Response To Judith Curry On Scientific Storytelling

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On Climate ETC: Judith Curry writes:

If climate scientists were to use their past accomplishments to bolster their current claims, there would be less controversy, as it’s more difficult to undermine the credibility of established achievements.

Which is a distracting straw man argument that posits the climate issue as one of communication rather than credibility.

I responded with:

[callout]Why do I know that what I say here will not make a difference? Because researchers in the physical sciences have perverse incentives because of the economic structure of labor in academic research. Therefore, scientists will not change their behavior because it would cause them to pay the cost of that change, and that cost is too high in relation to ALL THEIR OTHER COSTS AND BENEFITS. …. In other words: People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.[/callout]

I’m an economist. (A political economist. I’m not an econometrician – the kind of people who in economics make the same mistakes as physical scientists – forecasting.) Whether economists are scientists is still open for debate, but we have a similar problem of credibility in our field, even though economics and politics are more naturally interdependent than are the physical sciences and politics.

Regarding Past Achievements.
If we study both the history of science, the history of political activism, and the history of marketing we end up with a very different conclusion than you state above, and storytelling wont’ cure it:

1) Science is riddled with as many faulty conclusions as successful achievements – in fact, of necessity, far more faulty conclusions than successful achievements. (Everything from the notorious Phlogiston theory, to the Mathusian error, to the 70’s fascination with ‘global cooling’ and the upcoming ice age. Furthermore, Apocalyptic pronouncements are almost universally false if we look at the history of ideas across all fields. The universe is far more equilibrial than we are. Christendom in particular, is anti-apocalyptic because the apocalyptic vision is attached to ancient sentiments.)

2) Far more than 90% of research papers that achieve public attention contain errors in reasoning that invalidate the premise. (Depends upon whose study you look at — but, it’s bad no matter how you look at it.) A random selection of papers from PhD’s and candidates from any number of fields from any university’s library will contain amateurish exaggerated conclusions from insufficient data, and erroneous interpretation. (Reasons? First, because graduate ‘training’ work is publicized, and second, because the short form peer reviewed process for scientific achievement appears to be far less valuable than the long form book process for scientific achievement.)

3) Nearly all research work that reaches the public contains overreaching editorial content that invalidates the research. This is a combination of the desire for attention by researchers and editorial license that seeks attention on the part of publishers.

4) Good science is meticulous. Bad science is not. (I lost a quarter of a million dollars of my own money backing climate science, and the November 09 scandal was the reason for it. The field must take responsibility for the shoddy science.)

5) It certainly seems that economics as a profession is more skeptical of it’s calculations than are the physical sciences, partly because economic variables are so complex that we are afraid to make pronouncements. We realize we can be descriptive of the past but we cannot be PREDICTIVE of the future in economics. The same applies for highly complex systems of all kinds, even the environment – the heuristics of which is not terribly different in intertemporal terms than are social constructs.

And, as an economist I can observe that the physical sciences are reversing the accumulated prestige of the field for a single reason: the perverse incentives of the graduate training process in research universities.

6) Movements need to be skeptical of their acolytes. For example, certain musicians who employ the compositional structure of hymns to rock music, must sometimes specifically eschew association with Christian groups because they know it will impact their credibility with the broader audience. The fact that the international communist movement has effectively co-opted the green movement means that the entire research program is now effectively discounted as a political movement. The global warming movement must associate itself with commerce if it is to succeed. And it is not impossible to do so. Moral arguments are UNIVERSALLY masks for wealth transfers. Without exception. Scientists are notoriously ignorant of economics and politics. Where science succeeds, is where it unifies with the pragmatism of commerce. Not where it aligns with religion and politics.

In economic terms, science as a profession is discounted in the marketplace because of a record of exaggerated claims and faulty advertising. It isn’t that scientists need to tell better stories. It’s that science needs to produce better work, and be extremely cautious with public pronouncements. Scientism is a religion if it believes it has a lock on forecasting the future, even of simple physical events.

So, it’s about credibility. The degree to which the academic scientific community in the west, since the 1970’s has undermined scientific credibility is not understood in the incestuous circle of academia.

To counter this effect: Write books that fully articulate an idea, not micro-papers. Falsify your own work. Seek to justify opposing views. Ruthlessly attack others who undermine scientific credibility in the public debate. Reduce the number of graduate students and hide their work unless it is extremely well argued. (this is a contrary incentive)

It’s not about achievements. Because the achievements are currently dwarfed by a ocean of contrary-indicators. In fact, if we look at the data, it is not in academia that the great inventions are coming from. In fact, it’s not from the large commercial capital bureaucracies either – they only refine discoveries. Innovation appears to be coming almost entirely from the efforts of individuals.

It’s not about storytelling. It’s about doing good science. And right now, climate science is insufficiently articulated for human beings to justify paying the huge cost associated with the apocalyptic visions. Human beings are rational. They just need a rational argument and to understand the costs and benefits in relation to ALL THEIR OTHER COSTS AND BENEFITS.

Why do I know that what I say here will not make a difference? Because researchers in the physical sciences have pervers incentives due to the economic structure of labor in academic research, and the failure to separate research from teaching lines of business and faculty in large universities. Therefore, scientists will not change their behavior because it would cause them to pay the cost of that change, and that cost is too high in relation to ALL THEIR OTHER COSTS AND BENEFITS FOR THEM.

In other words: People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

2 responses to “Response To Judith Curry On Scientific Storytelling”

  1. I’ll add that

    a) the number of hard degrees issued (per Menand) has remained constant since the early sixties, so most people being educated are actually receiving remedial education in college.

    b) the number of thought leaders in every field seems to have remained fairly constant since the 1930’s. This could describe a punctuated equilibrial system of knowledge growth it doesn’t make sense – especially when compared to how many people we put through our education system, it’s too top loaded due to the failure of our grade school and high school programs because of the teacher’s unions.

  2. Well said that man. I applaud your comments posted on JC’s blog and have to admit that they are more eloquently presented but in complete agreement with my own views.
    For too long now we in the UK have been subjugated to false intentions of a religious creed that has influenced cross party political policy and stalled democracy for a once great nation. It is not without conviction that we, the sceptical minded, refer to the participants of this fraud as watermelons, green on the outside, red on the inside. I hope that this is not the last time that we hear your voice join the ever increasing debate on the issue and just to underline a point; the science is definitely not settled.

    If you feel the inclination then pop over to at some time where your comments have been tagged:

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