Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Shonky scepticism

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  • Emma Hart,

    "Fuck off you crazy old dyke."

    And I got told off in ENGL 320 just for calling Deconstruction 'intellectual wanking'. I still bear a deep, primal loathing for Post-modernism, even though it once got me laid.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 4285 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    Russell:

    So I should treat The Great Global Warming Swindle with the same extreme scepticism as a certain Oscar-winning polemic on the same subject call An Inconvenient Truth? And at the same time, take a wee while to get my head around and reflect on a pretty complex and contentious area of hard science - rather than the political posturing and brain-death that passes for science reporting in most of the MSM?

    Good advice, Russ.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 11614 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    BTW, does Channel Four (the UK one) do anything but shock-docs? I'm looking forward to seeing The Prince of Wales Is A Retarded C**t Not Competent to Run A Gang-Bang In A Whorehouse, or whatever the thing is that's gotten Charles so agitated over the last week or so.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 11614 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    So I should treat The Great Global Warming Swindle with the same extreme scepticism as a certain Oscar-winning polemic on the same subject call An Inconvenient Truth?

    I honestly don't think its fair to compare the two. You can debate the claims of Gore's movie, but The Great Global Warming Scandal is already emerging as part of a body of work with an almost lunatic disregard for veracity. If An Inconvenient Truth had been made the way this thing was, Gore would have been crucifed.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17938 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    BTW, does Channel Four (the UK one) do anything but shock-docs? I'm looking forward to seeing The Prince of Wales Is A Retarded C**t Not Competent to Run A Gang-Bang In A Whorehouse, or whatever the thing is that's gotten Charles so agitated over the last week or so.

    Sadly, that seems to be the case. Dispatches is good, but Channel 4 seems to screen a lot of arse television these days.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17938 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    Russell:

    Ok, I'll cop to a wee bit of hyperbole - but while I think there's room for polemic and flat out nakedly biased advocacy in the documentary form, but it's equally important that the people who make it are honest with the viewer, and the viewer doesn't confuse a documentary with the tablets of the law fresh from the top of Mount Sinai.

    I admit there's a whole air of wide-eyed evangelism that creeps into any discussion about climate change - from all directions - I don't think should be getting too close to science, which is all about 'wiggly lines' that aren't easily reduced to soundbites and pretty pictures. I was being quite serious about one thing - I have no pretensions to be any expert in any science, and wish (with the perfection of 20/20 hindsight I'd done a lot more science and math when I had the chance.

    To be perfectly fair to Al Gore, he's fairly candid that An Inconvenient Truth is largely a work of political advocacy. I suspect, Martin Durkin is doing the same thing. I just don't find it particularly helpful in getting a handle on the complex, and debatable, science of climate change. And I think it actually matters if I'm going to the ballot box next year with green being the new black.

    A few months back, I was re-reading Robert Hughes' The Shock of the New, in which (twenty-five years after filming the original documentary series that occasioned the book) he wondered aloud whether television was really that good a medium for discussing art - the context that has to be carved away to make the script run to time, the shots that can never convey scale or detail, or allow you the time to just sit and contemplate a work, the blizzard of stimuli that forbids reflection. Doesn't that become so much harder with science? Is it even possible?

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 11614 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    I was being quite serious about one thing - I have no pretensions to be any expert in any science, and wish (with the perfection of 20/20 hindsight I'd done a lot more science and math when I had the chance.

    It would be kind of cool to have an adult education course offering a rough guide to key principles. With drinks afterwards, to enhance retention in memory. Or would that have to be during?

    To be perfectly fair to Al Gore, he's fairly candid that An Inconvenient Truth is largely a work of political advocacy. I suspect, Martin Durkin is doing the same thing. I just don't find it particularly helpful in getting a handle on the complex, and debatable, science of climate change. And I think it actually matters if I'm going to the ballot box next year with green being the new black.

    I'm still not going to acknowledge an equivalence bettwen the two. The basic claims of Gore's movie are supported by a hell of a lot of scientific opinion, even if you could argue on degree. The claims in Durkin's programme aren't well supported and he unacceptably manipulates people and data. If anything I'd say he was a Michael Moore without the humour, only actually a bit more looney.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17938 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    Russell:

    Well, I'm not drawing any equivalence without seeing both (I was one of those tiresome 'mature' students who took required reading at face value, rather than regarding it as a pomo signifier that shouldn't cut into your drinking time) - just making the point that fudge isn't really anything I need to be putting on my plate at the moment on this subject.

    So, could anyone recommend some reading on the subject that is as free of political, academic/institutional or ideological axe-grinding as humanly possible? Serious question, and serious answers would be much appreciated.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 11614 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    So, could anyone recommend some reading on the subject that is as free of political, academic/institutional or ideological axe-grinding as humanly possible? Serious question, and serious answers would be much appreciated.

    I confess, the fact that the Pew Charitable Trusts got in behind the issue had an impact on my thinking. There's no equivocation about their stance, but I've learned to trust Pew more than most think-tanks:

    http://pewclimate.org/

    A little ironic given the trusts' roots in oil money, but quite a significant bit of advocacy, IMO.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17938 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    This is more of Friday morning grumble than anything and so Craig please take no offence at this (yours was just the first comment I read this morning):

    I have no pretensions to be any expert in any science

    Then why are you offering an opinion on a scientific issue? I have no training in law and so never offer opinions on legal issues. I always yell at the TV when I hear somebody say "I'm no expert but..." If you're not an expert, don't say anything else.

    The GE issues is slightly different as there are culutral issues at play as well that need addressing.

    I should probably write more but I need to go and have breakfast, on which I am truly an expert.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

  • Richard Graydon,

    I am a New Zealander who has lived in Winnipeg since 1972. From 1995 until 2006 I was a member of the Board of the University of Winnipeg and served as Chair of the Board for 2003-04.
    Dr. Tim Ball was indeed a Professor of Geography at the U of W. I concur with the fact that at no time was he elected a Professor Emeritous. Since his retirement he has consistently denied the global warming phenomena and is considered to be a crank. Living on the Prairies I have seen the effects of global warming in our much milder winters, much reduced snow fall and dry summers. Dr. Tim Ball is really without honour in this community where he taught for so many years.
    By the way I will be in NZ on Mar 28/07 until Apr 16 to attend the 150th Anniversary of Karori School in Wellington that I attended and later taught at.
    Warmest regards,
    Richard Graydon

    Canada • Since Nov 2006 • 1 posts Report Reply

  • Neil Morrison,

    The president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change is Eileen Claussen who has a pretty impressive CV -

    http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/erc/biographies/claussen.html

    Since Nov 2006 • 932 posts Report Reply

  • Lyndon Hood,

    I'm increasingly of the opinion that there comes a point - fairly early on - where one has to trust the scientists about science, in much the same way you listen to experts about your car or your ailments. Or slightly more.

    The trouble for the layman is spotting the scientist and the science if somebody decides to start an argument.

    Scientific consensus, or at least the overall body of research, is actually part of the scientific method and I imagine often the people in the debate will agree on what that is, with one an admitted outsider or both saying there's room for debate. Unless they're deliberately muddying the water, which we might siggest applies in this case.

    I've seen it suggested that reporters should report the consensus as well as the tedious 'for' and 'against' opinions. In fact, where I heard it I heard that reporters though it was a good idea, then immediately went back to the tedious way in practise.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1091 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    The Ants Sin...
    Thesis
    Antithesis
    Synthesis

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • Tony Judd,

    Craig:

    I don't know how you feel about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) as far as being "free of political, academic/institutional or ideological axe-grinding as humanly possible", but it really is the best summary of the data you're likely to find at the moment.

    They have available on their website a series of technical reports, a synthesis report, and a summary report for Policymakers.

    Perth • Since Nov 2006 • 63 posts Report Reply

  • Tony Judd,

    Ok, weird coincidence of the day:

    This morning on the Scientific American editors blog a discussion of the global warming consensus.

    Perth • Since Nov 2006 • 63 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    For a scientific theory to be proven as far as possible, and published (in a reputable scientific publication), you are supposed to have reached the synthesis stage.
    There are very definite guidelines and it's not hard to follow.
    Politics is about being seen to win, so the evaluative criteria is thrown aside for populist cant. And the media is costs driven, that is why you see Campbell interview the author (a social commentator) of Why Blondes Are Stupid (John get a grip), and you don't see really good scientists interviewed meaningfully on...anything.
    Even writing this did my head in, the language has to be so precise, or the worms, can sysnthesis occurs.

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Ok a couple of comments

    Russell you wrote

    It would be kind of cool to have an adult education course offering a rough guide to key principles. With drinks afterwards, ...

    You don't need to. There is a much easier way. Any time you want to know stuff from relevant scientists you can ask them, there are a bunch who read your blog and there are Universities full of them. They mostly are happy to chat with folks about science over coffee or alternate beverages, in fact it's usually hard to get them to stop talking about science. Bring paper to scribble on and patience and there aren't many concepts that can't be explained in lay terms.

    We're not that scary and most of us would love to talk about our work with someone who was interested.

    Several people have mentioned
    "the debate"
    about climate change. As if scientists are forming debating teams and arguing about stuff. It doesn't work that way.
    What happens in science and at scientific meetings is that data is presented. Sometimes the methods used to collect the data are questioned regarding accuracy but in the main, data is data, there is nothing to debate.

    Then data is incorporated into a model or a hypothesesis. It is at this point that scientists challenge and question, often suggesting alternate hypotheses or models. But that isn't debating an issue it's about getting ideas on the table in order to suggest possible experiments or observations that might disprove one or other model. Then people go away and try and carry out experiments or make observations.

    Meanwhile ....
    Some models are quite scary in climate change, the scientists know these models aren't perfect but the implications are important for the public.
    SO
    the models are presented to the public and politicians and they say "IF this is correct then we have a problem".
    Then you get debate in the public and politics about what actions should be taken and because scientists are members of the public too they sometimes get involved in that debate. But that's a debate about possible actions/solutions/polotics. It is not a debate about data and it is not the same as the discussion about merits of hypotheses.

    Yes scientists frequently disagree about which is the best hypotheses to explain the data but the solution in science is NOT debate - it is experimentation/observation.

    Hayden commented about the "I'm no expert but" line. For me there is a worse line - it's the "as an MD my opinion on GE is...." (or eqivalent) that one makes me really angry because I know how little I know about modern surgical techniques so I know that my opinion about surgery is worthless (even though I have a PhD in plant mol bio) so what gives some MD the right to trade on his doctorate in an unrelated field....experts are expert in their own field and as ignorant as anyone outside that field, I know I am grrrrrr

    cheers
    Bart

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3108 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    ...and my spelling goes toilet-wise...synthesis.

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    Bart, you said it far better than I, thanks. Perhaps we must also clearly differentiate between subjective and objective. The media of course likes the subjective stuff, me, I like the objective stuff so I can become subjective about it later on.

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    If I want my friends eyes to glaze over I can talk about the latest cool stuff in plant molecular biology and I bet it's the same for climate scientists. So asking scientists to communicate better is an easy thing to ask but harder to achieve.

    cheers
    Bart

    This reminds me of what Richard Feynman said when a journalist asked him to describe, in five minutes or less, what he'd won the Nobel Prize for and Feynman replied "Buddy, if I could explain that in five minutes or less it wouldn't be worth the Nobel Prize."

    cheers
    dyan

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    I blame Mary Shelley...

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    Haydn:

    Fair question, and I take precisely no offence at it. One thing I must certainly am is a citizen and an elector in a representative democracy - and one which, by all indications, is going to see 'climate change' policy as a huge political issue in next year's general election.

    At the risk of sounding like a sanctimonious pill, I'd actually like to cast my vote on a marginally more informed basis than skimming what media spin is put on carious campaign soundbites, or who can more adroitly manipulate my emotions in some doco. It's certainly not the only public policy area I think has been spectacularly ill-served by low quality (and often spectacularly ill-informed or flat out misleading) political discourse and media analysis.

    A good place to start is to actually be sceptical about any 'arguments from authority' (which I was taught was a rather commonplace logical fallacy), but also to be quite clear about the limits of your own knowledge - and make use of the folks who actually know more than you do about any subject you can name.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 11614 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    I found a fantastic attack on evolution last night, from the archives of the Atlantic Monthly (they sometimes trawl their old issues for stuff like this and post it on the front page). If only all opponents of evolution or science had this kind of amusing eloquence

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/186703/evolution

    Here is an extract:

    We have been brought up, sir, in the delusive belief that "revolutions never go backwards." It is a lie, I tell you; for this new revolution in science does nothing else. It is going backwards and backwards and backwards, and it won't stop until it involves the whole of us in that nebulous mist of which, it seems, all things are but the "modified" development. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Let us not pause at that "long tail fitted for an aquatic life" which made our one ancient progenitor such an ornament of fluvial society, but boldly strike out into space, and clutch with our thoughts that primitive tail which flares behind the peacock of the heavens,—the comet.

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 861 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    Argument from authority is a shorthand. Authorities may be speaking outside their competence - eg the physicist who comes out in favour of "intelligent design". Or they may not even be authorities at all. But in practice, we have to rely on authority when the only alternative is to become authorities ourselves.

    So the real problem is that often, the only people who can reliably tell us whether someone is an authority are... other authorities.

    This is one area where the media frequently let us down. I think they ought to put some effort into qualifying the standing of the people they present as experts, but not only do they often not care, sometimes they actively promote bogus authority. Like "Dr" Gillian McKeith.

    And this is a real problem for actual authorities. Because they have work to do, damnit. If Tony or Bart put in all the effort required to correct misconceptions in the media they'd never get any research done. Not to mention that without suitable framing from a presenter, you wouldn't know that they were authoritative! (Although it might help if they wore lab coats on camera).

    A long time ago I worked at the late Meat Industry Reseach Institute of New Zealand. And that taught me that scientists and engineers LOVE talking about what they're up to, and very often will patiently break it down for you, if only you'll ask them to. But they like doing it even more than they like talking about it.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2906 posts Report Reply

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