Twitter science

Discussing science on the internet can be interesting at times, even on Twitter, which seems to have been designed specifically to foster misunderstanding by way of brevity. Here are two examples from my week.

Early in the week, Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist in Alaska, put up a global map of monthly precipitation variability:
Brettschneider map
Brian said the metric graphed constitutes the percentiles of a chi-square goodness-of-fit test comparing average monthly precipitation (P) against uniform monthly P. I then made the point that he might consider using the Poisson distribution of monthly P as the reference departure point instead, as this was the more correct expectation of the “no variation” situation. Brian responded that there was no knowledge, or expectation, regarding the dispersion of data, upon which to base such a decision. That response made me think a bit, and I then realized that I was thinking of the issue in terms of variation in whatever driving processes lead to precipitation measured at monthly scales, whereas Brian was thinking strictly in terms of the observations themselves–the data as they are, without assumptions. So, my suggestion was only “correct” if one is thinking about the issue the way I was. Then, yes, the Poisson distribution around the overall monthly mean, will describe the expected variation of a homogeneous, random process, sampled monthly. But Brian was right in that there is no necessary reason to assume, apriori, that this is in fact the process that generated the data in various locations.

The second interchange was more significant, and worrisome. Green Party candidate for President, physician Jill Stein, stated “12.3M Americans could lose their homes due to a sea level rise of 9ft by 2050. 100% renewable energy by 2030 isn’t a choice, it’s a must.” This was followed by criticisms, but not just by the expected group but also by some scientists and activists who are concerned about climate change. One of them, an academic paleoecologist, Jacquelyn Gill, stated “I’m a climate scientist and this exceeds even extreme estimates“, and later “This is NOT correct by even the most extreme estimates“. She later added some ad-hominem barbs such as “That wasn’t a scientist speaking, it was a lawyer” and “The point of Stein’s tweet was to court green voters with a cherry-picked figure“. And some other things that aren’t worth repeating really.

OK so what’s the problem here? Shouldn’t we be criticizing exaggerations of science claims when they appear in the mass culture? Sure, fine, to the extent that you are aware of them and have the time and expertise to do so. But that ain’t not really the point here, which is instead something different and more problematic IMO. Bit of a worm can in fact.

Steve Bloom has been following the climate change debate for (at least) several years, and works as hard to keep up on the science as any non-scientist I’ve seen. He saw Gill’s tweets and responded, that no, Stein’s statement did not really go so far beyond the extreme scientific estimates. He did not reference some poor or obsolete study by unknown authors from 25 years ago, but rather a long, wide ranging study by James Hansen and others, only a few months old, one that went through an impressive and unique open review process (Peter Thorne was one of the reviewers, and critical of several major aspects of the paper, final review here, and summary of overall review experience here). Their work does indeed place such a high rate of rise within the realm of defensible consideration, depending on glacier and ice sheet dynamics in Greenland and Antarctica, for which they incorporate into their modeling some recent findings on the issue. So, Jill Stein is not so off-the-wall in her comments after all, though she may have exaggerated slightly, and I don’t know where she got the “12.3M homes” figure.

The point is not that James Hansen is the infallible king of climate science, and therefore to be assumed correct. Hanson et al. might be right or they might be wrong, I don’t know. [If they’re right we’re in big trouble]. I wasn’t aware of the study until Steve’s tweeted link, and without question it will take some serious time and work to work through the thing, even just to understand what they claim and how they got there, which is all I can expect to achieve. If I get to it at all that is.

One point is that some weird process has developed, where all of a sudden a number of scientists sort of gang up on some politician or whatever who supposedly said some outrageous thing or other. It’s not scientist A criticizing public person B this week and then scientist C criticizing public person D the next week–it’s a rather predictable group all ganging up on one source, at once. To say the least, this is suspicious behavior, especially given the magnitude of the problems I see within science itself. I do wonder how much of this is driven by climate change “skeptics” complaining about the lack of criticisms of extreme statements in the past.

To me, the bigger problem is that these criticisms are rarely aimed at scientists, but rather at various public persons. Those people are not immune to criticism, far from it. But in many cases, and clearly in this one, things being claimed originate from scientists themselves, in publications, interviews or speeches. For the most part, people don’t just fabricate claims, they derive them from science sources (or what they consider to be such), though they certainly may exaggerate them. If you don’t think the idea of such a rapid rise is tenable, fine…then take Hanson et al. to the cleaners, not Jill Stein. But, unless you are intimately familiar with the several issues involving sea level rise rates, especially ice melt, then you’ve got some very long and serious work ahead of you before you’re in any position to do so. This stuff is not easy or simple and the authors are no beginners or lightweights.

The second issue involves the whole topic of consensus, which is a very weird phenomenon among certain climate scientists (not all, by any means). As expected, when I noted that Stein was indeed basically referencing Hanson et al., I was hit with the basic argument (paraphrased) “well they’re outside of the consensus (and/or IPCC) position, so the point remains”. Okay, aside from the issues of just exactly how this sacred consensus is to be defined anyway… yeah, let’s say they are outside of it, so what? The “consensus position” now takes authority over evidence and reasoning, modeling and statistics, newly acquired data etc., that is, over the set of tools we have for deciding which, of a various set of claims, is most likely correct? Good luck advancing science with that approach, and especially in cases where questionable or outright wrong studies have formed at least part of the basis of your consensus. It’s remarkably similar to Bayesian philosophy–they’re going to force the results from prior studies to be admitted as evidence, like it or not, independent of any assessment of their relative worth. Scientific ghoulash.

And yes, such cases do indeed exist, even now–I work on a couple of them in ecology, and the whole endeavor of trying to clarify issues and correct bad work can be utterly maddening when you have to deal with that basic mindset.

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5 thoughts on “Twitter science

  1. Yet another reason why I don’t use Twitter – it seems to me to encourage the worst kind of knee-jerk reactions to issues that are best considered in more detail and at greater length. Reminds me of late-night drunken “discussions” in the pub, saying things you;re going to regret in the morning….

    Having said that, I keep being drawn to Twitter as I know I’ll increase the number of readers of my blog if I do. But is that really a good enough reason? So far I don’t think so, but who knows in the future.

    • This is definite evidence that you are smarter than me Jeff–though I did resist for quite a while and have since come close to dropping it altogether several times.

      Yes it probably does increase the number of blog visitors, but I’ve never cared much about that, and in fact there’s a negative aspect to it on topics related to climate change. I don’t want masses, I just want a core of readers who are engaged and make good comments that I can learn from, and so far so good.

  2. Nice piece Jim. Your point(s) about consensus being discussed in the realm of science should gather more attention IMO. I won’t go so far as to suggest consensus should never ever play any part in scientific endeavor – I imagine planning and budgeting for large scale experimentation should likely involve some sort of community consensus. But after the data are in I don’t consider it proper to vote for a favorite interpretation.

    Scientists as policy wonks is another muddy area for me. I see articles published in peer review journals that resemble op-ed more than research. And once published as such are next bandied about as science because they are peer reviewed. Not suggesting here that scientists have no role in the public policy debate… but once engaged in such debate it should be clear that opinions (fact based or otherwise) are opinions.

    In this same vein is the trope of ‘science based policy’. SBP steps up as a most worthy goal – an admirable ambition. But too often I have the sense that folk believe today’s science is the final word, that we now know everything and can get on with the work of ‘fixing’ the world because we know how it works and can model any and all possible futures. Good grief.

    • Thanks Clem. Yes, I agree that when planning any large research program, getting agreement from all interested/involved is quite important, necessary really.

      If you look at the “Discussion Paper” version of the article, you’ll see that “editorializing” was a main concern of reviewer Peter Thorne, and other commenters also. Hansen was unapologetic on this issue and, combined with several other issues that Thorne took exception to, including those of scientific validity, caused him to let Hansen have it with both barrels. The whole review is both important and fascinating on several levels, IMO. It’s a case study and if time allows I’m going to post more on it.

  3. ” But, unless you are intimately familiar with the several issues involving sea level rise rates, especially ice melt, then you’ve got some very long and serious work ahead of you before you’re in any position to do so.”

    I agree. But this must also include public figures including politicians like Stein or Clinton or Obama who also haven’t done the hard work and also don’t know what they’re talking about. The problem with the politicians is they aren’t just talking about it they are going ahead with drastic actions and promising more.

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