The Judith Curry Phenomenon

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOct 23, 2010 5:48 PM


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There's a big profile of Judith Curry by Michael Lemonick in the November issue of Scientific American that, thankfully, is not behind a paywall. The piece is very well done--it's actually more a dispassionate examination of what Lemonick calls "the two competing story lines" of the "Judith Curry phenomenon,"

which are, on the surface at least, equally plausible. The first paints Curry as a peacemaker"”someone who might be able to restore some civility to the [climate change] debate and edge the public toward meaningful action. By frankly acknowledging mistakes and encouraging her colleagues to treat skeptics with respect, she hopes to bring about a meeting of the minds. The alternative version paints her as a dupe"”someone whose well-meaning efforts have only poured fuel on the fire. By this account, engaging with the skeptics is pointless because they cannot be won over. They have gone beyond the pale, taking their arguments to the public and distributing e-mails hacked from personal computer accounts rather than trying to work things out at conferences and in journal papers.

The piece goes on to explore whether either (or both) of these story lines have any merit. My modest contributions at this blog are acknowledged by Lemonick:

There is no question Curry has caused a stir; she is frequently cited by some of the harshest skeptics around, including Marc Morano, the former aide to Senator Inhofe and founder of the Climate Depot skeptic blog. It is not just the skeptics: Andrew C. Revkin, the New York Times's longtime environment reporter has treated her with great respect on his Dot Earth blog more than once. So has Keith Kloor, who runs the militantly evenhanded Collide-a-Scape blog.

To me, the most interesting parts of the SciAm article come next:

What scientists worry is that such exposure means Curry has the power to do damage to a consensus on climate change that has been building for the past 20 years. They see little point in trying to win over skeptics, even if they could be won over. Says Gavin A. Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and proprietor of the RealClimate blog: "Science is not a political campaign. We're not trying to be everyone's best friend, kiss everyone's baby." To Curry, the damage comes not from the skeptics' critiques themselves, most of which are questionable, but from the scientific community's responses to them"”much as deaths from virulent flu come not from the virus but from the immune system's violent overreaction. Curry remarks that she has been a victim of this herself, spurned by her colleagues for her outreach efforts (although she adds that she has not been damaged professionally and continues to publish). "She's been hugely criticized by the climate science community," McIntyre says, "for not maintaining the fatwa [against talking to outsiders]." Some disinterested commentators agree. One is S. Alexander Haslam, an expert in organizational psychology at the University of Exeter in England. The climate community, he says, is engaging in classic black sheep syndrome: members of a group may be annoyed by public criticism from outsiders, but they reserve their greatest anger for insiders who side with outsiders. By treating Curry as a pariah, Haslam says, scientists are only enhancing her reputation as some kind of renegade who speaks truth to power. Even if she is substantially wrong, it is not in the interests of climate scientists to treat Curry as merely an annoyance or a distraction. "I think her criticisms are damaging," Haslam says. "But in a way, that's a consequence of failing to acknowledge that all science has these political dynamics."

The whole piece is well worth reading, so go have a look and come back with any reactions.

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