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08 December 2009 Blog Home : December 2009 : Permalink

Deconstructing Climategate

Climategate as it now seems to have been called is possibly the first "-gate" scandal since the original Watergate to actually deserve the tag. But in many ways this has been a bit of a post modern Watergate with lot of the labels not matching the actions of those labeled. Lets face the first "journalist" to really get it and complain about the lack of scientific method was that well known news-reporter comedian Jon Stewart

Stewart, as in the case of the Acorn videos, seems able to elucidate the basic facts in a way that other journalists can not. At least not on TV anyway.

Then yesterday Steve McIntyre was on CNN in a group discussion of the emails and we see the labels get even more confused.

In this case Steve comes across as the rational scientist while Michael Oppenheimer comes across as the frothing activist. Steve is, as he himself admits, merely an amateur climatologist, whereas Oppenheimer is an Ivy League Professor and editor of the IPCC reports on global warming. Given the difference you might expect Steve to be the one making the frothy denunciations of "tricks" and the blocking of access to data etc. while Oppenheimer provided the adult voice of reason explaining why all this was not really a problem. In fact Steve stuck, scientist like, to the facts: the trick hid the decline/divergence in tree-rings and this was important because if there's been a divergence now how do we know whether or not there has been one earlier etc. Oppenheimer on the other hand did the classic "reframing" trick and spoke about what he wanted to talk about instead of what the debate was (or should have been) about.

Interestingly Oppenheimer mentioned the CRU temperature series which for those following along at home without a crib sheet must have seemed like a total non-sequitur. Hopefully though it will make people do some research on the code and discover HARRY_READ_ME. In fact listening to Oppenheimer I think anyone slightly cynical about government and science, and as the Tea Parties have shown that's a lot of people, is going to have his BS meter go off repeatedly. For example Oppenheimer said that China was going to reduce its CO2 emissions which is only true in a Washington/Westminster sort of way in that what they have announced is a plan to reduce the rate of growth of their emissions. A few years ago he might have got away with it but these days we're rather too well aware of that government "cuts" mean and so I think he just comes across as a shifty liar.

This leads me on to the very excellent couple of posts by Lucia on how the folks at RealClimate are reframing the questions instead of answering them. As one of her commenters points out what works OK verbally (or on TV) fails in print

Reframing is a communication answer that works well in person. It’s nothing new ( although lakoff did popularize it for people on the left) so when you go through media training the media specialists will teach you how to reframe. In a conversational situation the person asking the questions has the power. If you answer his question you live in his frame. There are several ways to “flip the script” ( a pimp game) Most annoying is to answer a question with a question. Another is reframing. It works in person because most people are not quick enough to realize their question wasnt answered and most thing it rude to say “answer my question”

Anyways what works in person doesnt fair so well in text. Because one can see exactly what was said.

So flipping the script, reframing ( run for the ice) are all old hat.

It seems to me that possibly one of the unanticipated consequences of the Internet is that the soundbite issue and verbal debating techniques may decrease in importance. It also occurs to me that Climate Scientists suffer from the same problem Chip Morningstar identified as facing the academic Lit Crit crowd nearly 20 years ago:

Contrast this situation with that of academia. Professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies in their professional life find themselves communicating principally with other professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies. They also, of course, communicate with students, but students don't really count. Graduate students are studying to be professors themselves and so are already part of the in-crowd. Undergraduate students rarely get a chance to close the feedback loop, especially at the so called "better schools" (I once spoke with a Harvard professor who told me that it is quite easy to get a Harvard undergraduate degree without ever once encountering a tenured member of the faculty inside a classroom; I don't know if this is actually true but it's a delightful piece of slander regardless). They publish in peer reviewed journals, which are not only edited by their peers but published for and mainly read by their peers (if they are read at all). Decisions about their career advancement, tenure, promotion, and so on are made by committees of their fellows. They are supervised by deans and other academic officials who themselves used to be professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies. They rarely have any reason to talk to anybody but themselves -- occasionally a Professor of Literature will collaborate with a Professor of History, but in academic circles this sort of interdisciplinary work is still considered sufficiently daring and risquÝ as to be newsworthy.

What you have is rather like birds on the Galapagos islands -- an isolated population with unique selective pressures resulting in evolutionary divergence from the mainland population.

To update this to climate science you could perhaps replace history with paleontology or meteorology and you would have to note that climate scientists do in fact talk to slightly more people because they also work with environmentalists. Unfortunatley this doesn't help because the environmentalists are generally not interested in know why or how but just what. The result is that Climate Science has a communication problem when it comes to not only the general public but also other scientists. Chip Morningstars' previous paragraph explains why statisticians and computer techies tend to be better at explaining the esoterica of their professions to outsiders:

The really telling factor that neither side of the debate seems to cotton to, however, is this: technical people like me work in a commercial environment. Every day I have to explain what I do to people who are different from me -- marketing people, technical writers, my boss, my investors, my customers -- none of whom belong to my profession or share my technical background or knowledge. As a consequence, I'm constantly forced to describe what I know in terms that other people can at least begin to understand. My success in my job depends to a large degree on my success in so communicating. At the very least, in order to remain employed I have to convince somebody else that what I'm doing is worth having them pay for it.

To get a good example of this consider how Michael Mann explains (or rather IMHO fails to explain) his "hiding the decline" trick to CNN. This segment was apparently transmitted just before the Steve M & co. panel and Steve M's explanation is far clearer even though he does his one live and Mann does it as part of an interview that was clearly cut and spliced, allowing him to be prepared for the question.

Oh and there is one other problem that climate science faces with the Internet. Cynical Internetizens, unlike trusting environmental activists, tend to want to see the raw data and the intermediate steps. "Show us your working" is key and climatologists clearly don't do this well and react all huffy when people ask them to justify their choices of smoothing or statistical manipulation.

If you can't do that and you don't even release the raw data then we suspect a cover up.