Dueling Climate Narratives

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 4, 2010 11:15 PM


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The symmetry of Gavin Schmidt and Judith Curry posting similar themed essays on the same day is too good to pass up. I found both posts fascinating and suggest that people read the pieces back to back. Then read them again. Let's start with the tags each chose for their posts, which, to me, signifies the message that Schmidt and Curry are trying to convey, in their respective essays. Tags, just to remind everyone, are a way of categorizing blog posts. Gavin chose "climate science" as his tag, which seems fitting, since his post argues that climate science takes a backseat to the primacy of narrative in journalism. Gavin's secondary critique is aimed at certain scientists, such as Judith Curry, who have embraced the "heretic" badge, which he thinks is a convenient piece of armor she wears to deflect legitimate criticism thrown her way. More on Gavin's essay in a minute. Judith Curry's tag is "ethics," which is also fitting, for she is once again indicting the behavior of climate scientists--and in my reading, not just for the antics displayed in the hacked CRU emails or backroom IPCC deliberations, but also, broadly speaking, for "the silence of my colleagues, and more important from the institutions that support science." Judith then refers to her own renegade role, which took shape nearly a year ago:

I began trying to provide some constructive suggestions for the community to rebuild trust through greater transparency and greater attention to uncertainties. Not only did I receive virtually no support from my colleagues, but they started to view me as part of the problem.

Schmidt, as he writes in his post, isn't buying this storyline (my emphasis):

Unfortunately, the narrative of the heretic is self-reinforcing. Once a scientist starts to perceive criticism as an attack on their values/ideas rather than embracing it in order to improve (or abandon) an approach, it is far more likely that they will in fact escalate the personalisation of the debate, leading to still further criticism of their conduct, which will be interpreted as a further attack on their values etc. This generally leads to increasing frustration and marginalisation, combined quite often with increasing media attention, at least temporarily. It very rarely leads to any improvement in public understanding.

Now I'm not going to make a judgment either way, but I did bold the above because I want to point out that the same has been said of Schmidt and some of his colleagues for the way they reacted to criticism directed at them in the months after "climategate." So regardless of whether Curry is a true heretic or not (I've argued she is really an apostate), I think the "self-reinforcing" victimhood (which leads to "personalization of the debate") cuts both ways. Curry and Schmidt also make some broad generalizations in their essays that deserve attention. Gavin, for example, writes:

The fact remains that science is hugely open to new thinking and new approaches.

Practically speaking, this is true, as researchers publish papers all the time that challenge existing theories and tenets. But paradigm shifts don't happen overnight, and sometimes that's because scientists tend to construct their own narratives that are hard to let go of. For example, it's only been in the last decade that a dominant anthropological narrative of the prehistoric Southwest has been overturned. So the fact remains that scientists have their own biases, which sometimes inhibits them from being "hugely open to new thinking and new approaches." Curry, for her part, uses some pretty loaded language to fire away at the IPCC and unnamed scientists:

When I refer to the IPCC dogma, it is the religious importance that the IPCC holds for this cadre of scientists; they will tolerate no dissent, and seek to trample and discredit anyone who challenges the IPCC.

Is that true? There would be no way of knowing unless others spoke up. Fortunately, Eric Steig, one such IPPC critic, does:

Many of your readers will no doubt ignore this because of my association with RC, but my personal experience as a relatively young person in this game just doesn't jive with what you are saying. I was highly critical of IPCC AR4 Chapter 6, so much so that the Heartland Institute repeatedly quotes me as evidence that the IPCC is flawed. Indeed, I have been unable to find any other review as critical as mine. I know "” because they told me "” that my reviews annoyed many of my colleagues, including some of my RC colleagues, but I have felt no pressure or backlash whatsover from it. Indeed, one of the Chapter 6 lead authors said "Eric, your criticism was really harsh, but helpful "” thank you!" So who are these brilliant young scientists whose careers have been destroyed by the supposed tyranny of the IPCC? Examples?

The overall tone and thrust of Curry's post also prompted the mild-mannered Bart Verheggen to object:

These are harsh words/accusations that need strong evidence to back them up, which is severely lacking IMO. This kind of baseless accusatory framing is also the main reason that you get a lot of flack. It increases, rather than decreases the polarization, and it starts to overshadow those issues where you do make valid points.

Both Gavin's and Judith's essays, in the end, are making an argument for why climate science is not treated with more respect. To Gavin, it's because journalists "favor compelling narratives over substance." To Judith, it's because "the integrity of climate science" has been called into question. One blames the messenger, the other blames pretty much the whole climate science community. Each of them, it would seem, have no cause to examine whether their own actions or words deserve any blame.

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