Curry: The Backstory

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 27, 2010 4:32 PM


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By now, many people must be wondering of Judith Curry: what's her story? How did the respected Georgia Tech climate scientist go from global warming = more intense hurricanes to darling of climate skeptics? How did she go from staunch IPCC booster to harsh IPCC critic? And why, in heaven's name, is Curry engaging in multiple conversations about the credibility of climate science on a blog? Well, the quick answer to that last one is that it all started last week, when Curry agreed to a Q & A for this site, which then morphed into a rollicking dialogue that is still going on. Yesterday Joe Romm took note:

Everyone who follows climate science should read what is easily the most revealing interview I've ever seen a scientist give. Be sure to read all the comments, since they are even more revealing.

Rest assured, this speaks more to Curry's frankness than my powers of inducement. But back to that original question I posed, because Romm said something else that I found intriguing:

I used to know Dr. Judith Curry pretty well "” heck, she even gave me a jacket quote for

Hell and High Water

! Now I obviously don't.

This is obviously a personal judgment on Romm's part. Taken to its extreme, it infers what some climate advocates have been saying elsewhere:

Apparently Judith Curry has completed her transition to the Dark Side.

Before this gets any more bizarre, maybe it's time we learned Curry's backstory. So here's a one-question Q & A that I hope brings some humanity to the debate she has triggered this past week. Q: The implication in Romm's puzzled statement is that your post-Climategate critique of climate science has changed you so radically that he doesn't recognize the Judy Curry from 2007. He seems honestly shocked. How would you characterize your transformation in the last three years? Is it as radical as Romm implies? JC: Well, I have been doing my best to make this about integrity in science and how we can do a better job, and not make it personal (in terms of myself, or any other particular individual). Looks like Joe Romm wants to make it about me. So here goes. Here is my history with Joe Romm. We met in 2006 when he attended a congressional briefing that I was involved in on hurricanes and global warming. He was very interested in this subject and thought it was very important in terms of raising awareness about the risk of global warming. I was impressed with Joe's knowledge of energy technologies and policy. During 2006 Joe made comments on one of my papers, and I made comments on a draft of his book "Hell and High Water." We even participated in a joint seminar tour in Florida. When I started writing essays on Climategate, Joe was sharply critical, both in his blog postings and even more so in emails that he sent me. So here is the story on my "transformation(s)". Circa 2003, I was concerned about the way climate research was treating uncertainty (see my little essay presented to the NRC Climate Research Committee). I was considered somewhat quixotic but not really outside of the mainstream (p.s. the CRC didn't pay any attention to my essay, they went off in a different direction that focused on communicating uncertainty and decisionmaking under uncertainty). During this period, I was comfortably ensconced in the ivory tower of academia, writing research papers, going to conferences, submitting grant proposals. I was 80% oblivious to what was going on in terms of the public debate surrounding climate change. This all changed on September 14, 2005, when I participated in a press conference on our forthcoming paper that described a substantial increase in the global number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The unplanned and uncanny timing of publication of this paper was three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. While global warming was mentioned only obliquely in the paper, the press focused on the global warming angle and a media furor followed. We were targeted as global warming alarmists, capitalizing on this tragedy to increase research funding and for personal publicity, a threat to capitalism and the American way of life, etc. At the same time, we were treated like rock stars by the environmental movement. Our 15 minutes stretched into days, weeks and months. Hurricane Katrina became a national focusing event for the global warming debate. We were particularly stung by criticisms from fellow research scientists who claimed that we were doing this "for the money" and attacked our personal and scientific integrity. We felt that one scientist in particular had crossed the line and committed a series of fouls, and this turned the scientific debate into academic guerrilla warfare between our team and the skeptics that was played out in the glare of the media. This "war" culminated in an article published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, "Debate shatters the civility of weather science" on Feb 2, 2006 (note the timing of my email exchange with Mann, .ca Jan 2006). This article became a catharsis for the hurricane research community, that engendered extensive email discussion among scientists on both sides of the public debate. We did an email version of a "group hug" and vowed to stop the guerilla warfare. I had lost my bearings in all of this, and the Wall Street Journal article had the effect of a bucket of cold water being poured over my head. I learned several important lessons from this experience: just because the other guy commits the first "foul" doesn't give you the moral high ground in protracted academic guerilla warfare. Nothing in this crazy environment is worth sacrificing your personal or professional integrity. After all, no one remembers who fired the first shot, all they see is unprofessional behavior. I took a step back and tried to understand all this craziness and learn from it. I even wrote a journal article on this, "Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis that Greenhouse Warming is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity." This paper got quite a bit of play in the blogosphere upon its publication in Aug 2006, and at this time I made my first major foray into the blogosphere, checking in at all the blogs where the paper was being discussed. See esp realclimate and climateaudit (but I can no longer find the original thread on climateaudit). At climateaudit, the posters had some questions about statistics and wanted to see the raw data. I was pretty impressed by the level of discussion, and wondered why I had not come across this blog before over at the realclimate blogroll. Then I realized that I was on Steve McIntyre's blog (I had sort of heard of his tiff with Mann, but wasn't really up on all this at the time). I was actually having much more fun over at climateaudit than at realclimate, and I thought it made much more sense to spend time at climateaudit rather than to preach to the converted at realclimate. Back in 2006 spending time at climateaudit was pretty rough sport (it wasn't really moderated at the time). When I first started spending time over there, the warmist blogs thought it was really funny, and encouraged me to give "˜em hell. I was continuing my overall thinking on how to better deal with skeptics and increase the credibility and integrity of science. I gave an invited talk at Fall 2006 AGU meeting, entitled "Falling out of the ivory tower: Reflections on mixing politics and climate science." This is where I first started talking about circling the wagons, etc. I don't think this was quite what the convenors had in mind when they invited me to give this talk, but at the time I still had pretty solid status as a survivor of vicious political attacks during the hurricane wars and was a heroine for taking down Bill Gray. When the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report was published in 2007, I joined the consensus in supporting this document as authoritative; I was convinced by the rigors of the process, etc etc. While I didn't personally agree with everything in the document (still nagging concerns about the treatment of uncertainty), I bought into the meme of "don't trust what one scientist says, listen to the IPCC." During 2008 and 2009, I became increasingly concerned by the lack of "policy neutrality" by people involved in the IPCC and policies that didn't make sense to me. But after all, "don't trust what one scientist says", and I continued to substitute the IPCC assessment for my own personal judgment. November 19, 2009: bucket of cold water #2. When I first saw the climategate emails, I knew these were real, they confirmed concerns and suspicions that I already had. After my first essay "On the credibility . . ." posted at climateaudit, I got some emails that asked me to be sensitive to the feelings of the scientists involved. I said I was a whole lot more worried about the IPCC, in terms of whether it could be saved and whether it should be saved. I had been willing to substitute the IPCC for my own personal judgment, but after reading those emails, the IPCC lost the moral high ground in my opinion. Not to say that the IPCC science was wrong, but I no longer felt obligated in substituting the IPCC for my own personal judgment. So the Judith Curry .ca 2010 is the same scientist as she was in 2003, but sadder and wiser as a result of the hurricane wars, a public spokesperson on the global warming issue owing to the media attention from the hurricane wars, more broadly knowledgeable about the global warming issue, much more concerned about the integrity of climate science, listening to skeptics, and a blogger (for better or for worse). So should Joe Romm be puzzled by this? Probably, but I think part of his puzzlement arises from assuming that I and all "warmist" climate researchers share his policy objectives. People really find it hard to believe that I don't have a policy agenda about climate change/energy (believe me, Roger Pielke Jr has tried very hard to smoke me out as a "stealth advocate"). Yes, I want clean green energy, economic development and "world peace". I have no idea how much climate change should be weighted in these kinds of policy decisions. I lack the knowledge, wisdom and hubris to think that anything I say or do should be of any consequence to climate/carbon/energy policy. So back to discussing the integrity of climate research and the IPCC assessment process. ***Postscript*** A good indication of Judith Curry's stature in the climate science community is the huge amount of attention Friday's Q & A has generated in the climate blogosphere. Numerous climate bloggers (on all sides) have offered their own commentary on it, triggering in some cases, very lively comment threads at their sites. Notably, Realclimate has remained mum--so far. Later in the week, I plan on posting a short rundown of the blogs that have posted on the Curry dialogue, for those who might like to see how her views have been discussed elsewhere. Again, I thank Judy for agreeing to participate in the virtual round the clock discussion. I know it has taken up much of her spare time this past week--and then some.

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