Monday, July 18, 2011

Manufacturing Bullshit

Jean Goodwin teaches English somewhere in Iowa.  She's also written a paper about the "manufacture" of consensus in the IPCC reports on climate change.  Its crap, but its a typical variety of crap, and so possibly interesting for that reason.   She's essentially bitching that the IPCC shouldn't be make much of the fact that its constituent scientists have achieved consensus over important elements of AGW theory. 

From the paper:

What is being done by this complex of features?—this rhetorical form, which I will call a "consensus claim"? One place to begin is by realizing its oddity. After all, we teach our students to recognize and reject ad populum or "bandwagon" appeals. I suspect that it would be hard to find scientists claiming to each other that such & such ought to be believed, because a "consensus of scientists" thus quantified backed it.

This statement is naive, and indicates a real lack of understanding of scientific practice and scientific history. Just to give one example, it is the almost universal consensus among paleontologists that birds are descended from and in fact are dinosaurs.  The fact of this "consensus" is brought up occasionally by practitioners in the field, without shame or hesitation.  For example,  it isn't really unusual to hear it argued that the last few scientists holding out against the consensus are getting old and publishing long-ago refuted arguments in crummier and crummier journals.  That's actually considered a salient point against them.  I've written about it here; you can see the wikipedia version here.  Presumably, for Ms. Goodwin, these are  "improper" arguments.  But I would suggest its stock in trade across many fields.  It is certainly not odd.  So if there is a problem with the manufacturing of consensus, it is hardly unique to Climate Science.  But I don't think it is a problem; knowing, for example, that the only person advocating a theory is a fringe kook teaching out in nowhere'sville can be extremely useful to deciding how much time to spend figuring out whether their views make sense.

In any case, whatever scientists might be telling their students, arguments from authority are ubiquitous in both science and everyday life. They are neither proper or improper in essence; they are just arguments to be evaluated in context

Now, in Judith Curry's post on the topic, the statement below occurs, and in fact has attracted most of the attention from the deniosphere:

"We shall argue that consensus among a reference group of experts thus concerned is relevant only if agreement is not sought. If a consensus arises unsought in the search for truth and the avoidance of error, such consensus provides grounds which, though they may be overridden, suffice for concluding that conformity is reasonable and dissent is not. If, however, consensus is aimed at by the members of the reference group and arrived at by intent, it becomes conspiratorial and irrelevant to our intellectual concern."

But it isn't from the Goodwin paper.  Rather, its from an abstract to a paper by Leher which neither Curry nor anyone else has bothered to read because its behind a pay-wall.  And because its a fragment, it is possible that the paper as a whole is not quite so silly, but on its own the statement is unmitigated bullshit.

Or, to put it another way: accept it and you would have to reject the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, among other good things within science. This last was an attempt, and a conscious one undertaken over a number of decades, to bind what was known about genetics and what was known about Natural Selection into a single coherent body of knowledge, which became and still is the current consensus (more or less) within evolutionary biology.  Forging the synthesis was a thoroughly willed act, which involved recurrent meetings among experts from across relevant fields to build and test the emerging synthesis, from the Tübingen conference in the late 1920s, which ended in failure, to the Princeton conference in the 1940s, where there was found to be almost no disagreement among conference participants. 

Nevertheless, according to Mr. Lehrer and by implication Ms. Curry, this "consensus building" activity would have amounted to a conspiracy.

16 comments:

Jerome Bastien said...

If you ask a paleontologist why he thinks birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs, he will most likely point to the shape of their breast bones and to how their legs connect to their upper body. He could also point to fossils of feathery dinosaurs which have been found in China and in Germany. In other words, he would point to the actual evidence.

Do the same of a climatologist and global warming, and the most likely answer will be the "consensus", right away, and if you're lucky, the climatologist will suggest that we can only replicate past warming with climate models which also predict future runaway warming.

There's a major difference between the two, namely the existence of actual evidence (computer models are not evidence).

Regardless, a consensus is not indicative of correctness, specially for a science in its infancy like climate science is. I dont think you need me to point you to examples of "consensus" science being spectacularly wrong, but if you want, I'd be happy to oblige.

bigcitylib said...

And if you ask paleontologists what of Feduccia and the other dissidents they will say that they're a small minority whose work was refuted long ago.

Do the same to a climatologist and they will point to all sorts of empirical results like the arctic melt, the creeping North of wildlife previously found Southwards, and so on. They may also point out that the vast majority of climatologists also interpret most of the same evidence the same way.

And, no, the foundations of climate science are well over a century old.

Can you not think of at least one new talking point?

bigcitylib said...

In any case, a consensus can be evidence of correctness. They are not necessarily easy to build.

ridenrain said...

Suzuki had the right idea: Put them in prison. That will shut them up.
Yes sir. Nothing like consensus like the threat of prison and censor.

Science is all about repeatability. Publish the data and the “proof” and let others see for themselves.

Mark Francis said...

The IPCC consensus is rebuilt every few years. New data is considered.

Computer models are evidence. Ridiculous to say differently.

However, we have much more than models. We watch how the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap increasing amounts of heat. We watch this basically 'live' these days using satellites and ground monitoring stations. We watch the sun carefully, as well as the earth's albedo, to see how those affect our retention of solar energy. We have numerous ways of tracking temperatures as well. These all fall into general agreement proving that global warming is real. Damn real.

I see that denialist Willie Soon has been caught with his pants down, loaded with big bucks from oil companies, despite his denials to the US Senate while under oath. I wonder how that affects the denialist "consensus." http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/28/climate-change-sceptic-willie-soon

Jerome Bastien said...

Do the same to a climatologist and they will point to all sorts of empirical results like the arctic melt, the creeping North of wildlife previously found Southwards, and so on.

No argument from me here, but these are evidence of a warming trend, the warming trend which started at the end of the LIA. What is needed is evidence that the warming trend is due to anthropogenic GHGs.


And, no, the foundations of climate science are well over a century old.


Yes, the foundations of climate science are old. Like chemistry, physics, and geology. Climate science is still pretty young.

Can you not think of at least one new talking point?

The old talking points are still standing up strong, there is no need to replace them.

Jerome Bastien said...

Computer models are evidence. Ridiculous to say differently.

They may be evidence of something, but they're not evidence of how Earth's climate works. For that, I recommend looking at Earth's climate, not at a computer simulation.

We watch how the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap increasing amounts of heat.

Are you talking about the amount of IR radiated back to earth as a function of temperature or the (missing) hotspot? BTW, the issue is not about the basic greenhouse effect, but about nature's response to it.

I have no problem with the proposition that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 will bring about a 1.2 C warming from greenhouse effect. But that's not what the IPCC and the alarmists propose. They propose that this 1.2 C is amplified by positive feedbacks. Positive feedbacks is where the theory falls apart.

bigcitylib said...

A wild spray of talking points, JB.

Holly Stick said...

"...Do the same of a climatologist and global warming, and the most likely answer will be the "consensus", right away, and if you're lucky, the climatologist will suggest that we can only replicate past warming with climate models which also predict future runaway warming..."

Jerome, you're a liar. Show us any evidence that any climate scientist would not instead refer to basic physics.

There is another consensus that has developed among people who are paying attention without anyone's intent: that deniers are a bunch of liars and fools. Disprove that; so far you have provided much evidence in support of this consensus.

dizzy said...

// evidence of how Earth's climate works. For that, I recommend looking at Earth's climate, not at a computer simulation. //

From a new paper by Hansen & Sato --
Tools for assessing the expected climate effects of alternative levels of human-made changes of atmospheric composition include (1) Earth's paleoclimate history, showing how climate responded to past changes of boundary conditions including atmospheric composition, (2) modern observations of climate change, especially global satellite observations, coincident with rapidly changing human-made and natural climate forcings, and (3) climate models and theory, which aid interpretation of observations on all time scales and are useful for projecting future climate under alternative climate forcing scenarios.
http://arxiv.org/abs/1105.0968v2

Nothing mentioned above that couldn't slotted into these 3 areas.

Jerome Bastien said...

Jerome, you're a liar. ...that deniers are a bunch of liars and fools

How very convincing. You've won me over. You must be an intellectual giant, in fact, I am humbled by your towering intellect.

Jerome Bastien said...

BCL, i just read your comment over at Judith Curry's. I think you may have missed the point.

You seem to suggest that what is being proposed is that if a consensus is manufactured, then the conclusions are necessarily false. That is not it. Obviously, a consensus could be manufactured for a true claim, just as well as it could be manufactured for a false claim.

So whatever happened with modern evolutionary synthesis, they may have manufactured their consensus and still have reached correct conclusions.

The point is that if a consensus is manufactured, this consensus should be taken with a humongous chunk of salt.

bigcitylib said...

No what I am suggesting is that a manufactured consensus is not conspiratorial. Scientists "build consensus" for all sorts of reason. In the case of the modern synthsis, it was in part because the two theories should have fit together, but in the 1920s did not. It was a lot of work over several decades to get them to. But, apparently, if any credit is to be assigned the consensus claim, this must all have happened by accident. Which is baloney.

Jerome Bastien said...

Ok. I agree with you on that, and I also agree with you that arguments from authority are ubiquitous in both science and everyday life. They are neither proper or improper in essence; they are just arguments to be evaluated in context.

Anyhow, Im about halfway through Goodwin's paper, and I cant say that so far it suggests that any consensus building is conspiratorial. Rather, my take is that by putting so much emphasis on consensus, the IPCC has opened itself up to valid criticism and has actually hampered their mission. The part on "boundary work" and on how the consensus claims affects the future work of scientists involved is particularly good in view.

ridenrain said...

More proof just in: Ottawa blues fest stage collapses because of.. Global warming.

Maria said...

do the same of a climatologist and global warming, and the most likely answer will be the "consensus", right away,

maria[suit]