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Should we listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?

16 April 2014

Summary: What is the role of amateurs’ analysis in the climate science debate? They’re increasingly dominating the debate, even declaring the work of scientists as invalid or flawed. Are they valuable voices, or chaff — reducing this vital debate to cacophony?

Experts

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Contents

  1. Are amateurs needed?
  2. Their role in the public debate
  3. Why should laypeople listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?
  4. For More Information

(1)  Are amateurs needed?

Often difficult to spot — they often speak like experts, sometimes like a Pope of Science — amateurs have become an increasingly loud voice in the public discussions of climate science.  They can help experts — climate scientists and meteorologists  — in many ways, such as data collection and analysis, synthesis of new ideas. But what about the role of amateurs in the public debate about science, especially in issues with major public policy implications?

Do we need more people giving us analysis of climate change? Speaking as long-time reporter on climate change (over 200 posts), I cannot follow the output of experts written for laypeople (like myself) from…

  1. the many climate-related agencies, including the IPCC and BEST;
  2. articles for laypeople in the major peer-reviewed journals;
  3. articles in the lay-science news media (e.g., New Scientist, Scientific America);
  4. blogs by climate scientists (e.g., RealClimate, Climate Etc);
  5. publications by meteorologists (e.g., the Browning newsletter)
  6. statements by scientists’ professional organizations (e.g., American Physical Society)

Much of this is high quality, clear and easy to understand. Do we need a legion of amateurs to provide more? I see to much to track, let alone read. It’s a deluge. We need a Noah, not more water.

(2)  Their role in the public debate

Given the vast body of material by scientists written for the public about climate change, why do both sides in the climate debate increasingly rely on amateurs? Worse, the voices of amateurs increasingly drown out that of scientists. They not only give their own data, analysis, and theories — but often declare the work of actual scientists to be flawed or invalid, or even declare the scientists themselves to be illegitimate in their own field. See the posts documenting the Left’s abandonment of the IPCC for more extreme views (often without strong science foundations). The Right has their counterparts, some even denying the fact of past anthropogenic warming.

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We can only guess at the answer, but it is an obvious answer: amateurs often speak more vividly than experts. Less hedging, simple to understand, less talk about uncertainties of data and theory, bolder and more extreme forecasts. Far more politically useful.

Amateurs are deployed by both sides in the climate wars as shock troops to influence the debate, as they have no professional reputations to risk.

(3)  Why should laypeople listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?

The equally obvious problem with all these high volume amateurs: laypeople cannot determine if an amateur’s statements are valid. Science is not like pornography, that we know it when we see it. Worse, most (not all) amateurs in the debate are  advocates — seeking to persuade, not inform. Their writings start with a strong political view and use climate science as a tool of persuasion.

Since laypeople cannot distinguish wheat from chaff in the analysis of amateurs, how do we typically decide on whom to rely? By confirmation bias. Does this person help the forces of good, or is their analysis supporting the bad guys? This is apparent in the comments to posts about climate on the FM website, with many commenters obviously not having read the post — responding only to defend the thoughts of right-thinking folks from heterodox ideas.

There is no bright line between reporting and analysis, but it’s something to consider when reading about technical subjects. What is the qualification of the author to make the statements in the article?

My recommendation: stick to reading the pros, or descriptions of the pros’ work (reporting).

(4) For More Information

Posts about experts:

  1. Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?, 21 June 2013
  2. Do we face a future without confidence in experts?, 25 September 2013

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35 Comments leave one →
  1. WaltFrench permalink
    16 April 2014 5:17 pm

    I recently saw a 2005 Nee Yorker cover with Santa fretting over the polar cap melting at his feet—a good reminder that the climate change debate moved into the broad public at least a decade ago.

    In any society that’s remotely democratic, it’s inevitable that we turn to authorities we trust, and in the US of 2014 that includes TV commentators, politicians (!), ministers, interest groups, newspaper op-eds, … I seem to have forgott… and oh, yes, scientific sources. But as you yourself note, the science is so far ahead of the public awareness that reports may seem microscopically important to a small subset of the broad issue, not helping us to make smart economic decisions.

    So we unsurprisingly continue with overwhelming science confirming the models’ explanatory power and reasonably accurate-seeming predictions. And the message about economic costs and benefits of various interventions driven by a small set of very self-interested actors. This is not the best lacking resolve but to my eyes the scientists properly respecting out democratic traditions, which has allowed the bad discussions to drive out the good. And yes, some of us non-scientists get frustrated and start waving our arms around.

    This probably will stay in a horrible muddle until some credible economic analysis gets married to the raw science.

    Like

    • 16 April 2014 5:40 pm

      Walt,

      “So we unsurprisingly continue with overwhelming science confirming the models’ explanatory power and reasonably accurate-seeming predictions.”

      I don’t see the “overwhelming science confirming the models’ explanatory power. The relevant section of the Working Group I report in AR5 says nothing remotely like that.

      We have discussed this in comments to other posts, with ample citations. I can link to these if you are interested.

      As for the predictions, your statement is hardly correct. The global surface atmosphere temperature is tracking on the lower edge of model forecasts made in the late 1990s assuming the current CO2 emission path (I.e., models forecast temperatures for various CO2 emission scenarios). If the pause continues, it will break decisively out of the forecasts’ range during the next few years.

      One of the major concentrations of climate science is determining the causes and forecasting the duration of the pause. There is as yet little agreement on either. There are several posts providing voluminous citations on these matters. I can provide links if you are interested.

      Like

    • 16 April 2014 5:48 pm

      Walt,

      “—a good reminder that the climate change debate moved into the broad public at least a decade ago.”

      Climate change moved into the broad public debate in the 1990s, as shown by the rate of mentions in the news media.

      Given that these things are subjective, even arbitrary, I date this emergence. Into the big time to James Hansen’s Senate testimony on a hot day in June 1988. This also foreshadowed the nature of the public debate, as it was somewhat fraudulently stage-managed. For details see:

      http://fabiusmaximus.com/2010/02/19/crusade/

      Like

  2. MamaBear permalink
    17 April 2014 1:46 am

    What makes an expert? A college degree? Years of experience? Living in the debated environment? A paid consultant?My experience as a lay person with years of experience living in an environment that was in question. A company(WESTWOOD Professional Services) hired by a developer(National Wind) did a desktop study having never set foot in the landscape they were hired to write a report for to obtain a site permit. They used outdated Google search information & DNR information. The landscape was described as devoid of riparian habitat. An early winter observation failed to find any identifiable waterfowl.Strange as this was in the Mississippi Flyway? Concerned citizenry began to question the paid consultants intentions. Was the report designed to further the objectives of the employer.Get the permit. Was it possible that a biologists would consider who paid them over the wildlife they went to college to study because of a passion.
    If in Doubt, Follow the Money. Who is paying whom? Who’s research is being funded by whom? What kind of research is in vogue?
    In my experience the biologist hired for the report was willing to overlook the habitat to obtain the permit for the developer.
    Lies were told saying there were no Bald Eagles in the area. Many active nests were located by citizens familiar with the landscape in question. DNR documented and determined the area to have 418 migratory & resident bald eagle.The MN PUC agreed and the AWA Goodhue/NEW ERA wind project lost it’s permit & was not built.
    It was the amateur expert involved citizens that asked the questions and refused to be ignored that made the difference.
    Who is paying whom for what is a very good question to consider.
    Citizens groups Goodhue Wind Truth & The Coalition for Sensible Siting were important in finding the answers and sharing information.

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 2:45 am

      Mamabear raises two important issues.

      The smaller is about the qualifications of an expert. This is, of course, subjective. For me it is someone with the relevant professional training and professional experience. For advise about climate change, to me that means a PhD in a relevant field and experience as a researcher or practitioner in a climate-related field.

      Again, as stated in the post, participation in the debate among scientists has different criteria. They can evaluate content, which laypeople (like myself) cannot easily do. Hence the importance of the criteria

      The other issue is both more difficult and problematic: ethics. Professional skills do not ensure professional ethics. Climate science badly lags other fields of equal or lesser public policy import — such as drug testing, with its elaborate conflict of interest regulations and double-blind testing. The IPCC, for example, makes little effort to enforce its own weak ethical provisions.

      As Mamabear reminds us, we must always consider “Cui Bono”. Who benefits? Not only to scientists have a stake in the outcomes of these issues, but also do the larger political interests involved on both sides of the climate wars.

      Like

  3. RoHa permalink
    17 April 2014 4:19 am

    “Climate change moved into the broad public debate in the 1990s”

    Margaret Thatcher moved it into public debate in 1988, as part of her war on the coal miners. She later changed her mind, but the damage had been done.

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 4:43 am

      RoHa,

      Thanks for the reminder that these issues move at different rates, in different times, in other nations.

      Like

    • RoHa permalink
      22 April 2014 2:08 am

      Now I check the dates, Hansen’s 1988 testimony to the US Senate preceded Thatcher’s 1988 speech, so that looks to be the appropriate date for the start of US public debate. I’m inclined to think her Nov. 89 speech to the UN General Assembly made it an international issue.

      Like

  4. North permalink
    17 April 2014 7:17 am

    The whole ‘global warming’ boils down to matching ‘interests’ of the various so called ‘elites':

    1) Wall-street, will be more then happy to inflate another bubble, green tech this time, because this is what they can do – inflating bubbles.
    2) The liberal media, again – the only thing they can do is manipulation. It is so tempting to ‘scare the shit out of the sheeple’ and sell them ‘The story’..

    When their ‘agendas’ synchronize, we get paid by, nurtured and vocalized scientists selling us ‘models’.. I am not against investment in green tech, unfortunately as side effects of the manipulation we get eco-fashists, neglect over important areas of energetics and fluffy expensive toys.

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 1:42 pm

      North,

      “The whole ‘global warming’ boils down to matching ‘interests’ of the various so called ‘elites’”

      I don’t know what you mean by that. If you mean that the world has not been warming for the past two centuries, or warming since 1950 (largely due to antrhopogenic causes), you’re way out in Left field. There is little evidence for your belief, and a mountain of evidence for the opposite view.

      Like

    • North permalink
      17 April 2014 5:06 pm

      You don’t or you don’t want to “understand”?
      You take your ‘evidence’ and put it where the ‘evidence’ for the flat earth, inferior races, the “just out of the door, about to invade us commies”, etc. stories are at present..

      Like

    • 17 April 2014 5:46 pm

      North,
      The difference between us is that I have evidence — massive quantities of it, from many sources — to support my beliefs.

      You, on the other hand, attack without any visible evidence that you know what my beliefs are, and give nothing but snark to defend you own.

      So we’re left with just your very strange comment about “flat earth” and racism. Nowhere to go with it.

      Like

    • North permalink
      17 April 2014 6:35 pm

      Well, being “out in the Left field” is the label you are used to put on anyone contradicting your beliefs.
      What ‘Left’? The US corporate ‘Left’ that is behind the manipulation via the media? That ‘Left”? No, I am not in that field. The eco-fashism that came from the Rome Club and mutated into ‘Global warming’ hype? No, I am not in that field too.
      Massive swing in both directions of the climate are part of the system behavior, and if some folks are trying to model the quasi-chaotic atmosphere, excluding extra-planetary factors like Sol, cosmic rays, rotation cycles of the star around the galactic arm axis – I wish them good luck, but please, send them to sell their simple models to some economist. Now if they can model the system I have mentioned above, then.. I don’t think they will experience any climate related problem at all.. Data is not evidence. You can drown in your data, you can let yourself get convinced in the validity of whatever model, but please, don’t try to ‘Left’ me as a counterargument.

      Like

    • 17 April 2014 7:42 pm

      North,

      Please try responding to what. I say, and not just fantasize and respond to that. Let’s replay the tape. I said:

      “If you mean that the world has not been warming for the past two centuries, or warming since 1950 (largely due to antrhopogenic causes), you’re way out in Left field. There is little evidence for your belief, and a mountain of evidence for the opposite view.”

      (A). I believe most people reading understood “left field” as a baseball analogy.

      (B). You ignored what I said about past warming. Try justifying what you said, rather than zooming off on new tangents.

      (C). I have no idea to what the rest of your comment is responding. Nothing I said. Try responding to quotes, or at least point to something specific.

      (D). Rants just waste everybody’s time, including yours.

      Like

    • North permalink
      17 April 2014 8:02 pm

      “largely due to antrhopogenic causes” is precisely what I refuse to accept as underlying ‘reason’ for the current ‘trend’ /is there any?/ of ‘warming’. I believe the human activity contribute with minimal to negligible amount to the trend /what trend?/. what will 2-3 decades of cold weather do with their ‘models’? how will they explain it? same way as the ‘pollution in China influence the winters in US’? is there anything resembling science left, not involved in the ‘political struggle’?

      what I am much more worried about is waste. any kind of waste, especially chemicals. so if the ‘Left field’ is a metaphor I misunderstood, then please, accept my apology. I took it as a political spectrum designation.

      Like

    • 17 April 2014 8:26 pm

      North,

      “largely due to antrhopogenic causes” is precisely what I refuse to accept as underlying ‘reason’ for the current ‘trend’ ”

      Like so many well-established theories in science, it is not something easy shown to convince a layperson (another example: evolution). All anyone can do is point to what scientists say, and from there each person makes up their own mind.

      “Is there any {current trend}?”

      That’s an important point, one often misstated by alarmists.
      * If “current” means since roughly 2000, no.
      *If it means since 1950 (aprox when anthropogenic forces contributed more than half the warming), yes.
      * If it means during the past 2 centuries, yes. But most of that is from natural causes.
      * if it means from the peak of the medieval optimum, probably not (but opinions differ, since the paleoclimate global temperature data remains difficult to read with high confidence.

      And so it goes, with different time horizons showing different pictures.

      The best direct measurements, the central England record, unfortunately goes back only to 1659. The reliable global record, from satellites, goes to 1979.

      “What will 2-3 decades of cold weather do with their models?”

      If, as some climate scientists believe, the pause continues for another decade (or 2) then the global temperature will decisively fall out of their forecast range for the actual levels of CO2. They will be “disproven”, in the simplest sense.

      To see my opinion on all of this, with links to more information:

      http://fabiusmaximus.com/science-nature/climate-change-67063/

      Like

    • North permalink
      17 April 2014 8:42 pm

      Yep, I do agree, they will be disproved. But your fellow-citizens /well, most of them/ have memory span of 1-3 months /it is called postmodernism, full flavor/. So your struggle to convince them is totally futile. And still, I think by using temperature measurements only and excluding extraterrestrial factors they invalidate their models from scratch.

      Like

    • 17 April 2014 8:50 pm

      North,

      ” But your fellow-citizens /well, most of them/ have memory span of 1-3 months”

      Sadly, I agree. Our amnesia — living in the now — makes us weak and foolish. i have written much about this, unfortunately without any solutions.

      “So your struggle to convince them is totally futile.”

      I disagree totally, but as a matter of faith — not logic or evidence.

      “And still, I think by using temperature measurements only and excluding extraterrestrial factors they invalidate their models from scratch”

      The state of science is what it is. There is lots of work on solar influences, but so far not much in the way of results.

      See my posts about this in section 2:

      http://fabiusmaximus.com/science-nature/

      See a very partial list of papers about this in section 6 and 7:

      http://fabiusmaximus.com/science-nature/science-other/

      Like

  5. 17 April 2014 12:29 pm

    Call out the Inquisition and silence these heretical amateurs. There’s no room for freedom of ideas in science.

    Like

  6. 17 April 2014 1:48 pm

    Amateurs are always welcome in science…if they understand the science to begin with. Insisting that the experts are wrong merely because you don’t understand the science does not advance the field.

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 2:15 pm

      Snark rates,

      Quite so.

      Like

    • MamaBear permalink
      17 April 2014 3:47 pm

      Yes, Amateurs with an agenda exist and are easily spotted. Blog trolls that sound credible to the amateur public flashing credentials but in fact are fed what to say exist in every climate debate out there.Take no offense but there also exists the arrogant scientists who with a superior attitude insists his/her explanations/outcome is the only correct one and any with a differing outcome are wrong and must be vilified. A few are loud & vocal. Most scientists do things right but we all know the squeaky wheel story. This is unfortunate as it gets in the way of real science and dialog. Scientific explanations/outcomes are often just a hypothesis based on information given to a scientist. When information given a scientist is given to produce a desired outcome to further a political agenda it becomes a problem. Indeed the scientists work will be correct based on the information given, however it may be wrong if the original information given was not collected by the scientist but presented by an individual looking for the desired outcome.
      It goes back to ethics. Even a scientist can be swayed by personal opinion and may not be impartial. Many eyes including those of the amateur may be needed to shine a light of doubt where one is due. The amateur may be looking at things a scientist would overlook.

      Like

    • 17 April 2014 3:51 pm

      MamaBear,
      I agree. As with all professions, utility to society starts with ethics — not expertise. Thanks for the reminder!

      Like

  7. ListeningAmateur permalink
    17 April 2014 2:49 pm

    You nailed the primary issue standing in the way of a fully informed public – amateurs with an agenda, as opposed to having an objective understanding, who speak loudly in every forum available, polluting the ethos of understanding in our culture. I refer to these people as having “unsubstantiated arrogance”.

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 3:03 pm

      Listening Amateur,

      Also note when reading these people how many are paid amateur experts — paid propagandists, shock troops for powerful political interests.

      Both Left and Right do it — because it works. That is how one influences a weak people. But we can change, starting with The Man in the Mirror.

      Like

  8. RWT permalink
    17 April 2014 3:32 pm

    I didn’t even bother reading past the second section because the author is clearly confused as to whom the so-called “amateurs” are and how they are coming to their own conclusions. First, so-called amateurs are NOT using their own data. Second, just because someone doesn’t call themselves a “climatologist” doesn’t mean they are an amateur. Many “amateurs” are scientists in other fields and are quite capable of understanding and writing on the topic of climate science, more so for instance than the blog you claim is run by climate “scientists”, Real Climate.

    Really all the laymen needs in order to get a grip on the climate debate is their own two eyes and a good sense of the history of weather. The first so that they can see that this years climate wherever they live is not different than what it was decades ago and the latter so that they don’t fall for the sensationalist propaganda of current “extreme” weather events.

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 3:50 pm

      RWT,

      Thanks for explaining that you did not understand the post.

      “First, so-called amateurs are NOT using their own data. ”

      That’s a bizarrely broad statement. Often false, too.

      “Second, just because someone doesn’t call themselves a “climatologist” doesn’t mean they are an amateur. … Many “amateurs” are scientists in other fields”

      What leads you believe that I, or anyone, disagrees with that statement? Strawman Attack often?

      ” for instance than the blog you claim is run by climate “scientists”, Real Climate.”

      You believe that most of the people posting at RealClimate are not climate scientists? Weird. Can you provide evidence for that assertion?

      ” Really all the laymen needs in order to get a grip on the climate debate is their own two eyes and a good sense of the history of weather.”

      Wow, that sounds quite mad.

      “The first so that they can see that this years climate wherever they live is not different than what it was decades ago”

      First, warming is not uniform. The world could warm a lot but not in your village. Second, an increase of 2 degrees over 20 years is probably imperceptible given the wide swings of daily and seasonal and annual temperatures — and the limited ability of the human mind to collect and process evidence (a staple of first year law school).

      “and the latter so that they don’t fall for the sensationalist propaganda of current “extreme” weather events.”

      Extreme weather is by definition rare, and hence can only be put in historical context by comparison with magnitude and frequency of similar events over generations or centuries.

      Like

    • 17 April 2014 5:55 pm

      RTW,

      More about this, which is wrong in so many ways;

      “”The first so that they can see that this years climate wherever they live is not different than what it was decades ago”

      Most Americans live in areas where changes in land use dwarf any other climate signals. Most importantly, urban heat island effects — so that personal experience for many or most Americans over decades should be anthropogenic local warming.

      To get a fun picture of this, watch “The Big Sleep” (1946). In the middle they drive out into the countryside, farmland. That today is the core of the San Francisco – San Jose metro area. All those trees and fields are buildings, asphalt, and concrete — with massive inputs of energy from gasoline, natural gas, and electricity. An urban heat island, with much of it built in one lifetime – much of it during the past 3 decades.

      Like

  9. MamaBear permalink
    17 April 2014 4:09 pm

    I would like to Thank the author for allowing thoughtful comment from scientists and laymen alike. The knowledge and experience of both are equally important.
    Such dialog is being eliminated from mainstream media, many blogs censor comments and dissenting view are often attacked.
    Your approach is appreciated and the dialog has been stimulating.

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 5:42 pm

      MamaBear,

      “Such dialog is being eliminated from mainstream media, many blogs censor comments and dissenting view are often attacked.”

      I agree. But as usual “why” is the most important question. My guess, with 30 thousand comments on the FM website, is that we are seeing the free market at work. Many Americans want confirmation of their beliefs — easy to read, comforting, especially with a cloud of cheering comments. The safe warm herd.

      Challenging even disturbing ideas, especially when asking for logic and facts to support our beliefs, is something to be avoided for many Americans. Hence the swarming attacks so often see on websites in response to heterodox thought.

      We get what we want.

      Like

    • 17 April 2014 5:57 pm

      Mama bear,

      For evidence of my guesses see the comments on this thread by RWT and North. Most of the comments on the FM website are like these.

      For the reactions to the wasteland of comments by high-profile website operators see:

      http://fabiusmaximus.com/about/comments-on-the-fm-website/

      Like

  10. Rich Balance permalink
    18 April 2014 2:24 pm

    I hope you realize that realclimate is a propaganda site by activist scientists. You will not be given a balanced view of the science or reality from that site.

    A good example was their attempt to discredit the Knight et al paper. They used a climate model run from 2002, over a decade ago. Yes, it provided a 21 year “pause” which was much longer than 15 years which Knight et al demonstrates as the falsification criteria for dangerous or even moderate AGW. However, if you actually went and read the paper by the scientists that created that model they admitted their ENSO simulation was unnatural. It was 3-5 times the actual values we see. Of course, this is exactly what is needed to create a longer pause in a model that still shows long term warming. The ONLY and I repeat ONLY reason to write an article like they did was for DISINFORMATION.

    That is the level of science you get from these activists. Meanwhile, they delete any comments that show up their unscientific behavior. Sorry, but once you referred to that particular site you lost all credibility.

    I won’t even go into the problems with the global temperature data prior to satellites that has been so badly manipulated that it is almost completely useless.

    Like

    • 18 April 2014 3:06 pm

      Rich,

      Sadly, I agree. The goal of the activist-scientists at RealClimate appears to be propaganda.

      A clear demonstration of their goal and methods is their handling of comments. Deletion of valid criticism and inconvenient questions, and the occasional editing.

      As for the global temperature network, I agree that the satellite networks provide a far more accurate and reliable guide than the land and sea stations.

      Like

  11. OldSkeptic_2 permalink
    21 April 2014 9:42 am

    Well you should listen to this amateur. I regularly download all the raw data and modeling results and analyse them myself. Interesting things pop up when you do that.

    To be fair I do have an advantage in that I can handle and analyse large complex datasets quite easily (I do that for a living) . Downloading all the individual forecasting centres’ (eg GISS, Hadley, CSIRO, etc) model results is a bit of a chore, but some rich dividends in there especially when you compare different scenarios.

    So technically knowlegible amateurs are useful in that there are not enough professionals to really go through all the actual data and the various forecasts results.

    Bit like the contribution of amateur astronomers.

    Like

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