Thursday, November 26, 2009

Storytellers, Advocates, and Scientists

There are basically three ways to present facts to the public.

The Storyteller is only interested in facts insofar as they make a good story. He doesn't need to be right, he just needs to be plausible, and even that only long enough to finish the story. We, the public, will happily suspend disbelief of things we know to be untrue for the sake of entertainment. Indeed, some of our highest-paid citizens are actors who facilitate such storytelling. We don't castigate storytellers for "lying". Rather, it's proverbial that facts should never get in the way of a good story.

The Advocate is only interested in facts insofar as they provide evidence. To prove his point, the advocate needs evidence to support his argument, and he needs to suppress or discredit evidence to the contrary. In this the advocate is being neither dishonest nor mendacious, he is simply doing his job. Paired off against another advocate, it is the jury's job (or the public's) to decide whose case stands up to reality better.

The Scientist's job is to explain the facts -- all of them. Not just the ones that fit a pet theory, but the outliers, too. To analyze the totality of the data available, and glean from them the underlying principle at work -- this is the scientist's proper task. The honest scientist follows where the data lead, come what may.

The thing that gets us into trouble is when individuals begin confusing the roles.

I am, of course, talking about the recently-leaked e-mail exchanges between the leading scientists that supported the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

Color me unimpressed. Maybe that's because I've always thought the hockey-stick graph was nonsense. That particular hobby-horse has always reeked of scientists straying into advocacy. The fact is, there has always been a considerable amount of variability in Earth's climate. Within the written historical record, it has been warm enough that the southern tip of Greenland made good economic sense as a way-station between northern Europe and Vinland. Within the written historical record, it has also been cold enough that the Hudson River froze sufficiently solid to drag artillery across during the Revolution. And when you get right down to it, we just don't know what caused either the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age. Indeed, as of the early 1970s, the climate buzzword was "Next Ice Age", because if you look at the longest-term climate trends, we're due one any day now. (Well, maybe any century now.) If anything, we may well be in a slight cooling period. The current Solar cycle, Solar Cycle 24, has been abnormally quiet. The last time this happened, the Little Ice Age may have been the result.

The honest answer is, we just don't know.

In my opinion, global warming is bad science, and has always been. As a theory of climate change, it cannot explain either the Medieval Warm Period, nor the Little Ice Age, and if you bring up either of those two at a climate conference you will face vicious personal attacks.

This doesn't mean the climate change itself is bad science. And this is what I find most frustrating about the whole affair.

The CO2 concentration data is clear and incontrovertible: the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are at simply absurd values based on the deep-drill ice core data. We don't know for sure what that's going to do to us. We probably shouldn't wait too long to find out. But we do need to quantify what it's really doing.

But as clinching as the CO2 data was, it wasn't sexy enough. It didn't stoke enough fear. So, it's entirely possible that a group of scientists yielded to the temptation to become advocates, and cooked the data a little so that they could be sure to "find" the right answer. And now that the shenanigans are coming out in the open, their eagerness jeopardizes everything they've worked for.

In a sense, this revelation changes nothing. We're running an open-ended experiment on elevated CO2 concentrations, and that is probably unwise. Even discounting global warming (which, generally, I do), there are plenty of good reasons to reduce CO2 emissions. The brown haze that hangs over most of our cities is one. Impoverishing Islamic extremists is another. Making Hugo Chavez shut up and deal with his own country is yet another. Reducing our need for oil tankers is another still. We need to transcend fossil fuels, and transition our economy to other energy sources. As I've said before, this won't be easy. But it won't get any easier if we wait.

In another sense, this revelation makes the transition that much harder to begin. It hands ammunition to the people who think we don't need to change anything at all. This is the price paid when a scientist dabbles into advocacy. The most powerful thing about the scientific method is the way that the truth always points to itself. You may try to diddle with the data, and you may succeed for a while. But it always comes out. And when it does, you run the risk that the revelation will set a match to everything you've built.

I think it would have been far better if they'd played it straight, and built their case on the CO2 data alone. We might be no closer to an answer, but we'd be no farther away either. And the science itself would have been trustworthy, through and through.

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