SPOTTING A HORSE
Gavin has an interesting rebuttal of an atom of denialist rubbish at RC:
However, in one of the comments from a “Dr John Cameron, St Andrews” (posted 9/Oct/2012), there was this unrelated pseudo-factoid:
As regards the catastrophic sea level rise in the Pacific, it became obvious some 20 years ago that results from island tide gauges did not support computer predictions. Scientists from Flinders University in Adelaide set up new, modern, tide-gauges in 12 Pacific islands to test whether there was in fact any evidence of sinking. Recently the whole project was abandoned as there had been no sign whatsoever of a change in sea level at any of the 12 islands for the past 16 years.
Now this is specific enough to probably actually refer to something real, but doesn’t pass the sniff test for something that might actually be true. Scientists don’t set up monitoring stations only to get the answer they want and then stop monitoring if it doesn’t happen. This only happens in the fevered imaginations of conspiracy theorists. So I was intrigued enough to investigate what this actually referred to…
BEATING THE HORSE
Gavin eviscerates the claim smoothly: “every piece of concrete information in the Gray/Cameron statement is wrong” and in conclusion raises the crucial question:
. Sure, no single statement like this is likely going to change anyone’s mind about anything, but this one and others like it form part of a drumbeat of disinformation, which by repetition, becomes embedded and hard to shift.
A good question would be why I bothered to research a claim in an obscure comment, on an obscure letter to the editor in a regional newspaper I have never read, and I don’t really have a good answer. Clearly, looking for substantive points in newspaper comment threads is a bit of a fool’s errand, but I was still surprised at how completely wrong every single aspect of the comment was.
It’s in this context that I keep reviewing the recent mind-bogglingly awful thread at Kloor’s that has made me give up (or at least adopt a stance of giving up, we’ll see) participation there. I am still processing that fiasco, as well as the fact that over there I am perceived as an “alarmist”, while over here I keep worrying about how to build an audience for sustainability issues without pandering to alarmism.
If you follow that thread, I’ll ask you to consider that I expressed no opinion about Fred Pearce, and was blissfully unaware of his role in the “climategate” business until Keith (to my clueless confusion) bizarrely brought Mike Mann into the conversation. As far as I was concerned, Tim at Deltoid had long since amassed convincing evidence that there was a long-standing lie that had been cynically constructed to tarnish the reputation of Rachel Carson. The primary interest of the DDT matter to me, distinguishing between sustainability and environmental protection as different pursuits as I do, was its role as an example of an amazingly cynical and meanspirited lie aimed at necessary and fruitful regulatory action in protection of the commons.
DEBATE VS ARGUMENT
The thread continues to be a wellspring of examples of various classes of specious (sometimes ludicrously specious) arguments.
Consider this one:
Prior to reading this thread I was actually not strongly on either side, and I’m still not. I just object to the character assassination (ala Lambert, TB, and now you) of anyone who dares question politically correct dogma on this or any other issue.
This is the culture gap between political and scientific argument in a nutshell. Science says that some questions can be settled. Settled is different than proven. Science (as opposed to applied mathematics, with which some people with exposure to textbook science unsurprisingly confuse it) proves nothing, ever. But it can settle things. It can reach and crucially does the point where a few hypotheses are sufficiently established that they need not be revisited unless and until conflicting evidence arises. But also, it can easily and quite ordinarily reach the point where a great many alternative hypotheses are refuted.
That is, the history of the relationship between DDT and malaria, though complex, is immensely well-studied and reasonably well understood, and the evidence flatly contradicts the claims about tragic consequences of DDT bans commonly being made. It is not dogmatic to insist that refuted arguments be dismissed.
ARGUMENTS CAN BE EITHER ARGUABLE OR REFUTED
Einstein’s quotation is the key to genuine skepticism: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
That is, skepticism is not only about being willing to be proven wrong. Scientific skepticism is also about being willing to acknowledge extant disproofs. A failure in that regard is colloquially known as “beating a dead horse”. Contemporary journalists do this dead-horse-beating habitually.
RESPONSIBLE JOURNALISM MUST ACCOUNT FOR REFUTATIONS
When saying that a journalist has failed when they state that something is arguable, one is not being dogmatic. One is making an assertion about a disproof. There is a sense in which it is fair to assert that science never offers proof, but there is no true sense in which science never offers disproof.
Thus, the argument about Pearce’s irresponsibility in this matter hinges only only on the existence or nonexistence of an effective refutation. If one exists (as Tim has long since convinced me it does) then it is not dogmatic to insist that the refuted position not be reported as arguable. It is a journalistic failure. Nobody’s perfect, but a pattern of such failures shows the journalist to be on the wrong beat.
IDENTIFYING VALID REFUTATION MAY REQUIRE DOMAIN EXPERTISE
What’s especially interesting to me about Gavin’s rebuttal is the “sniff test” aspect of it. Most science reporters who are not scientists (Justin Gillis and Elizabeth Colbert being notable exceptions) do not seem to have sufficient contact with what I call the coherence network of scientific thought on their beats, for a “sniff test” to work. Claims simply don’t ring true or false to them. Those of us who have been surrounded by some aspect of scientifically robust material sometimes, we often can spot a lie that nonexperts might consider plausible.
I wonder if Kloor or Pearce even understand this. The nature of how Gavin spotted the lie is something I wish journalists would ruminate upon.
REPORTING WITH INSUFFICIENT DOMAIN EXPERTISE CAN BE DONE RESPONSIBLY OR IRRESPONSIBLY
If a person is unfamiliar but interested in a matter, they may say “some people say A and some say B. Some of the A-sayers suggest that B is refuted but I myself am new to the subject and have not been able to follow their argument.” This is not irresponsible (I do it frequently enough!) though far less helpful than determining whether the refutation is sound.
We live in a world where many people lie with considerable skill. Indeed most of them manage to convince themselves that they are not lying. What we do about it on the present scale is a crucial question. What we don’t need is people saying “there are arguments for A and arguments for B”, giving A and B equal credence, (and getting a major media soapbox to do it!) when in fact B is refuted. That constitutes a failure to perform the task which society delegates to journalists.
Nobody is perfect, but people who are stubborn about their failures should not be considered competent, regardless of their intentions or their perceived bona fides among the journalistic community.
The image, from Gavin’s article, shows positive sea level trends from stations that were claimed discontinued in 2006.