Should we listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?
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?
- Are amateurs needed?
- Their role in the public debate
- Why should laypeople listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?
- 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…
- the many climate-related agencies, including the IPCC and BEST;
- articles for laypeople in the major peer-reviewed journals;
- articles in the lay-science news media (e.g., New Scientist, Scientific America);
- blogs by climate scientists (e.g., RealClimate, Climate Etc);
- publications by meteorologists (e.g., the Browning newsletter)
- 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.
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:
- Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?, 21 June 2013
- Do we face a future without confidence in experts?, 25 September 2013