Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The humble climate contrarian - an oxymoron

Is it humble, to feel that with no training you're a better judge of a scientific field than the scientists who've spent their lives in it? - or just to feel that it doesn't signify anything, if their understanding of the meaning of their research* differs from yours?
(* I'm not talking about contrarian climate scientists extrapolating beyond their research - which happens regularly, and is undesirable, and gets called out by their peers)

See also: Arthur P. Smith's The arrogance of physics. Physics is a great toolbox for a lot of purposes,
"But sometimes that arrogance and self-assurance and collection of intuitions lead us, or at least a few of us, astray. We forget that there are other smart people in the world, who have been thinking about their limited problem for a lot longer and perhaps have a deeper understanding than we give them credit for. We jump in with our simplified models and ideas and then wonder why they don't find them helpful. Or we too deeply trust the intuition of a colleague who has been often right before or who we trust for other reasons, but in a particular instance has not put in the effort to properly understand the problem, and ends up only embarrassing themselves, and us by association. "
Some other rules of thumb for exposing the lack of credibility, when you encounter a climate science doubter:
* Ask what expertise he has in climate science; has he completed coursework in climate science?
* See if he understands the difference between studying weather & studying climate (chaotic processes that affect results in the former, average out in the latter.)
* Ask if he can enumerate the lines of evidence indicating that humans are causing climate change - since if he doubts the scientists' assessment without understanding what the evidence is...
* Ask if he can think of any reason why domain knowledge from outside a field might actually hinder one's understanding.
* Ask if he believes that a handful of contrarian climate scientists affiliated with right-wing-funded thinktanks are good go-to sources for understanding the big picture.
* Ask if he sees the accumulation of climate science as a brick wall, or as a house of cards.
* Ask if the big picture matters - if, when viewing, say, the Keeling curve showing yearly-zigzag-but-increasing atmospheric CO2 over 50 years, whether the salient fact is the steady increase, or if it's the one year in the 1960s that didn't increase over the previous year. (If the cherry tree has 999 red ones and one white, what color are the cherries?)
* Ask whether it's wise, for a journey that's been delayed 30 years with increasingly catastrophic likely consequences, to advise delaying still further to ensure we make no mistakes (besides the most catastrophic one, of further failure to act)
* Ask whether it's wise to wait for absolute certainty, which would mean waiting for climate change to be effectively irreversible.

p.s. reading for the "it's cosmic rays" folk: The contribution of cosmic rays to global warming
Also, for contrarians citing Lovelock: do a bit.ly/w101search for "Lovelock"

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