24 February 2010

Judy Curry on Credibility in Climate Science

Judy Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, has written a thoughtful essay on credibility in climate science. She has asked that it be discussed on a range of blogs with different perspectives. I am happy to discuss it here. Here is an excerpt:
In their misguided war against the skeptics, the CRU emails reveal that core research values became compromised. Much has been said about the role of the highly politicized environment in providing an extremely difficult environment in which to conduct science that produces a lot of stress for the scientists. There is no question that this environment is not conducive to science and scientists need more support from their institutions in dealing with it. However, there is nothing in this crazy environment that is worth sacrificing your personal or professional integrity. And when your science receives this kind of attention, it means that the science is really important to the public. Therefore scientists need to do everything possible to make sure that they effectively communicate uncertainty, risk, probability and complexity, and provide a context that includes alternative and competing scientific viewpoints. This is an important responsibility that individual scientists and particularly the institutions need to take very seriously.
Please go and read the whole thing, and feel free to come back and discuss here.


  1. Her 'deniers' labeling is offensive to most critics including scientists like Richard Lindzen.

    Her worn out saw about critics being "fed by money provided by the oil industry" belies the reality that the the global warming industry has recieved more money, many times over, from government grants.

    All would do well to heed the warning given by President Eisenhower that “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite....

    “Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.”

    A 'pipe dream' of Richard Lindzen merits discussion: "should some benefactor create a climate institute that could recruit outstanding
    scientists regardless of their position on global warming, and provide the resources for truly independent research protected from political manipulation, then it is possible that the corrupt state of the science could, in time, be rectified. So far, however, this would appear to be a pipe dream."

  2. sdcougar--
    Judy is addressing a broad audience. I agree she should avoid the word denier, but there is the difficulty that there is a broad range in the larger group one might call skeptics. We do need a word to distinguish those who disbelieve nearly every claim about global warming from those who simply suspect that confirmation bias or complain that the, as a group, public voice of climate scientist emphasizes only the high-side of the uncertainty window treating their most likely projections as some sort of floor, below which nothing else could possibly happen.

    As for content, I think Judy made a very good point that many of the blogs and people who appear to be though of as "the enemy" by cru-letter insiders are either not at all associated with any well heeled fossil-fuel funded campaign or the connection is so tenuous at to be meaningless. This is something the climate science community needs to recognize if they are to move forward and take steps to regain trust.

    After all: The strategy of slamming fossil fuel companies or intoning "tobacco!" hoping the cut off the bloggers is utterly hopeless because 'the' bloggers have nothing to do with fossil fuel companies and also have nothing to do with whatever tobacco companies may have done to prevent regulation of their product in the past.

    One of the things those advising climate scientists communicating with the public must understand is this: For the most part, blogs are merely a reflection of the public. There is no funded PR group giving bloggers marching order. No one is slipping us money to post our opinions etc.

    Someone needed to tell people at the NAS and other groups this obvious fact. That group is unlikely to listen to me directly, but they may listen to Judy. So, I'm glad she said that.

  3. Dr Curry:
    ...climate research establishment has appealed to its own authority...Unfortunately, the void of substantive statements from our institutions has been filled in ways that have made the situation much worse.
    The problem is caused by the intellectual vacuum created by appeal to authority in the first place; if we get close to the primary sources, a lot of the silliness goes away.

    Dr Curry:
    Credibility is a combination of expertise and trust. While scientists persist in thinking that they should be trusted because of their expertise, climategate has made it clear that expertise itself is not a sufficient basis for public trust.
    This is true, and the way other communities who provide science-based decision support deal with this is not through continued calls for trust in expertise, but through validation, transparency, demonstrated competence, and due diligence. Please don't misunderstand me as saying that climate scientists are incompetent, my point is there is a difference between being competent and credibly demonstrating competence to decision makers.

    Literature reviews or assessments of the scholarly literature are fundamentally inadequate as a decision support product (if I were a social science sort of guy I think that might make an interesting research hypothesis).

    Dr Curry:
    They are focused on moving the science forward, rather than the janitorial work of record keeping, data archival, etc.
    All that work that is beneath the titans of academia is actually the important part of building the credibility of the decision support product. It is probably unreasonable to expect academics to do this mundane work. That's not what they enjoy doing, and it's not the work that will be good for their academic career, but that work is necessary to produce credible decision support. Life and death decisions are made every day with the help of science-based decision support, and almost none of that support consists of a lit review. The lit review or assessment too easily turns in to a glorified appeal to authority.

    Dr Curry:
    effectively communicate uncertainty, risk, probability and complexity
    I'd add to Dr Curry's list the sort of demonstrations of due diligence and error checking that are common in the professional engineering community.

  4. Lucia, the point is that by using the word "denier" she pretty much showed where she is on the issue. When there is a Godwin's Law example in the initial post, how can there possibly be any positive dialogue?

    It's clear from this and several other portions of the post that this is a setup, intended not for any reconciliation, but for later demagoguery. "Well we tried being reasonable with those awful deniers, and look what happened?"

  5. Read thru it twice but still remain unconvinced.

    The problem is not skepticism - the problem is the current poor state of climate science.

    I suggest that this generation of climate scientists find other employment, the sooner the better, because the public have lost faith in science.

    Let others step forward to sort out this mess.

  6. Her worn out saw about critics being "fed by money provided by the oil industry"

    I always laugh when I hear that. Oil is predominantly a transportation fuel and it isn't being threatened by the 'climate' debate. There just aren't any current, cost effective technological alternatives to oil. There isn't enough farmland in the world to even come close to replacing it with ethanol.

    Coal is the threatened industry.

  7. Skip, I did a search on the essay for denier. It appears in only two places. The first is referring to how those skeptical of AGW have been labeled by others (the generally tone of here comment at this point reads to me as saying that she does not consider this labeling a good thing). In the second reference she says that the Climate Audit crowd are watchdogs, NOT deniers. Nowhere in this essay does Dr Curry call anyone a denier.

  8. @lucia 2-

    There is a serious problem with how Dr. Curry uses the "denier" label, she conflates everyone who is some degree a skeptic. We don't need a "one size fits all" label that obfuscates rather than clarifies the array of skepticism borne out by the revelations of faulty science.

  9. I wish people would focus less on the word 'denier' (which is unfortunate, but it's only a word) and more on the substance of the essay, which is, IMO, a balanced review of recent events, as well as a reasonable road-map forward. If I could change one thing, it would be the description of data handling and archiving as 'janitorial'. Scientists in general are awful at this, and as our data generation capacities increase year by year, we are less and less able to manage data. It's an area where we really need improvement. I don't attract the attention of many outsiders, but I have been seriously discombobulated in recent years by requests fro data from the early 1990s, for example. And I find that unless I make a positive effort to archive it after a research project or sub-project is published, in two years the raw data will be effectively useless -- not because it's not there, but because the various records of how I handled it are widely dispersed.

    Data management needs to be one of our skills, and in general we haven't trained our students to do it. And Climategate, IMHO, was at bottom a crisis of data management. It's not that Jones et al really wanted to hide anything -- at least, I don't believe they did -- they were just incapable of producing the raw data, and probably embarrassed at having very limited records on how they handled it.

  10. Judy Curry does a great job putting the issues into perspective. My favorite lines:

    "Debating science with skeptics should be the spice of academic life, but many climate researchers lost this somehow by mistakenly thinking that skeptical arguments would diminish the public trust in the message coming from the climate research establishment. "

    "No one really believes that the “science is settled” or that “the debate is over.” Scientists and others that say this seem to want to advance a particular agenda. There is nothing more detrimental to public trust than such statements."

    The only problem I have with the article is the ridiculous whining about some type of "oil-funded denial machine." I am still looking for proof of this conspiracy theory. Most of the original "skeptics" were simply scientists that disagreed with the "catastrophic" thinking of others: e.g., John Daly, the Idsos, Tim Ball, etc. I don't think you will find any Big Oil money behind them. And if you look, I think you will find that much more oil money was spent to support the AGW-believers than was spent on "skeptics" and those terrible right-wing think tanks.

  11. Matthew, try reading the essay rather than just searching. There's a whole section in there talking about how the guys before McIntyre were part of a "climate denial machine" funded by big oil. And it's obvious from context that she believes and agrees with this, not just reporting the views of others. When you start with that premise as a beginning, it's hard to see where you can end up anywhere reasonable.

  12. RWP--
    My post responding to Judy's engaged precisely the question of archiving. I think archving needs to be both enforced and facilitated programmatically by funding agencies and discuss an idea here: http://rankexploits.com/musings/2010/curry/

    In many cases, simply forcing people to upload raw data, value-added data, codes and scripts used in specific journal articles would reduce the amount of janitorial work in the long run. Ten years hence you could find the script you used to fit a straight line to 10 data points and the 10 data points contained in figure N.n of paper X because you were forced to load it into an archive at the time you wrote tha paper. This sort of thing is now technologically feasible.

  13. Still not willing to take the final step.

    Curry quotes this approvingly:

    " the perceived misbehavior of even a few scientists can diminish the credibility of science as a whole..."

    [As if this is a matter of "perceived" misbehavior].

    and writes this:

    "Debating science with skeptics should be the spice of academic life, but many climate researchers lost this somehow by mistakenly thinking that skeptical arguments would diminish the public trust in the message coming from the climate research establishment. Such debate is alive and well in the blogosphere, but few mainstream climate researchers participate in the blogospheric debate. The climate researchers at realclimate.org were the pioneers in this,

    [Debate is alive and well at RealClimate? RealClimate censors anything they disagree with, as Curry herself points out regarding McIntire. In fact, RC was set up as a public relations tool, with the scientists recruited to give their side - not to debate].

    Curry can't get herself to air dirty laundry, or step on toes. She's entirely inside the walls, arguing strategy with her "teammates," rather than standing on principle.

    Things have been done in climate science that would get a failing grade in a Science 101 class, much less removal from a graduate program. Yet somehow, Curry keeps her comments to perceptions and vague hand-waving. When she starts calling out people by name for their egregious crimes against science, I'll start listening. Needless to say, I"m not holding my breath. Curry wouldn't want to be labeled a denier and disinvited from campus dinner parties, would she?

  14. Roger:
    I agree that the focus on "denier", offensive as the word is, is misplaced. Moreover all the evidence is that Dr. Curry is open to a respectful discussion. However, I disagree with you and I do not think that "Climategate, IMHO, was at bottom a crisis of data management." Lousy data management certainly was a part, but it seems to me to be more of a symptom. Methodologically, I think "confirmation bias" is far more central both in its simple form and in its far nastier and problematic ideological form. How else do you explain Mann's dismissal of Wegman? Mann surely must have recognized the danger of selecting one PC and leaving the other PCs unexplained. If you have the time take a look at this beauty on the Himalayan Glacier issues: http://go2.wordpress.com/?id=725X1342&site=buythetruth.wordpress.com&url=http%3A%2F%2Fna.unep.net%2Fpublications%2FHimalayas.pdf
    Check out the reasoning and the references to Chapter 1. At what point does incompetence become intentional misrepresentation?

  15. Again the overuse of the words "expert" and "expertise". The main qualification to be considered an expert is have a long record of being correct with your predictions. Oops! In reality a bunch of scientists saw a rising trend and said it's going to keep rising because they thought they knew why. Oops again! That was exactly what financial analysts did up to the moment of the crash. They were all pretend experts too!

    So who has a tradition of being correct? Well the skeptics said the following:
    1. Hurricanes show no link to temperature rises and neither do droughts, floods or any other extreme events.
    2. The peer review process was actively preventing skeptics from being published. Peer review itself became a bad joke - even including collaboration with editors to keep out skeptical papers or to publish replies along with the original papers.
    3. Natural variation was far more important than had been assumed in the models.
    4. The raw temperature data was subject to unknown, undocumented adjustments that seem to have been made ad hoc and the sea surface temps had particular problems with the bucket adjustment.
    6. There was indeed a medieval warm period. When even Mann, Jones and Briffa say it existed then it's time for all the wannabes to do the same!
    7. The IPCC authors were promoting dubious ideas that weren't peer reviewed and ignoring conflicting evidence in order to promote an agenda.
    8. Gores film was full of factual errors and gross exaggerations. Confirmed in court.
    9. Outgoing radiation is greater than the theory predicts ergo any positive water vapour amplification is much less than assumed.
    I could keep increasing this list...but I wonder if any alarmist prediction has ever been correct? Frankly I can't think of any. If not, then just who are the real experts pray tell? As far as I can see there are too many people unable to say the words "we just don't know".

  16. I am trying to understand why accepting money from an "oil" company "taints" a climate scientist but accepting money from NSF is "pure." What percentage of NSF money goes to funding projects designed to "disprove" GW?

    Money is money.

  17. LOL, the AGW-extremists, all the way to the leaders of Congress, are SO addicted to the idea that anyone who disagrees with them has been corrupted by "Big Oil" that they can't seem to miss an opportunity to use this strawman to help sell the scam. Look what Boxer and Merkeley said in Senate hearings today: http://icecap.us/index.php/go/political-climate

  18. Although I am disappointed with the response of sceptics to an article which conceded many of the complaints that have been made. I am more disappointed by the total lack of comphrension coming from alarmists like Romm.

    If Dr. Curry's article does not get some more positive response from alarmist quarters I am going to have to assume that the climate science establishment is incapable of reform and should be treated like any other political advocacy group when it comes to setting government policies.

  19. What Raven said. I liked Curry's article, and laughed at Romm's response. I've been called a denier more times than I've had lunch since I started writing about this stuff, and I don't think Curry meant any harm by the two references. I thought her article made sense.

  20. It's great to see a positive contribution and a bridge building attempt, despite any lack of perfection that people might find in it..

    She says:

    "My own experience in making public presentations about climate change has found that discussing the uncertainties increases the public trust in what scientists are trying to convey and doesn’t detract from the receptivity to understanding climate change risks (they distrust alarmism)."

    This is a key point - but lost on many who are promoting their current level of certainty.

    Some really believe the "certainty" I'm sure, but many more don't. Reading their papers, there are many questions and unknowns. No surprise to Judith Curry but that gives me lots more confidence.

  21. I should clarify that RWP is an abbreviation for 'Right Wing Professor', my own web handle of long standing, and not Roger Pielke. Until I read one of the comments here, it hadn't occurred to me that someone might think one of my comments was one of his. I'm not really anonymous online, so perhaps in future I'll just post under my real name.

    Roger's middle initial is of course A, not W.

  22. Dr Pielke's blogpost just above this one, http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2010/02/black-box.html, says a lot about why the IPCC has lost credibiity.

    Just like there are models and observations, we have words and deeds. IPCC has shown by its actions that it and the reports it generates are not worth of trust.

  23. At least she didn't say "of course, this changes nothing. The science is solid".
    It must be the first time that immortal sentiment hasn't been rammed home.

  24. Dr. Curry is to be complimented for making important first steps in recognizing the problem. She has also recognized that the AGW community has made serious mistakes.
    I would encourage her to consider that part of earning trust is to have results that are robust and accurate.
    Maybe the most important part.
    Dr. curry's recognition that skeptics are not part of vast cynical conspiracies is a breath of fresh air that is long overdue.
    Best wishes to Dr. Curry for her thoughtful and, in this polarized environment, brave stand.

  25. I’ve had the pleasure, and I mean that sincerely, of arguing/debating with Judy over at CA a few times. She comes across far more willing to hear out opposing views than most AGW proponent climate scientists. I found it difficult to be my normal snarky self with her, because she’s not condescending in any way.

    That said, when she leaves the actual science and starts down the path of funding, politics, advocacy argument, she gets herself into the usual AGW proponent self-inflicted wounds. Though her tone was non confrontational in her essay, her belief in the “Big Oil” conspiracy funding right-wing think tanks in “phase I” hurts her case.

    Judy says it’s easy to track down the fact that “Big Oil” has contributed to the “denier camp.” Well, the same can be said of the climate scientists. For example, take a look at the sources of income acknowledged by CRU which includes some government and international agency and advocacy groups that do not provide money to the “denier camp.”

    British Petroleum
    Greenpeace International
    Reinsurance Underwriters and Syndicates
    Sultanate of Oman
    United Nations Environment Plan (UNEP)
    United States Department of Energy
    United States Environmental Protection Agency World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF)

    The complete list can be found at the CRU website(http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/about/history/). Reinsurance Underwriters and Syndicates includes the Catlin Group, which funded the polar publicity stunt (Catlin Expedition) last year and which is deep into carbon credits and “climate change insurance.” Several of these entities have a clear vested interest in the alarmism perpetrated by the IPCC and some of the big players among climate science.

    If you dig, you will find “Big Oil” contributing to many bastions of the AGW camp. Does that then invalidate the AGW research? No. Nor does the funding source invalidate skeptic research.

    Personally, I don’t care where a scientist, school, or research institute gets their money. As long as that scientist, school or research institute makes their research totally transparent and makes the data, methodology and code available without all the nonsense that we’ve seen from the likes of Mann, Schmidt, Hansen, Jones, Wigley, Trenberth, Santer, Steig, et al, there wouldn’t be the trust issues that Judy points out.

    It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on a flawed study or who funds it. Flawed studies readily available for “audit,” as Judy calls it, will be quickly debunked. And that’s how real science should work.

    One of the first things I learned as a cadet at West Point was that the mere appearance of impropriety is often worse than the impropriety itself.

    The actions of the scientists named above, some of their institutions, their blogs like RC, their own words in the “Climategate” emails would lead any rational observer to conclude that there is at least an appearance of impropriety. To date, their reaction to getting called out only confirms that appearance and seems to confirm actual impropriety.

  26. Some here have tried to defend Dr. Curry and her use of the "deniers." I will admit that her use is not as offensive as some, but she seems to fail to understand the offensiveness of the label "denier." She draws little distinction between "skeptics" and "deniers" using only the word "even" before deniers.

    I am proud to be called a skeptic. Scientists are supposed to be skeptical. Deniers is meant to associate people to holocaust deniers. If she was really wanted to move toward rebuilding trust, she should have specifically said the term "denier" is off-base.

    No one, not even those who believe CAGW has been scientifically and conclusively disproven, wants to be called a denier.

  27. One of the aspects of this issue that I think has been overlooked by Dr Curry is the problem that climate science has tended to attract people who were "environment warriors" even before they got into climate science. It doesn't help that this often goes with being a mediocre scientist. (Not really surprising that this is the case - one of the first requirements for a good scientist is being open minded.) As a result, they are even more vulnerable than usual to the temptations of confirmation bias, groupthink, selection bias and hubris.

    Unfortunately, as well as good science there is a considerable amount of advocacy masquerading as science. This has been compounded by pressure from powerful environmental lobby groups, groupthink among the political class and perverse incentives in research funding.

    On the latter point, it is hard to think of another area of science where there has been so much active discouragement of questioning the status quo. Perhaps the difficulty of geology recognizing the truth of plate tectonics comes closest.

  28. Ros
    Thanks Dr Curry and thanks to the blogs that have given us her story. I am in the denier, sceptic, dissident camp very firmly, mainly because of the projections/ predictions. However think that risk management requires the research, and appropriate responses. Dr Curry your courage is amazing.

    Dr Curry probably wouldn't agree or want to see the priorities for research to change, but I hope that the courage of scientists like her leads to far more research and studies on adaptation rather than calls for democratic societies to emascualate their economies.

    I think one thing that the ignored or scorned hoi polloi know is that whatever the dangers, China/India/Brazil/Russia etc have no intention to do other than build wealth and if there is a carbon reduction in it well and good. Even if the warmists are right, the world will go on doing what it has, there will be no reductions in CO2, that is how it will be, there is no turning.

    And, politically incorrect thought it may be, a woman speaking, and being heard. That some from either side still choose to diss, well that is your right, but Dr Curry is one of the voices that might just make a difference to this vicious war of ideas which is as much a product of a globally connected world as it is of science and global danger. She shows how we can walk together.

  29. Acceptance that trust has been lost but insistence on following the same methods that led to that loss of trust? Sorry, same methods with added spin.

    But then again in that piece I do see signs of changes in attitude and small admissions of wrong. It may be as Frasier Crane once said (paraphrase) It's going to take a long time to climb down from this particular high horse.

    In the end only time will tell. If the science is made more honest and robust, the procedures more open the public might see Climate Scientists doing actual science and start believing them more. If they continue to shoot at the messenger and shout 'rapist' at lynchings the public will continue to distrust them. But for me there will be no benefit of the doubt until that happens, not before.

  30. It would appear that Judith Curry's attempts to build bridges has bombed.


    She is a climate science. Why should anyone believe a word she says on skepticism when everyone knows the science she promotes has gone bad.

  31. The problem isn't communication. The problem is basic incompetence and a massive failure to employ the scientific method.

    The thermometers aren't sited properly. Even worse, no one even thought to check. The databases are a mess. The convoluted "adjustment" process is mystery. No one checks anyone else's work. Even worse, the climate science community stands adamantly against the very notion of transparency, replication and audit.

    If climate scientists want credibility, a good place to start would be to clean out all the garbage, require adherence to basic scientific standards, stop slandering those who disagree and refuse to circle the wagons to defend the miscreants. A little simple honesty about uncertainty and unknowns would also be helpful.

  32. #25

    You can add to your list ExxonMobil's contribution of over $300,000 to Georgia Tech in 2008 alone.


    So it wasn't to climate research? OK, what research at GT does it invalidate?

    Also, over of a quarter of mil apiece to Penn State and Columbia!

    (Only ~68K to U. Col. Boulder.) :)

    OK. I know, it's silly, but that is, of course, the point.

  33. I agree with the gist of Judith Curry's letter (calling for openess, transparency, building bridges), but think that her view of the "skeptical" blogosphere is naive. As if WUWT has a constructive role to play in the discussing climate change issues.

    Making unsubstantiated accusations that are demonstrably false is not constructive. see eg http://tamino.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/shame/

    See also Anne van der Bom's reaction on RC:
    http://www.realclimate.org/?comments_popup=2808#comment-162787 and


  34. Stan #31

    You have listed a number of reasons why climatologists are not trusted. The sad thing is that climatologists in general think this issues are not that important. The even sadder thing is that they may even be right, at least as far as the science is concerned. Unfortunately, they neglected to think about the impact such basic sloppiness has on the public.