectivity, facts versus values, prediction versus speculation, and science versus policy.  The uncertainty monster gives rise to discomfort and fear, particularly with regard to our reactions to things or situations we cannot understand or control, including the presentiment of radical unknown dangers.

An adaptation of van der Sluijs’ strategies of coping with the uncertainty monster at the science-policy interface is described below.

Monster hiding. Uncertainty hiding or the “never admit error” strategy can be motivated by a political agenda or because of fear that uncertain science will be judged as poor science by the outside world.  Apart from the ethical issues of monster hiding, the monster may be too big to hide and uncertainty hiding enrages the monster.

Monster exorcism. The uncertainty monster exorcist focuses on reducing the uncertainty through advocating for more research. In the 1990’s, a growing sense of the infeasibility of reducing uncertainties in global climate modeling emerged in response to the continued emergence of unforeseen complexities and sources of uncertainties. Van der Sluijs states that:  “monster-theory predicts that [reducing uncertainty] will prove to be vain in the long run: for each head of the uncertainty monster that science chops off, several new monster heads tend to pop up due to unforeseen complexities,” analogous to the Hydra beast of Greek mythology.

Monster simplification. Monster simplifiers attempt to transform the monster by subjectively quantifying and simplifying the assessment of uncertainty. Monster simplification is formalized in the IPCC AR3 and AR4 by guidelines for characterizing uncertainty in a consensus approach consisting of expert judgment in the context of a subjective Bayesian analysis (Moss and Schneider 2000).

Monster detection. The first type of uncertainty detective is the scientist who challenges existing theses and works to extend knowledge frontiers.  A second type is the watchdog auditor, whose main concern is accountability, quality control and transparency of the science. A third type is the merchant of doubt (Oreskes and Collins 2010), who distorts and magnifies uncertainties as an excuse for inaction for financial or ideological reasons.

Monster assimilation.  Monster assimilation is about learning to live with the monster and giving uncertainty an explicit place in the contemplation and management of environmental risks.  Assessment and communication of uncertainty and ignorance, along with extended peer communities, are essential in monster assimilation. The challenge to monster assimilation is the ever-changing nature of the monster and the birth of new monsters.

Below is the text from the concluding chapter of my draft paper:

5. Taming the uncertainty monster

“I used to be scared of uncertainty; now I get a high out of it.”  Jensen Ackles

Symptoms of an enraged uncertainty monster include increased levels of confusion, ambiguity, discomfort and doubt.  Evidence that the monster is currently enraged includes: doubt that was expressed particularly by European policy makers at the climate negotiations at Copenhagen (van der Sluijs et al. 2010), defeat of a seven-year effort in the U.S. Senate to pass a climate bill centered on cap-and-trade, increasing prominence of skeptics in the news media, and the formation of an InterAcademy Independent Review of the IPCC.

The monster is too big to hide, exorcise or simplify.  Increasing concern that scientific dissent is underexposed by the IPCC’s consensus approach argues for ascendancy of the monster detection and adaptation approaches. The challenge is to open the scientific debate to a broader range of issues and a plurality of viewpoints and for politicians to justify policy choices in a context of an inherently uncertain knowledge base (e.g. Sarewitz 2004).  Some ideas for monster taming strategies at the levels of institutions, individual scientists, and communities are presented.

5.1 Taming strategies at the institutional level

“The misuse that is made [in politics] of science distorts, politicizes and perverts that same science, and now we not only must indignantly cry when science falters, we also must search our consciences.”  Dutch parliamentarian Diederik Samsom

The politics of expertise describes how expert opinions on science and technology are assimilated into the political process (Fischer, 1989).  A strategy used by climate policy proponents to counter the strategies of the merchants of doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010; Schneider and Flannery, 2009) has been the establishment of a broad international scientific consensus with high confidence levels, strong appeals to the authority of the consensus relative to opposing viewpoints, and exposure of the motives of skeptics.  While this strategy might have been arguably useful, needed or effective at some earlier point in the debate to counter the politically motivated merchants of doubt, these strategies have enraged the uncertainty monster, particularly since the Climategate emails and errors that were found in the AR4 WGII Report (e.g. van der Sluijs et al 2010).

Oppenheimer et al. (2007) remark: “The establishment of consensus by the IPCC is no longer as important to governments as a full exploration of uncertainty.”  The institutions of climate science such as the IPCC, the professional societies and scientific journals, national funding agencies, and national and international policy making bodies have a key role to play in taming the uncertainty monster.  Objectives of taming the monster at the institutional level are to improve the environment for dissent in scientific arguments, make climate science less political, clarify the political values and visions in play, expand political debate, and encourage experts in the social sciences, humanities and engineering to participate in the evaluation of climate science and its institutions.

5.2   Taming strategies for the individual scientist

“Science . . . never solves a problem without creating ten more.”  George Bernard Shaw

Individual scientists can tame the uncertainty monster by clarifying the confusion and ambiguity associated with knowledge versus ignorance and objectivity versus subjectivity. Morgan et al. (2009) argue that doing a good job of characterizing and dealing with uncertainty can never be reduced to a simple cookbook, and that one must always think critically and continually ask questions. Spiegenthaler provided the following advice at the recent Workshop on Uncertainty in Science at the Royal Society:

  • We should try and quantify uncertainty where possible
  • All useful uncertainty statements require judgment and are contingent
  • We need clear language to honestly communicate deeper uncertainties with due humility and without fear
  • For public confidence, trust is more important than certainty

Richard Feynman’s address on “Cargo Cult Science” clearly articulates the scientist’s responsibility:  “Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it . . . In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

5.3  Impact of integrity on the monster

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Integrity is an issue of particular importance at the science-policy interface, particularly when the scientific case is represented by a consensus that is largely based on expert opinion.  Integrity is to the uncertainty monster as garlic is to a vampire.

Gleick (2007) distinguishes a number of tactics that are threats to the integrity of science: appealing to emotions; making personal (ad hominem) attacks; deliberately mischaracterizing an inconvenient argument; inappropriate generalization; misuse of facts and uncertainties; false appeal to authority; hidden value judgments; selectively omitting inconvenient measurement results; and packing advisory boards.

The issue of integrity is substantially more complicated at the science-policy interface, particularly since the subject of climate change has been so highly politicized.  A scientist’s statement regarding scientific uncertainty can inadvertently become a political statement that is misused by the merchants of doubt for political gain. Navigating this situation is a considerable challenge, as described by Pielke (2007).  Individual scientists can inadvertently compromise their scientific integrity for what they perceive to be good motives. Whereas such actions can provide temporary political advantages or temporarily bolster the influence of an individual scientist, the only remedy in the long run is to let the scientific process take its course and deal with uncertainty in an open and honest way.

5.4   The hopeful monster

“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”  Andre Gide

The “hopeful monster” is a colloquial term used in evolutionary biology to describe the production of new major evolutionary groups.  Here we invoke the hopeful monster metaphor to address the possibility of taming the monster through the evolution of new entities, enabled by social computing.

When the stakes are high and uncertainties are large, Funtowicz and  Ravetz (1993) point out that there is a public demand to participate and assess quality, which they refer to as the extended peer community. The extended peer community consists not only of those with traditional institutional accreditation that are creating the technical work, but also those with much broader expertise that are capable of doing quality assessment and control on that work.

New information technology and the open knowledge movement is enabling the hopeful monster. These new technologies facilitate the rapid diffusion of information and sharing of expertise, giving hitherto unrealized power to the peer communities.  This newfound power has challenged the politics of expertise, and the “radical implications of the blogosphere” (Ravetz) are just beginning to be understood.  Climategate illustrated the importance of the blogosphere as an empowerment of the extended peer community, “whereby criticism and a sense of probity were injected into the system by the extended peer community from the blogosphere” (Ravetz).

The potential for monster taming through the blogosphere may be the best hope for enabling the highly multi- and interdisciplinary investigations required to address the climate change challenge and to enfranchise the public to secure its common interest.  Social computing has unrealized potential to facilitate understanding of complex issues, drive public policy innovation, provide transparency, identify the best contributions, increase the signal and filter out the noise, empower the public and policy makers to identify and secure their common interests, and maybe even reduce polarization.

While the uncertainty monster will undoubtedly evolve and even grow, it can be tamed through understanding and acknowledgement, and we can learn to live with it by adapting our policies to explicitly include uncertainty. Beck et al.’s (2009) statement describes a tamed and happy monster:  “Being open about uncertainty should be celebrated: in illuminating where our explanations and predictions can be trusted and in proceeding, then, in the cycle of things, to amending their flaws and blemishes.”

JC comments:  I hope to submit the revised version of the paper by Monday.  Note, in response to your comments on the previous detection and attribution thread, I have have revised substantially the first third of the section (prior to section 5.2).  I look forward to your comments and further ideas on this topic.

54 responses to “Taming the Uncertainty Monster

  1. Excellent, particularly the section on integrity. This remark from the RS workshop is a definite keeper: “For public confidence, trust is more important than certainty”.

  2. Dr. Curry,

    “A scientist’s statement regarding scientific uncertainty can inadvertently become a political statement that is misused by the merchants of doubt for political gain. Navigating this situation is a considerable challenge, as described by Pielke (2007). Individual scientists can inadvertently compromise their scientific integrity for what they perceive to be good motives.”

    I wonder how a scientist’s statement regarding scientific integrity can “”inadvertently” compromise his integrity. Integrity in that context would be making honest statements about the science and levels of uncertainty. If what the scientist says is true, then I don’t think the mischaracterization or misuse of his statement by others can impugn the scientist’s integrity. It might impact his reputation for integrity, but not his actual integrity.

    A statement of fact is either true, false or unknown. You damage your integrity only by either knowingly making a false statement, or making a statement without regard to whether it is false or not. Simply being wrong, or being quoted incorrectly, does not reflect on one’s integrity (or should not at least). I am not sure “inadvertent” should be used to describe a loss of integrity. I wonder if you have any examples in mind?

    • I wonder how a scientist’s statement regarding scientific integrity can “”inadvertently” compromise his integrity.

      should read

      I wonder how a scientist’s statement regarding scientific uncertainty can “”inadvertently” compromise his integrity.

    • Gary, there was no intent to link a scientists statement about scientifific uncertainty and compromising a scientists integrity. Two separate sentences, separated by another sentence. Damage to integrity is the stuff of the climategate emails and the hockey stick illusion. I originally had a ref to montford’s book for the last sentence, but took it out, didn’t want to be unecessarily inflammatory to the audience i am trying to reach.

  3. Slaying the Uncertainty Monster reminds me of St George, shiny armor and all, confronting the dragon breath monster. Lots of courage displayed in the face of overwhelming strength. When confronted with monsters of my own, I tend to think in terms of children’s stories, night time and going to bed with a monster under the bed and how do children cope. For children, making a pal of the monster, ‘together we can make it through the night” seems to be what works best. Living with the climate uncertainty monster means to me that we should avoid moving suddenly and unexpectantly that frighten one another, and adopt those very diliberate and visible activities that will get us through the night. I don’t have to imagine what “Puff the magic dragon’s ” motivations are, he/she not only tells me, but shows me: ie, walks the walk. Essentially, living with uncertainty monsters means trusting and verifying: no verifiable data, no trust. Simple, just ask a child.

    • interesting monster, let me think about how i might incorporate this idea, seems to fit with monster assimilation.

  4. Uncertainty can also be useful as a guide to further research.

    • The point(s) being here:
      1. The monster will evolve over time as new information is uncovered by research.
      2. That research will tend to make the monster smaller.

      To my mind, more knowledge is a better solution than jumping to a policy ‘solution.’

    • Thanks, i made that point in the previous section, but agree that it is also needed in this section, will add it to 5.1

  5. Judy – I found your chapter thoughtful, cogent, and comprehensive. I do have two suggestions from my perspective as a reader. That perspective is a personal one, and others may disagree profoundly.

    1. Extended, unrelieved metaphor makes me uncomfortable, because analogies are treacherous. Similarly, an essay conducted almost entirely at what semanticists call a high level of abstraction can discourage the interest of readers who don’t already have a clear picture of the concepts being discussed. For both these reasons, and in the interest of commanding the attention of those readers who have most to learn from your writing, I would strongly urge you to punctuate your comments with examples – i.e., to “go down the abstraction ladder”. Even a table of examples might help additionally, citing particular IPCC issues that deserve scrutiny, such as those on solar or aerosol forcing. Otherwise, some intelligent and potentially receptive readers may turn off before finishing the chapter.

    2. Your tribute to the blogosphere strikes me as very one-sided. The blogosphere may be capable of all you attribute to it, but it is a source of a huge amount of misinformation as well, some inadvertent, some deliberate, and I believe it would be wise to acknowledge the dangers of excessive reliance on this means of communication. The fact that you have exerted a salutary influence on the quality of climate blogging shouldn’t blind you to the fact that most climate blogs do more harm than good some of the time, and in some cases all the time. Taming the blogosphere may be impossible, but warning the unwary to avoid acquiring all their climate information from blogs would spare some individuals from serious misconceptions about climate change.

    • Fred, I know the convinced often repeat versions of your point number 2. I don’t get it, if may even be a deeper philosophical difference. The volume of information is much more on blogs and the internet, and much faster. Benjamin Franklin said “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see” and he lived 250 some years ago so the quality of information has never been great without blogging. Not everything can be academic papers and peer review. Most people understand the pros and cons of blogs so shouldn’t require a kind of condescending warning, especially people that would read Judith’s paper.

      • Teddy – I view my statement that the blogosphere contains a huge amount of misinformation to be either true or false, but not philosophical. I have found it to be true, but others may have a different view.

        I hesitated before writing the last sentence in my comment, for the reasons you stated, but my thought was that although Judith’s readers don’t get most of their information from the blogosphere, they might be prompted to pass on that advice in their conversations with others. My observation has been that participants in these threads who rely almost entirely on the blogosphere for climate information are usually seriously misinformed on many important issues. I believe the reason is that the majority of blogs adopt advocacy positions, and while they don’t routinely make blatantly false statements, their use of cherry-picking inevitably creates misimpressions. I’m not suggesting that Judith Curry is guilty of this in her own posts, but a number of participants appear to rely heavily on other blogs as a primary source of climate news, which they then bring here as evidence for a particular conclusion.

        You state that “most people understand the pros and cons of blogs”. I think that’s true in a very general sense, but not necessarily in the way they interpret the information they encounter on blogs they frequent. I’m sorry if that sounds condescending, but it’s my perception, and if I knew a way to phrase it more tactfully, I would.

        I revisited your comments in a couple of recent threads to see whether I could pin some of these sins on you, but unfortunately, most of what you said sounded reasonable, albeit adversarial in a few cases.

      • John Carpenter

        Fred, for me in particular, I don’t have the time to scan all the journals. Do you have a recommendation of a site that helps coalesce all the peer reviewed climate information? The blogosphere certainly does this well for those who challenge the ‘consensus’ view. I agree with Teddy, most people are able to recognize highly biased material when they read it and take it for what it’s worth.

      • I’ll try to get back to you on this tomorrow. I don’t think any single site is ideal, but there may be a few that can serve as a good source of basic information, and there are excellent textbooks. I don’t know of any sites that synopsize the latest updates in climate science.

      • On this site’s blogroll there is AGW Observer.

      • John Carpenter

        Thanks, this looks like the type of synopsis I was asking about.

      • Yes, that’s an excellent source. It’s selective, but gives you a flavor of what a well-informed observer perceives to be important.

        I also agree with Jim D’s suggestion below to visit AR4 WG1 despite criticisms of some of its approaches. Overall, it gives a very useful picture, and contains multiple references for more extended review. As others have noted, WG2 and WG3 are more problematic.

        Neither of these provides a strong foundation in climate science basics, and I’m not sure such a foundation exists on the web, although the AIP site created by Spencer Weart has much good material if you’re willing to wade through many pages and links. Even the wikipedia site on global warming has useful subsections and references if you want to go beyond the statements made in the text.

        Outside the web, some textbooks can be useful for acquiring a foundation in climatology. Dennis Hartmann’s “Global Physical Climatology” is a bit out of date but the main principles haven’t changed. Raymond Pierrehumbert’s rather massive “Principles of Planetary Climate” (2011) offers a very thorough foundation, but will require much time and effort to get through.

        In thinking about this since last night, it occurred to me that this topic might be worth making into a post of its own, if Dr. Curry is interested. Probably no one of us can come up with a full list of good suggestions, but among us, we might end up with a useful compendium.

      • John Carpenter

        Thanks Fred

      • I would suggest the IPCC WG1 report. Only 3 of its 11 chapters are on models, so you even if you don’t like that part, you can read the rest which is written in an accessible way. The total is 1000 pages, so you may want to be selective by skipping paleo too. At least you could use it as a reference volume.

      • Fred, by philosophical difference I should clarify that I meant that the convinced are more control oriented and the unconvinced are more free style or something to that effect.

        Blogging is more inline with the socratic method of being able to have a back and forth discussion rather than just reading it from a book IMO. I have learned much about climate from this blog. The first climate blog I saw was RC, but I found RC to be very restrictive, however, Gavin did reply to one post of mine that he didn’t know the answer, my others got cut somehow. Personally I find the disagreements the most interesting.

      • Disagreements, imho, are where the most breakthroughs are made on a situation. ONly when you’ve agrued a point from every conceivable angle can you truly make an informed decision (at least informed in the context of the information available at the time).

        Dr Curry, I’d echo Fred’s sentiments. I like the piece, but the reliance on analogy is quite high. I think it’s maybe too much. If you have a real example of something you’re trying to discuss, i’d use that rather than an analogy.

      • Judith – I also agree with Fred’s first point. For me, the paper does indeed seem a little abstract with too many analogies. That said, if you start throwing bald criticisms at the IPCC to highlight your points then you run the risk of alienating half the audience. Perhaps an even handed approach to IPCC and skeptics would be the best way of keeping all types of reader with you as they progress through the paper.

      • Ok, i’m doing a new post to give you a better idea of the structure of the paper, and also the section on the IPCC. should be forthcoming in a few minutes.

      • “I revisited your comments in a couple of recent threads to see whether I could pin some of these sins on you, but unfortunately, most of what you said sounded reasonable, albeit adversarial in a few cases”

        Why is that unfortunate, Freddy ?

        I hope that your comment was sardonic, but having revisited your comments, I’m not too hopeful

    • Fred, thanks for your comments. The entire paper is about 10,000 words long. I have pulled most of the text here that uses the metaphor (it is lightly sprinkled into two other sections, and not used at all in one section). The outline of the paper is this:
      Introduction (introduces uncertainty monster concept)
      A brief sidebar Uncertainty lexicon (defining some terms)
      Uncertainty of climate models (pulls from my earlier threads, mainly what can we learn from climate models?)
      Uncertainty and the IPCC (brings back the monster metaphor in a minimal way)
      Uncertainty in the attribution of 20th century climate change (blog post earlier in the week, monster metaphor lightly sprinkled in)
      Taming the uncertainty monster

      I elected not to post the entire paper right now, since it is hugely long and most of the material has been presented in previous posts. I will do a thread on the entire article once it is in press.

    • Fred, one other comment re the blogosphere. The radical implications of the blogosphere are not yet realized, like it or not. In terms of a source of information, it is not difficult to understand why many people prefer blogs. The IPCC is very dry, a compendium of evidence and then their expert judgment conclusions; it is very difficult to discern the underlying reasoning, and so the IPCC doesn’t increase actual understanding. I guess this is what you expect from a document written by a committee. Books represent one person’s actual logic and thinking about the problem, which can increase someone’s understanding. Blogs (well the good ones anyways) present multiple people’s logic and thinking and the relatively technically uninformed person can at least grasp the structure of the argument, and who is winning. Making any kind of sense of the climate debate from blogs requires that you visit a diversity of blogs (although Climate Etc is close to a one stop shop IMO). So like or not, the blogosphere has made climate science accessible to a broad range of people and even in a participatory way (such as what goes on at the Blackboard and TaV). The extended peer community in action.

      • Judy – Everything you say above makes sense to me, but there’s a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to the blogosphere that deserves to be acknowledged.

        My perception is that the blogosphere can be very useful if you already have a good grasp of climate fundamentals, but if you don’t, and rely on blogs for most of your understanding of climate, you are very likely to emerge with a distorted perspective. That is particularly true for individuals who come to the web with partisan views and then gravitate to blogs that echo those views. In that circumstance, the distortion can be severe.

        Some have commented that it’s possible to recognize biases and discount them, but my observation has been that recognizing bias requires a strong background in the subject that is not available to many individuals whose favorite blogs echo their own preconceptions.

      • Nebuchadnezzar

        It would be interesting to know how extended the extended peer community really is. There are lots of people with an opinion about any particular subject, but people with the in depth knowledge needed to qualify as peers seem few and far between relative to the number of people who contribute to blogs. Not a few of the people who might qualify as peers, disqualify themselves, because they consider themselves superior. It is neither easy, nor pleasant – and often futile – to discuss things with someone who is of the opinion that you’re an idiot.

        I agree with you that it’s necessary to read a diversity of blogs and that will tell you something about the debate and the astonishing range of opinions, but what it says about the science is less clear cut.

        I think if you want to know about the science at more than a superficial level, then the IPCC is a good place to begin (WG1 anyway). It’s dry, but then not everything that is worth reading is easy to read. And, given that many skeptical viewpoints are cast in opposition to the IPCC ‘position’ it’s worth knowing what that position is. This is particularly true in the ‘debate’ because the IPCC position is very often mischaracterised by all sides.

  6. John Carpenter

    “Individual scientists can inadvertently compromise their scientific integrity for what they perceive to be good motives. ”

    Judith, can you give an example of what you mean by this?

    • I think she’s referring to “noble cause corruption”, the justification of doing or saying “whatever it takes” because the end has been elevated to untouchable status.

      There are numerous quotes from prominent “mitigation” supporters along these lines, saying essentially that it doesn’t matter if it’s true, as long as it moves the world towards “managed energy” production and use. Of course, they fully intend to be amongst said management team.

      • Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
        Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
        The last temptation is the greatest treason:
        To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

        Courtesy of TS Eliot “Murder in the Cathedral” (1935)

      • A scientist who, when speaking of the science, says “essentially that it doesn’t matter if it’s true, as long as it moves the world towards ‘managed energy’ production and use,” does not lose his integrity inadvertently. Such a statement, and other examples of noble cause corruption, are conscious choices of putting expediency before honesty. Nothing inadvertent about it.

        I think my qualms about the term “inadvertent loss of integrity” is that it seeks to remove the moral component from conduct that is by its definition moral. Integrity is a moral term. You are honest or you are not. Lying is telling an intentional falsehood. Stealing is intentionally taking the property of another. You simply cannot “lose” (I would perhaps say abandon) your integrity inadvertently.

        I think what Dr. Curry may mean is “unintentionally,” using intent in to equate with motive. There are two common meanings of the word intent in the law. One usage is equivalent to motive: your intent is your goal, what you hope to achieve. But the more common usage is that intent refers to the knowledge of the likely consequences of your conduct. If I hit someone over the head to take his money, my motive is robbery. But I also intend the natural and probable consequences of the assault on the person, and can be punished for both.

        So scientists can lose their integrity when that is not their primary motivation, when their “intent” is to further a particular policy goal, but that is still intentional in the broader sense.

        I think in this context this is more than just a matter of semantics. Integrity is a core issue in the current state of the debate. I think it is a mistake to try to essentially give a free pass to those who discard their integrity to achieve policy goals, by describing that loss as inadvertent.

    • Many would find the climategate emails rife with examples of this

      • John Carpenter

        Ok.. that makes sense, but as I read your piece, I was thinking you meant it in public ways this might happen. I did not see the climategate link as I read the text if there was meant to be such a link. Brian Hall (above) took away the idea of ‘noble cause corruption’ which I would view as something different than what was exposed in the climategate emails. Noble cause corruption has played itself publicly, for example, by some scientists making statements to the effect that ‘we need to exaggerate claims’ in order to spur the policymakers to do something about the problem. This is another way one might inadvertently compromise ones integrity, but out in the open. Certainly the emails exposed a compromise of integrity of several individuals very clearly, but they were never meant to see the light of day. I know this is only one sentence in the whole paper, but I find it to be an important idea. Were you looking to leave this up to individual interpretation or do you mean to send a clear message about this point?

      • This is a touchy issue. When i submitted the original version in Aug 2010, i struggled mightily with this issue, and decided not to be explicit at all about this, since I didn’t want to lose my audience by getting overly inflammatory on this. My target audience for this is members of the American Meteorological Society (although I hope that it will be read more widely). Now I guess I need to rethink it, but I suspect I will leave it to the individual’s interpretation. The overall topic would be good for a blog post tho.

      • John Carpenter

        Thanks, I understand your position better and I can see the conflict with getting too specific with an example. A blog post on this topic would be interesting.

  7. Jack Hughes

    Regarding the

    merchant of doubt (Oreskes and Collins 2010), who distorts and magnifies uncertainties as an excuse for inaction for financial or ideological reasons.

    There’s an opposite category that you’ve forgotten: the disasturbater who gets off on these scary stories of acid rain, Y2K bugs, nuclear meltdowns, asteroid strikes, global warming, ocean acidification, hurricanes, 4 horsemen, etc etc.

    It’s similar to Munchausen’s – they have a psychological need for “global problems” to give meaning to their lives.

  8. I think you mean Spiegelhalter rather than Spiegenthaler.

  9. A little monster can feed a monster bigger and so on. This is the story of the giant with feet of clay. that’s why they say the devil is in the details. But conversely, if we go too deeply into details, we can noyer.Il is reasonable when there is a monster, although the login. Thus, it will not create a new monster.

  10. Dr. Curry,

    I think you give far more weight to what are likely the paranoid fantasies of Oreskes, than is deserved. There are people who strongly disagree with the AGW consensus view for valid scientific reasons, or for, perhaps weaker, ideological reasons along with perhaps invalid scientific reasons, but the overwhelming majority are sincere.

    I believe you yourself also used to talk of attacks from fossil fuel funded websites directed at yourself before you appreciated the nuances of the different sides of these issues, so perhaps you can see where Oreskes may be seeing things with a certain myopic viewpoint, which you have outgrown.

    If skeptics express doubt over or feel uncertainties need to be magnified, it is almost certainly because they believe it, not because they are attempting to cloud the issue, (with clouds?).

    Both sides are trying to “do the right thing”, although integrity may be lacking in some cases, and this is only my opinion, the noble cause corruption of AGW proponents causes the majority of this failure of integrity. Since they are trying to save the world from the excesses of mankind’s transgressions, they are channeled into an “end justifies the means” behavior.

    The proper term for the majority of ethical failures may be “Merchants of Certainty.”

    This is where the ethical failures of figures, such as Michael Mann, come into play. On an ethical scale of Feynman to Mann, most of the players fall somewhere in the middle, but I think you see a lot lot more, “Merchants of Certainty” than “Merchants of Doubt”, and I don’t think this is conveyed in your writings.

    The only reason I can see to “encourage experts in the social sciences, humanities…” to get involved is the evaluate ethical and institutional failures, otherwise you’ll just get more reports on the need to communicate better, or some analysis that says skeptics are more likely to have shorter necks.

    • Nice.
      I would add that once the skeptics were positioned as merchants of doubt, there is an ineluctable process that draws the other side into selling certainty. The issue, of course, is this positioning is untenable for science.

      Merchants of Confusion would have been a better tagline for Oreskes to use.

    • I think the merchants of certainty either don’t understand or play down the dangers of centralized government control, aka socialism. It is easy to see the main benefit of socialism – money and other benefits not tied to working for it. It is not so obvious, however, the dangers of centralized control. Socialism always drags down the economy given the fact that it ignores, suppresses, or controls prices. Lacking or distorting price information causes the economy to run less efficiently than it otherwise would. This shrinks the economic pie for everyone and in some notable cases like Greece, Ireland, and Spain; it can bring down the country’s economy entirely. In other cases, the door is left open for iron-fisted dictators such as we have witnessed in the 20th century and the concomitant deaths of millions. The down-side of socialism is much more difficult to understand and typically a good deal of study is necessary to comprehend it. This monster is somewhat like Dr. Curry’s uncertainty monster. It is another form of monster, but a monster nonetheless. It must be factored into the reckoning of global warming.

  11. Yes, Merchants of Certainty is functionally equivalent to Monster Hiding, but it’s late and I’m not writing as well as I should. I needed to contrast your nod to Oreskes, even if it messes up the metaphor.

  12. …and the academic incompetence continues. Confront, verify, and advance true knowledge. I learned to kill the monsters that visited me in dreams; I saw them for what they were: A distraction.

  13. Joe Lalonde


    I am taking on the famous “E=MC2”.
    To do this, I need to know all the individual players involved of the different forms of energy. From friction, chemical interaction, ignition, expansion/contraction, solar contribution, density differences, electricity, gravity, centrifugal force, circular motion, etc. Everyone requires motion to enable these actions to occur. In power generation torque is the amount of density(resistance) required to generate a certain amount of electricity using machinery that produce more power with more density and speed.
    Shape of objects and the density of them also play a role in this area. Speeds in motion have the ability to compress gases and change them into mass by compression.
    On this planet, I discovered, we loose mass in 4 different ways.

    So, in order to take on the current science theories, I have to have a vast understanding and knowledge through the ability of recreating these individual areas of energy.
    Understanding what scientists had to work with in the past to the technology we have today does give me an advantage.

    Now, who is the expert with the experience to “peer-review” my research?

    • John Carpenter

      Joe, I’m sure if you submitted your work for review, many experts would make themselves known. If your work is so revolutionary that no one with a solid physics, chemistry or engineering education could follow it, then I guess there would be no expert available, but you have to start somewhere.

  14. Harold Pierce Jr

    curryja says on June 17, 2011 at 8:09 am:

    ” …(although Climate Etc is close to a one stop shop IMO).”

    Oh really? You should check out Alan Cheetam’s “Global Warming Science” at:


    This site is _the_ “one stop, shop until you drop” store for global warming and climate change info and data.

    You should add this site to your blog roll.

  15. I agree with Fred Moulton abotu both the potential biases of the blogosphere, and the use of unrelieved metaphor. The “monster” metaphor is rather misleading, because, as your article makes clear, there seems to be a whole menagerie of uncertainty monsters out there – statistical uncertainty, methodological, uncertainty in the setting of parameters in models etc. It seems to me that these different uncertainties are too dissimilar to be amalgamated into a single entity. Further, I am not sure the title is right – Isn’t it the nature of uncertainty that it can not really be tamed – only understood. That is, we can only control and reduce it to a degree.

    As for the blogosphere – it seems to cause as much confusion as clarification. The biggest problem for the blogosphere is that it is a melange of facts, informed opinions, and undiluted prejudice. Does undiluted prejudice make it into scientific publications and the peer-review process. Apparently, it can. But with all its faults, I believe that peer review mostly works and that it is the least worst system yet invented – rather like Churchill’s comments on Democracy…..

    Judith wrote “In terms of a source of information, it is not difficult to understand why many people prefer blogs. The IPCC is very dry, a compendium of evidence and then their expert judgment conclusions; it is very difficult to discern the underlying reasoning, and so the IPCC doesn’t increase actual understanding”.

    The compendium of evidence and expert judgment is what IPCC is supposed to do. Indeed it has to be done right? In fact, given all the allegations of bias and unwise citation levelled against them, shouldn’t the experts of the IPCC be even dreer and more “experty”. Summaries for policy makers are one attempt to add soem water to the desert of academic facts. But I do not think that the IPCC is in the business of producing more populist treatments of the science. And the blogosphere comes nowhere near offering an objective treatment aimed atthe general public.

  16. William Norton

    “Integrity is an issue of particular importance at the science-policy interface, particularly when the scientific case is represented by a consensus that is largely based on expert opinion. Integrity is to the uncertainty monster as garlic is to a vampire.”

    I love that statement. There is a multitude of ways that integrity can be compromised, and your section discussed some them. I would like to add one more; the one I think has most damaged the Climate Change discussion, exaggeration.

    Many of us became skeptics not because we didn’t believe that climate change was happening, but because the theories, effects, and predictions were so badly exaggerated that the overall fabric being woven became more untrue than true. Instead of the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” being roundly trashed for its excesses, it was awarded an Oscar. Instead of the IPCC authors being called to account for their inaccuracies and politicization of the science, they were given the Nobel Prize. Exaggeration paid off handsomely for those people, but they weren’t the only ones lining up to the trough.

    Years back I had a chance to visit a National Lab that I had worked at previously. My old friends were busily preparing their proposals for next year’s work on which they depended for funding. The standing joke was that at the end of every proposal you had to include the phrase “and its impact on global warming” or else your proposal (and thus your source of livelihood) was DOA. All you had to do was broaden your thinking, and any proposal could include a Global Warming component, exaggerate a little if you had to.

    Only it wasn’t a joke. The Global Warming movement had shifted into high gear and was sucking the cash out of the safe. Favorite lines of research were no longer being funded as interest was switched from this to that. The pressure on the researchers to join the program was enormous; become a Global Warming convert or see your career die a gruesome and hungry death. I suspect that universities experienced some of the same pressures. To comply required only a few exaggerations, and the resulting flood of Global Warming papers is now a matter of record.

    This is not to say that the regular reallocation of research funds is a bad thing. It is a good thing and usually the competition keeps good researchers in the game and directs scarce dollars where they need to go. But when priorities are based on gross exaggerations that demolish truth and feed ambitious politicians, the system breaks down. I am astounded at how few scientists were actually involved in starting the movement and how quickly they were able to corrupt the system. Some of them freely admitted that if they hadn’t exaggerated that no one would have listened, and in their mind that justified the things they said and published, and we let them do it.

  17. Pooh, Dixie

    Climate Science, under the aegis of Post Normal Science, is no longer a one-stop shop for climate scientists alone. It is now fused with political policy. Political energy policy (carbon emissions), in turn, drags in Economic issues. On a parallel track, Post Normal Science called for “Democracy”, which has been interpreted as meaning politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs and representatives of some “Developing Nations”, but not the average citizen.

    The scientific track has been incorporated into models that are, so far, not good predictors. I suggest that the root issue is whether or not the warming due to emissions will be great enough to be (net) significantly harmful. (By significantly harmful, I mean within which adaptation would suffice.) This issue rests upon the magnitude and sign of feedbacks.

    Which brings me to the Blogosphere. Climate Science, as sketched above, involves a tangle of science, politics, economics and power. I know of no one who has an in-depth grasp of it all. The Blogosphere, however, brings together people who have earned a living at some slice of it. Among blogs, Climate Etc. is exemplary, as are several others; it is like auditing a seminar where participants conduct themseves with integrity.

    How to judge? Dr. Curry quotes Feynman: “If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it . . . In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”