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I am trying to germinate an idea on how to move forward on the climate debate.  Bear with me through this argument, and let me know what you think.

The blame game

It has been very fashionable in recent months to analyze the failure of policies to address the global warming problem, a few examples:

  • Matt Nisbet’s analysis (discussed on this previous thread)
  • A recent article in The New Republic entitled “The blame game,” this quote sums it up:  ”What the hell went wrong?
  • Greenfyre’s perspective:  it seems that few people read Greenfyre, but it is representative of the genre and more literate and entertaining than most.
  • And in terms of scholarship, this latest issue in the Sociological Quarterly.

In short, the blame is being placed on “deniers,” the mainstream media, conservatives and libertarians, and tactics used by the environmental movement itself.   The science itself is a non-issue in this matter: the incontrovertability of the Tyndall gas effect has somehow been translated into high confidence knowledge of what is going on with the climate system and what should be done about it.

Neither the scientists nor the state of the science gets any blame in these analyses.  And Climategate is typically dismissed as an insignificant factor. This is despite these findings from three recent studies:

  • Talking Past Each Other: this study found that science had a very high salience for both skeptics and “deniers” (which was not the case for the believers and convinced).
  • Climate Change: Partisanship, Understanding, and Public Opinion: “Democrats and Republicans with high confidence in their understanding [of climate science] also stand the farthest apart.”
  • In a Michigan State University press release on a new study, lead researcher Aaron M. McCright said: “Instead of a public debate about different policies to deal with global warming, a significant percentage of the American public is still debating the science. As a result, we’re failing to significantly address one of the most serious problems of our time.”
So despite what the convinced and believers say, climate science does “matter” in this debate, since it is an issue of high salience for the skeptics and deniers (the believers and convinced are in “denial” on this issue).  The influence of skeptical scientists on political and opinion leaders is arguably substantial.  So lets look at the failings of the climate scientists, in terms of making their case and garnering the public trust.

Of nerds, smugs, and simplifiers

Andrew Revkin and Randy Olson have recent blog posts discussing “Climate, Communication, and the Nerd Loop.”  Olson’s thesis addresses the endless bemoaning of the climate community on a “failure to communicate” climate science and its risks, whereby the media is blamed, unscientific ignorati are blamed, evil corporations and libertarian think tanks are blamed, etc,

Why don’t you find out what happens when you get so overly caught up in the information of communication that nobody in the world wants to listen to you? I’m gonna start calling this “The Nerd Loop” — where cerebral people think the solutions to communication lie in being more cerebral. I’m sorry, but in general, the “thinkier” you get, the tinier your audience.

Steve McIntyre starkly disagrees with Olson’s diagnosis of the problem, in a post entitled “The Smug Loop“, and calls for an “engineering quality exposition” of the climate change science:

In my opinion climate communication has not been “cerebral” enough for professionals and scientists from other fields. . .   while the niche of professionals and scientists from other fields is not a large percentage of the total population, it is an extremely important niche for the climate communication business (not simply in its own right, but as potential opinion leaders) and one ill-served by “climate communicators”. “Emotional” messages aimed at the “general public” are not what this community wants or deserves.

In numerous essays and including my testimony, I have decried the oversimplification of climate science, the neglect of formal arguments and uncertainty management, and overconfidence in conclusions.  These are the issues that concern skeptics and scientists and professionals from other technical fields.  And these are the people that influence politicians and other thought leaders on this subject.

Regardless of what the smug simplifiers say, I maintain that the climate science “matters,” both as science qua science, in the public debate, and also to inform policy.  Hence, scientists chasing their tails to find a magic bullet communication gimmick isn’t going to have much of an effect on anything.

The key issue is this: how can academic climate scientists, scientists and professionals from other technical fields, and the technical climate blogosphere do a better job of sorting through the scientific issues and data and models surrounding climate change, make arguments with better justification, and manage the attendant uncertainties?

The climate blogosphere has demonstrated the power of the internet  in communicating climate science and auditing climate science.  Can we take this to the next level, to meet Steve McIntyre’s challenge for an “engineering quality exposition” of climate science, increase transparency, promote data mining, and actually use the internet to enable large-scale collective intelligence to address the scientific and policy challenges associated with climate change?

The polymath project and the future of science

A post at Michael Tobis’ blog entitled “Can we do this?” introduced me to Michael Nielsen, his ideas on open science enabled by the internet, and the polymath projects.  For an introduction to Nielsen’s ideas, check out the following:

One of the projects that Nielsen is involved in is the Polymath projects.

Polymath projects are massively collaborative mathematical research programs, in which a single problem, group of problems, or other mathematical task is worked on by a large group of mathematicians. The key word here is collaborative: this is not a competition to be the first to solve the problem, but is instead a team effort, in which each partial insight or other iota of progress gained by any one participant is shared with the other participants via this blog (and also the wiki). All interested observers are welcome to jump in and participate in any of these projects, regardless of mathematical level, though it is recommended that one read and understand the guidelines here first.

From the Wikipedia:

In a 2009 post on his blog, Gowers asked the provocative question “is massively collaborative mathematics possible?” This post led to his creation of thePolymath Project, using the comment functionality of his blog to produce mathematics collaboratively.

The initial proposed problem for this project, now called Polymath1 by the Polymath community, was to find a new combinatorial proof to the density version of the Hales–Jewett theorem. After 7 weeks, Gowers announced on his blog that the problem was “probably solved”,[5] though work would continue on both Gowers’s thread and Tao’s thread well into May 2009, some three months after the initial announcement. In total over 40 people contributed to the Polymath1 project. Both threads of the Polymath1 project have been successful, producing at least two new papers to be published under the pseudonym D.H.J Polymath.


On his thread about Michael Nielsen’s Youtube video about Polymath, Michael Tobis asks the following question:

Sustainability is in some ways a harder problem than proving a theorem, no matter how subtle the theorem. And the global conversation has bad actors, looking out for their own interests while pretending to argue for the common interest. I don’t think crowdsourcing informed wisdom is going to be easy. But what other choices are on offer?

Using the collaborative, open, internet-driven polymath model would be much more challenging for the climate problem, owing to the “wickedness” of the climate problem (for more about climate as a wicked problem, see the Hartwell paper and also my testimony). But given the wickedness, is there a better way to tackle the scientific and policy issues surrounding the climate debate than an internet-based “poly” approach?

So how might Polyclimate work?  It needs to be viewed as independent and unbiased.  People knowledgeable about open science and open knowledge would need to be involved in setting this up.  Social scientists and philosophers of science would need to be involved to assess the process and dynamics.  People active in the blogosphere are the most likely participants, initially anyways.  This could be organized by a group of climate bloggers, or by an independent group such as Berkeley Earth that secures funding from a range of sources.  A blogospheric “federation” type approach might be the way to go.  Lets discuss the possibilities.

Comments from Michael Nielsen

My post on Hidden Knowledge was spotted by Michael Neilsen, who contacted me via email.  I tried out the polyclimate idea on Michael, and he provided some initial thoughts:

I’ve written a few thoughts below as a first reaction to the idea.  It’s mostly a brain dump from my book about open science, which I’m just finishing corrections to.

A crucial question about mass collaboration is when problems can be attacked using mass collaboration, and when it will fail.  I believe the key question is whether the community involved in the collaboration has a ”shared praxis” or not.  By this, I mean a powerful set of shared techniques and agreed-upon methods of reasoning which all participants agree to use.

Without this shared praxis, the community bogs down and continually fragments around basic questions.  You see this in many areas: artistic criticism, political decisions, and so on, with people disagreeing over basic values that are relevant to the problem.  This fragmentation prevents mass collaboration from being used directly to solve such problems.  (Of course, it can be used in other ways, e.g., voting is an example of mass collaboration, but it has a different function.)

But with a powerful shared praxis, the group can make nontrivial progress that everyone in the group _agrees_ is progress, and adds to the group’s collective knowledge.  Such a shared praxis is available in mathematics, and was crucial to the Polymath Project.  It meant that when individuals had clever insights, those insights could be accepted by others in the group, and added to the group’s collective knowledge.  It was that gradual agglomeration of insight that led to the success of the project.

For climate change the issue of a shared praxis seems complicated.  I think it’s pretty near a dividing line.  Reading online discussions of climate, it’s obvious that many people don’t even share the same basic modes of reasoning: what one person counts as “evidence” is ignored by others, basic standards of logic are outright ignored, and so on.

JC’s summary

I agree that the praxis is critical, otherwise this will degenerate to the kind of discussion we had on slaying the greenhouse dragon: fun, we all probably learned something, but we didn’t really make much progress on anything.  It will be a challenge to see if we can establish a shared praxis for problems related to climate in an online forum. We would probably need to start with a problem of limited scope, where it is clear what techniques are appropriate, and what are not.  It will be a substantial challenge to establish
legitimacy and maintain a healthy community, etc, but hopefully it’s possible to overcome such problems.

Michael Tobis raises some additional relevant issues/challenges on his post entitled “Open science, but not yet.”

IMO this would be a fabulous scientific and social experiment.  I don’t want to carry this idea too far in this initial post, I think it is best to float the idea then discuss how we might approach this collectively, to develop “buy in” and build a community for this. I look forward to your ideas.

Climate Etc, 22 April 2011