Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Holy Grail for Science?

I've mentioned the issue of my frustration with public media several times over the years.  I wrote a whole essay about my experiences with TV science "documentary" producers, for instance.  The short version of all that is I've learned that it's just not possible to convey any meaningful message about my science in a 5-second soundbite.  In some scientific organizations, their PR folks actually try to 'coach' their scientists how to interact with reporters and show producers to try to get their science message across.  But this 'holy grail', like its namesake, is a myth!  There's no way to communicate meaningful scientific content in a soundbite!!

Why am I dredging up this topic once again?  Isn't that horse already dead?  Recently, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies director, Dr. James Hansen and his collaborators (abbreviated Hansen et al.).  You can download a copy of the paper free from this site.  In their paper, the authors make a case that the impact of global warming is clearly being reflected by an increased frequency of record heat in both space and time.  There was a press conference called to announce the contents of this new publication, which has triggered a firestorm of articles on the subject - here is one example.

Within the atmospheric science community, some dismay over this media brouhaha has been expressed in the circles I inhabit as a professional.  One particularly strident dispute of Hansen et al. was written by University of Washington Atmospheric Science Prof. Cliff Mass and posted on his blog, here.  In his blog, Prof. Mass disputes the validity of the science in the paper by Hansen et al., and is critical of the way in which the press conference turned the paper's results into a media 'event'.

Traditionally, criticism in science is presented to the "target" in advance of publication of the critical remarks, allowing the author(s) an opportunity to respond.  Unlike critical comments in a journal, Hansen et al. were not given such an opportunity before Prof. Mass's blog was posted.

It's my contention that science of any sort should not be carried out in the public media, including Internet blogs and forums, as well as TV and the print media.  Obviously, opinions about this stance vary, so let me try to explain in some detail why I feel this way about things.

All one needs to do is to pay attention to the present and past arguments about global warming in the public media to see for yourself that the discourse has been heated (pun intended) and typically nasty.  The science has been politicized (mostly by the climate change deniers but unfortunately, not completely) for reasons of their own.  Public news reporting always seeks the sensational, trying to goad the participants in a controversy into saying intemperate things, including ad hominem attacks on their opponents.  The attack grenades are lobbed back and forth in separate interviews or on opposing blog pages - the opponents generally engage in talking past one another.  How is the viewer of all this carnage supposed to learn about science from this invective-laden point-counterpoint (rather reminiscent of the old Saturday Nite Live skit)?  Most public media viewers are not scientists, but some are hoping to get some useful information by which they might draw personal conclusions.  In my opinion, not only is scientific discourse carried out in the public media unproductive in the sense of resolving issues within the science, but it does the public a huge disservice by misrepresenting how science really works and by failing to clarify the substantive issues for the layperson.

Not only is it impossible to convey scientific substance in a soundbite, but it's also unlikely that real clarification will be achieved even in an unreviewed blog of several pages.  Many blogs are simply polemics for the simple reason that without review, what we get are the biases of the blog writer.  Anyone who claims to be unbiased is, of course, either self-deceived or deceitful.  I certainly make no such claim!!  If you like, you can consider this blog a polemic ...

The appropriate place for scientific disputes to be carried out is within the pages of refereed journals and at scientific conferences.  One need not 'dumb down' the technical content of a scientific dispute in these traditional science venues - it's presumed that the disputants are capable of understanding the technical material and can focus on presenting their evidence and justifying their interpretations thereof.  In the ideal world, everyone has a chance to present their content and the validity of any published content has been vetted by this peer review process.  Of course, the reality of science can fall rather short of this ideal.  People who feel they have been muzzled by peer review may choose to present their material via the public media rather than refereed journals (where they can't pass peer review), claiming they've been victimized by the "brahmins" who support the consensus.  Such an accusation may not be entirely without basis, unfortunately.  But good science generally wins out in the end, even if individual scientists may not live to see it.

I doubt that dumping controversial ideas into the media, such as what we've seen with the whole issue of global warming, has done atmospheric science much good.  In fact, I believe it's done much more harm that good for the science.  And it's not serving the public well, either.  Scientific ignorance is expanding in this nation, it seems, and having an explosion of vitriolic rants in the public media isn't doing anything to help the nation resolve the important issues we all confront, such as how to deal with global warming. 

A scientific argument is often rooted in technical issues far beyond the layperson's ability to absorb in a public media presentation.  Moreover, scientific arguments are complicated by all sorts of nonlinear connections among a myriad of processes interacting to produce the observed results.  It can be very challenging to sort all that out even if one has been educated to the doctoral level and had many years of experience working on some topic.  With education and experience, scientists develop a sense of how much confidence they can have in their findings, and it typically is not absolute, 100% confidence.  Hence, scientists always want to convey qualifications - caveats about how to intepret their results - but to lay viewers, this sounds a lot like hedging or is incomprehensible and, therefore, boring.  What hope is there to convey the sort of nuanced scientific understanding so common among scientists and so rare in the public?

Assuming the science is done in an appropriate venue, the next challenge of presenting the results to the public stares us all in the face.  I wish I had a holy grail - a solution to that problem.  Unfortunately, I'm not that smart.  It's a separate issue, and one I prefer to defer for now, simply because I can't offer any credible solution.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Trolling, trolling, trolling ..

I read the blog of Sam Harris fairly often, and just stumbled on this little piece regarding how his situation has evolved during his growing notoriety.  Obviously, Sam Harris has become something of a celebrity - seen as famous in certain circles and infamous in different circles.  Discovery of this piece by Sam Harris comes on the heels of a discussion we at American Heathen had off-air, about blogging.  Al Stefanelli in particular mentioned that on his blogs, he has little time to respond to all the comments, and simply allows all comments to post unmoderated.  He says that his followers usually challenge his detractors so well he feels no obligation to join in the "conversation".  On the other hand, RJ Evans and I run moderated blogs, where we decide whether or not to publish comments submitted to the blog.  Naturally, there are some differences in the way we moderate our blogs, but mostly we agree on the basic approach - we're not afraid to publish comments critical of what we have said, but are unwilling to let stupid trolls and irrational babble through.

This conversation and Sam's blog got me to thinking about what might happen in the future.  I have no illusions of ever achieving (or even seeking) the public exposure that Sam Harris gets.  Based on his blog, that would become a nightmare for me and I probably would retreat into a dark corner somewhere and suck my thumb in dismay over what I had brought upon myself.  I like the idea of being able to speak my mind on topics and to share those thoughts in hopes of promoting meaningful, civil discussion on those topics.  That's all I hope to achieve - I'm not so naive as to believe that my words can change the world, or even change someone's mind about a topic.

The Internet being what it is, unfortunately, if the circle of those interested in my blog were to grow to dizzying new heights, there's little doubt that it would attract a plethora of "keyboard warriors" and trolls seeking to bash me for reasons having little to do with the topics on my blog.  I've already had a small number of such.  Al Stefanelli gets a substantial number, including people inclined toward off-point invective, vitriolic rants, and even death threats!  RJ Evans has revealed some scary encounters with trolls.  To date, I'm still awaiting my first death threat.  In some strange way, I see that as some sort of badge of honor - but I also see it as a sign that this blog might be starting to get out of hand.  I can't even imagine what Sam Harris has to put up with, although his essay cited above certainly paints a bleak picture.  Hence, this blog ...

How to respond to criticism is always a difficult thing - do I go through the time and trouble to write a detailed, point-by-point response, or do I blow it off, saying it's counter-productive to "feed the trolls"?  In my professional life, I'm obligated to respond point-by-point to criticism and colleagues can judge for themselves the relative merits of the arguments presented by my interlocutor(s) and me.  But this blog is an entirely different story.  For the time being, I'll continue to moderate the comments I receive in the way I've been doing.  I insist on full real names tied to any comment - no anonymous comments or posted under a partial name or pseudonym.  If you aren't willing to own your comments, I have no wish to recognize them or respond in any way other than to delete them.  If the discussion becomes uncivil or 'goes ballistic' in a way unsatisfactory to me, it's terminated immediately.  The volume of comments I'm getting is relatively easy to manage - I trust my fame/infamy will not grow rapidly out of my ability to do so.  But if I find I can't handle the volume, then I'll probably disallow comments, as Sam Harris does.  I decline to provide a platform for trolls to pour out their bullshit!