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Heresy and the creation of monsters

By Judith Curry | Climate Etc. | October 25, 2010

I’m having another “Alice down the rabbit hole” moment, in response to the Scientific American article, the explication of the article by its author Michael Lemonick, Scientific American’s survey on whether I am a dupe or a peacemaker, and the numerous discussions in blogosphere.

My first such moment was in 2005 in response to the media attention associated with the hurricane wars, which was described in a Q&A with Keith Kloor at collide-a-scape. While I really want to make this blog about the science and not about personalities (and especially not about me),  this article deserves a response.

The title of the article itself is rather astonishing.  The Wikipedia defines heresy as: “Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma.” The definition of dogma is “Dogma is the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization: it is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted, or diverged from.” Use of the word “heretic” by Lemonick implies general acceptance by the “insiders” of the IPCC as dogma. If the IPCC is dogma, then count me in as a heretic.  The story should not be about me, but about how and why the IPCC became dogma.

And what exactly is the nature of my challenges to the dogma? Lemonick made the following statement: ““What I found out is that when [Curry] does raise valid points, they’re often points the climate-science community already agrees with — and many climate scientists are scratching their heads at the implication that she’s uncovered some dark secret.” This statement implies that I am saying nothing new, nothing that climate scientists don’t already know.  Well that is mostly true (an exception being my recent blog series on uncertainty); I am mostly saying things that are blindingly obvious to everyone. Sort of like in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A colleague of mine at Georgia Tech, a Chair from a different department, said something like this:  “I’ve been reading the media stories on the Georgia Tech Daily News Buzz that mention your statements.  Your statements seem really sensible.  But what I don’t understand is why such statements are regarded as news?”

Well that is a question that deserves an answer. I lack the hubris to think that my statements should have any public importance.  The fact that they seem to be of some importance says a lot more about the culture of climate science and its perception by the public, than it says about me.

The narrative

Why am I being singled out here?  Richard Lindzen and Roger Pielke Sr. have been making far more critical statements about the IPCC and climate science for a longer period than I have. And both score higher than me in the academic pecking order  (in terms of number of publications and citations and external peer recognition).

The answer must be in the narrative of my transition from a “high priestess of global warming” to engagement with skeptics and a critic of the IPCC.  The “high priestess of global warming” narrative (I used to see this term fairly frequently in the blogosphere, can’t spot it now) arose from my association with the hurricane and global warming issue, which at the time was the most alarming issue associated with global warming.

The overall evolution of my thinking on global warming is described in the Q&A at collide-a-scape (the relevant statements are appended at the end of this post.) My thinking and evolution on this issue since 11/19/09 deserves further clarification. When I first started reading the CRU emails, my reaction was a visceral one. While my colleagues seemed focused on protecting the reputations of the scientists involved and assuring people that the “science hadn’t changed,” I immediately realized that this could bring down the IPCC. I became concerned about the integrity of our entire field: both the actual integrity and its public perception. When  I saw how the IPCC was responding and began investigating the broader allegations against the IPCC, I became critical of the IPCC and tried to make suggestions for improving the IPCC.  As glaring errors were uncovered (especially the Himalayan glaciers) and the IPCC failed to respond, I started to question whether it was possible to salvage the IPCC and whether it should be salvaged.  In the meantime, the establishment institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere were mostly silent on the topic.

In Autumn 2005, I had decided that the responsible thing to do in making public statements on the subject of global warming was to adopt the position of the IPCC. My decision was based on two reasons: 1) the subject was very complex and I had personally investigated a relatively small subset of the topic; 2) I bought into the meme of “don’t trust what one scientist says, trust what thousands of IPCC scientists say.” A big part of my visceral reaction to events unfolding after 11/19 was concern that I had been duped into supporting the IPCC, and substituting their judgment for my own in my public statements on the subject. So that is the “dupe” part of all this, perhaps not what Lemonick had in mind.

If, how, and why I had been duped by the IPCC became an issue of overwhelming personal and professional concern. I decided that there were two things that I could do: 1) speak out publicly and try to restore integrity to climate science by increasing transparency and engaging with skeptics; and 2) dig deeply into the broader aspects of the science and the IPCC’s arguments and try to assess the uncertainty. The Royal Society Workshop on Handling Uncertainty in Science last March motivated me to take on #2 in a serious way. I spent all summer working on a paper entitled “Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster,” which was submitted to a journal in August. I have no idea what the eventual fate of this paper will be, but it has seeded the uncertainty series on Climate Etc. and its fate seems almost irrelevant at this point.

Monster creation

There are some parallels between the “McIntyre monster” and the “Curry monster.” The monster status derives from our challenges to the IPCC science and the issue of uncertainty. While the McIntyre monster is far more prominent in the public debate, the Curry monster seems far more irksome to community insiders. The CRU emails provide ample evidence of the McIntyre monster, and in the wake of the CRU emails I saw a discussion at RealClimate about the unbridled power of Steve McIntyre. Evidence of the Curry monster is provided by this statement in Lemonick’s article: “What scientists worry is that such exposure means Curry has the power to do damage to a consensus on climate change that has been building for the past 20 years.” This sense of McIntyre and myself as having “power” seems absurd to me (and probably to Steve), but it seems real to some people.

Well, who created these “monsters?” Big oil and the right-wing ideologues? Wrong. It was the media, climate activists, and the RealClimate wing of the blogosphere (note, the relative importance of each is different for McIntyre versus myself). I wonder if the climate activists will ever learn, or if they will follow the pied piper of the merchants of doubt meme into oblivion.

A note to my critics in the climate science community

Let me preface my statement by saying that at this point,  I am pretty much immune to criticisms from my peers regarding my behavior and public outreach on this topic (I respond to any and all criticisms of my arguments that are specifically addressed to me.) If you think that I am a big part of the cause of the problems you are facing, I suggest that you think about this more carefully. I am doing my best to return some sanity to this situation and restore science to a higher position than the dogma of consensus. You may not like it, and my actions may turn out to be ineffective, futile, or counterproductive in the short or long run, by whatever standards this whole episode ends up getting judged. But this is my carefully considered choice on what it means to be a scientist and to behave with personal and professional integrity.

Let me ask you this. So how are things going for you lately? A year ago, the climate establishment was on top of the world, masters of the universe. Now we have a situation where there have been major challenges to the reputations of a number of a number of scientists, the IPCC, professional societies, and other institutions of science. The spillover has been a loss of public trust in climate science and some have argued, even more broadly in science. The IPCC and the UNFCCC are regarded by many as impediments to sane and politically viable energy policies. The enviro advocacy groups are abandoning the climate change issue for more promising narratives. In the U.S., the prospect of the Republicans winning the House of Representatives raises the specter of hearings on the integrity of climate science and reductions in federal funding for climate research.

What happened? Did the skeptics and the oil companies and the libertarian think tanks win? No, you lost. All in the name of supporting policies that I don’t think many of you fully understand. What I want is for the climate science community to shift gears and get back to doing science, and return to an environment where debate over the science is the spice of academic life. And because of the high relevance of our field, we need to figure out how to provide the best possible scientific information and assessment of uncertainties. This means abandoning this religious adherence to consensus dogma.

Addendum: reproduced from my Q&A at collide-a-scape

“Circa 2003, I was concerned about the way climate research was treating uncertainty (see my little essay presented to the NRC Climate Research Committee).

I was considered somewhat quixotic but not really outside of the mainstream (p.s. the CRC didn’t pay any attention to my essay, they went off in a different direction that focused on communicating uncertainty and decisionmaking under uncertainty). During this period, I was comfortably ensconced in the ivory tower of academia, writing research papers, going to conferences, submitting grant proposals. I was 80% oblivious to what was going on in terms of the public debate surrounding climate change.

This all changed on September 14, 2005, when I participated in a press conference on our forthcoming paper that described a substantial increase in the global number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The unplanned and uncanny timing of publication of this paper was three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. While global warming was mentioned only obliquely in the paper, the press focused on the global warming angle and a media furor followed. We were targeted as global warming alarmists, capitalizing on this tragedy to increase research funding and for personal publicity, a threat to capitalism and the American way of life, etc.

At the same time, we were treated like rock stars by the environmental movement. Our 15 minutes stretched into days, weeks and months. Hurricane Katrina became a national focusing event for the global warming debate. We were particularly stung by criticisms from fellow research scientists who claimed that we were doing this “for the money” and attacked our personal and scientific integrity. We felt that one scientist in particular had crossed the line and committed a series of fouls, and this turned the scientific debate into academic guerrilla warfare between our team and the skeptics that was played out in the glare of the media. This “war” culminated in an article published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, “Debate shatters the civility of weather science” on Feb 2, 2006 . . . This article became a catharsis for the hurricane research community, that engendered extensive email discussion among scientists on both sides of the public debate. We did an email version of a “group hug” and vowed to stop the guerilla warfare.

I had lost my bearings in all of this, and the Wall Street Journal article had the effect of a bucket of cold water being poured over my head. I learned several important lessons from this experience: just because the other guy commits the first “foul” doesn’t give you the moral high ground in protracted academic guerilla warfare. Nothing in this crazy environment is worth sacrificing your personal or professional integrity. After all, no one remembers who fired the first shot, all they see is unprofessional behavior.

I took a step back and tried to understand all this craziness and learn from it. I even wrote a journal article on this, “Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis that Greenhouse Warming is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity.” This paper got quite a bit of play in the blogosphere upon its publication in Aug 2006, and at this time I made my first major foray into the blogosphere, checking in at all the blogs where the paper was being discussed. See esp realclimate and climateaudit (but I can no longer find the original thread on climateaudit ).

At climateaudit, the posters had some questions about statistics and wanted to see the raw data. I was pretty impressed by the level of discussion, and wondered why I had not come across this blog before over at the realclimate blogroll. Then I realized that I was on Steve McIntyre’s blog (I had sort of heard of his tiff with Mann, but wasn’t really up on all this at the time). I was actually having much more fun over at climateaudit than at realclimate, and I thought it made much more sense to spend time at climateaudit rather than to preach to the converted at realclimate.   Back in 2006 spending time at climateaudit was pretty rough sport (it wasn’t really moderated at the time). When I first started spending time over there, the warmist blogs thought it was really funny, and encouraged me to give ‘em hell.

I was continuing my overall thinking on how to better deal with skeptics and increase the credibility and integrity of science. I gave an invited talk at Fall 2006 AGU meeting, entitled “Falling out of the ivory tower: Reflections on mixing politics and climate science.” This is where I first started talking about circling the wagons, etc. I don’t think this was quite what the convenors had in mind when they invited me to give this talk, but at the time I still had pretty solid status as a survivor of vicious political attacks during the hurricane wars and was a heroine for taking down Bill Gray.

When the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report was published in 2007, I joined the consensus in supporting this document as authoritative; I was convinced by the rigors of the process, etc etc. While I didn’t personally agree with everything in the document (still nagging concerns about the treatment of uncertainty), I bought into the meme of “don’t trust what one scientist says, listen to the IPCC.” During 2008 and 2009, I became increasingly concerned by the lack of “policy neutrality” by people involved in the IPCC and policies that didn’t make sense to me. But after all, “don’t trust what one scientist says”, and I continued to substitute the IPCC assessment for my own personal judgment [in my public statements].

November 19, 2009: bucket of cold water #2. When I first saw the climategate emails, I knew these were real, they confirmed concerns and suspicions that I already had. After my first essay “On the credibility . . .” posted at climateaudit, I got some emails that asked me to be sensitive to the feelings of the scientists involved. I said I was a whole lot more worried about the IPCC, in terms of whether it could be saved and whether it should be saved. I had been willing to substitute the IPCC for my own personal judgment [in public statements], but after reading those emails, the IPCC lost the moral high ground in my opinion. Not to say that the IPCC science was wrong, but I no longer felt obligated in substituting the IPCC for my own personal judgment.

So the Judith Curry ca 2010 is the same scientist as she was in 2003, but sadder and wiser as a result of the hurricane wars, a public spokesperson on the global warming issue owing to the media attention from the hurricane wars, more broadly knowledgeable about the global warming issue, much more concerned about the integrity of climate science, listening to skeptics, and a blogger (for better or for worse). . . People really find it hard to believe that I don’t have a policy agenda about climate change/energy (believe me, Roger Pielke Jr has tried very hard to smoke me out as a “stealth advocate”). Yes, I want clean green energy, economic development and “world peace”. I have no idea how much climate change should be weighted in these kinds of policy decisions. I lack the knowledge, wisdom and hubris to think that anything I say or do should be of any consequence to climate/carbon/energy policy.”

September 14, 2016 - Posted by | Deception, Science and Pseudo-Science, Timeless or most popular |

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