Confessions of a Merchant of Doubt

I hear that it is the height of arrogance for CAGW sceptics to criticise the climate scientists without themselves having any experience or expertise in the subject. Apparently, if they are not able or prepared to offer an alternative thesis resulting from the fruits of their own scientific studies, then they should just shut up, listen and learn. The problem with this viewpoint, however, is that it presupposes that the credibility of the CAGW consensus lies entirely within the bowels of a particular climate model ensemble, or within the teleconnective prowess of strip-bark bristlecones flourishing somewhere on a North American mountainside. These and other equally fascinating technicalities are assuredly destined to remain esoteric to those of us who are strangers to the mysterious artistry of hindcasting, or fail to appreciate the logic and power of an imaginatively centred principal component analysis. But that isn’t all there is to the debate.

As important as it is to understand the science, it is equally important to understand how the scientific community works. Ideally, of course, such an insight should stem from working within the community. But let us not oversell that advantage. After all, is there really that much that sets scientists apart from the rest of the attention-seeking, grudge-bearing, power-hungry conclave of simian skulduggery we lovingly refer to as the human race?

Being a fully paid-up member of the aforementioned club, I feel more than qualified to comment upon one particular foible of the human condition as it appertains to the climate science debate. And to do so, I would like to share with you the following story, plucked kicking and screaming from my illustrious past. All the CAGW advocates have to do is just shut up, listen and learn:

My taste in sandwiches has varied over the years and, therefore, serves as a good proxy for determining the timeline for the causal network that has led to my present system state. So when I say that I had just finished a cheese and pickle sandwich you should understand that I was, at that time, still within my Office Health & Safety Management period of aspirational decline. To be precise, it was 10:30am and time to present the site manager with my latest office safety report (which, incidentally, I called a HAZOP to make sure everyone understood I was an expert).

Normally, these reports were largely comprised of tedious objections railed against the noodle-fest that the IT department euphemistically referred to as their computer cable-management. But, on this occasion, I had more serious matters to address. Someone, in a magnificent triumph of expedience over reason, had chosen to store twenty boxes of archived paperwork under the stairwell of the main emergency fire exit route. Now, who can tell me what is wrong with this picture?

Armed with such an explosive revelation, I was confident that I would soon gain the attention of my normally apathetic superior. My expectations were indeed quickly realised, but not with the desired effect.

“Well, thank you very much, John,” he opened sarcastically. “Because now that you have put this down in writing, I’m bloody-well going to have to do something about it!”

Having blithely cursed the report, my boss let it fall gently upon his desk before fixing me with an excogitative expression. I remained unimpressed, since I was convinced he’d just looked the expression up in a dictionary. Besides which, it was going to take more than just fancy adjectives to put me off the scent. Nevertheless, the veins in his forehead, by now alpine in their grandeur, were throbbing with the menace of a managerial decision.

It was shortly after that point that I was to learn that it is, in fact, easier to remove a health and safety manager than to remove twenty boxes of archived paperwork.

There are a number of morals that one can take away from this story, but the one that I want to focus upon is this. Before the encounter, the consensus between myself and my manager, regarding the acceptability of using a fire exit route to store an obstructive stock of flammable material, had been fifty-fifty. To put it in climatological terms, the consensus was a mere 50%. However, following my dismissal from the debate, the consensus had risen to a somewhat more impressive 100%. So much had been achieved with the minimum of deliberation. All that I had offered my superior was doubt, uncertainty and inconvenience. All he needed to settle the issue was his authority. Such is the nature of risk-based decision-making.

Later in my career (within the corned beef and tomato period, as I recall) I was to come across the same dynamic in various guises; but the underlying process was always the same. When making a safety-engineering decision, consensus would often emerge, not from a reduction of epistemic uncertainty following investigation and reasoned debate, but from a narrowing of focus, marshalled by the ‘guiding hand’ of authority. Those who did not play the game had a habit of losing their vote.

I am reminded of the fate of the space shuttle Challenger. Certainly, NASA applied a lot of the pressure for launch, but I believe it fell to Thiokol’s own general manager to offer his engineering colleagues the now infamous advice:

“Gentlemen, it’s about time you took off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”

Under such pressure, the engineers were forced to reverse their advice regarding the next morning’s launch. That night, one of the engineers went home and was asked by his wife, “Did you have a good day at the office today darling?”

“No dear,” he replied, “I’ve just killed the Space Shuttle Challenger crew”.

The message that climatologists wish to impress upon the public is that they find the scientific evidence for the CAGW hypothesis compelling, and it is for that reason alone that they speak with unanimity. I can readily accept that this is the personal experience of the vast majority of those working within the field. However, one cannot ignore the fact that most of those colleagues who did not share similar levels of conviction are no longer players, and in many instances they did not leave the game willingly. It would be nice to believe that this is simply because they lost the scientific debate, but from the outside looking in, it looks more as if they were offering an unappreciated level of doubt, uncertainty and inconvenience.

When forming a herd, there are two important criteria that have to be met. Firstly, the individual has to want to be part of the herd. But secondly, the herd has to want the individual as a grazing partner. You don’t need to be a climatologist to understand this; you don’t even need to be a scientist. All you need is the experience of working in a discipline where risk-based decisions are routinely supported by incomplete evidence. This is a field in which I have plenty of experience and expertise, so please do not dismiss my CAGW scepticism as weaponised ignorance.

24 thoughts on “Confessions of a Merchant of Doubt

  1. Imagine a group of accountants who meet to discuss a new method of accounting whereby 1+1=5. An accountant asks for an explanation and is told in reply 1) You are obviously in the pay of big banks and denying the truth of our work to line your own pocket. 2) You have no expertise in our methodology and therefore have no right to ask that question. 3) There is a consensus of all the real experts in our accounting method that shows our results are true and you are wrong. 4) Anyone who refuses to accept our method is clearly out to destroy humanity. After this security arrives and escorts the questioner out of the building. That is what climate science has been reduced to today.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tumbleweedstumbling. You have missed the point. Things have moved on. It is now not permissible to ask a question. Questions mean doubt. Everything is settled.

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  3. Alan Kendall, questions may be asked, but it is not permissable for Mann’s dutiful groupies to answer them.

    Continuity of funding was conditional on very strict rules, and it now seems that Trump is going to revise those rules to encourage more answers

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  4. Thanks John for another lovely piece of writing.

    Mitch Taylor’s recent comments are very relevant to this:

    There are two ways to get a scientific consensus. One is to present the data and the analysis in a manner that is so persuasive that everyone is convinced. The other way is to exclude or marginalize anyone who does not agree. This occurs so commonly now that it has become an accepted practice. The practice of science has become secondary to governments, NGOs, journals, and scientists who feel that the ends justify the means.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Paul. There used to be a third way consensus was achieved, although if it still occurs it is probably now confined to minor areas of science of limited impact. It is consensus by expert. Practitioners accept the views of one person, and no other approaches the wealth and breadth of knowledge of that person, although as knowledge advances other individuals begin to be aware that problems are arising. But whilst the “expert” survives the consensus persists.
    I first became aware of this form of consensus when an undergraduate being taught palaeontology. The classification of ammonites underwent periodic upheavals which corresponded to the deaths of dominating specialists. The lecturer teaching us made a statement that still stays with me : that ammonite taxonomy was overdue for an overhaul but was waiting for Dr. X to die.
    A similar occurrence affected continental drift (again in a state of flux when I was an undergraduate). Lord Kelvin had pronounced it impossible based on the physical nature of he Earth, when in Cambridge and elsewhere young turks were poised to revolutionize our understanding of the Earth’s nature and history. I feel very privileged to have studied geology at that time. Even more so when I went to UEA and became a colleague of one of the big players in that revolution – Fred Vine.
    The closest parallel in the climate arena may be Michael Mann who came to dominate the palaeoclimate sphere, even withstanding using upside down data, and inappropriate statistical methods. Teflon science!

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  6. I remember a very similar cartoon about thirty years ago, but a very different message; “Mr Smith would you rephrase Mrs. Brown’s excellent suggestion so we can accept it?”

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  7. Jona,

    I too used to worry about whether one should write ‘comprised of’ or ‘composed of’. Now I am with professor Steven Pinker in thinking that this is one of ‘a few fuss-budget decrees you can safely ignore’.

    Regards,

    John

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  8. John, you are clearly not with editor Bryan Henderson who declared jihad against “comprised of”, manually removing instances of the abomination from Wikipedia.😇
    I must admit when I come across such an infestation 😞 it jars, but since my wife used to use it in her writings I become inoculated against it, but I point-blank refused to allow it in our joint writings.😈

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  9. Hi Alan,

    The funny thing is, I feel exactly the same regarding ‘comprises of’, since this is obviously a pleonasm translating as ‘consists of of’. And yet, ‘comprised of’ doesn’t have the same effect on me. As far as I understand it, ‘comprised’, when used with the preposition ‘of’, is a participial adjective, and writing ‘comprised of’ is now acceptable as a synonym for ‘composed of’ in all but the politest of society. I know that Fowler considered this to be ‘a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary’, but he is dead now.

    I may have misjudged my audience (or should that be my readership?) by indulging the modern patois but I think the greater crime would be if the remainder of this thread were to be taken up with a debate over a grammatical issue that has now become a matter of personal taste, albeit to the chagrin of the purists. For that reason, I think I would rather admit defeat than keep the debate going.

    All the best,

    John

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  10. Ah the joys of being the messenger of a bit of inconvenient information.

    Your former boss likely missed an opportunity to collect a chit or two. I’ll be he/she/ms/miss/etc. didn’t make it to VP. That or she sold you out for the next rung on the ladder (or a fatter bonus). I found a few boxes of valuable “archived paperwork” many years ago in a rather odd location.

    Can’t wait for the next chapter from your ““Journals” – 1952- 2000 A. M. Schlesinger. Jr.” !

    I can relate to your herd discussion.

    PS-

    I just made it through another what were they thinking “computer cable- management” failure! Laptops, or any electrical device, don’t operate without a flow of power. At least I wasn’t trying to come home from space, Apollo 13, when the batteries couldn’t be charged up anymore do to a cable failure .

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  11. Likewise, Alan.

    And we should not forget that there are people out there that think there is nothing wrong with ‘pre-programmed’, ‘pre-planned’ and even ‘pre-prepared’. I think such criminality makes my grammatical gaucheries pale in comparison. Sometimes I really do believe the lunatics have taken over the dictionary.

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  12. Guilty as charged. Worse still I am innocent by way of ignorance. I suppose it was pre-determined and my spell-checker is complicit.

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  13. The best description of a scientific consensus I’ve come across is in a book by Charles Grinenthal called Carl Sagan and Immanuel Velikovsky, which I will paraphrase because I don’t have the original to hand. “A scientific consensus is a general agreement among scientists about something for which there is no evidence.” I’ll try and find the much more eloquent original.

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  14. Got it it’s on page 36. “Consensus, of course, is not evidence nor science. It is only a general agreement among scientists without conclusive proof.”

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  15. Paul, Alan, Geronimo,

    Since you have all volunteered constructive commentary on the causes of consensus, I will be lazy by offering this response for your collective attention:

    As I see it, there are many pressures that influence the development of consensus, but they can be grouped into two basic classes, which I shall call the instinctive and the extinctive. The instinctive pressures cover the various cognitive biases and social habits that encourage public alignment of thought. The extinctive pressures come into play when the individual has been insufficiently receptive to the instinctive pressures. If all else fails, the herd can be culled, and consensus emerges as a selection effect. The scientific method gains its power by employing safeguards that, in the long run, counteract the pernicious influence of the instinctive and extinctive pressures. However, not all human endeavour that falls within the broad province of ‘science’ can employ those safeguards to the fullest extent. In such circumstances, I believe, one has an intellectual obligation to consider how the resulting consensus may have been compromised.

    I fail to see why such a position can be considered so controversial as to warrant condemnation. But there again, I suppose I am expected to be instinctively averse to such condemnation and therefore keen to avoid it.

    Regards,

    John

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  16. I don’t think consensus is controversial so long as it is honestly arrived at. If it is incorrect, eventually it will be overthrown. It has benefits in that it furnishes a firm foundation upon which advances can be made and from which students can be taught. It is the basis of “normal” science. In climate science most are engaged in this normal science or are hangers-on, accepting a basic tenet and applying it to their special interest. The exciting stuff is being done by those seeking a new paradigm and who are (to outsiders) outside the consensus. Of course to those doing this work they are still within the broad area of accepted science.
    Naturally if consensus is wrong, it can hold back real advancement (but see below) and, like Lysenkoism, can have adverse social and monetary outcomes. Other historical incorrect consensuses, upon phlogesten or the ether, although incorrect, were devices that allowed scientific advances. So even an incorrect consensus can be useful. I have little doubt when the effect of atmospheric CO2 is correctly evaluated, the false consensus of it being a major climate control, will be shown to be instrumental in achieving a vast improvement in our understanding of climate.

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  17. Kakatoa,

    As a belated response to your speculations, I should point out that the manager concerned went on to do very well within the company, thank you. I, on the other hand, am now out of work and trying to keep myself amused on the internet by writing articles that like-minded individuals might appreciate. I cannot say that my current demise is entirely down to the individual in question but, there again, neither can I deny that it owes a great deal to his treatment of me; even after he had relieved me of my H&S duties.

    It’s a cruel world.

    All the best,

    John

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  18. John,

    It sounds like you didn’t have a mentor, or two, going to bat for you- leading to a role for you that would have been a good fit for your skill set and integrity. I too would of liked to have booked a few more years of service, but I ran out of mentors.

    I limit my twitter efforts to following (unofficially;) a few folks. I really started looking into the AGW, and then CAGW, meme about the time Dr. Jim Bouldin was becoming disillusioned with the methods used by the CAGW team. I hope he and RP Jr. are able to compare notes.

    “Cruel” does seem to fit the actions of a certain subset of our species. One can see why our ancestors came up with the concepts of hell and karma.

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  19. There is an article at Quillette magazine,

    The Scientific Importance of Free Speech

    that deals with similar issues.

    “When one side of a scientific debate is allowed to silence the other side, this is an impediment to scientific progress because it prevents bad theories being replaced by better theories. Or, even worse, it causes civilization to go backward, such as when a good theory is replaced by a bad theory that it previously displaced.”

    It also mentions the Challenger incident.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Paul when I started to read the Quillette article I was expecting something incendiary, something that if presented at a lecture would result in mayhem and strife. There is nothing! Nor anything new – stuff on stomach ulcers, Lysenko and the devastation of Soviet agriculture and the Challenger inquiry – nothing contentious nor, today, controversial. And in many circles, well known. Not a sniff about climate change. Yet this material was to be presented by Adam Perkins at King’s College, London in a lecture but this was cancelled because the university considered the event to be too ‘high risk’.

    “Give me strength”!!!

    What do they teach in Kings College these days – would Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar be banned?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Paul,

    Thank you for the link.

    As you say, the article deals with similar issues. This may be one reason why there has been so little debate on this thread; at the end of the day, I am not saying anything that hasn’t been said many times before.

    And yet, still no-one in the alarmist camp seems to be in the least bit impressed. They still think that we are hijacking the sceptic’s credo and we somehow fail to qualify as sceptics because any right-minded person would not remain sceptical in the face of the supposedly overwhelming evidence (where ‘evidence’ often means ‘consensus’). It seems too easy for the CAGW proponents to assume that their opponents are not acting in good faith (and I suppose vice versa). This attitude may stem from nothing more than good old-fashioned in-group bias.

    All I’ll say is this: if demonising and criminalising freedom of thought were to be the only way of saving us all from the environmental damage ascribed to AGW, then the human race would end up being unworthy of its salvation.

    All the best,

    John

    Liked by 2 people

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