So, that’s how you increase readership!

So, it’s seem that the way to increase my readership – for a short while at least – is to write a provocative post about dealing with climate-change deniers. It’s also received more comments than any other post I’ve ever written. I should clarify, that I really was referring to those who adamantly deny that man is influencing the Earth’s climate, rather than those who are genuinely skeptical.

When I write my posts I do consider whether or not they will generate any interest but, typically, they aren’t read by many and so I don’t really worry about that and just write for my own benefit. I wasn’t really expecting any comments, but if I had considered what type of comments I might have got, I would probably have expected them to be reasonably vitriolic. I was, however, quite impressed by many of the comments. There were some that were reasonably unpleasant (or at least that I interpreted as unpleasant) but I had some really healthy exchanges with some. I haven’t changed my views particularly, but I did learn quite a lot and feel more informed.

Having given this all some more thought, I did wonder if one of the issues is that most are not reading the actual literature. What we’re exposed to are news articles, articles in science magazines, opinion pieces, and other general media outputs. The literature itself is probably less definite. Scientific papers will discuss trends, likelihoods, errors, probabilities, rather than making absolute statements. However, when this information is presented to the public it will be done so in a less scientific manner. It may seem more definite than the scientific papers actually are. They should be reasonably consistent, but won’t be identical (otherwise we’d all just read peer-reviewed journal papers) and we should be careful about generically attacking climate scientists over material written by a journalist.

I also came across a comment on another article that may also indicate an issue related to how some interpret the scientific method. I’ll paraphrase as I don’t want to plagiarise what someone else has said, but it was essentially

As far as climate models are concerned, it’s up to scientists to prove their hypothesis, rather than for us to disprove it.

I think this completely mis-represents the scientific method. In an area like climate science there will be models and observations. The model data and measurements will have to be analysed (which is not as simple as it may seem) and the results will have to be interpreted. These will be subjected to peer-review (which is not perfect, but probably the best we have) and, if approved, will be published in scientific journals. If the results indicate, as they are, that human action is influencing our climate, this should presented to the public and to policy makers. We, however, get to decide the importance of this evidence.

We are not obliged to act just because scientists present their results to us, but our decisions should be informed by this information. The scientists are also not obliged to prove their hypothesis. In fact, I would argue that in the case of climate science, it’s not a hypothesis. It is what the science is indicating. We (our policy makers) get to decide if we should expand funding in this area so as to understand this in more detail, or not. The scientists are not trying to get particular results, or at least there is no evidence to suggest that they are. They are simply “doing science”. They’re developing models, making and analysing measurements and interpreting and presenting their results.

It’s not us against them, it’s just us and we get to choose whether or not to act on the evidence presented by the scientists who are funded (primarily) by us. We don’t have to act, but our decision should be based on an informed analysis of what it is presented to us by our climate scientists. It shouldn’t be based on the opinions of those who shout the loudest and appear not to understand the basics of the scientific method.

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29 thoughts on “So, that’s how you increase readership!

  1. Most people do not read scientific papers, and even if they did most would probably do not understand those (mostly due to a lack of proper scientific education). Therefore it is easy for some interest groups to picture (climate) science as part of a (government) conspiracy, which is subsequently willingly accepted by conspiracy theorists. Most people are incapable or unwilling to distinguish between genuine scepticism and propaganda (I do not know a better word instantly). For example an obscure belgian anarcho-capitalist and crank, believes we live in an age of “Big Politized Science”, as far as I can determine only because most scientific data are opposed to his political ideology.

    • Yes, I tend to agree but was trying to not be too critical of the abilities of those who deny AGW 🙂

      Something I often point out to people is that, as an active scientist, I regularly sit through seminars and presentations. Every now and again I will think the presenter has missed something obvious in their work. However, when I question them I typically find that they have not missed this obvious thing and that the problem is just much more complicated than my simple analysis suggests.

      I think a lot of this type of thing is going on with anti-AGW. People find what they think is an obvious problem that invalidates the work of climate scientists. They then aren’t willing to accept that the problem is just much more complicated than their simple analysis suggests, and that it is extremely unlikely that an educated lay-person has noticed something obvious that thousands of active climate scientists have been ignoring. It is possible, but extremely unlikely.

      • Ah, good to know that you’re an active scientist—that immediately gives us a large shared vocabulary to draw on.

        Did you read the Climategate emails? (Basic skepticism would seem to demand reading them before adopting a climate change stance.)

        As an active scientist, what was your feeling on the culture and scientific practices of the inner circle of alarmist paleoclimate science, as revealed in the emails?

      • Although I am in general a skeptic, I’m really not particularly skeptical of the current climate science consensus.

        I also haven’t read the climategate emails in any detail. The few bits I did see made me think that it was simply normal terminology used by scientists. Maybe I am biased, but I felt that it was quite likely that they were being taken out of context and so don’t really think that they illustrate anything at all.

      • No, there were reams of context. The people who told you they were “taken out of context” just didn’t want you to read them, so you didn’t.

        That’s why you still believe in CAGW.

      • I really doubt that. I shall have to have a look but they would have to be pretty damning (and explicitly so) to convince me that thousands of climate scientists have been engaged in a massive conspiracy.

      • I happen to share what’s generally said to be the majority view of climate scientists, but it doesn’t imply any need to act on or even care about climate change. No alarming claim has ever been endorsed by a consensus of them, as far as I know. I’m pretty sure we’d have heard all about it if it did.

      • No, there’s no evidence of a conspiracy of thousands of scientists, but why would there need to be? (Who are these thousands of scientists I keep hearing about?)

        The leading 4 or 5 paleoclimate researchers are shown committing crimes against science. Explicitly. The rest are guilty only of doing nothing about it.

      • Maybe you could clarify what you say above. I agree that the scientific literature may not make alarmist claims and this may be coming from an interpretation of this literature. However, it is my understanding that a large majority of active climate scientists feel that the evidence supports the view that man is influencing the climate and that this is resulting in a level of warming that may be as high as a few degrees per century. I also believe that most active climate scientists support the view that we should be acting to reduce how much CO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere.

      • My previous comment was meant to refer to your slightly earlier comment. I still think that what you say above still implies a conspiracy. In my experience, it is very difficult to keep large numbers scientists quiet if they know that there is a problem with some analysis (of data or of models). In experience someone will want to speak out and can do so quite easily through the peer-reviewed literature. If it was known that there were significant problems and someone could show this convincingly, they would want to do so as it would be great for their career. If they are prevented from some doing so, then it is again a conspiracy.

      • “I agree that the scientific literature may not make alarmist claims and this may be coming from an interpretation of this literature. However, it is my understanding that a large majority of active climate scientists feel that the evidence supports the view that man is influencing the climate and that this is resulting in a level of warming that may be as high as a few degrees per century. I also believe that most active climate scientists support the view that we should be acting to reduce how much CO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere.”

        Wow. Just… wow. Thank you. Thank you.

        I’m guessing you’re far from alone in this, right? You’re a well educated—scientificly educated, no less!—believer in CAGW. So if this is your reasoning process, then I can only assume there are countless other believers—if not the vast majority—who would have arrived at their position via a similar process. Am I right? Is this more or less the cognitive style on your “side”?

        Look what you’ve just revealed.

        You’ve just explained that you’re worried about the climate BECAUSE the scientists are worried about it.

        See what’s going on? See how they tricked you?

        They turned it into a debate about “what scientists think” and “what scientists say.”

        But that, my friend, is NOT evidence and it is NOT science. You’ve been doing PREscientific reasoning.

        Now can you understand why nobody is converting to your side any more? See why the “scientific” narrative that terrifies you and millions of other people is just a joke to us? It’s because people on my “side”—unlike people on your “side”—couldn’t care less what scientists think.

        And nor should you.

        It has ZERO evidentiary value.

        This is a law of science: that in any question about the natural world, the opinion of scientists, bishops, popes, actresses or anyone else is IRRELEVANT.

        I’m not making this up. It’s an axiom of science. it sets science apart from all other systems of inquiry, from religion, law, politics, art, etc.:

        In science, opinion is not a form of evidence!

        This is a breakthrough moment, dude. Take a deep breath.

        You have NO EVIDENCE for concern. The climate is fine. It’s changing, as it always has, but it’s a total non-problem. As we “deniers” have been trying to tell you for years, there is NO EVIDENCE for the idea that climate change is any kind of problem.

        They played the public brilliantly. We’re back to the the 13th century and we didn’t even know it. We’re back to arguments from authority, for god’s sake!

        If so, then we now have a complete explanation for the unending bloody intractability of the climate debate. We’ve never been able to “convince” each other because it’s never been anything but a clash of faiths!

        So there we have it. We thought this was a scientific crisis. But it was prescientific.

      • You really are twisting what I’m saying. My position on global warming is not because I find it hard believe that thousands of climate scientists are involved in a conspiracy or somehow missing some obvious piece of evidence, it because the scientific evidence supports AGW. You turned it into a debate about what scientists think, not me. I was responding to your comment about the climategate emails.

        Let me be quite blunt. There is plenty of evidence in support of AGW. It may not be definite but it is very strong. You’re the one who has turned this into a discussion about scientific thinking and conspiracy. You say “They played the side brilliantly”. The scientists are not playing any side, they’re just doing science. My reason for commenting on how unlikely there is a conspiracy or how unlikely some lay-person has noticed something scientists have not is because, in my own experience as an active scientists, such things are extremely unlikely.

        You are illustrating why these discussions are so frustrating. You drift the discussion along and then when I respond to some comment of yours you take it out of context and launch a diatribe with lots of CAPS and lots statements for which you have no evidence.

      • No, read my reply again. Note that it is explicitly about the argument for *alarm*, which is (as you admit) based on opinion and not evidence.

        My reply had nothing to do with the argument for AGW, which is (as you say) backed up by the literature.

        You’re confusing AGW (which is a non-problem) with CAGW (which would be alarming, if there were any evidence for it).

      • Dude, yes, my “diatribe” involved a change of subject, but that’s because your incidental revelation had massive implications beyond whatever it was we were arguing about.

        Let me put it to you like this:

        Where in the scientific literature does it say anything alarming about the climate?

        Hint: you’ve just let slip that the answer is “nowhere.”

        The IPCC says we should be worried / act now / do something, the politicians say so, the carbon credit salesmen say so, every serious peak professional scientific body of every leading nation has come out and said so, the scientists reportedly think so, your next-door neighbour thinks so, but the scientific evidence says… nothing of the sort.

        If there is nothing alarming in the literature itself, there is no alarming evidence.

        Game over.

        On the separate and less important topic of conspiracies:

        I still don’t understand why you think a conspiracy of thousands would be necessary, as most scientists (like most people) mind their own business, don’t ask too many questions and therefore don’t have to keep too many secrets.

        Having said that, it’s undeniable that smaller-scale conspiracies of silence have taken place in climate science. For example, Phil Jones’ infamous Hide the Decline email was sent to 5 scientists. Of those 5, nobody forwarded it to the authorities or spoke up about it. They all kept their mouths shut. The world didn’t find out about Phil Jones’ confession for a whole decade (when the emails were leaked). That’s a conspiracy of which I hope you won’t attempt to go into denial.

      • I think you should be a little careful about over-interpreting what I’m saying. I agree that the scientific literature is unlikely to make alarming claims. That is not how scientific papers are written and so doesn’t – in itself – mean we shouldn’t be alarmed. It also, I accept, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

        However, I would probably agree that the science does not (yet?) provide strong evidence for a future catastrophe. I do think, however, that the science suggests that we should be concerned. It appears fairly clear that we are adding substantial amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere (increasing it by something like 1ppm per year) and (as I was indicating an my earlier post) there is an energy imbalance and there is evidence for continued warming (despite the claims about the results of the last 15 years being statistically insignificant).

        Something that I’ve commented on before is what is the downside to investing in developing new technology that would help us to reduce the amount of CO2 that we release into the atmosphere. Typically, this type of investment results in unexpected benefits and, presumably, we will need this kind of technology sometime in the future anyway, so why not get ahead of the game.

        As far as the Phil Jones comment goes, I’ve read comments suggesting that it isn’t the smoking gun that some like to suggest. I still maintain that whatever these emails indicate (and I’m not convinced they indicate anything significant), if they were really hiding something significant, someone else could (and probably would) publish a paper showing how the correct analysis differs from what Jones and others have been presenting. There are thousands of active climate scientists and it seems highly unlikely that they are all deluded or misrepresenting the data.

  2. “If the results indicate, as they are, that human action is influencing our climate, this should presented to the public and to policy makers. We, however, get to decide the importance of this evidence.”

    I believe you have a misconception about climate models. The results are not evidence and they don’t indicate that human action is influencing the climate. (And as I noted previously, we are fairly certain humans influence the climate so the real question is how and by how much.)

    Models are quite simply a projection of the future based on how the scientists who designed them believe the (climate) system behaves. Then, the model output is compared to empirical data and there is some determination made as to how accurate the model performance was. Because of the number of parameters in a complex system like the climate and the number of assumptions due to various uncertainties made to model initialization parameters, determining what went right and what went wrong can be extremely difficult.

    A basic skeptic position, which I have, is this. The statement of the last IPCC report which concluded that it is very likely that man has been responsible for most of the recent warming is not supported by the science. The level of confidence has been artificially elevated by downplaying the uncertainties.

    It’s just like you alluded to in the beginning of this post. There is a loss in translation from the pure science to the layman explanation. And unfortunately, this translation loss is almost exclusively tipped in favor of the problem being more urgent. Perhaps it’s simply human nature.

    • By results, I meant the results of the research, not the results of the models alone. I was meaning (as I thought was clear) that the research would involve modelling, observations/measurements, analysis and interpretation. This, as a whole, then provides evidence which will have a level of uncertainty. I agree with your first two paragraphs, I just don’t think that what I said was inconsistent with them.

      I must admit that I find it hard to comment that strongly on your third paragraph. I haven’t analysed this in extensive detail. I notice in the report that they define “very likely” as more than a 90% chance. This is what climate scientists seem to be suggesting. They presumably feel that their analysis suggests that there is a more than 90% chance that man has been responsible for the recent warming. Maybe they’ll end up being wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they shouldn’t be yet engaging in this discussion. A 9 in 10 chance is quite high (worth worrying about) but if I had a 1 in 10 chance of winning the lottery, I would take it (it could still end up being wrong).

      Maybe the process of going from a scientific discussion to a discussion with the public does suffer from too much “human influence” and maybe the problem isn’t as urgent as it has been suggested. If, for example, the models are overestimating the surface temperatures then this could be because they’re getting the timescales wrong. A concern I have (as I alluded to in the last post) is that if this error is because they’re not quite getting the energy transfer right (i.e., they’re underestimating the energy going into heating the oceans and melting the ice caps) then they would get the energy imbalance correct, but would overestimate the surface temperatures. They could then be getting their atmospheric modelling correct (which I imagine is what they are focusing on) but getting their surface modelling wrong.

      Something I am interested in (and this isn’t meant to be steering this in a political direction) is, if we are indeed increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, why wouldn’t it be a good thing to simply act to reduce this anyway. This would require developing new technology and this type of activity always seems to have unexpected benefits. Even if we don’t need it right now, we will need it in the future. Given the concerns that exists, why don’t we simply start investing in this development now? I am uncertain as to why there are disadvantages to doing this now.

      • Here’s another thing that makes it hard to take the alleged climate problem seriously.

        “I haven’t analysed this in extensive detail. I notice in the report that they define “very likely” as more than a 90% chance. This is what climate scientists seem to be suggesting. They presumably feel that their analysis suggests that there is a more than 90% chance that man has been responsible for the recent warming.”

        One minute, they tell us to accept “The Science.” Fair enough.

        Next minute we’re told to accept “what the scientists seem to be suggesting they feel is more than 90% likely to be the science.”

        Which is it?

      • This is partly what these posts have been about. Complex science (like climate science) cannot be definite. If I want to calculate the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, I can do so with a very high degree of accuracy. If I want to calculate the long-term evolution of the Earth’s climate, I cannot do so with the same degree of accuracy as I can the orbits of the planets in the Solar System. It’s not necessarily that the underlying physics and chemistry is less well understood, it’s that when you combine lots of physics and chemistry to model the time evolution of a complex system the uncertainties increase. There are a number of reasons for this. What are the initial conditions? How do I include short-term effects like weather patterns, ocean currents? Models can’t include the physics and chemistry on all scales (simply because we don’t have the computing power to do so).

        Scientists who do this kind of research therefore need to combine observations/measurements with their models and to iterate over time towards ever more realistic (hopefully) views. They will never (not in our lifetime at least) be able to be absolutely definite. Expecting them to be so is unrealistic and would show (in my view at least) a misunderstanding of the scientific method. So, the science says that there is a 90% chance that man has be responsible for the recent warming. That does mean that there is a non-negligible chance that man isn’t responsible, but this is less likely (by an order of magnitude) than man being responsible. This isn’t “90% of the science” this is “the science”.

      • My point was that The Science and What The Scientists Say are not the same thing. If you’d borne this in mind from the start, you might have paid more attention to The Science (which is evidence) and less attention to What The Scientists Said (which is not evidence) you’d be completely unalarmed, like me.

      • I think you’re partly over-interpreting what I’m saying. I agree that we should focus on the science, but in an area as complex as this, the science (or maybe research is a better words) requires interpretation. In some sense this is always true. You need to understand the limitations of the models, the limitations of the measurements, and the limitations of the analysis. I don’t think that one can completely separate the science from what the scientists say.

        I think your following statement

        If you’d borne this in mind from the start, you might have paid more attention to The Science (which is evidence) and less attention to What The Scientists Said (which is not evidence) you’d be completely unalarmed, like me.

        is a case in point. You’ve looked at what you regard as the science (as have I) and you have interpreted this and come to the conclusion that there is no reason to be alarmed. You’ve made a judgement. I’ve looked at the science, made my own judgement and maybe I’m not alarmed, but I’m certainly concerned.

  3. I have a really good example of the loss of translation from scientific paper to media outlet/blog. This particular one is a three step process.

    Step 1 – The actual scientific study

    “During the last 15 years (1980-1995) the PI trend is 65% greater (0.071) than the longterm trend (0.043), but not unprecedented. The upward trend from 1920-1935 was larger.” http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2011AGUFMPP43B1820A (Note: I have the full PDF)

    Step 2 – The NOAA press release (reports on the study)

    “global warming in the last 15 years of the record (1980–1995) is significantly faster than that of the long-term trend (1880–1995).” http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/independent-evidence-confirms-global-warming-instrument-record

    Step 3 – The media (reports on the NOAA press release)

    “Both natural records and instruments show a warm-up in the 1940s, then a dramatic increase in the rate of change in warming temperatures from 1980 through 1995.” http://earthsky.org/earth/temperature-records-from-nature-reaffirm-climate-warming

    It should be pretty clear how the story has changed ever so slightly through different adjectives and some omissions. The media (and this is what people read not NOAA press releases) adds another element which isn’t even part of the original story and which probably isn’t even true (depending on how you define “rapid”): “The instrument record shows a rapid rate of warming after 1995 as well…”

    This sort of thing happens all the time. And this is just a mild case which is easily illustrated. It can get quite complicated.

    • This is quite prevalent throughout science. We are encouraged to show that our research has impact and one way of doing this is by putting out press releases and getting media coverage. This normally involves dealing with university press officers who, quite correctly, think that you need to make our “story” sound interesting. However, we do have to be careful that we don’t oversell what we’re doing and it does seem that this does happen quite regularly. In my experience, these press officers are quite good at convincing researchers to make claims that – if not completely dishonest – are stretching the truth somewhat. There’s nothing wrong with making our research accessible, we just have to do this in as honest a manner as possible.

  4. This is actually an interesting exercise. The final press release could have said exactly what the study said, e.g. “The 1980-1995 is 65% greater than the long term trend (1880-1995).” However, the average Joe doesn’t know what to make of that. Which is understandable. So the NOAA article has changed “65% greater” to “significantly faster” which was changed by the EarthSky blog to “a dramatic increase”.

    If this is the common way, then it’s not unreasonable to claim this issue has been exaggerated. Maybe the truth is simply too boring. That might be okay when reporting a celebrity’s night of drinking but we’re talking about a potentially very serious issue here.

    • I tend to agree that we should be careful about how we present our scientific results to the public. Going from “65% greater”, to “significantly faster”, to “a dramatic increase” does then introduce some subjectivity. In their defence, it sounds like the press release was fine, but further interpretation introduced subjectivity. I do, however, think it good if journalists write their own stories, rather than simply copying press releases. It does introduce some potential for subjectivity and error but may prevent university press officers from simply putting out whatever story they want.

      • “It does introduce some potential for subjectivity and error but may prevent university press officers from simply putting out whatever story they want.”

        Yes, this is probably good. However, it would be nice to have a balance where some might arrive at “a dramatic increase” while others go with “greater” but “not unprecedented”. And that latter is actually very close to what the study actually said but you rarely hear that sort of reporting.

        And if we go back to the science, is a 65% greater trend in a 15 year timeline really “significantly faster” or “dramatic” compared to the 115 year trend? It’s certainly not unprecedented since the study found another 15 year period within the 115 which was greater than 65%. To me, that’s what a good science journalist should be asking. I’d be asking what about the 1996-2011 trend? Is it faster still as we’d expect? If not, why not? How about the 1980-2011 trend? Is it now closer to the long term trend? If so, what caused the greater trends starting in 1980 and 1920?

        So what are some of the more recent claims about temperatures? Well two favorites are something along the lines of 12 of the past 15 years have been the warmest on record. Or, there have been 333 consecutive months above the 20th century average. Big deal. That just means it’s warming now than in the past 100-150 years. Those statements would remain true even if temperatures stayed flat for a hundred years. Then they could really crank it up and say 97 of the past 100 years are the warmest on record and there have been 12000 consecutive months above the 20th century average. As you can see, I have little time for such non-scientific proclamations designed to support a science that already apparently has a “consensus”.

      • I’m finding it hard to think of a suitable response to your comment. Yes, the media adds a level of subjectivity that makes it difficult to necessarily determine accurately the importance of what they’re reporting. There is probably little we can do about this given we want a free press. On the other hand, we would like a more scientifically aware press and there is certainly criticism that there aren’t enough scientifically trained journalists who can properly investigate scientific claims. I’m certainly in support of the idea that more scientifically literate journalists would be a good thing, both for reporting on climate science and for science reporting in general.

        Overall, however, your comment potentially illustrates an issue with the reporting of the science, rather than the science itself. Given that I think that there is a very high chance that global warming is serious and that we should be doing something about it, I find the reporting less alarmist than you appear to.

      • “Overall, however, your comment potentially illustrates an issue with the reporting of the science, rather than the science itself.”

        I have no doubt of that. And that probably applies to the politics as well (symbiotic with the media??).

        “Given that I think that there is a very high chance that global warming is serious and that we should be doing something about it, I find the reporting less alarmist than you appear to.”

        Well that is certainly odd. You must get your sense of urgency from somewhere other than the media if you find the media less alarming than you own feelings. I find the reporting more alarming than the science (and I think I have properly illustrated an example) so there’s a strange disconnect somewhere.

      • Yes, I worded that poorly. What I meant was that – given that I am genuinely concerned about AGW – I have less of an issue with the alarmist reporting than you seem to have.

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