Wise words from a scientist
Whenever there's something interesting happening, Slashdot is on the piece.
A recent article stated: In the wake of the CRU "climategate" leak, reader Geoffrey.landis sends along a New York Times blog profile of Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech. "Curry — unlike many climate scientists — does not simply dismiss the arguments of 'climate skeptics,' but attempts to engage them in dialogue. She can, as well, be rather pointed in criticizing her colleagues, as in a post on the skeptic site climateaudit where she argues for greater transparency for climate data and calculations (mirrored here). In this post she makes a point that tribalism in science is the main culprit here —- that when scientists 'circle the wagons' to defend against what they perceive to be unfair (and unscientific) attacks, the result can be damaging to the actual science being defended. Is it still possible to conduct a dialogue, or is there no possible common ground?"
The discussion generated, as of December 1, 2009, 795 comments. Normally this would imply two things:
- People just repeat the same things over and over, with the typical comment being one or two-lines long (à la digg)
- Most of them are SPAM (à la... well, most of the communities out there.)
Luckily, Slashdot is unlike any other community. To prevent abusive comments, a highly sophisticated comment moderation system has been implemented whereby every comment posted (including those posted anonymously) has a starting score which can be incremented or decremented by semi-randomly chosen moderators. When moderating, the moderator chooses a given descriptor (such as "insightful", "funny", "troll") and each descriptor has a positive or negative value associated with it. As such, posts not only are scored, but characterized ("20% insightful, 80% interesting"). The book "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" (Esquire Magazine – Best book of the year) by Steven Berlin Johnson cites Slashdot's comment moderation system as an example of emergence and describes its operation in detail.
As a result of this, almost no useless comments are ever posted, and it's fairly easy to navigate though the most relevant ones. One of the most enlightening I found so far in the entire web is the following answer to the question posed in the article (Is it still possible to conduct a dialogue, or is there no possible common ground?):
Being a scientist but not of the climate variety, I've got to say 'No'.
In a lot of cases, if not most, dialogue on the merits of your scientific work is simply impossible with a layperson.
I work with this 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. You're just not going to find a professor of physics having made a mistake of forgetting the first law of thermodynamics.
Now I'm happy to defend my science against legitimate, good, criticism. But a scientific debate is *NOT* where anybody should be TEACHING anybody science. What kind of 'debate' is it if every answer amounts to "That's not what that word means, read a damn textbook." It's not the scientists who are being arrogant then. Hell, since when didn't scientists bend over backwards to educate the public? We write textbooks, and popular-scientific accounts. Research gets published in journals for everyone to see, etc. It's not like we're keeping it a big secret - The problem is that some people are simply unwilling to learn, yet arrogant enough to believe they should be entitled to 'debate' with me, and that I should be personally burdened with educating them in the name of 'open debate'!
(Just to pick one out of the climate bag. How often haven't you seen someone say "Yeah but climate change is cyclical!" - What? As if _climate scientists_ didn't know that?! Refuting someone's research with arguments from an introductory textbook)
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: Decide there's a big conspiracy of fraud behind climate change, and go look for evidence to support your theory, and ignore all other explanations.
There is only one more thing I can add: qui habet aures audiendi, audiat.
p.s. This article was crossposted on the TH!NK ABOUT IT - Climate Change blogging competition.