The Sciences

Thoughts on the Weblog awards

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitNov 9, 2007 3:24 AM


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Lengthy thoughts. Strap in. First let me say that the votes are still being audited, and I imagine they can flip-flop around. No matter how this turns out, note how close the two sites are in voting, separated by far less than 1%, closer even than last year's, I think. I think that's pretty funny. Note also that this is strictly a popularity contest, and not a fair one, either. I am quite sure there are science sites out there better than both Climate Audit and Bad Astronomy; better than any on the finalist list. But if they don't have many readers, or don't post on controversial subjects, they get lost in the noise. If I get more votes, or CA does, it hardly matters as far as real earning of trust and readership goes. Even if this weren't a popularity contest, such a close finish means the race is a dead heat. And in the end, it means one guy gets to put up the "Best Science Blog" picture, and one doesn't, but as far as the readers go they should share it. If I win, as I have said, I will use it to shill my book, and that's about it. I understand that this does not mean I would actually have the best science blog, of course. That's why I wasn't going to play up the award this week. But then things changed, and it led to an unfortunate series of events. Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit said some incorrect things about my blog, and confused my commenters with me. I pointed this out on a post, and he revised what he said. That's fine, and that's the way things should be. Had the positions been reversed, I bet the same thing would have come down (and I have some experience here; please search my blog for the name Shannon Malloy). I did take him task for saying one commenter of his was "spirited", when I thought it was insulting, but that's about as bad as things were. But then things got a bit icky at that point, mostly because sites I disagree with strongly, like Junk Science which in my opinion is horribly biased and actively anti-science, threw in their support for CA. At the same time, a bunch of other sites backed me, and it became a AGW/antiAGW sort of thing. A lot of awful things were said by both sides about the other side, though I note that those things were not said by either me or Steve McIntyre. There were sideswipes made by both of us, but nothing I think we can't handle, and nothing really horrible. I imagine he has withstood his measure of slings and arrows much as I have. Did this bias me? It's hard for me to say. I saw a lot of shrill right-wing propaganda about me, and that didn't put me in the best of moods. But I have been insulted and yelled at before, and I think I have learned, at least a little, not to let it under my skin. So what about my saying CA is antiGW? As far as I can tell, the only accusation I have made about CA is that it's a global warming denying website. I said this because I read several posts and that does seem to be the direction of the site. I went through CA looking for posts analyzing where bad science, bad statistics, and bad math are used by antiGW people, and found none. If they are there, then I will stand corrected. There is a comment on CA where McIntyre says he doesn't look into antiGW claims because policy is made on mainstream claims. The problem I have with that claim is that we have many Senators pushing back hard on policy using clearly bad science, and that "evidence" needs looking into as well, just as strongly. Ignoring it implies (though it does not prove) a bias on the part of the investigator. I understand McIntyre is doing this on his own, and honestly -- very honestly -- I am happy when anyone looks into claims made by someone else. For example, I think it's fine that people investigate the Apollo missions to see if they are real, because this means they want to weigh the evidence. My problems comes in when they don't weigh the evidence for the Moon landings fairly or correctly. Looking through Climate Audit, I see him only investigating that one side, and that sets off alarm bells in my head, as it should anyone. Now, the flip side of this, obviously, is my looking into the claims made by people supporting the idea of human-caused GW. When I looked into this a year or two ago, I felt that the evidence I saw was pretty good. A lot of scientists whose work seems legit from what I have read (and that includes James Hansen) agree that GW is partly if not mostly caused by human activities. I did post an extensive discussion on the new temperature numbers as published by McIntyre. The method of calibration by him or Hansen is not something I am qualified to comment on; however, how those numbers were used is something I could, and did, comment on. I still think that without error bars, any claim made about which particular year is hottest is silly, and took several sites to task for that. However, there is trending, and the trend for the last 20-30 years is up, and more so than it was in the 30s. It is interesting that Hansen has not released his methodology, but as I pointed out in my earlier post on all this, it's not necessarily an indication of foul play. Many scientists don't release their methods for a variety of reasons, and I won't cry foul until needed. Having said that, I have not seen an explanation from Hansen or anyone else on why the methodology has not been made public. Again, if someone has a link to that information, I'd like to see it very much. I'm curious, of course. McIntyre has also worked extensively on the Mann hockey-stick diagram. However, his work has been argued against strongly by climate scientists as well, most strongly perhaps at Real Climate. This brings us to the heart of the problem: I am a scientist, and I understand a lot of the methods used to analyze data. However, this does not make me an expert on all data. I would have to spend a large amount of time plowing through what McIntyre did and what the folks at Real Climate say to see what's what, and even then I cannot know for sure, because I am not an expert in this field. And there you have it. How do any of us interpret these crucial findings when we are not experts? We have to rely on other experts. In this case, the overwhelming number of experts, truly overwhelming, say that GW is anthropogenic. That doesn't mean they are right, but it does mean it's the way to bet. And I encourage people to look into the studies on both sides of this. Science is all about keeping people honest. About the science, though: I refuse to get sucked into any debate over "sound science", because that uses science's own strengths -- tentative results constituting evidence and support, but not "proof" -- against it. You can always wait and try to get more data, but there are times when you have enough. In my opinion, we have enough. Again, let me be clear: I applaud McIntyre's efforts to work through this. He has clearly done some good, and I have said so in previous posts. An argument can be made that my use of the term "denialist" for him may be too strong, but it still does seem to me after reading more of his site that he comes at this from the angle of trying to tear down arguments made for anthropogenic GW while not going after the antiGW claims. That's where I stand. I wish this hadn't become such a foofooraw, but there you have it. So: tomorrow or the next day the votes will be tallied, one of us will take the prize, and that will be that. Good. I have learned quite a bit from this, as I'm sure others have as well. For my own part, I will try to be even more diligent about categorizing others. I have also been exposed to a whole slew of sites I didn't know about, which is an obvious side effect of this whole awards thing, and that's good. And maybe when this all blows over we can go back to trying to figure out what's real and what isn't. And now I will go back to finishing my dang book.

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