Thursday, May 16, 2013

The intolerant moderates






Skeptical Science won the internet last week with a superb original paper by Cook, Nuccitelli et al that evaluated over 12,000 sources and found 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening.



Amazingly some people managed to miss the point:
Their names are practically a role call of the "intolerent moderates" -- journalists who have chosen to define themselves as independent-minded thinkers ready to castigate both sides. The intolerant moderates accept that climate change is happening and action is necessary, but struggle to occupy a middle ground condemning the excesses of both sides. Since the excesses in the climate debate are not at all equally distributed between science deniers and the concerned, this positioning often leads to tepid critiques of climate deniers coupled with energetic castigation of the other side for minor, or, as in this case, nonexistent sins.

Dave Appell just doesn't see the point of the study:
I'm not very keen on these kinds of numbers -- they are made for lazy journalists who don't want to examine the complexity of the science, reporters who just want a number that quickly and easily supports their position.
Or maybe reporters who want to convey to their readers a simple, rock-solid case that a majority of climate scientists believe climate change is real and is caused by humans something only 30% of Americans know to be true (Really).

Kloor is spouting the same sort of nonsense:
The latest example is this survey by John Cook et al that is getting a lot of undeserved attention in the mainstream media. I say that because, questionable methodology aside, the survey tells us nothing new and is, as science journalist David Appell noted, “a meaningless exercise.”
I enjoy their quoting one another for added support: but they are both completely, utterly, ludicrously wrong.

It's hard to say which is the more fundamental fail here: that Kloor doesn't understand that replicating results is critical to science, or that he thinks that he has somehow become a scientist, whose responsibility it is to follow and critique the bleeding edge of climate science, rather than his actual role as a science journalist helping the public grasp the critical core of the field, a job that evidently has to be done by scientists, who have pulled off a massive coup of science communication, only to be sneered at by the people who are paid to perform that function themselves.

I really expected better of Revkin than to jump on this bandwagon. This is why the survey is not a "meaningless exercise":

Source
Half of the public in this survey -- HALF -- said that if 90% of climate scientists agreed that global warming is happening, it would increase their concern. This mind-boggling result is possible, again, because SEVENTY PERCENT OF THE PUBLIC DIDN'T KNOW MOST CLIMATE SCIENTISTS THINK GLOBAL WARMING IS HAPPENING.

That three SCIENCE JOURNALISTS do not know this about their audience is scandalous. It borders on professional incompetence. These people are lecturing scientists about science communication?

UPDATE: In the comments, MikeH perceptively notes that the intolerant moderate is a subspecies of the VSP:

They are the Very Serious People (popularised by Paul Krugman in his NYT column)
(http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Very_Serious_People)

"Valuing common sense over scientific consensus when there is a conflict. When pushed far enough VSP will eventually err on the side of science but will hold a candle for pseudoscience as long as it has a veneer of respectability.
Loves the hell out of the balance fallacy. They feel uncomfortable pointing out flaws concentrated in the right-wing or left-wing without pointing to an opposite example. "Both sides do it!"

Climate scientist 2+2=4
Denier 2+2=5
VSP 2+2=4.5




22 comments:

  1. Since you're complaining about journalists not being scientists, how do you feel about the fact that John Cook of Sks and author of the paper also isn't a scientist?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am not complaining about journalists not being scientists. I am complaining about journalists not being very good journalists, in that they have failed to grasp some very basic and important facts about their audience.

    And if the lead author on a scientific paper is not a scientist by your definition, I think we have different definitions of "scientist."

    ReplyDelete
  3. pinroot, for the record, I'm a research fellow at the University of Queensland and over the last year have published several peer-reviewed papers on climate change and psychology, published a university textbook on climate science (via Springer) and am completing a PhD in cognitive psychology.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ahm, SNAP.

      pinroot, you may want to stay down.

      Delete
    2. John, did I read somewhere that you had a physics degree? That would seem to be the kind of qualification that would make it okay to regard oneself as a scientist.

      Delete
    3. LOL, just after I posted my comment, I realised I forgot to mention the physics degree :-)

      Delete
    4. Solar physics eh? That's as good as climatology :-)

      Delete
  4. Brilliant post, you really nailed it!

    At the same time you quite rightly also nailed their sorry arses to the wall. Bravo.

    ReplyDelete
  5. They are the Very Serious People (popularised by Paul Krugman in his NYT column)
    (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Very_Serious_People)

    "Valuing common sense over scientific consensus when there is a conflict. When pushed far enough VSP will eventually err on the side of science but will hold a candle for pseudoscience as long as it has a veneer of respectability.
    Loves the hell out of the balance fallacy. They feel uncomfortable pointing out flaws concentrated in the right-wing or left-wing without pointing to an opposite example. "Both sides do it!"

    Climate scientist 2+2=4
    Denier 2+2=5
    VSP 2+2=4.5

    MikeH

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nicely put, Mike, but with apologies to Tom Lehrer let me amend that last bit to reflect the New Math as actually practiced by Kloor and Revkin:

      "VSP: 2+2=4.5, well, actually 4, but as you know the important thing is to understand what you're doing rather than to get the right answer."

      Delete
  6. Thanks for this. It is no surprise that the denialists are fuming about the Cook et al study, struggling to find a narrative that reconciles the fact that the result is nothing new, even to them, but they hate the paper anyway, but they just haven't yet figured out why.

    I am disappointed in Kloor and Revkin, though. A cynic might say that a middleman is put in an impossible position when he feels obliged to comment and yet one side of the debate is not yet defined. But as you so rightly say, even though they bill themselves as communicators, they clearly have not understood the communication problem.

    The basic scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is strong. Kloor and Revkin know this, but a big slice of the public does not. In part, this is because the public has been deliberately misinformed. Climate communicators should be welcoming new evidence of consensus and helping to correct this misunderstanding. Of course, doing this will not be sufficient, but it is surely a necessary first step to finding a way to effective climate policy that has broad public support.

    ReplyDelete
  7. What I found interesting was the angle by the mainstream media that picked it up and wrote about it. I'm not talking about those that just published the press release as is, but the ones who wrote their own articles. Also the headlines.

    I think some sharp cookies got the angle right - and aimed squarely where John Cook has aimed. The media is reminded that false balance won't stack up against the science.

    I don't expect a complete backflip from 'false balance syndrome. Plenty will find room to manoeuver at the detail level (sea level rise, hurricanes etc) but it should help make the complete deniers take stock.

    As for Revkin et al - they won't change (could be ideological). They'll find themselves increasingly marginalised over time.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think you got to the nub of it here:

    ..."a job that evidently has to be done by scientists, who have pulled off a massive coup of science communication, only to be sneered at by the people who are paid to perform that function themselves."

    Quiet Waters

    ReplyDelete
  9. Revkin and Kloor are card-carrying "Inactivists", well known for proclaiming global warming a problem and then mercilessly attacking anyone who might, you know, DO something to stop it. That Appell is in their (sorry, clueless) company is surprising - you absolutely nailed the issue: a large percentage of the public say that if a lot of scientists agree that global climate change is real, then they'd be more worried (and presumably support action) - and Cook et al. have provided confirmation that a lot of scientists DO indeed agree. QED (this ain't rocket science.) LCarey

    ReplyDelete
  10. Oi Tracker you really are the idiot

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Limited as I may be in many ways, I'm philosophical about it.

      Silver lining: at least I'm not insane enough to believe in a "secret" plan in which the world's governments "commit mass suicide."

      Delete
  11. Very good point being made here. Journalists should take note!

    ReplyDelete
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