Just saw a wonderful little French movie last night, English title “Blame it on Fidel” (“La Faute a Fidel”).
It’s about a young girl, perhaps 9 years old, whose parents drop out of the French upper classes in the 1970s to become revolutionaries. Whatever you may think of the parents’ sentiments, this results in no little inconvenience, embarassment and confusion for the little girl, who is suddenly thrust into a whirlwind of incompatible certainties and conflicting myths.
I want to strongly recommend this film as a tonic to anyone who is very sure of their beliefs and a solace for those who are mixed up with them.
One of the themes is “solidarity”, which is contrasted with “sheeplike behavior”, but of course little Anna cannot tell the difference, and the point of view of the film can’t either.
I bring this up because of Frank’s query:
I can’t figure out what your principles are, MT. First you say that honesty is a prime virtue in science, yet you lash out at honest people (e.g. Gavin Schmidt) over minor points in doctrine, while you keep indulging dishonest people (e.g. Tom Fuller) because they happen to say something at some point in time which seems reasonable and honest when taken totally out of context.
Now Frank seems to have missed the article immediately preceding the one he is responding to, where I started to address this very question. Repeating myself, I said:
One of the great vulnerabilities of scientists in dealing with politicians is that we love discourse. We love intelligent disagreement. Intelligent disagreement is how we get our work done.
Yet we are in a political battle, a battle for the highest imaginable stakes. So one might argue that we need to show solidarity. Indeed, one is often criticized not intellectually but ethically for raising uncertainties in public. After all, any disagreement or even perceived disagreement on any point might be maliciously cast as “disbelieving in global warming”.
I think prof M was arguing for more public contrarianism. People should actually be able to see disagreements, and see the whole zoo of ways in which they work out (and not just the most useless ones, of which there are examples aplenty).
OK, so that’s why I disagree publicly with honest people who are important allies. I don’t think this is “lashing out”. Everybody knows I’m on Gavin’s “side” on the big picture. I think disagreement is a good thing, if it leads to greater understanding, and in this case I think it rather quickly did so.
As for indulging Fuller, well he is entertaining.
More seriously, I don’t think ignoring the crackpots works when the crackpots are sufficiently funded, unified, organized, politically adept, and diligent. Which is the situation we face. So the question is how to engage. There are two theories here: the first is the Monckton method: find the silliest things any of them say and mock mercilessly. Admittedly this is fun. The problem is that it cuts both ways. Nobody can prevent all their allies from being silly. (That they choose to focus their mockery on Gore, or Holdren, or on a handful of perfectly sensible scientists, serious people all, is pretty revealing. But we have no fundamental advantage on the mockery front.)
Our real advantage is in engaging correctly in pursuit of truth. By engaging on the difficult points and not the easy points, you hand the deniers a weapon: they can always use the conversation to gang up on you at various levels of competence. wear you down and drive you into a defensive and arrogant posture. They are also free to make facts up, where we have to research ours. It’s a slog. But if you engage on the difficult points and resist being driven into anger or appeal to authority, you demonstrate that your confidence is in the veracity of the evidence.
There’s a huge scaling problem there. Not everybody can do it. It’s much easier to be a denier of the science than a defender once the battle is engaged. But those of us who can, who actually enjoy the process, ought to. One part of this is studiously addressing the genuine skeptic in the audience. When someone like Fuller comes along making points that will not appeal to the genuine skeptic, it remains best to ignore them as partners in a search for truth. That’s one of the tricks. In each conversation you have to maintain a level of scientific sophistication suitable for one or another audience, even though you’ll be attacked at several levels. If attacked from above, the appeal to authority must be made very carefully (“I’ll be happy to discuss this with you elsewhere; please see refs A, B, and C and get back to me”)
All this said, Frank has a real point. If I bend over backwards to treat the deniers with respect on the grounds that there might be a few genuine skeptics in their ranks, meanwhile looking under every rock for any point of disagreement with people who have their heads screwed on right, my site starts to look like, well, Judith Curry’s.
The answer, for me, is that above all the amazing fascination of the cluster of topics is the selling point of the conversation. Most people are put off by the thick stench of evil and hostility that surrounds the “debate”, but in fact the questions, in addition to being ultimately questions of global survival, are immensely interesting. The objective is to make the conversation as interesting as possible, to attract more eyes, to engage people to develop greater sophistication, without backfiring into Watts-land. Is this sufficient to save our sorry hides? I don’t know, but I remain convinced that it is necessary.
So coming back to the fictitious young miss Anna de la Mesa in the movie, solidarity for me is a non-issue. It is contrary to the spirit of science to put solidarity ahead of truth. And for me, it is contrary to the goal of making the conversation interesting. But I take Frank’s point as one more piece of the balancing act. I may not always line up with some political optimum, but giving the devil his due doesn’t require giving the devil more than his due.
That (silly statistics aside) is the main problem with Judith Curry’s efforts. It is one thing to engage, carefully and consciously. It’s another to butter up the lazy denialists and bash the diligent efforts of genuine scientists. If it looks like that’s what I’m doing, do call me on it.
That said, don’t expect me to stop looking for flaws in the consensus or legitimate arguments from the skeptics. I have little expectation that any serious change of opinion will result, much as I’d be thrilled to change sides if I could. (The money is better and the mood is happier over there, and as far as I can tell they don’t work as hard.)
See, there’s an interesting fact here. It’s not defending science to stop questioning science. It’s capitulating. This is why science is the opposite of politics, and why science is probably the way to save politics.