JC’s (un)motivated reasoning2018-01-08T21:05:29+00:00

Thought Piece

So much for trying to disclose her scientific principles to those people unfamiliar with her work over the last decade. Within 24 hours of publishing, Judith Curry has received almost 140 comments, ranging from benign to bilious.

I can’t help remembering a quote from the king of bilious, Paul Krugman last year. In NY Times piece “Betraying the Planet,” Krugman noted that “as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason—treason against the planet.” What about the crimes against humanity being perpetrated on the poorer parts of the planet?

While the somewhat ugly debate about climate change will rage on, why have the environmental crusaders ignored the environmental importance of clean water, good sanitation, domicile ventilation, reliable electricity, and modern health care to local populations in poorer countries.

JC’s (un)motivated reasoning

by Judith Curry

“I think open explorations of the ideological assumptions scientists bring into policy debates are not only welcome but often necessary for having productive conversations.” – Aaron Huertas

Over the Xmas holiday, I got involved in a wide ranging discussion on twitter, following  my previous blog post and a response by Sarah Myhre.

You can check out my twitter feed (@curryja) (under ‘replies’), but this is a rather mindnumbing thread of thousands of tweets and replies.

At issue is my politics, my ideology, my advocacy, my activism, my civility.

So here goes.

My politics

Politically, I’m an independent. In Presidential elections since 1972, I have voted for Democrats, Republicans and occasionally third party candidates. Unfortunately, I typically find myself voting against the most ‘objectionable’ candidate. One exception was Obama #1; I was a strong supporter and am on public record as having made campaign contributions (I was much less enthusiastic about Obama #2).

I’m a liberal in the classical sense; I would probably not be categorized as a ‘liberal’ in context of the modern connotation of the word in U.S. politics.

On the Democrat (liberal) –Republican (conservative) spectrum, I am a social liberal but fiscal conservative.

On the populist-libertarian spectrum, I lean towards libertarian.

No ideologues

I don’t subscribe to any political ideology or anything with an ‘-ism’; not feminism, not environmentalism, not Marxism, not nationalism, not neoliberalism, not social Darwinism, etc.

Every human has ways that they filter information based on some general principles – one can call this an ‘ideology’, but it is mostly a function of the society/culture that you live in, what you have read, etc. Individuals are more or less influenced by the ambiguities of a general ‘ideology’.

The problem for science is with ideologues (not with someone’s vague background ‘ideology’). I discussed the problem with science ideologues in one of my earliest blog posts No ideologues, quoting Nick Darby:

I have for many years been a student of the corrosive effects of ideology on science. This was prompted originally by works of Jacob Bronowski, Primo Levi, Charles Mackay, and an abiding interest in the history of I G Farben. As a guide, primarily for myself, I developed a set of characteristics of ideologues, to better recognize and interpret their behavior. (These are based in part on some ideas of John Ralston Saul in his “Unconscious Civilization”). 

There are five attributes of ideologues:
1. Absence of doubt
2. Intolerance of debate
3. Appeal to authority
4. A desire to convince others of the ideological “truth”
5. A willingness to punish those that don’t concur

In the climate communication world, it has become very trendy to wear your political ideology on your sleeve. How many ‘climate science communicators’ can you name that have at least 4 of the above attributes of ideologues with regards to climate change?

Values

When asked about my values on twitter, here was my response:

Health and prosperity for all; abundant, secure and clean energy for all; healthy ecosystems and . . . world peace.

With regards to energy (since so much of the climate debate is actually about energy), here are my values:

Reliable, secure and abundant energy; affordable. All other things being equal, I prefer clean over dirty energy.

Personally I don’t worry about the cost of energy, but I understand this is a huge issue for people less affluent than I.

I have no objections to any power source – wind, solar, hydro, nuclear power, natural gas — provided that consideration is given to their safety for humans and ecosystems.   I don’t see any way to make coal ‘clean.’

I value the process of science and its integrity, and intellectual honesty. With regards to intellectual honesty, see this previous blog post, discussing 10 signs of intellectual honesty:

  1. Do not overstate the power of your argument. 
  2. Show a willingness to publicly acknowledge that reasonable alternative viewpoints exist. .
  3. Be willing to publicly acknowledge and question one’s own assumptions and biases. 
  4. Be willing to publicly acknowledge where your argument is weak.
  5. Be willing to publicly acknowledge when you are wrong.
  6. Demonstrate consistency
  7. Address the argument instead of attacking the person making the argument.
  8. When addressing an argument, do not misrepresent it. 
  9. Show a commitment to critical thinking. 
  10. Be willing to publicly acknowledge when a point or criticism is good. 

These are things that I think about in how I communicate with the public about climate change.

I value being exposed to a range of perspectives – this broadens and sharpens my own thinking.

Mainstream Media

I don’t watch cable or network TV. The only exception is for election returns; we watch CNN because we like John King’s analysis using the ‘magic wall’

I don’t read any newspapers. I do subscribe to both the New York Times and the Washington Post, since I repeatedly exceeded my monthly limit of climate- and science-related articles that I clicked on mostly from twitter links.

I am assumed by some to be an acolyte of Fox News, since I have been interviewed twice by Tucker Carlson. When I lived in Atlanta, I was very frequently interviewed by CNN. I really detest being interviewed live for TV. After not doing that for a number of years, I accepted the Tucker Carlson invites since he generally seems to be a fair interviewer and the time slot was long enough that it wouldn’t be a sound bite interview (which I am not good at).

I receive frequent requests from journalists for input. I respond to most if I have sufficient time.

I have been invited to write several op-eds, mostly based on something I’ve written at Climate Etc., and I have several op-eds published in Wall Street Journal, Financial Post, FoxNews. I have declined numerous invites to write op-eds, largely because I was short of time or didn’t have anything worthwhile to say on the specified topic.

Sources of political information 

I get my information on current events in politics from realclearpolitics.com, and from twitter.

I find RealClearPolitics to be nonpartisan, providing links to articles from a range of different perspectives

You can see who I follow on twitter (@curryja). ~ 75% of the people that I follow are people that followed me first. The others range from my niece to former presidential candidates.

Engagement with the policy process

I engage with the policy process relating to extreme weather events and global climate change.

I engage directly with businesses by providing weather and climate information that helps them manage their risks.

With regards to global climate change, I engage with the public through my blog and through media interviews. I have engaged with public policy makers through my congressional testimony and through responding to their requests for information.

I analyze some specific policies, but mostly I write about the policy process in context of the decision analytic framework, with a central role for how uncertainty is managed and incorporated into the decision making process.

I have been characterized by a subset of the climate twitterati as an advocate and an activist. Engagement with the policy process does not necessary imply that the individual is an advocate or an activist.

The only things that I have advocated for are issues related to the integrity of the process of scientific research and its assessment. I have not advocated for specific policy outcomes related to climate change.

I often discuss extreme weather events and the need to reduce vulnerability — independent of any human caused climate change; these are issues for the here and now. This is regarded by some as advocacy for climate change adaptation and opposition to mitigation.

I do not advocate for policy outcomes related to climate change. Why not? Because I regard this problem as a wicked mess and I don’t have any specific policies to recommend in context of my expertise as a climate scientist. I suspect that any problems associated with climate change (human caused or otherwise) will be best addressed at the local level, in context of local vulnerabilities and values.

I am not an ‘activist’ — I am not vigorously campaigning for anything. My involvement in the policy process is rather passive — I write on the blog about things that interest me or I find important, and I respond to invites for interviews, op-eds, congressional testimony.  I have never signed any sort of petition or group statement about climate change.

My lack of activism and advocacy for mitigation is regarded by some as advocacy against mitigation. I find this to be rather bizarre and irrational. It seems my lack of activism is getting in the way of their activism.

Communication

What is my agenda in communicating with the public about climate change? I wrote the following paragraph in 2010 when I launched Climate Etc.:

Climate Etc. provides a forum for climate researchers, academics and technical experts from other fields, citizen scientists, and the interested public to engage in a discussion on topics related to climate science and the science-policy interface.

I’m all about opening up the dialogue on climate science and the policy options. I think that the discussion on both has been too narrow, to the detriment of both science and policy.

The issue has arisen regarding my personal civility and civility on the blog. I NEVER initiate attacks on anyone, but I do call other scientists out who refer to myself or other scientists as ‘deniers.’

Turns out the ‘incivility’ accusation is mostly associated with words used in comments on my blog – ‘libtard’ and ‘Nazis’ were specifically called out. I moderate primarily to avoid personal attacks on commenters or other climate scientists. I don’t moderate out ‘politically incorrect’ words provided that the overall comment has some content and is relevant to the topic of the post.

My company 

My company Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN) provides weather and climate forecast information and also consulting. Most of our clients are other businesses, but we do have several government and NGO clients. Our business clients are mostly in the energy and financial sectors, and also other companies that provide weather and risk management services.

In the energy sector, we have one client that uses our forecasts for offshore activities. Others in this sector are energy trading companies or electric power providers. The forecast parameters that are used by these clients are temperatures, wind power, solar radiation, streamflow/hydropower, and hurricane tracks and intensity.

Eli Rabett has been busy insinuating that my involvement with petroleum companies biases my climate science research and my public communications. Well the income from petroleum companies is less than 10% of our total income. And the overall income from my company (for past 10 years) is smaller than the total salaries that Peter Webster and I have received from Georgia Tech over the same period plus the amounts of our federal grants. So if I am somehow being ‘bought’, its tough to weigh the income from business with funds we have received and continue to receive from governments.

Not to mention the diversity of CFAN’s non-governmental clients. While I don’t publicly name our private sector clients as a matter of principle, it is a matter of public record that CFAN’s clients include the World Bank and have included the NRDC.

The significance of my company’s activities on my perspective in the public debate on climate change is that I am actively involved in risk management activities – real problems, real decision makers – with organizations actually paying us for our support in dealing with their risk management problems. Characterization of uncertainties and assessment of forecast confidence is paramount.

So unlike many climate scientists that have become communicators/advocates/activists, I have real experience in risk management and decision making.

Conclusions

So at the end of the day does this little essay make any difference or enlighten anyone? I suspect that the activists will continue to try to tear me down because I am getting in the way of what they are advocating for.

Maybe this will help at least some people see me for what I am – a research scientist that thinks about the philosophy and sociology of science, who is trying to open up the dialogue on climate science and the policy responses, and is working to help organizations manage risks from extreme weather.