Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Spenser and Braswell; Hangover edition

So what did it all mean?

1. Why did this blow up all over the blogosphere?

Up until now, Spencer & Braswell's "On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedback" had followed the usual pattern of "skeptic" works -- the right celebrated it as the Second Coming, and climate scientists pointed out that it sucked.

What broke the PR stalemate was that the guy that let the thing through admitted publicly that it was garbage, and that it shouldn't have been published, and because it was his responsibility, he was quitting his post.

2. We're hearing all about Spencer and his "serial mistakes." Who is this William D. Braswell guy, and why is he getting off so easy?

I thought this was a throwaway question, but it is threatening to consume the rest of my pre-work breakfast blogging time. He's a frequent collaborator with Spencer and works at the Earth System Science Center with Spencer and Christy. He's written a lot of papers with Spencer and a couple with Christy. But he doesn't appear on wikipedia's list of scientific global warming "skeptics," I don't find him writing in the blogosphere. He doesn't have a Wikipedia page or a Sourcewatch page.

I guess he likes to do his science and not be labelled. Which is fine with me, and evidently fine with everyone else. No one seems to have hunted him down and persecuted him for writing "skeptic" papers.

3. Why did the letter by Trenberth et al stir the pot so furiously?

The answer isn't a rational one, as I address here. But maybe it's not that hard to understand. We all have times when behavior that seemed fine to us when we were directing it at other people drives us nuts when we are on the receiving end. A simple example: do you walk anywhere there's significant traffic? Do you also drive? And do you find how you feel about pedestrians in the road or cars barreling down the street changes depending on which role you're in?

Trenberth et al said a couple things in their blog post. They pointed to a history of serial mistakes. They pointed out that these mistakes all point in one direction. They let people make the inference that bias -- wanting an outcome that minimized the importance of global warming -- played a role in those serial mistakes. In terms of their claims, they stuck to the facts. Still, what they did was shocking to deniers. They called a scientist out. On a blog. They accused him of stupid mistakes, they all but accused him of bias.

Spencer's climate work got "audited," to borrow a phrase. Suddenly, the unfairness of that sort of critique impressed itself on certain quarters. Who were they to attack peer-reviewed science, the product of great toil and care, with a quickie blog post? Who were they to question not just a particular conclusion, but a scientist's general competence? How dare they suggest that bias played a role! And so on.

Obviously this is hypocritical. Do they have a point? If it were only a scientific debate, maybe. Then we would have the option of leaving the scientists alone to sort out their differences without the distraction of a debate in the lay press. But Spencer has done more than most to drag this subject into a partisan flame war. The option of not having this debate no longer exists, and that being the case, it's totally unrealistic to attack others' credibility, competence, and motives (a natural rhetorical strategy that's as old as the hills) and not expect your own glass house to see a few incoming.

4. What does it all mean? In the grand scheme of things?

Dr Braswell threw me off my schedule. Final summation after work.

UPDATE: As far as the quest to sway public opinion, this tempest isn't even going to rattle a teacup. Not enough people pay attention to things like the resignation of the editor of Remote Sensing for it to make waves. But there are some things we should take from this:

1. Coming up with anything remotely science-ish that undermines the case for aggressive mitigation of CO2, let alone the case for AGW itself, is fiendishly hard. Roy Spenser is among a tiny fraction of global warming "skeptics" who are actual climate scientists. The best he could come up with to challenge "the Team" was an argument so egregiously bad that it could only limp past peer review at an off-brand greenhorn journal. It then self-destructed so violently that the editor that midwifed this misbegotten mishap resigned in shame.

If they could do better, they would. The data just isn't there. There is no denier Santa Claus waiting in the wings with a paradigm-busting exposé.

2. There are a lot of crybabies out there, who have spent years spewing every kind of insult about world-class scientists, but are deeply wounded that the scientists might draw attention -- coolly, factually, almost gently -- to the clay feet of their own idols.

3. Scientists are getting better at communicating with the public. Part of what they are going to communicate to the public is who can be trusted and who, based on their demonstrable mistakes and evidence of bias, can't.

Nice simple explanations of complex science are all very well, but what we really need in this debate is an ability of climate scientists to express to the public that they really do know what they are talking about, and they know, better than the lay public, which scientists and psuedoscientists and scientist wannabes are writing checks with their mouths that their brains and their data can't cash.

Don't you think the scientists know better than anyone who's faking it? We should be glad that some of them are ready to communicate that very important aspect of their professional expertise. Bravo Trenberth. The era of the unilateral ceasefire with the bomb-throwers is over.

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