Monday, May 1, 2017

Climate Science as Gossip

Eugene Climate March

By Bob Ferris

Since the science and climate marches I have been thinking much about…well…science and climate. Hardly surprising particularly given the anti-science scrubbing the Trump Administration just gave the EPA websites (1,2).  This was done to some extent during the Bush II Administration but I suspect that was a mere foreshadowing of what we are about to see.  During the Bush II Era the idea was to change and modify science, I think we are about to see erasure and denial.


This is also on my mind because of the recent criticism of the New York Times for hiring an op-ed Bret Stephens writer from the denier camp.  This was met with outrage, as it should be.  But my sense is that the outrage should be cautionary and constructive rather than destructive.  We have far too few news sources in the ninety-percent range of accuracy to risk sinking another.  Ending a subscription, as many have threatened, strikes me as much like dealing with a starving child by withholding meals until they behave.

But let’s come back to the intersection between these two paragraphs, because in the Facebook comments of former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s re-posting of a piece from Discover Magazine's blog is one by a notorious, lower echelon scientist denier.  This commenter directs people to a blog site posting with the headline “20 New Papers Affirm Modern Climate Is In Phase With Natural Variability” written by Kenneth Richard whose writing portfolio is broad to say the least.

But let’s look at this blog piece.  It leads off by citing a recent paper on arctic ice by Marie-Ève Gagné, John C. Fyfe, Nathan P. Gillett, Igor V. Polyakov, and Gregory M. Flato.  In that paper the authors talk about arctic ice increasing from the 1950 to 1975 before being driven down by climate change. Mr. Richard—who also writes about Justin Bieber and Vera Wang—sees this as evidence that climate change is natural as we have seen ice increase and decrease over the last sixty plus years so why are we concerned?  This view is echoed by the owner of the blog Pierre L. Gosselin because he has a sense that severe weather now is the same as severe weather in 1960s and 1970s.
“This would imply that the Arctic sea ice recession observed in recent decades is well within the range of natural variability, or within the range of what has occurred without human interference or high rates of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Kenneth Richard in No Trick Zone
Richard’s blog post has a nice graph and a “technical feel” but what do the actual scientists say?  In the article and their press release , the authors talk about how aerosols protected the arctic ice from melting faster due to warming. That seems a very different take than Mr. Richard’s quote above.  And there is nothing in this article that claims this phenomena is natural or an argument that we should just calm down about climate change.  But here we have a scientist with a PhD offering up a website that contains this in its header: "Fake and vulgar" climate news from Germany in English - by Pierre L. Gosselin.

So where am I going with all this?  My basic message is we should stick to science and trust no one on this topic until we have proven them and their material trustworthy.   Where to start? I tend to start with the person and their qualifications.  What degrees do they hold and from where?  From there I go to Google Scholar and see if they are publishing in this field and, if so, what are the impact numbers for the journals that publish their work (see impact factors).  I also look to see if other scientists value their work as a source which is indicated by how many times their piece was cited by others.  So if you run into an article from someone writing outside of their field in a journal with an impact rating of less than one that is only cited by publications from Libertarian think tanks your eyebrows should raise a little.

But much of what we see is in blogs and popular press—some good and some very bad.  Here the process of vetting is similar.  Check the qualifications of the author.  If it is anonymous or their qualifications are hard to establish reach for some grains of salt.  As a rule of thumb there should be an inverse relationship between how close someone stands to the center of the science being developed and how frequently they should cite the primary work of others to justify their statements and conclusions.  I do not know the exact negative correlation required but it is something to think about.

There are demerits in this system also.  It seems obvious to exercise caution towards the remarks of those working in or associated with the fossil fuel industry and then denying climate change or responsibility for the phenomenon.  Similar caution should be employed when looking at those driven by political beliefs though I was pleased to see recent comments by Jerry Taylor formerly of the Cato Institute (nee Charles Koch Foundation) whose brother James Taylor is leading the climate denial charge at the Heartland Institute (see here for discussion of Heartland’s recent guide to teachers).

I would also urge caution about old degrees and serial skeptics.  Science changes quickly and if someone published in the 1960s and 1970s, but is not working in the field currently the cloak of authority is likely somewhat moth-eaten and not providing as much warmth as it should.  Moreover, as the US produces 30,000 PhDs in science annually, there is little need to go to the way-back machine for experts.  There is also this need in science for skepticism which should not be confused with constant contrarianism.  For instance, if you argued against second-hand smoke, then ozone and now climate change your toes may not be as firmly rooted in science as you would like people to believe.  Not naming any names here, but…(see Merchants of Doubt).

Obviously I am looking at the extreme case here with someone who writes about style, trends and celebrities (i.e., gossip) also writing about climate and interpreting science.  But how is this really different than folks without degrees or lacking relevant training leading the charge on denial?  All of which circles back to the idea and necessity of going to the source material and evaluating it before absorbing it or spreading like so much manure across an already fertilized field.  We should do this with errant gossip and must with climate science as well.


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