Monday, November 30, 2009

On cranks and climate

Does all this matter? Yes, if it's keeping us from moving forward, and if we feel any obligation to the next fifty generations.

There are people who can talk your ear off about climate change, who aren't being paid to espouse their views, and who sound to the uninitiated as though they have a good grasp of the subject.

When their views run counter to the consensus knowledge of an entire, active scientific field, the term for these people is "cranks".

Some insights from people in the trenches, on climate cranks:
"Actually, as I happen to work at the Physical Review journals, a sizable percentage of submissions to a couple of our journals does consist of completely off-the-wall "contributions" to "general relativity or quantum mechanics".
... The difference is not that there are cranks out there on climate but not in other fields. The difference seems to be that the cranks in climate science have somehow achieved a level of support, a cheering section, or perhaps actual material support for their work. In particle physics the Dunning-Krugerites are each off in their own little world with no media attention at all. Not so in climate." (link)

"I work with this [climate] stuff. Every day. 40 (well more like 50-60) hours a week. It took years of study for me (and everyone else) just to get to the level where you can properly understand what it is, exactly, that I do. That's what being an expert at something entails. Now when I get into a dispute with someone, they typically have the same level of expertise. They know more or less everything I do. I know what they're saying, and they usually know what I'm saying.

Now you bring into that situation some layperson with their religious reasons or ideological reasons or crank personality, who wants to dispute the results of my work. So they pore over it, and they simply don't understand it. (And ignorance breeds arrogance more often than humility, as Lincoln said) But they think they do. And then they formulate their criticism. Even if that criticism makes sense (often not), it's typically wrong at the most basic level. And that will practically always be the case - because there's virtually *nothing* in the way of criticism that a beginner would be able to think of that an expert hadn't thought about already.
The fact that these climate-skeptics were prepared to take these e-mails, pore over them for some choice quotes (which didn't even look incriminating to me out of context), blatantly misinterpret them without making any kind of good-faith effort to understand the context or the science behind it, and trumpet it all out as some kind of 'disproval' of global warming (which wouldn't have been the case even if they were right), just goes to show that they're simply not interested in either learning the science, or engaging in a real debate. And it's in itself pseudo-scientific behavior in action..." (link)

How should you deal with a crank, in a field that isn't your specialty? If it's just you and him, you may just want to disengage. But if there's an audience, and the topic is important, you do need to counter your crank - since otherwise he could undermine the audience's understanding. The most constructive way to engage is to narrow down the argument - since these folks often do the Gish Gallop - and impose some form of recordkeeping that'll serve as a heuristic for your audience to judge by. So what I try to do is narrow it down to one crank claim, and offer to bet $1 that, if I take the time to look into it, it will turn out to be false or misleading.

My dollar's pretty safe; if the claim were not false or misleading, it'd be part of mainstream climate science, and it won't need cranks to espouse it. Keep this heuristic in mind.

Another quick heuristic: if someone cites a paper in Energy and Environment, it means they're not clued in; this one journal is notorious for publishing poor quality science.

Also, I hate to say it, but: the laypeople most prone to overestimating their climate science knowledge - in a contrarian direction - seem to be amateurs without college degrees, weathermen, and guys with a background in physics or engineering. (See: Dunning-Kruger effect and Salem hypothesis.)

The rest of us are typically more humble.


Anna Haynes said...

I've invited a local climate audodidact to present his argument for the contrarian "it's the sun" [that's caused the last 50-odd years of warming] explanation here, if he's willing to bet a dollar that the peer reviewed paper making the argument (Svensmark, right?) withstood critical review after it was published.
(fyi to nonscientists: peer review is necessary but not sufficient, for quality control; see Peter Watts on what happens to a paper *after* it's published (" science works. It’s not a hippie love-in; it’s rugby. Every time you put out a paper, the guy you pissed off at last year’s Houston conference is gonna be laying in wait. ..."), on how science turns human failings to good use - it's rather like the free market, in doing so.)

Anna Haynes said...

Autodidact, with a T. Sorry.

Anna Haynes said...

Countering Climate Disinformation - Checklist
(A followup post, for use by those who want to counter contrarian comments and for the contrarian commenter who might want to know - before inserting foot in mouth - whether the talking point he's about to repeat is bogus.)

Also: the contrarian I'd met did make a specific claim, and agree that I could check it, and indeed it turned out to be bogus.
(link (the first half))