Making Science Public

I wasn’t sure whether to write about this as I’m unsure of what to make of it and there may be subtleties that I’ve missed. Bearing that in mind, I will go ahead anyway. The University of Nottingham has a blog called Making Science Public. It seems to be run by Brigitte Nerlich and Warren Pearce. I’ve had some very pleasant Twitter exchanges with Brigitte Nerlich and a few slightly frustrating but not unpleasant exchanges with Warren Pearce, so what I’m about to say shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of them in particular.

So, I’m finding what Making Science Public appears to be doing a little confusing. There was a recent article by Ben Pile about the interview between Andrew Neil and Ed Davey. Ben Pile seemed to think this was a good interview. From a scientific perspective, I thought it was very poor and the science that was presented was mis-represented by Andrew Neil. Warren Pearce recently posted a copy of his Guardian article that seems to be arguing that we should give more credence to the scientific views of self-confessed sceptics. He’s also just published a post essentially criticising the Atomic bomb – global warming analogy.

The impression I’m getting is that the Making Science Public blog is promoting the idea that the public debate about global warming and climate change should include more of the scientific views that are being expressed. That we should be considering the views of those who are openly sceptical (pseudo-sceptics I would call them). The fundamental problem I have with this is that much of the science presented on openly sceptical blogs is demonstrably incorrect. Not just a little bit wrong, but almost completely wrong. The whole reason I started my blog was because I was tired of reading posts on Watts Up With That (WUWT) that were simply scientifically incorrect. The other issue is that, in most cases, if you try to point out the error it is not accepted and the reasons get more and more absurd the harder you try to convince them of the error. This either means they have insufficient scientific training to realise their error or they’re simply unwilling to acknowledge any errors. Science isn’t really about debating opinions, it’s about presenting evidence and having your evidence scrutinised. Simply having an opinion does not mean that it should be taken seriously.

So, in my opinion, trying to bring pseudo-sceptics into the debate is not a sensible suggestion. I should be careful because I’m not talking about true sceptics. I’m not talking about those who would like to know more, who are uncertain about certain aspects of the science, those who are not sure about what we we’re confident about and what we’re less confident about. Discussions with such people are constructive and valuable. I’m talking about people who are largely untrained and who are presenting their scientific ideas but are, typically, getting it wrong. Why would we want to encourage those people to be included in the scientific discussions? Just because someone claims to be doing science, doesn’t mean that they are. Why is it that in almost any other sphere of life, suggesting that lay-people be included in complicated scientific discussions would be laughed at, but in climate science some people seem to be encouraging it.

So, in my opinion, if Making Science Public was serious about doing so, it should be encouraging the public to pay more credence to what is being said by climate scientists. Climate scientists should be willing to engage with the public and policy makers and be willing to answer difficult questions and to explain things as clearly and honestly as possible. Bringing pseudo-sceptics into the scientific discourse just doesn’t make any sense to me. As I said above, much of their science is demonstrably incorrect and their willingness to accept this appears largely non-existent. A higher profile for such people will, in my opinion, do nothing to improve the public’s understanding of climate science.

So, as I said at the beginning, maybe there are subtleties to this that I’m not getting. I believe Warren Pearce is doing research into climate scepticism, so maybe this is all intentional and is just part of his research strategy. There’s also a lot more to the Making Science Public site than what I’ve discussed above, so maybe this is not really all that significant. Also, maybe I’ve simply misinterpreted what they’ve been trying to do. However, I still feel that seriously suggesting that we include more of the pseudo-sceptics in discussions about climate science is not the right way to make science public.

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99 Responses to Making Science Public

  1. Just as long as chemists take on board the views of alchemists I have no problem with it …

  2. I was trying to avoid analogies, but that’s quite a good one :-)

  3. Latimer Alder says:

    The right way to ‘make the science public’ is to debate it openly and freely – and to defend it against all comers.

    Climatologists seem to be very good at hiding away in their own little universes telling each other what bad people ‘sceptics’ are. But they’re remarkably coy in doing the public/debating bit. This does their cause great seems like they are running away. And those many Hitler’s bunker spoofs of e.g Clim8gate and others work because there is at least a kernel of truth in them.

    Warren (and Richard Betts of the MO) are at least trying gather evidence to understand why sceptics (like me) are so sceptical of conventional climatology. And to engage on our terms.

    FWIW, part of the ‘problem’ IMO is that those of us outside academia are used to very vigorous and robust debate in our professional lives…we have grown thick skins and enough self-confidence to see through the flimflam to the heart of the matter. Academics are perhaps uncomfortable with any discussion where the discourse is more colourful than at a vicar’s tea party. And where academic authority and status are revered. Such is not the case outside. Like Mick (I think) said, ‘you’re only as good as your last gig’.

    But that, really, is the academic’s problem, not ours.

    If they want to persuade the general public of a big climate problem then they need to get into the game in the real world.Which plays by real world rules. Not hunker down behind their circled wagons bemoaning the fact that people don’t always call the implement a spade but often a ‘f…..g shovel’

    The debate is won by those who turn up to the arena.

  4. The subtlety, in my view, is that science isn’t really based on opinion. It’s based on fundamentals laws of physics, an understanding of data analysis and other scientific practices. So, some scientific ideas are simply wrong. They can be shown to be wrong and having done so they either need to disappear or be modified. So, if everyone was completely honest, you could sit everyone down and start a debate. As soon as someone’s idea is shown to be wrong, they would step out and the debate would continue. This would eliminate Monckton, Tisdale, Douglass & Knox, Svensmark (probably), and numerous others. That would be fine by me. The problem that I see is illustrated by your final comment. “The debate is won by those who turn up to the arena”. Maybe, but how valuable is this if it’s all nonsense? The people who are presenting alternatives appear not to willing to discuss their alternatives scientifically or be honest about whether or not something is wrong. Given this, why should professional scientists be willing to debate with such people? No other professionals are expected to debate the details of their fields with lay-people. Why climate scientists?

  5. I am so using that riposte… :-)

  6. The debate will be settled by the physics, not matter what words are used.

  7. Dibble says:

    Leaving climate scientists wide open to the kind of vitriolic personal attacks over advocacy that the likes of Trenberth, Mann and Hansen have had to endure?

    Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

  8. Your final sentence does indeed seem to be an issue. If climate scientists make the case that they’re the ones who should be speaking about climate science, they’ll be accused of closing down the debate. If they do engage openly with pseudo-sceptics they run the risk of all sorts of unpleasant experiences and mis-representations. It is a bit a lose-lose. That’s kind of why I think that a site like Making Science Public could play a role in setting the boundaries of the debate as they could be seen as impartial. At the moment they seem to erring on the side of inclusivity which, in my opinion, is wrong.

  9. Marco says:

    “The issue is pretty simple to me. There is nothing really to debate. Creationism is not science. It is a religion driven position that pretends (and does so poorly) to be about science. I for one have perfectly pleasant interactions with many creationists and I understand their beliefs at least at some level. But just as I would not encourage physicists to debate with those who deny gravity, and just as I would not encourage chemists to debate with those who claim the periodic table is invented, I think it is inappropriate to evolutionary biologists to “debate” with creationists in this type of setting. Discussing creationism – fine. Discussing criticism of evolutionary hypotheses – fine. Having a reasonable panel discussion of science and religion – fine. Meeting with creationists to discuss their ideas about evolution – ok too. But engaging in a “debate” and thus even for a second implying that creationism stands on the same ground as evolution – completely ludicrous.


    Jonathan Eisen”

    Guess the response (it’s here:

    Perhaps also of relevance:

  10. Yes, I agree with your comment and you put it very well. There’s a difference between discussions about climate science that include all sorts of different views, and expecting scientists to debate the actual science with pseudo-sceptics in a setting where they are seen as equivalent is nonsensical.

  11. Why avoid analogies? They are fun!

    When a new extrasolar planet is discovered, the press quotes the chair of the flat earth society welcoming another flying saucer.

    Would be similar to asking Anthony Watts to comment on climate science.

  12. They can be fun, but the problem seems to be that if you use one then it ends up being a debate about the analogy rather than about what the analogy was trying to represent (i.e., 4 H bombs per second :-))

    Yours is a good one though. I may have to use that at some stage :-)

  13. BBD says:

    LA says:

    The right way to ‘make the science public’ is to debate it openly and freely – and to defend it against all comers.

    Starting with politically motivated demagogues pushing pseudo-science and misinformation. This would include you.

  14. BBD says:

    The debate is won by those who turn up to the arena.

    Demagoguery, not science.

    It’s not a “debate” it is a matter of physics, as has been restated here and a million times elsewhere.

  15. BBD says:

    we have grown thick skins and enough self-confidence to see through the flimflam to the heart of the matter.

    In other words “we are arrogant, loud bullies”.

    The lack of self-awareness is mind-boggling sometimes.

  16. Amen!

    Except for a small slip: “The impression I’m getting is that the Making Science Public blog is promoting the idea that the public debate about global warming and climate change should include more of the scientific views that are being expressed. That we should be considering the views of those who are openly sceptical (pseudo-sceptics I would call them).”

    Being openly sceptical is best thing there is. If you have arguments! I hope to be one of them soon; my paper on the quality of daily climate data is progressing. I expect that when I am finished, I have good arguments to be sceptical about many studies on changes in extreme weather.

    The problem with the speudo-sceptics is the lies, disinformation and debunked information they spread, as you state later on very well. A related problem is that using the label “sceptic”, they have given this normally positive term a bad reputation.

    If they have arguments and present evidence, they would be automatically part of the scientific discourse, whether they have formal training or not. (Formal training and experience does help a lot, so I would advise such people to find an experienced scientist as partner.)

    If there are real climate sceptic, that deserve that name without the quotes, I would suggest that they form their own group, make up an new name and clearly distance themselves from WUWT & Co.

  17. Yes, I had real trouble getting my terminology right in this post. Indeed, using “openly sceptical” was probably wrong here and should just have used pseudo-sceptic (in fact, I initially wrote “pseudo-septic” which maybe would also have been suitable :-)) or something like that. I did try to clarify in the next paragraph so, yes I agree with the rest of your comment. Engaging with those who are genuinely sceptical and will engage in an honest and open scientific discussion would be very beneficial. The problem are those who are unwilling to do so and who continue to spread information that has been debunked on numerous occasions.

  18. One last idea. Debate is about opinions, well suited for political stuff and maybe even part of the social sciences. Science is about evidence.

    If someone would present new evidence in a debate, I would have to study the sources, make my own computations to check everything, and so on. The answer would come at least a day later. Not really a televisable debate.

    However, in economics there is a podcast, called econtalk. There the host typically “debates” a new paper or book with the first author. It is more explaining the work, like in a seminar, as a political debate, but still people who like to learn by listening and by hearing two people discussing may find it fruitful. You do not only learn economics, but also indirectly how scientists think, how evidence is used, what are valid arguments, etc.

    Maybe someone with a broad knowledge of climatology and a nice voice could start something like that for climatology.

    SkepticTV had an interview with Michael Mann recently. That is the direction I am thinking of, but then with a host that is also a scientist, can ask harder questions, maybe a bit more focussed and thus in depth.

  19. Yes, I agree with your distinction between what would normally be regarded as a debate and how scientific discourse would normally take place. What you suggest with regards to a podcast would be very interesting. Would seem to be a perfectly good form of public engagement in my opinion.

  20. BBD says:

    It is essential *not* to “debate” with pseudo-sceptics live. They invariably Gish Gallop straight over the scientist(s) which gives them the edge in short-format debate where there is not time to fact-check and debunk a 10-point Gish so an audience can see it for what it is.

  21. Paul Matthews says:

    “Just because someone claims to be doing science, doesn’t mean that they are”
    That’s what I love about this blog, the unintentional irony.

    Warren is studying climate scepticism with an objectivity that is rare in the sociology field.
    He’s in an arts dept, but he’s a better scientist than you are.

  22. Paul, he may well be, but that’s not really the point of this post. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that I should be given a formal voice. I’m suggesting that opening up the scientific debate to all who claim to be doing science is absurd. Do you really think we should do so? As a society do you think we would benefit if anyone who can plot some data and make some interpretation about climate science, should then be given a platform of equal standing to professional climate scientists? That’s really all I’m discussing here. I’m not arguing that others shouldn’t be involved in the debate about policy. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t be involved in discussions about the significance of the evidence. I’m simply talking about the role they would have in discussions of the actual science. Why would we want un-qualified lay-people to be a given a scientific platform in which their evidence (which as far as I can tell is often simply wrong) should be presented as equivalent to that of well-qualified, experienced, professional climate scientists.

    This isn’t about closing down the debate – as others on Twitter appear to be claiming. There are many aspects of this that should be open to all. It’s about the realities of doing complicated science. That is all. If you behave as you normally do, I suspect you are unlikely to return to address this, but that is your right.

  23. Was your speudo-sceptics that a deliberate Freudian slip? :-)

  24. O. Bothe says:

    So now I’m going to write the comment, I wanted to write when I saw your “trinity’s” post earlier. However the comments are a totally unsorted assemblage of parts.

    First I am as well sometimes confused by what Making Science Public (MSP) publishes.

    However I had to agree with some of Ben Pile’s statements but the closer he came to climate science the more I disagreed.

    Similarly with respect to Warren Pearce’s Guardian piece: His writing appears to want to give ‘skeptics’/lukewarmers a louder voice in the debate, but if I understand it correctly, his main point is rather that both sides use “real science” as a straw-man in a policy-debate. And that’s probably correct.

    Lastly the Hiroshima-piece: I said clearly, and Paul quotes me below the Hiroshima piece, that I think it’s unwise to use this metaphor. Warren puts it clearly in the comments: “Re the metaphor, I don’t disagree that it’s sticky. It’s very sticky. However, I really don’t think it can be bracketed off from it’s catastrophic overtones”. Victor also chimes in and makes good points.

    Generally, and I shouldn’t make this point here, but it’s as good here as elsewhere. I get the impression that SkepticalScience, or maybe only Dana and John, are so intent on communicating their “Cause” that they are not able to think about whether criticism of their work couldn’t be meant to help them. Furthermore, from my reading of some climate change social science studies, there is good evidence that hammer-style communication isn’t necessarily the best method.

    To be a bit provocative: other geophysically relevant orders of energy may dwarf the A-bomb-metaphor and may be even more impressive to the public. So we should be careful not to enter a climate-metaphor arms race.

    Anyway back to MSP: I think you misinterpret their intentions: They describe their blog as:

    After a series of scientific scandals and a perceived loss of public trust in science, many opportunities are being discussed for science to be more openly practiced. These opportunities are counterbalanced by a number of challenges, such as increasing privatisation of public research, the politicisation of science, the mediatisation of science and a certain engagement fatigue.

    This blog will report on these and other issues related to the Leverhulme funded research programme: Making Science Public: Challenges and Opportunities


    E.g. the point is: How can science be done openly, so that the public “gets” it. As this is a wide field, I think they do quite a good job in sampling the issues. In doing so, climate science is only an example which presents itself naturally. Openness in or public presentation of science requires not to dismiss “dissenting” voices. MSP provides valuable insides in the public discourse on science.

    In addition: Your dismissal of “lay-persons” can easily be misunderstood. It reads like “arrogance of the ivory tower”. The lay has valid questions, especially on the impacts and “adaptation” side. However, I have to admit, that I wouldn’t mind when some essays close to the fringe wouldn’t be amplified only because they serve the policy preferences by some.

    You say the “fringe”-ideas shouldn’t be included in the debate. They generally are not. Broaching these issues (by “consensus”-blogs) often just amplifies them. Marco’s comment is good. Let them (whoever they are) fret. That may not always work (e.g. the US). Isn’t that basically what RPJr said. Ignore the skeptics and especially all “fringe”-arguments (as far as possible [and generally it is possible]). As long as the main stream media don’t amplify them, there’s nothing to deal with.

    Furthermore, I think Latimer’s first comment above isn’t bad.

    The debate on the “solution” for the “climate-problem” is a value-based one; Tamsin’s questions on this part were spot on: Who decides which monetary, societal and environmental values should be considered assuming policy can’t serve all. And based on which values. As in all political fields: there are strong sentiments; and that’s OK.

    In assessing the state/problem, scientific evidence (from the natural sciences) may be enough but it isn’t in the decision-making. In this decision making those with different views are going to use the best evidence (from all fields) available for their “cause”, their values. The evidence may be false but that has to be countered in the literature or in the hearings. Blogs help only to a minor extent but, again, MSP provides valuable insides in the public discourse on science.

    Additional note: I don’t think Svensmark’s work should be dismissed that easily. His conclusions on the implications are likely wrong, but the basic effect still may be real. We have to wait for CLOUD.

    At Paul’s comment: sigh.

  25. Here’s Latimer in action, debating science on Twitter:

  26. Speedo-skeptics would be more Freudian.

  27. Paul agrees with Warren.
    Paul finds Warren objective.

    All we need is for Warren to agree with Paul and to find Paul objective.

  28. Thanks for the comment. You make some perfectly valid points. I agree that some of what Ben Pile, Warren Pearce say has merit. I don’t think I’ve suggested that I disagree with everything they say. If it comes across like that then I haven’t written things as well as I would have liked. Also, I am simply uncertain of what MSP is currently trying to do and so may well have mis-interpreted it or characterised it unfairly. That’s always likely.

    The dismissal of lay-people is something I do indeed worry about and, in this post, I may well have done a poor job of writing things carefully. I really am not trying to dismiss lay-people at all. I was trying to distinguish between lay-people who are open to genuine scientific discussions (and who may well be very well-informed, well-educated and experienced) and those who are presenting science that they’re getting wrong but are unwilling to accept the criticisms of professional climate scientists. That was the intent. I may well not have made it as clear as I could have.

    I think I agree that the fringe arguments aren’t formally part of the debate, but they do end up being presented in many public forums (the media for example) and it is certainly a view of mine that something like MSP could be playing a role in educating the media about who they should be talking to when it comes to the science.

    As far as the latter part of your comment is concerned, I largely agree. I disagree with what Tamsin was trying to say, but we don’t have to all agree. The whole issue of what decisions we make and how we solve these problems (or whether we attempt to do something about it) is a very complex, value-based issue. Again, what I was trying to distinguish in the post was between detailed discussions of the science, and discussions of the significance of the evidence and what we should, or should not, do. The former (detailed discussions of the science) should, in my opinion, primarily involve professional climate scientists. The latter is an entirely different issue and certainly wasn’t what I was referring to in my post. I really was trying to distinguish between the science itself (in which debates should not really play a role), and the policy (in which debates and opinions will clearly, and should, play a role).

    As far as Svensmark goes, you may be right and that’s why I added a probably after his name as I was aware of CLOUD and that not all the results were in. I also don’t think Latimer’s comment was bad and I don’t think I responded in a manner that indicated that. Not all others did the same, I will admit, but I tend to avoid moderating unless it starts getting very personal and unpleasant (unless it’s directed at me, in which I normally let it through :-)).

  29. I should add that I didn’t see a problem with the Hiroshima metaphor but I realise that many disagree. I’m still unconvinced that it is inappropriate or unwise, but I can see the issues that some have with using it.

  30. BBD says:

    Oh dear.

  31. BBD says:

    All points made re LA were accurate.

  32. BBD, I suspect I worded my response to that part of the comment poorly. I didn’t think that LA’s comment was bad, but I did disagree with most of it :-)

  33. BBD says:

    Just because odd bits of what someone says make sense does not mean that the totality – the “message” if you like – has any real validity. FWIW I agree strongly with your position about false balance. I agree that the audibility of pseudo-sceptics remains too high. I don’t believe that science is a matter of opinion and a subject for debate in the sense that public policy is.

    And I am fed up to the very back teeth with all these apologists for nonsense, greyly over-analysing said nonsense and helping it all along as they go.

  34. BBD says:

    Wotts – we crossed there.

  35. I think the problem I’m going through at the moment is that I’m fairly new to this so there is an element of optimism and naivety (don’t tell Richard Tol). I am, however, finding myself becoming less and less forgiving as time goes on and so I can understand the frustration some feel and can see why it’s justified. Although I haven’t quite got there myself, I can feel it happening.

  36. BBD says:

    It’s funny how being subjected to a sustained exercise of bad faith can sour the heart over time ;-)

  37. Tom Curtis says:

    wotts, I strenuously object to the hiroshima metaphor on several grounds.

    The least controversial is that it is poor science. Essentially, it is not energy alone that results in destructive power, but energy plus low entropy. Atomic bombs have very low entropy relative to Earth surface conditions, and are consequently very destructive in those conditions. In contrast, the energy accumulated in the ocean has very high entropy. By using atomic bombs as the unit of heat, the mind is focused misleadingly on the destructive power of that heat, regardless of the intentions of the people using the metaphor. But with that focus, the metaphor is scientifically inaccurate. I expound this point in greater detail here.

    Further, I object to the metaphor because it is only “sticky” because of the actual destruction of human lives that occurred at Hiroshima. The metaphor thus trades on human tragedy to make an illustrative point, something I consider morally objectionable. Furthermore, it is difficult to escape the notion that this is not intentional when users of the metaphor could just as easily state “atomic bombs” and footnote to the trinity test device as the actual yardstick, thereby avoiding this issue entirely.

    Finally, I have reason to believe that the citizens of Japan (in general) and of Hiroshima in particular are likely to find the metaphor disrespectful and obnoxious. My reasons are not conclusive by any means, but that is the indication. In this context, unless we are certain on good grounds (eg, possessing a letter from the major of Hiroshima indicating there is no problem), caution is the appropriate response. The metaphor should no more be used than, for example a metaphor of so many Auschwitz ovens.

  38. BBD says:

    Tom Curtis

    You have made me *think* about this properly. Thank you.

  39. Thanks, Tom. Your latter point about the people of Japan or Hiroshima I would completely agree with if it were shown to be true. I made that point on HotWhopper yesterday. Your point about entropy is also well made.

    You may also be right about the stickiness of the metaphor. I was looking at some of my first posts about this (here and here) and I certainly used the term “atom bomb” and “atomic bomb” instead of Hiroshima bomb in a number of places. I can’t remember what was going through my mind at the time, but I think I saw it simply as a comparison with an atomic bomb rather than a comparison with a horrific event. I’m not claiming that I’ve never used the term “Hiroshima bomb”, as I certainly have, but I think I initially saw the comparison as less inappropriate as others clearly do. Having said that, I’m now somewhat confused about the whole issue and can certainly see why others object to using it. I suspect I will avoid using it in future.

  40. Tom Curtis says:

    Returning to the main topic, the ridiculousness of the entire charade about “making science public” is that it already is.

    Anybody can write a scientific paper if they so choose, and certainly anybody can read them. What is more, most scientific papers are freely available at university libraries for those interested in perusing them. They can be made available on your own home through the internet for a relatively small annual fee by subscribing to a university library. Further, attendance to scientific conferences can also be arranged by virtually anybody, albeit at moderate expense.

    Science is not inaccessible to the public because it is cloistered of in academia. It is inaccessible because the overwhelming majority of the public can not be bothered to become sufficiently educated to read and understand scientific papers; nor take the effort to actually do so if they have the understanding. And, I might add, the education required is not a matter of learning the right shibboleths, but of learning sufficient maths and the historical background of evidence already uncovered, and arguments already presented.

    The key point is that these access requirements are not arbitrary. You need to know the relevant maths because the truth of the matter can turn on the correct use of maths (something fans of McIntyre can hardly deny). You need to know the historical background because the obvious arguments have already been gone over again and again, and reproducing a argument already resoundingly refuted does not exhibit understanding of the science.

    Given this, the argument that the science should be more accessible turns out to be one of two things. Either a claim that the science should be debated on a level so rudimentary that vast amounts of current knowledge (ie, all the background knowledge that experts in the field possess) must simply be ignored. Or a claim that “contributions” to the science that ignore that background knowledge have as much right to publication in scientific literature as anything else. Neither approach is credible.

  41. Jp says:

    As a layman I learn a lot from the comments of well-informed people. Alas, this sentiment doesn’t apply to those of deniers. Your post is a case in point: totally lacking in substance _ vacuous.

    What you’re implying here is that climate science, the science which is accepted by every scientific institution on the planet is not real science but denier science which is represented by a handful of papers that have been debunked or largely ignored is the real deal.

    So the question which naturally arises is: using the tools of the scientific method _ math, established theories/laws of physics, chemistry etc._ as opposed to merely saying that it’s bad and repeating it endlessly in order to brainwash the gullible crowd into believing it, how have you or your denier ilk demonstrated that the science is bad. As Science of Doom said in one of his threads, “show us the equations”.

    The other dumb comment is to state that some other person is a better scientist that Wotts when you don’t even know who Wotts is or what he’s achieved in his field of interest. I admit to only having read a few of Wotts posts, so maybe you arrived at your assessment from some analysis or opinion he’s expressed here. If so, please give us a detailed rebuttal to show what a bad scientist Wotts is.

  42. Jp says:

    The above post is directed at Paul Matthews comment.

  43. Thanks, I was confused for a moment there :-)

  44. Exactly. The system isn’t perfect, but anyone can submit a paper to a journal and most papers are available somewhere (and this is likely to get better in the near future). If anything, peer-review is more likely to let through a poor paper than reject a good one.

    The last paragraph nails it on the head really and was what I was trying to get across in the post. There’s a difference between scientists engaging with public and explaining their research and the relevance of their research (which is a good thing) and opening up the debate to anyone who thinks they have scientific idea (generally a bad thing IMO). I’m sure there will be and can be educated lay-people who could make a contribution, but this should be done through the normal channels (publication, conference, communicating with other scientists) and not through the media or the blogosphere. Not that I have anything against blogs, obviously.

  45. Latimer,

    Warren (and Richard Betts of the MO) are at least trying gather evidence to understand why sceptics (like me) are so sceptical of conventional climatology. And to engage on our terms.

    No one has the right to dictate the terms of the argument. At least not if they actually want the other side to take part.

  46. Also

    The right way to ‘make the science public’ is to debate it openly and freely – and to defend it against all comers.

    But when scientists (or others) actually do defend the science against all comers they (we) are accused of being “consensus police” or other such labels.

    those of us outside academia are used to very vigorous and robust debate in our professional lives…we have grown thick skins and enough self-confidence to see through the flimflam to the heart of the matter.

    It actually seems to me that the skeptics have rather thin skins. Because when the debate does become “vigorous and robust” they start whining about how their views aren’t taken seriously, they aren’t treated with respect or they don’t like certain labels being applied.

  47. Taking fringe or outright bogus views more seriously than they deserve is not treating them “objectively”.

  48. I agree. To study these views and why people hold them and to try and understand why there is such scepticism associated with climate science would be valuable. Suggesting that serious climate scientists should take these views more seriously is not.

  49. Sure, examining the reasons for climate scepticism is fine. But you won’t get particularly revealing answers if you simply take their claims about the reasons for their skepticism at face value, or fail to acknowledge the “fringe” nature of their scientific arguments.

  50. While I do agree with most of what you’ve said, I’m afraid I have to object to a few points you made at the end of your posting.

    Latimers comment perfectly demonstrates why it is an utterly nonsensical notion to think that scientists are to blame for diminishing trust in particular disciplines of science. They speak out, they’re gonna be attacked. They shut up, they’re gonna be accused of hiding something. Lose-lose situation as some have already pointed out. Rightly so! It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the debate about solutions is a entirely value-based one. Of course it is. However, the debate about the science is not! And people like Latimer probably won’t even be able to tell the difference. He is also utterly wrong in assuming that scientists are afraid of discourse. You know as good as I know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. If he only knew how robust – though always reasonable, i.e. based on evidence – scientific debates amongst scientists can be. I am tired of people who base their “skepticism” on the misguided notion that scientists can’t be trusted. While it might well be true for individual scientists, the majority of them can certainly be trusted.

    To be clear, I don’t mind if people are genuinely skeptical. We all are. I’m also fine if people initially dismiss the science. But if they keep repeating nonsense after someone had pointed out that it is in fact a myth, I stop debating this issue. I’m happy to talk about anything else, but not the science or solutions (as it would be based on wrong premises) anymore. I certainly refuse to tolerate that they tell me (or other experts) what or what not to do (how to engage, behave, or worse, to do the science). Btw, the same is true for the inappropriately named “honest brokers”. I’m all in favour of having interesting debates with lay people, as long as they know their limits. I am sharing wotts sentiment, which is that I, too, am finding myself becoming less and less forgiving as time goes on. I simply wasted too much discussing the science with people who – as it turned out – are not willing to learn. Luckily, they are the minority.

    Second comment is on Svensmark. His conclusions regarding the climate impact have shown to be wrong and dramatically overblown for the umpteenth time now (see e.g. Benjamin Lakens work). Rather than accepting that one’s work hasn’t stood the test of time, he keeps trying to push the issue in an irresponsible manner (if people start writing popular books once they don’t get their work past peer review anymore, my inbuilt credibility-tracker starts perking me up ;-)). No one doubts for a second that the basic effect is real – it is – but we don’t have to wait for CLOUD to know that there is no measurable climatic effect. I’m afraid we disagree on that one, as I’ve become indeed pretty dismissive as far as the work of the late(r) Svensmark is concerned. But that would just reinforce the point I made earlier ;-)

  51. Comment was meant to be re O.Bothe … just in case it isn’t clear …

  52. Tom Curtis says:

    K.a.r.S.t.e.n, I disagree (partially) about Svensmark. Because science is essentially social in nature, and because theories never face falsification individually, but always with a host of auxiliary hypotheses, individual scientists can be as recalcitrant as they like about retaining their core thesis in the face of adverse evidence. What is necessary for them to still be doing science is that they recognize the evidence to be adverse, and keep proper track of the state of play. Consistent with that, there is no problem with their communicating their views to the public, provided that they at the same time devote an appropriate amount of time acknowledging the adverse results and the fact that their colleagues are not persuaded.

    The early Svensmark to rapidly rushed to public dissemination of his theory; indulging in “science by press release”. That vice, however, is not uncommon – and given the customs of university press offices, is becoming a standard (and pernicious) practice. The later Svensmark, however, has tended to conceal the very shaky empirical grounds of his theory, which is pushing his public commentary (although not necessarily his professional activity) into the realm of pseudo-science. We should be conservative in that label, however, so I would not yet say he is a pseudo-scientist either professionally or in his public writings.

  53. I agree, it can be very good to be stubborn and not stop your research at the first indications that it is wrong. However, you should be honest about the evidence for and against your ideas.

  54. Tom and Victor, I could not agree more. “Stubborness” is definitely needed. Applies probably to myself when it comes to aerosol effects ;-). As Tom has pointed out, my problem with the later Svensmark is, that he is pretty reluctant to acknowledge the huge amount of evidence against his “pet subject”. He also seems to embrace the contrarians in an rather dubious fashion. Not very wise if you wish to convince your colleagues. As a scientist, I see it as my duty to communicate the mainstream view (as objective and honest as I possibly can), no matter how different my personal (scientific) view re some particular branches of the science might be. That is not to say that I can’t talk about my dissenting views! Not sure whether Svensmark has done a particularly good job in that regard … Perhaps other scientists have different standards? I don’t know …

  55. Karsten, lay people are holding climate science practitioners to a standard folks like you failed to uphold. Don’t take it personal. If the self criticism and corrective functions worked, which they evidently don’t, you wouldn’t have lay people filling the vacuum. You say your moral brain is yet to shut down, you should be expressing criticism first at people lining up to exploit war tragedies like Hiroshima,before asking lay people to know their limits.

    People are less willing to learn because there is dishonest activism in climate science, and folks like you attack those whose instincts are to protect science.

  56. No, what we seem to have are a group of people who either don’t understand the science, or who find the results inconvenient, who are claiming that the corrective functions have not worked. They claim to be trying to hold the climate scientists to a higher standard when in fact they’re undermining the science and making it more difficult for scientists to communicate their findings openly and clearly. Shub, I’ve discussed some of the science with you in the past and it’s fairly clear that you do not even understand some of the basics.

  57. Shub Niggurath, I see that you are a regular at WUWT and even do guest posts there.

    May I ask how the publishing of debunked, deceptive and wrong posts at WUWT day after day is upholding scientific standards and protecting science? As you are here, are aware that many posts at WUWT are trivially wrong, right?

  58. BBD says:

    Karsten, lay people are holding climate science practitioners to a standard folks like you failed to uphold.

    A blatant falsehood in everyday currency amongst the anti-science, conspiracy theorist brigade. Starting with a nonsense rather kills of anything else that might follow.

  59. Fragmeister says:


    There is tons of dishonest activism in climate science, you are quite correct. Plenty of it comes from the Heartland Institute where, it should be remembered, there was an advertising campaign linking mass murderers to climate change support. There are climate science “skeptics” who like to invoke the idea of Nuremburg style war crimes tribunals against climate scientists and the IPCC. I assume you will repudiate any such statements in the future and call them out on WUWT whenever they occur since your moral compass is so finely attuned to outrage.

    Peer review does generally work. Try this search from Retraction Watch Human activities are not perfect and science will never be. However, science is much more likely to be correct than the lay practitioners who are trying to hold it to account. The fact that WUWT is more like the National Enquirer than Nature.

  60. BBD says:

    People are less willing to learn because there is dishonest activism in climate science, and folks like you attack those whose instincts are to protect science.

    Protect science? Protect science?

    Complete reality inversion. Welcome to Planet Shub. It’s… different from our Earth.

  61. You keep repeating the same thing irrespective of context, and expect others to buy your line – that’s your criterion for determining if someone ‘understands the basics’. Thanks

  62. Sorry, I don’t really understand what you’re getting at. I don’t expect others to buy anything. I simply expect others to be able to engage in a sensible discussion about the topic at hand. When I said “the basics” I do mean the “the basic science”. Based on previous discussions with you, it’s my opinion that you do not understand the basic science associated with global warming. You’re more than welcome to prove me wrong.

  63. That’s quite funny. Contrary to what you say, mass murderers do take to global warming for some reason. That is a fact irrespective of what Heartland chooses to make of it. It is also a fact, that climate activists are attracted to destructive phenomena and using the awe and fear engendered to smuggle their point of view in. This thread is about such an event.

    Let me see your reaction to such events first. Condemn Ted Kaczynski first, before Heartland. Express your displeasure at the Hiroshima exploitation. Science’s reputation is best protected from within. If you let renegade loose cannons run their agendas in the name of your science, you’ll soon see they’ve crossed paths with outsiders who are annoyed with the degradation of quality of science in general. No point in letting your defensive impulses kick in at that moment: these are your peers, in other branches of science, and other disciplines. They will judge you, on a far more stringent scale. Perhaps unfair, perhaps ill-informed and sometimes misplaced, but that’s how things operate and as insiders, scientists take some of the blame. Because when things get out of hand in this fashion, the response and the perception cannot be controlled.

    I’ve seen scientists see worse things and pass casual judgement on investment bankers for the 2008 financial crisis. They are lay people as far as the bankers are concerned. Well guess what, the scientists are right in doing so. The bankers’ failure to self-police has a contribution to the crisis. Take the message and move on.

    I’ve rarely seen scientists express such open contempt for ‘lay people’ as has been done here. This is what Latimer referred to: the debate in the public sphere will be robust, may not be to your liking, and have the issues and details framed wrong (this is especially frustrating as hell). But if you don’t engage and retreat into your ivory tower, or choose to do, you are somewhat forfeiting the right to pass judgement on those who are engaged, and fighting for science.

  64. I’m somewhat amazed by your response. A fact that mass murderers do take to global warming? Firstly, really? Secondly, so what? How is this in any way relevant? You criticise SkS for using the Hiroshima bomb as an energy comparator and you quite happily imply that there is some significance to the possibility that mass murderers “take to global warming”. Do you not see this is as amazingly hypocritical?

    You then spend time telling people what they must do before they can be taken seriously. Who made you the arbiter of good taste? Who made you the person to decide what must be done before things can move forward? It’s fine to have an opinion. That I don’t have problem with. It’s fine for your opinion to differ from mine. It your absolute certainty and your self-righteousness that I find objectionable.

    As far as insulting lay-people goes, you misunderstand the intent. I don’t believe anyone is aiming to insult lay people in general. I certainly have not and have made enough comments to that regard to make it clear that if what I’ve written does appear to be insulting lay people, then I’ve written it poorly. What I object to are lay-people who think that they know more than professional climate scientists. People who think that because they can plot a graph in excel they’ve done some climate science. People with no relevant training who think that they somehow know better than those with years of experience. People who happily insult climate scientists and claim that they’re dishonest and can’t be trusted and then take offense when anyone criticises them. If that includes you and you find the criticism insulting, well tough. Try to behave in a more reasonable and decent manner and maybe people will stop saying things that you find insulting. And, just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly agree with everything, or anything, that others are saying.

  65. BBD says:

    But if you don’t engage and retreat into your ivory tower, or choose to do, you are somewhat forfeiting the right to pass judgement on those who are engaged, and fighting for science.

    There he goes again! Shub actually believes that he and his fellow non-sceptics are “fighting for science”. Total reality inversion. Don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  66. BBD says:


    I spent a very, very long year “debating” with you at BH, and I will say categorically that you do not understand the basics. You demonstrated your ignorance and confusion on innumerable occasions. This may be a bitter pill for you, but outside the alternative reality you inhabit (eg BH) you are not taken at all seriously. Rather the opposite, in fact.

  67. Tom Curtis says:

    The truth is that AGW deniers like Christopher Monckton routinely insult “lay people” in the bald faced lies they tell, fully expecting them to be believed and not checked. Unfortunately, for a certain section of “lay people”, that insult turns out to be rather an accurate estimate of their intellectual rigour/integrity. And that subsection of “lay people” routinely insult climate scientists through their arrogance. They expect, on a few hours reading of biased sources to be able to pick apart fundamental flaws in a theory which climate scientists have worked on, and tested for millions of person hours of time.

    Meanwhile Shub gives the likes of Monckton a free pass in the interests of “defending science”, because what he is really defending science from is the possibility that it might provide evidence on which basis people (if they knew it) would demand serious action to curtail ghg emissions.

    Given that Shub chose to name himself after a fictional entity who is (according to the mythos) “beyond good and evil”, I presume he holds himself also to be “beyond good and evil” and do not expect any moral behaviour from him, least of all adherence to truth.

  68. wotts,
    you are reading my comments outside the scope and context for which they were written. My points about the ‘lay people’ specifically refers to Karsten’s comnents. My points about Ted Kaczynski refer to Frag Meister.

    I find ‘lay people’ participating in global warming, vaccine, GM crop, environmental, public health, and a host of other debates. I don’t think they do a good job, but every day they spend immersed in it, they learn a bit and change a bit. That is the process, painful and messy as it is. The sciences benefit far more than they imagine. Outsiders spot things far more quickly, are less hindered by diplomatic concerns that bind insiders, and can afford to be forthright. Of course, there will be lots of shooting-oneself-in-foot, making a fool of oneself involved, but science benefits. Unlike Karsten who’s content preaching his science to receptive people. It’s like criticizing cleaners of the Augean stables for using foul language.

    There is no significance to mass murderers’ fascination with global warming, apart from the fact that they are drawn to apocalyptic material. The same principle is in operation in those who find Hiroshima attractive. Both are in the same class.

  69. There is no significance to mass murderers’ fascination with global warming, apart from the fact that they are drawn to apocalyptic material. The same principle is in operation in those who find Hiroshima attractive. Both are in the same class.

    Shub, if you’re going to associate (as I assume you are) those who have used the Hiroshima bomb analogy to describe the energy accruing due to global warming, with mass murderers like Ted Kaczynski, then I’m afraid I’m no longer going to waste my time engaging in discussions with you. I’m even willing to acknowledge that I am now starting to see that the argument against using the Hiroshima bomb analogy has merit, but that’s beside the point.

  70. Pingback: Making Science Public » The ‘Making Science Public’ blog: What is it for?

  71. Fragmeister says:


    I didn’t say whether mass murderers took one side or the other on the AGW debate. I merely pointed out the distasteful way Heartland used those ads. Of course, Anders Breivik is a notorious mass murderer and climate change skeptic, so it does work both ways. I find it weird that “skeptics” have such thin skins on a number of issues (the use of the word denialist because it suggests Holocaust denial, for example) yet use “metaphors” that explicitly link environmentalists (environMENTALists, for goodness sake) with Nazi war crimes and SS atrocities.

    I called a commenter out on this at WUWT only today. It is an odious meme that “skeptics” like to use regardless of how offensive it actually is. I read a few weeks back that commenters over there should stick to the science and not ad homs. I suppose since the science is secure, the typical fake skeptic methods, perpetuated by creationist attacks on evolution for decades, are all that is left. The future might prove Watts and his crowd correct, but I very much doubt it.

    As for the Hiroshima simile, there has been a lengthy history of using atomic bombs to explain to the general public a quantity of energy. The public has seen enough images of these bombs going off and the destruction they cause to get some handle on the amount of energy being talked about. It is unfortunate but it has happened. It would be nice to find a different simile but for the moment it is still a handy cut and paste image for some writers. More thought might have been better

  72. Ok, I get it. The use of “deniers” is horrible, but it has some meaning, and it has been done for a while. The same has been done with Hiroshima bombs. It is unfortunate. But we’ll keep doing it.

  73. Shub, I’m afraid you belong to the category of lay people I’m not gonna spent a second arguing with anymore. I am sorry.

  74. BBD says:

    A wise decision.

  75. I note that you made the same decision as I did.

  76. Jp says:

    “I’ve rarely seen scientists express such open contempt for ‘lay people’ as has been done here.”
    I’m a lay-person and I don’t feel any contempt expressed towards me by anything that Wotts has written. The logic of the argument is self-evident. You’d have to be pretty thick or deluded or both to believe that any lay-person who doesn’t have the requisite science training can meaningfully debate with a real climate scientist. And even worse to advocate public debates, with their all their limitations _ time restrictions, constraints on the ability to access information etc. This would favour any gish-gallopping denier because the scientist would have difficulty keeping up with the rebuttals under that set-up.

    “If you let renegade loose cannons run their agendas in the name of your science, you’ll soon see
    they’ve crossed paths with outsiders who are annoyed with the degradation of quality of science
    in general.”
    Who are the renegade loose cannons? And what are their agendas? The only outsiders annoyed
    are the gullible and uninformed ones _ the unfortunate ones who have stumbled into that den of disinformation that is WTFUWT and have been indoctrinated as a consequence.

    “Condemn Ted Kaczynski first, before Heartland.”
    What? What’s the relevance of Ted Kaczynski to global warming or climate science? It’s not Wotts job or duty to condemn murderers. Why would he do that? Heartland is to be condemned because it’s involved in anti-climate science propaganda. Is Ted Kaczynski funding denier, anti-science propaganda?

    “mass murderers do take to global warming for some reason.”

    And the stupid unsubstantiated opinions just keep coming.

    What strikes me is how incongruous it is for denizens of WTFUWT to come out and rant about the integrity of climate science when just about on a weekly basis rubbish emanating from there is taken apart and exposed for the bad science that it is by people like Tamino and others. Talk about lack of self-awareness.

  77. Of course, you won’t. You won’t spend any time defending your discipline from the Hiroshima nonsense either.

    Don’t whine if lay people don’t think much of your kind.

    You should stop to wonder sometime where the money that funds science comes from.

  78. Response to Bridgette Nerlich [It wont appear on the blog]

    While it is admirable that you provide answers to these questions, you must be aware that some as wotts, wouldn’t be ‘puzzled’, ‘wondering’, or asking questions were this blog to function as a conveyor belt ferrying quasi-alarmist claims from the climate science meta narrative.

    The main reason for puzzlement arises from being a platform where a couple of skeptical voices could express and make it be known they are just sane people tackling the same questions supporters of orthodoxy valiantly attempt to answer.

    These delegitimization exercises and forays must stop. When science becomes public, there are bound to be individuals encountered who’ve taken a simplistic, and/or polarized view of science. It is inevitable. And then there are climate skeptics, who for instance, have far greater knowledge of the state of science, its weaknesses, and the basis for key claims in the meta-narrative.

  79. BBD says:

    Well, we know where the money to fund science comes from because it is disclosed. The problems arise when we try to understand where the money funding climate misinformation comes from. They hide from the light.

  80. uilyam says:

    “The debate on the ‘solution’ for the ‘climate-problem’ is a value-based one; Tamsin’s questions on this part were spot on: Who decides which monetary, societal and environmental values should be considered assuming policy can’t serve all. And based on which values. As in all political fields: there are strong sentiments; and that’s OK.”

    This strikes me as a bit idealistic. As a practical matter, it seems that the greatest debate question, with one side framing the question based on their values (money?), is whether there is a climate-problem. In other words, rather than debating solution strategies, where values are indeed relevant, we too often seem to debate whether there is a problem in fact. But the realm of facts is the realm of science, and values are not really relevant here.

    In another venue, I raised the question of whether we have the science-policy interface back-assward. Maybe we should have the value-based debate first and politically establish the characteristics of our desirable future. Then we can pass the “we like…, we prefer…, we want…” wish list to the scientists/engineers/technologists who will decide the procedures and processes necessary to attain the value-based goals (or may send some back with explanations of why it is impossible and request revised targets).

    I am perfectly well aware that I am being idealistic about the possibility of revising the order in the science-policy interface. But I still like to think about it…

  81. An interesting idea. I guess I kind of think that they main problem is that the scientists are being undermined so the evidence they present is not being trusted. So, to me, the solution is to change this so that scientists can present their evidence openly and without inteference. Policy makers can then make decisions based on the implications of this evidence. Of course, then there can be the kind of feedback that you seem to be suggesting. Scientists could then establish the implications of the policy decisions, etc.

  82. uilyam says: “Tamsin’s questions on this part were spot on: Who decides which monetary, societal and environmental values should be considered assuming policy can’t serve all.”

    No, that was not the question. No one is suggesting we should have a dictatorship by scientists. The question was are scientists allowed to have a voice in the public debate.

    uilyam says: “As a practical matter, it seems that the greatest debate question, with one side framing the question based on their values (money?), is whether there is a climate-problem.”

    I personally find it weird, we are still having that discussion. But certainly if that is the discussion, it would make sense to listen to climate scientists as well. They typically understand the climate system somewhat better as WUWT and co.

    uilyam says: “Maybe we should have the value-based debate first and politically establish the characteristics of our desirable future.”

    That is how it is done. Scientists have tried to compute the the small contribution of the Kyoto treaty written by politicians. If the countries blocking progress in climate politics, would stop having this weird debate whether there is a problem, would come to the negotiation table and have a productive discussion with all countries involved, scientists would be happy to compute the consequences of that solution. If politics does not provide any solutions, science has to make some assumptions themselves for illustrative purposes.

    I feel I am allowed to write such a comment, even if I am a climate scientist. I did not give up my human rights the moment I wrote my first climate article.

    Come to think of it, Anthony Watts is co-author of a climate article. That officially makes him a climate scientist. If WUWT stops blogging about climate, I would volunteer to stop blogging about climate politics in return.

  83. Tom Curtis says:

    Victor, your first quote of Uilyam is a quote by Uilyam from O Bothe above. I take it that Uilyam disagrees with the sentiment.

    In fact the problem with the climate debate comes down to this – the climate scientists have very clearly laid out the probable consequences of a particular policy, ie, no action, in terms of changes to climate, changes to agriculture, disease vectors, sea levels and so on. It is then a question of values as to whether you consider those changes a problem, and if so, which is the best way to deal with that problem. Unfortunately, one side of the debate either knows that they will not be able to both accept the projections of the scientists, and persuade the general population that there is no problem; or see the projections as a problem but find the solutions or even the possibility “free markets” could cause such problems objectionable based on their values. Based on these two responses they have either knowingly and falsely argued that the scientists are wrong so that the general populace will not accept that there is a problem; or have rejected the scientists conclusions as false based on dissonance with their ideology.

    In both cases, values are being allowed to determine what can be considered acceptable as factual. In one case it represents a dishonest attempt to subvert the application of the presumed values of the general populace to the facts at hand. In the second it is the refusal to accept the facts at hand because it would require some revision of values. The second group makes fertile ground for the first group, whose strategy would have failed by now without their willing concurrence.

  84. Tom, thanks. Yes, I did not notice the quotes and consequently totally misread Uilyam’s comment. In that case forget most and see the beginning as a late response to a part of Bothe’s comment, that I had missed before.

    You sure have a problem if your world view tells you “there is no such thing as society”, only individuals, in a world that is becoming more and more interdependent.

    Changing your world view when you are adult is difficult. Ironically, especially if your friends have the same view, which shows how much we are social animals. The easiest way to deal with this cognitive dissonance is to make scientists into scape goats.

  85. uilyam says:

    @wottsupwiththatblog Two points:
    1. “the solution is to change this so that scientists can present their evidence openly and without inteference.”
    Well, I’d be a frayed knot if I accepted this as a solution. It strikes me as a possible objective or goal. If you can explain the “what” and “how” for attaining this change, then I might regard it as a solution.
    2. “Policy makers can then make decisions based on the implications of this evidence.”
    Wouldn’t it be loverly if this would generally occur in today’s real world? But see the subsequent comment by Tom Curtis.
    Incidentally, my thoughts about restructuring the science-policy interface come from a few months reflection and discussions about Silke Beck’s presentation “Scientific Advice for Policy: What role(s) for scientific advice?” 37:42.

  86. uilyam says:

    @Victor Venema
    “Anthony Watts is co-author of a climate article. That officially makes him a climate scientist.”
    When I was at the Mental Health Research Institute about four decades ago, I was a co-author (with Tagliacozzo and Kochen) of an article concerning how decision-makers in public service organizations use information. Officially, I am NOT an information scientist. Much more recently, I published a couple articles in a peer-reviewed journal concerning the divisibility of binomial coefficients by powers of primes and introduced the notion of “subprime factorization.” Officially, I am NOT a mathematician. I’m not judging Mr. Watts here, but I do not see that your second statement necessarily follows from the first. One swallow does not a summer make, nor do two.

  87. uilyam says:

    @Tom Curtis
    I like your nice analysis. The next step is to notice that the two groups, characterized in your last paragraph, seem to control the legislative policy-making apparatus in certain major countries. This leads me to question whether scientists advising such “policy makers” is worthwhile. As Jim Croce wrote in a song, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.”

  88. Yes, Tom’s description of the issue is good. I’m just not sure why that would lead us to conclude that scientists shouldn’t engage with “such policy makers”. It could well be pointless, but doing nothing would clearly achieve nothing. Uilyam, I’m a little lost as to what you’re actually suggesting.

  89. Rachel says:

    Paul’s comment (which I’ve only just seen) is an insult, is unsubstantiated and has no relevance to this discussion. Definitely worthy of moderation in my view but I know you’re too fair to do that.

  90. From Paul, it’s pretty much what I expect. I’d rather leave such comments up for posterity and for others to judge :-)

  91. Rachel says:

    I mostly agree with this comment, Tom, especially the bit about science being easily accessible to anyone with enough interest to visit their local library. On the whole, I think science is very accessible to the public and widely encouraged. Look at all the science programs and documentaries that have become mainstream as well as the popularity of superstar scientists like Brian Cox. I am not a scientist so I ought to know how accessible it is.

    The only bit I take issue with is your statement “the overwhelming majority of the public can not be bothered to become sufficiently educated to read and understand scientific papers”. I have read a few scientific papers and some of them are very hard to read. That’s why I read news media like The Conversation which is written by academics but in such a way that the general public can understand. I also imagine that some scientific papers are so specialised and abstract that only other people in that field can fully comprehend what is being said. I am married to a pure mathematician and I have glanced at some of his papers. I do not understand them at all but it’s not because I cannot be bothered.

    There are also some significant shortcomings with science education in schools as this conspiracy theorist, who thinks there’s something in her water supply because there’s a rainbow in her sprinkler, demonstrates.

  92. Tom Curtis says:

    Rachel, I don’t disagree with your assessment of how opaque some scientific papers can be. What I disagree with is the idea that science should be dumbed down so that anybody who has passed high school can understand it. Virtually anybody in our society can, with sufficient effort, become educated enough to read and understand scientific papers. For most people, sufficiently educated probably means an advanced degree in science. That, however, does not represent a limitation in access to science. Only a limitation in how much effort people are prepared to put into accessing science.

  93. Rachel says:

    Hopefully making science accessible != dumbing science down.

  94. I suspect it depends on what one means by the terms “dumbing down”. There are aspects of what I do that I wouldn’t begin to explain to even well-educated lay-people. Not because they don’t have the ability to understand it, simply because I know that it takes a long time to understand the details of some things. That doesn’t mean that one can’t explain why you’re doing something, how you went about studying it (without going into excruciating detail) and what the results and implications are. On the other hand, talking to the public as if they are completely clueless and are simply being educated by someone who knows better would not – in my opinion – be the right way to engage.

  95. Rachel says:

    I would guess also, that when you do talk to someone who is not a physicist about what you do, that you manage to do it without making them feel “stupid” and brushing them aside if they don’t get it right away. These to me are important qualities for making science accessible and engaging with the public. You have certainly created a very level discussion field here on your blog, even though some of us understand quite a bit less than others and I’m talking about myself here. The other thing I’ve noticed is the language you use which is very straight-forward and to the point. I think Ben Pile could learn a few things about making science public from you and your blog.

    There are two things I think are important when communicating science with the public and these are:
    a) ditch the big words
    b) include lots of pictures and diagrams
    And I think you manage to do both of these very well.

  96. Thanks, it’s certainly what I’ve been trying to do. Nice to know that some think it’s working. I doubt, however, that Ben Pile would be willing to learn from me or my blog :-)

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