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Is Judith Curry Peddling Disinformation?

By Keith Kloor
Nov 9, 2011 8:24 PMNov 19, 2019 11:46 PM


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In recent days, Richard Tol, an economist and "climate polymath," has been battling Georgia Tech climate scientist Judith Curry. It started when Curry spotlighted some questionable research (two journal papers) on her blog, which contained statistical analysis that Tol initially called "sloppy." He said the work was "published in minor journals, so that these papers had best been ignored." After Curry and some of her readers objected, Tol became more direct:

Judith: Statistics is a branch of mathematics. Right and wrong are strictly defined. These papers are wrong in the mathematical sense of the word. I think you have done a disservice by lending your credibility to these papers.

He also tweeted:

Skepticism is healthy, disinformation is not

I started following the exchanges with interest, tweeting some of the highlights. Curry challenged the "disinformation" charges here, and the back-and-forth between her and Tol (which got more specific) continued in that thread. For example, Tol argued:

1. You do not post everything here. You make a selection. You therefore cannot claim that you are innocent. You made a conscious choice to publish that guest post. 2. If you know anything about statistics, you would have recognized that these papers are methodologically flawed. Using "detrended" fluctuation analysis to study "trends" was a dead giveaway that something is not quite right with these papers. 3. If you don't know anything about statistics, you should not have published the guest post. The flip side of your academic freedom is your academic duty to keep your mouth shut about things you don't know about. 4. This blog is widely read. You plucked two papers out of obscurity and put them in the limelight. 5. You have build up a reputation of someone who is willing to speak and listen to anyone. That is great. Climate research is complicated and uncertain and climate policy is polarized so we need people in the middle who talk to both sides. 6. At the same time, you should not be in the middle for the sake of being in the middle. 7. There is a substantial body of climate research that is credible "” even if it reaches opposite conclusions "” but there are also papers (left, right, and center) that are just flawed. 8. If flawed papers reach a certain prominence, they should be debunked. Prominent but flawed research does damage as it misinforms people about climate change. Publicly criticizing such research hardens the existing polarization. 9. If flawed papers linger in obscurity, they should be ignored. The papers are wrong but do no damage. Lifting a flawed paper out of obscurity only to debunk it, is no good to anybody. 10. So, by giving air time to two papers that you should have known are flawed, you deliberately spread inaccurate information.

Curry responded:

Richard, your argument is deeply flawed, but I will not accuse you of spreading "disinformation' about me amongst the twitterati. You give yourself away with this statement "Prominent but flawed research does damage as it misinforms people about climate change. Publicly criticizing such research hardens the existing polarization." Yours isn't a statement about science, but about playing politics with science, and reinforces the gatekeeping mentality in climate science that was embarassingly revealed by the CRU emails. Of course there are flawed papers that get published. Few papers are published that don't have any flaws and stand the test of time as an authoritative and unimproved upon statement about scientific truth. I am seeing palpable frustration about not being able to control what gets published and what gets discussed. Attacking me is an interesting (but probably futile) vent for your frustration. Most people don't come to climate etc. to reinforce their prejudices (there are far too many echo chambers where this is much more satisfyingly accomplished). The come here to learn something by considering the various arguments. The most interesting thing about this exchange is that I have seen little actual debunking of the Ludecke papers, mostly complaints about their EIKE affiliation. Go check what you have done these last two days against the list of 25 in the main post. You effectively hijacked the thread with the disinformation accusation, which resulted in little serious analysis of the papers. As for me, I explore all the time things I know little about, that is why I like being a scientist.

He shot back:

Gatekeeping is a bad thing when it is used to block papers for ideological reasons. Gatekeeping is a good thing when it comes to separating methodologically flawed from methodologically sound papers. I did not remark on the conclusions of the papers. I did not remark on the motivations of the authors. I did remark that the papers incorrectly apply inappropriate statistical methods to uninformative data. It is unfortunate that these papers were published. It is unfortunate that you chose to draw attention to them. Open-minded curiosity should be tempered by critical judgement, and yours lapsed in this case. Of course I was "playing politics with science". Don't pretend you are not.

Next, Curry invited Tol to submit a detailed critique of the two papers that she had highlighted. He obliged. On that thread, Steven Mosher congratulates Tol for an

...incisive demolition of these two papers. I note the absence of any credible defense of the papers and a high incidence of topic changing.. look at the sunshine.. for example. A bad paper neatly dispatched as you did is a good teaching tool. However, some wont learn and they use the bad paper as an occasion to thread jack

There's just one problem with that logic. What if Tol (or someone else with his chops and reputation) had not taken the time to comment at Curry's blog, much less followed up with a thorough critique? It's not reasonable to expect every bad paper spotlighted on a popular climate blog to be debunked. (For instance, hardly anyone of repute bothers doing this at WUWT.) So the larger question is whether Curry, who has standing in the climate science community, should be more discriminating in the research she chooses to highlight at her blog? Finally, there is amongst all this something Curry stated which strikes me as curious:

Most people don't come to climate etc. to reinforce their prejudices (there are far too many echo chambers where this is much more satisfyingly accomplished). They come here to learn something by considering the various arguments.

I beg to differ. Judging by the voluminous comments, it appears that most Climate Etc. readers are very much having their prejudices reinforced.

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