Thursday, February 16, 2017

Seneca and Medea

Sara Falsini (left) and Ilaria Perissi (right), researchers from Italy, illustrate their results at the MEDEAS project meeting in Brno, Czekia, on Feb 15-16 2017

I try to put up a post every week on this blog, but this week I was really swamped by a zillion things. Of these, two really overwhelmed me. The first is the MEDEAS meeting, right now ongoing in Brno, Czekia. The second is completing my new book, "The Seneca Effect". (the cover on the right is fanciful, also the title will be a little different),

Both things have a certain "ancient history" flavor, even though Seneca is a historical character whereas Medea is a mythological one (as far as we know). But they have many things in common, the book and the project are both aiming at understanding the future on the basis of the idea that the key of the future is in the past. (and, after all, Medea and Cassandra are similar mythological figures)

So, I can tell you that the MEDEAS project is going well, although it is an awful lot of work with several models being developed at different levels of detail and scope. The book, too, is almost finished, needs some retouching and some figures are being drawn. It should appear soon in English. Also the German version is being prepared.

Once all this has been accomplished, I can go back to blogging. Soon, I hope.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Checkmated on the "Climate Pause". The Mistakes Scientists Make

David Rose popularized the concept of the "pause" in global warming in a 2012 article on the Daily Mail. There never was such a thing, but it became a highly successful meme (*), still widely cited today as proof that global warming doesn't exist or it is nothing to be worried about. By now, the rapid rising temperatures of the past few years should have been consigned the "pause" to the oblivion it fully deserves. But a group of scientists offered to Rose the occasion to double down and to accuse them of manipulating the data. 

Years ago, I used to play chess, even though I always remained, at best, at a low-medium skill level. Once, I found myself playing with a local high-level player and I was thoroughly trashed, quickly checkmated. I offered my congratulations to him and he answered to me with something like, "Ugo, it is not that I am especially good. It is you who made mistakes with your moves. Make no mistakes, and nobody will ever checkmate you."

I think that was good advice that I still try to remember after many years. If you are defeated, it may be that your opponent is especially good, but it is also likely that he or she simply exploited your mistakes. Avoid making mistakes, and your life will be easier. But you need to recognize the mistakes you made and admit them.

This seems to be the problem with the present debate on climate science. Facing aggressive criticism, scientists keep making the most elementary communication mistakes. The latest disaster for science is the recent article by David Rose in which scientists are accused to be manipulating the data. Rose, you may remember, is the journalist who first diffused in the media the idea that there had been a "pause" in global warming. His 2012 article in the Daily Mail was a milestone in the meme war; with the "pause" (or "hiatus") still widely known and repeated as "proof" that global warming doesn't exist or that, at least, climate models don't work (*).

Obviously, the "pause" never was anything more than a perfectly normal oscillation - amplified by carefully choosing a specific interval of temperatures. The recent temperature increases broke all the warming records and that should have buried forever the "pause", together with other legends such as the claimed arrival of the planet Nibiru in 2012. But, no. Now David Rose doubles down with a new article in which he, this time, accuses scientists of having manipulated the data in order to make the pause disappear.

I don't think I need to tell you that Rose's latest article is a textbook example of logical inconsistency. First, he claimed the existence of the "pause" on the basis of temperature data that, evidently, he trusted. Now, he says that the data shouldn't be trusted because they don't show a pause. If there ever was an example of motivated reasoning, this is it.

Yet, communication is not just a question of formal logic. Take a tour of the Web and you'll see how many people are gleefully commenting on Rose's latest broadside against science. It is a landslide; the dam has given way: it is a true disaster for science. Maybe Rose is an evil genius in communication, but I think he is not. He is just exploiting the mistakes made by climate scientists.

This story is all about an article published in 2015 by a group of NOAA scientists who claimed that there is no evidence of a slowdown in the world's temperature increase. The article was perfectly good in scientific terms, but it was a terrible mistake in terms of communication. Why? Because it ignored a simple fact of life: in the mass media debate, mentioning a concept, even if for debunking it, has the effect of reinforcing the public perception that the concept is real.

This is a well known concept. On this issue, you may read a good article by Chris Mooney describing the "backfire effect" or, sometimes, the "boomerang effect". Among the many cases, it was found that having Barack Obama explicitly stating that he is not a Muslim tends to reinforce some people's belief that he is. And you surely remember the story of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. There never was any proof for their existence (and, indeed, they never existed). But the more the subject was debated, the more people became convinced that they existed.

In the end, it is simple: debunking doesn't work; on the contrary, it often reinforces the perception that the belief being debunked is true. So, it should have been obvious that a paper that attempted to demonstrate that there never was a "pause" would generate a backlash, one day or another. And it did.

Let me repeat: For what I can say, there is nothing wrong in scientific terms in the work by Karl et al. But place yourself in the shoes of a person who is not a scientist, won't you get the impression that the scientists are fiddling with the data? That's the point that the critics of science are making over and over and this message seems to be going through.

Maybe it was unavoidable that a review of the temperature data would lead to this result, but was it appropriate to publish a minor correction of a data set in a high-visibility journal? If it was in order to affect climate policies, it was a perfectly legitimate target, but only if based on rock-solid data. Didn't the people involved in this work realize that their corrections are debatable, to say the least? And how is it that no one in NOAA thought that in some quarters the corrections would be understood and described as politically motivated data manipulation? Do scientists always have to be so naive? 

Now, many scientists are trying to debunk Rose's article (**), but the problem remains the same: the more you mention the "pause", the more it becomes real for the public. And that's a victory for the enemies of science. It seems that, as scientists, we are falling over and over into the same traps. As long as we do that, we'll keep being checkmated by people who exploit our mistakes.

(*) About the power of the "pause" as a meme, note that even a Nobel prize in physics, Carlo Rubbia, became convinced that it was something real. You can hear him (in Italian) here saying that on minute 2.40 

(**) Note that climate scientists are debunking Rose who was debunking NOAA that was debunking Rose who was debunking climate scientists. Quite a trophic chain of debunking and counter-debunking. A true "metadebunking" that only confuses people and plays in the hand of the enemies of science.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)