Who will tell us whom to believe?

RealClimate’s Gavin Schmidt was recently moved to highlight a “misrepresentation” on the part of Dr. Richard S. Lindzen. The particulars of this protest  have to do with Lindzen strongly implying to a public audience that data fed to climate models have been “manipulated’ so as to produce results in keeping with an extra-scientific narrative theme.   Dr. Lindzen’s particular  multi-decade track record of publicly casting aspersions and innuendo  on virtually all branches of science connected with climate change invites us to wonder whether it’s time the public was offered some substantional assistance, better than specific corrections to single lapses on the part not only of Dr. Lindzen but also of others he typifies.

Lindzen’s static perception of climate research and public policy– unchanged for at least 20 years– is a metaphor for the effect he and others have helped produce in the arenas of public perception and public policy, where we find stasis leading to a burgeoning C02 concentration in the atmosphere even as we remain substantially deadlocked over mitigation efforts in important places such as the United States.

Also in stasis is the scientific community’s response to personalities such as Lindzen. As in the example most recently provided at  RealClimate, the notion of “correction” is heavily rooted in a scientific context. It ignores the fact that correcting misperception in the public mind is very difficult and frequently impossible. It ignores the fact that it is key to avoid allowing bad information to take root in the brains of a susceptible public.

Scientists following the discussion thread about Lindzen’s “manipulation” accusation were mollified by Lindzen’s obscurely placed and highly qualified apology for this wrong accusation. Unfortunately this serves as an archetype for the general problem of erasing errors etched into the public mind: the “manipulation” slide is still publicly available as of this writing at one of Britain’s most influential newspapers.

Nothing important to the public was accomplished with Lindzen’s apology.

In short, the significance of this latest in a seemingly endless series of corrections rises above complaints about individual personalities and specific errors;  Dr.  Lindzen and his extra-curricular work offer a case study of a weakness in public discourse that needs to be authoritatively addressed, yet is not.

Lindzen has been extremely active in communicating his feelings about climate research to the public. He can be found talking to  a substantial audience on the radio in Australia, offering his opinions to conferences sponsored by ideological thinktanks, writing for populist publications and  offering the same words  in journals nominally intended for an academic audience.

As an illustration of just how far astray an audience may be led by a man whose credibility is boosted  by being introduced as an MIT professor and how important a few words said or unsaid may be,  here is Dr. Lindzen in his own words, speaking on a radio program accessible to most of the population of  Australia:

Jones:
If C02 caused warming, how could human production of C02 be catastrophic, when nature produces what, 32 times as much as human beings; 97% of C02 in the world is naturally produced.

Lindzen:
Well, yeah, you’re, you’re addressing the issue of how can one regard something essential to life as a pollutant, and, uh, I don’t know the answer to that, it seems absurd but on the other hand you can get many people to sign on to government control of uh, dihydrogen oxide, ah because they don’t know it’s water.

Jones:
That’s it. I mean just taking the maths of it, I mean you’re, you’re an eminent scientist; is it true that the proportion of the Earth’s annual production of C02 is about 3% produced by human beings and 97% roughly produced by nature?

Lindzen:
Well that’s correct, that’s correct; the (talkover) argument often is presented that the natural part is in balance and our contribution is imbalancing, unbalancing the system and so that’s leading to a rise. Uh, that’s an arguably possible situation but in point of fact there’s limited evidence of that and the merest uh misunderstanding of the 97% could easily overbalance man’s contribution but to be honest that is not an issue that is known at present and I would argue it’s not even the central issue.

Listeners absorbing Dr. Lindzen’s prevarication will be helping make public policy; Lindzen’s audience includes many Australians who will dutifully vote for a future government that may or may not neuter the carbon taxation program so recently passed in that country. Edge effects count; if Lindzen succeeds in diminishing the importance of the CO2 problem in enough minds then Australia will take a leap backwards that will in turn steer public policy in other countries.

Lindzen’s various appearances as Alan Jones’ guest  typify his public role in climate science: Lindzen is introduced as a scientist, speaks in the role of  a scientist yet does not communicate the true state of the  science of which he speaks. Lindzen instead conveys  impressions of science intended to support ideological convictions divorced from scientific concerns, bracing the strength of his persuasion with his credentials as a scientist.

The RealClimate posting on Lindzen’s latest misrepresentation generated a substantial stream of commentary. One of those comments  inquires to the effect of “why do journalists and others continue to rely on people such as Lindzen when it’s well known by other experts in his domain that his advice to the public is suspect?”

The answer to that may be that for journalists and many others there’s no immediately visible difference between personalities as AGU past president Rafael Bras versus Richard Lindzen; both are accomplished researchers in the field of Earth systems dynamics, both enjoy accolades from peers for their work, both sport CV features that at a glance are indistinguishable to the layperson’s eye.  We’re relying on these people for expertise even as expertise cannot be reliably proxied; because we’re seeking information from both Bras and Lindzen on matters we don’t understand ipso facto we can’t tell the difference between one or the other.

Where members of the public must choose between information sources or lawmakers must pick expert testimony  on the urgency of dealing with C02, Lindzen’s example has shown how important it is that we receive some form of guidance on the reliability of our choices. This help must necessarily come from quarters uniquely suited for this evaluation, ideally that of a body of experts practicing in the same broad scientific domain.

Universities are not suited for this task of judgement; misleading testimony to lawmakers and the general public is not research misconduct and falls outside of the purview of conduct involved in maintaining good grace of tenure.

Professional societies on the other hand are squarely appropriate for offering assistance to the public in the matter of choosing information sources for creating good public policy. The applicable example in this case is the American Geophysical Union.  The AGU long ago transcended the boundary separating the narrow functions of journal publication and conducting meetings. Today the AGU can be found offering advice to scientists  on how to communicate with policymakers, directly interacting with lawmakers and making public comments on the individual character of particular AGU members. Clearly the AGU sees a role for itself in shaping the impact of science on public policy as well as holding members to standards of personal and scientific integrity.

Even as professional societies have branched beyond matters purely scientific, so far we in the public have received little or no guidance from  suitably authoritative sources on what constitutes truly useful advice about CO2 and climate change; professional societies have remained aloof from the public beyond making general statements on the urgent nature of C02 mitigation. Probably the nearest we’ve seen to a direct statement of this kind is AGU President Michael McPhaden’s recent remarks on an open letter published by the Wall Street Journal in February.

Crucially, in his reply to the Wall Street Journal  McPhaden fails to directly call to account a key signatory of that letter, Richard Lindzen, an AGU Fellow himself and one who has repeatedly traduced the reputations of other AGU Fellows as part of his work on shaping public policy.  This is rather confusing. While in sum the AGU’s position on climate change is that never have we faced a situation fraught with such powerful implications, requiring so much expertise to address and at the same time so vulnerable to misuse of professional reputation, still the AGU is strangely silent when confronted with a member who is acting squarely against all the AGU tells us.

We may see that punctilious observation by professional societies of the line between doing science and interaction with the public is outmoded and in any case no longer is in practice. AGU has emphatically pronounced on the requirement for members to behave well as public citizens. Taking into account his track record of advice to lawmakers and the general public it’s been amply demonstrated that regardless of his reputation as an arguably brilliant scientific researcher Lindzen nonetheless serves as an archetypal example of a scientist who feels no compunction against trading on his reputation and associations as a researcher to foster malformed thinking in the mind of the public. We in the general public very much need the help of professional societies in picking where to obtain the least slanted and most useful information required for solving what we’re told by the same societies is an absolutely dire problem.

Will we obtain this help? We don’t know and can’t say but hope for an answer soon.

Comments:

  1. “why do journalists and others continue to rely on people such as Lindzen when it’s well known by other experts in his domain that his advice to the public is suspect?”

    Generally journalists will choose the sources who will put forward the particular viewpoints they want to be represented. If a journalist asks the likes of Lindzen or Curry for their views it's not because he is merely trying to seek the truth and thinks that given their scientific credentials he will get a genuine insight into the scientific arguments around AGW, it's because he knows they can be relied on to give a viewpoint which is contrary to the mainstream view. There may be cases where this is justified, where he feels it is necessary for contrary views to be represented, but often it is because their viewpoint coincides with the message he is trying to push and their supposed credentials give some credibility to his argument.

    • > “why do journalists and others continue to rely on people such as Lindzen when it’s well known by other experts in his domain that his advice to the public is suspect?”

      Expert groups like AGU (and AMS?) really need to take this effort on, so non-experts aren't left to fill the gap.

  2. You may not know that Alan Jones is not a journalist - he an Australian Limbaugh Lite. Honest opinions on almost anything are not welcome on his program.

    • I've listened to a fair amount of Alan Jones while waiting for Lindzen's segments. I agree he does obviously skew right but he's much more pleasantly personable than Limbaugh, not nearly such a rank turn-off. To that extent he's a more effective funnel for pouring rubbish into vulnerable minds.

      Somewhere or another I ran across a pretty interesting analysis of Jones' audience. Older, conservative, etc. Voters, of course!

  3. Doug, I think the situation is worse (and perhaps the remedy different) than you describe. At the start of your answer you state:

    for journalists and many others there’s no immediately visible difference between personalities as AGU past president Rafael Bras versus Richard Lindzen

    But the problem is that journalists ("and many others") are not picking "personalities" at random from among the collection of published climate scientists. If they were, then there would be no problem with Lindzen saying whatever he likes, because along with him would be 30 or so people representing the truth of our climate situation.

    The problem is bias in the selection of people who comment. Why is Lindzen being so heavily favored on the various media outlets where he does appear? It is clearly because of what he says, and far from journalists featuring him because they can't tell the difference between Lindzen and a regular scientist, the problem is that they, or whoever is telling them who to feature, very clearly know what Lindzen will say that differs from the mainstream of science, and that's why they deliberately highlight his comments.

    So, how do you address that? AGU putting out statements I think is not particularly helpful - it just adds to the thousands of other statements gathering dust and ignored by the media outlets in question. What is the root cause of this problem? Interests opposed to communicating reality. And I'm not sure there's any real solution other than persevering in communicating the truth whenever and wherever the rest of us can.

    • Arthur, I can only say (as a former public radio manager in the US and hence a person accustomed to multifarious pleading) that once a means of reaching some additional number of persons has been identified it's worth pushing that newly found button.

      If for instance a journalist at a major news organization is deciding on expert opinions and runs into a statement from AGU to the effect that Lindzen is an accomplished researcher but cannot be trusted on climate science communications, that journalist -may- decide to look elsewhere. Nothing guaranteed, but odds will be moved.

      We're talking about population dynamics here, statistics and probability. Let's improve probability where we may.

    • > journalists...very clearly know [that] what Lindzen will say that differs from the mainstream of science

      Not necessarily.

      And recipients of contrarian-influenced journalism won't have a gauge to know it either; unless professional organizations speak up, they're free to interpret it as mainstream scientific disagreement. (link)

  4. What exactly is the difference between the typical journalist and the average bloke on the street, other than that he knows how to write in shorthand and hold a microphone?

    -- frank

  5. Arthur, that seems to be conceding that science communication is impossible in the face of controversy.

    The question, really, is why our field should be especially plagued by quacks. The answer, obviously, is that Heartland, CEI, etc. have been assiduously promoting quacks and nobody has the nerve to stand up and say "these people are entitled to their opinions but they are not representative of the scientific community".

    So the next question is what to do about it. And it seems there needs to be somebody policing the territory and saying "yes, that's possible", "definitely, that's consensus", "no, that's off base", or "hell no, that's crazy". Lindzen will always be a PhD, and will always be an MIT emeritus, but he has long since stopped being an authority, and "everybody knows it" and nobody knows that "everybody knows it".

    You aren't ducking the question as much as everybody else. After all, you showed up to say no. But you're still ducking the question. We cannot win by argument because most people aren't qualified to follow the argument, and because science is overmatched by propaganda in such a debate. Somebody has to act as referee. It can't be the courts and we see now that it can't be the press. It has to be the scientific community in some capacity.

    In medicine, it is already the case that the professional societies do this. Why do AGU and AMetSoc and EGU and so on fail? What other institution do they propose?

    Yes, persevering in telling the truth is necessary. Obviously I agree. But it's obviously insufficient. Look around you.

    The silence meeting Doug's suggestion is starting to be very striking and disappointing. What, saith the scientific community, inconvenience ourselves? Well, Doug has one convert at least.

    • MT, I think you and Arthur Smith are talking about two different things: there are referees, and then there are those who publicize (correctly) the decisions of the referees to the world. Neither role will be sufficient by itself; we need both.

      -- frank

    • The reason medical (and legal) professional societies have clout on such a thing is because there are actual licensing laws that require proper certification - state licensing boards and the like listen to AMA, which means every practicing physician has to do the same. There's no constraint like that on any other branch of science. Maybe there should be? It might help with the salary situation...

      I guess I'm just not convinced there's anything AGU could do that would have any measurable effect on the discourse. Say they put out a press release saying Dick Lindzen can't be trusted. Ok, what then? Will that really have much impact? What else can they do?

  6. Knowing who's credible, or knowing who does know who's credible, is definitely an important part of science literacy.

    Hey, Reddit has an "ask me anything" feature, that you can suggest people for; I wonder if a science organization could do something similar (or should we just use Reddit?), because I'd like to ask AGU what it's doing to aid journalists and others on this issue, and I'd also like to ask someone from the American Meteorological Society why the AMS doesn't offer its weathercasters a certification for climate knowledge. (This would be simple, they could just grant it to weathercasters who've successfully completed the Univ. of Chicago "Open Climate 101" course.)

  7. As I mentioned, words matter:

    Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard confronts mounting challenges to her own re-election after her Labor party suffered a landslide election defeat in Queensland, leaving her with allies governing just two of the nation’s six states.

    The opposition Liberal National Party ended 14 years of Labor rule in the resource-rich state that generates a fifth of Australia’s wealth, winning 78 out of 89 seats in Queensland’s parliament in the March 24 poll, according to results on the electoral commission’s website.

    Gillard Hurdles Multiply After Australian State Election Wipeout

    "Resource-rich:"

    Global jostling for Queensland's coal reserves

    We could really use some help here, please.

  8. The skeptical science web site makes the following comment:
    "First we should give Lindzen credit for what he got right in his presentation. For example, he acknowledged that there is a greenhouse effect, CO2 has been increasing, and global temperatures have increased, and notes that these are not controversial facts."
    If you take the time to follow an excerpt from a speech given by Lindzen to the Heartland Inst. ,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MvUE2VSBO8
    You will see Lindzen giving the impression that the effect of CO2 is not relevant, while discussing the Milankovitch effect. To be more than fair to the man I have not seen the original speech in total. So it is possible that he made some comments that gave a better picture of the modern understanding of the timing of periods of glaciation, and how orbital variation and feedbacks are understood, but I doubt that he did so. The meat of his argument comes after the one minute mark.
    Regardless this is a good example of Lindzen setting a tone which effectively casts the aspersion that his colleagues work is overlooking issues of vast importance which only those as wise as himself have recognized. This might be termed the damned fool hypothesis, which is the notion that the 95% of a given scientific community which is in disagreement with you are incompetent fools or wicked rascals.
    The video is further an example of how his statements are used by the online denialist community, for those who have the patience to view such an example.


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