Why I Love the Internet

Because it allows me to read stuff like the following, an anonymous comment on a post by Washington Post reporter Andrew Freedman. Freedman complained that 2009 saw “erosion of clarity about climate”:

Mr. Freedman, the expression you’re struggling to avoid with regard to your propaganda in support of “mainstream climate scientists” is one devised by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in 1974.

The words are “Cargo Cult Science,” the advancement of scientific seeming without scientific integrity. Not just error but flagrant dishonesty. Fraud. Criminal conspiracy, too.

That’s your “mainstream climate scientists” in a neat little bundle of filth.

The Climategate revelations – the obvious work of an insider, a whistle-blower, not an outside hacker – show how the CRU correspondents cooked their data, manipulated their crooked computer models, and generally schemed to defy the UK and US laws covering Freedom of Information, including indications that Prof. Jones of the University of East Anglia suborned not only the compliance officers of his University but also one or more officers of Her Majesty’s government in the ICO.

Thirty wonderful years of duplicity, mendacity, “cork-screwing, back-stabbing, and dirty dealing.”

And you, Mr. Freedman, are defending this. Tsk. But what the hell have we any right to expect – other than this act of accessory after the fact in a multiple-count felony investigation – from anyone associated with The Washington Post?

Courtesy of Climategate, we now have stunning “clarity on climate.”

This isn’t exactly brilliant but it is better (better-written, better-argued, more heartfelt) than 99% of mainstream journalism, such as the Washington Post or New York Times. One big function of journalism is “to afflict the comfortable.” That includes science journalism. When a journalist, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, cannot form her own opinion but must accept what powerful people tell her, she cannot “afflict” them.

I think there is a psychological principle at work. It has different names. One is belief in a just world. The rich and powerful think they deserve their good fortune. Another is cognitive dissonance. If I did this crummy job for low pay, I must enjoy it. Yet another is Stockholm Syndrome. The science journalist thinks: If I trust this scientist, he must be trustworthy. But he isn’t. Outsiders, such as the anonymous commenter, are not subject to this effect and see things more clearly.

8 Replies to “Why I Love the Internet”

  1. I’ll avoid the temptation to be sarcastic here and just say that, no, I don’t trust the opinions of an anonymous letter-writer to the Washington Post over an actual expert such as this guy. I’m not saying that an anonymous letter writer can’t be correct; I just think I’ll go with the experts on this one.

    Nor do I believe that that letter is better-argued than 99% of what’s in the newspaper. I do believe it’s heartfelt (“bundle of filth,” etc.) but I don’t see that as such a virtue in this case!

  2. Not getting your point. Freedman’s main point is quite clear (apart from true) in this paragraph

    “Increasingly, individuals with backgrounds in a wide variety of fields, ranging from statistics to electrical engineering, are taking to the Internet to conduct their own climate science research (or to poke holes in someone else’s work, which, in theory, can be a valuable service in science) and share it with the world. Their efforts are making an impact. For example, popular climate skeptic blogs such as Climate Audit and wattsupwiththat were instrumental in pushing climategate into the mainstream press, while mainstream researchers’ sites, such as RealClimate, were put on the defensive.”

    The best example of Cargo Cult Science is people doing parallel research outside the peer-review process.

  3. Andrew, I wasn’t comparing the commenter to an expert, I was comparing him or her to a journalist.

    Pedro, my point is that the commenter’s response to Climategate is better than Freedman’s. Better in the sense that I’d rather read the comment than what Freedman wrote.

  4. i’ve been having trouble making heads and tails out of climategate from a neutral fact point of view. clearly there is the appearance of poor decisions on the part of a few scientists. clearly a lot of people are making use of it to support their ideologically driven agendas. those two datapoints are not helpful in terms of creating my opinion on global warming; or rather only the latter is only helpful, and only insofar as it provide easy markers on which i can recognize an opinion that is ideologically driven from one side.

    without a lot of additional context i can’t say whether what the scientists did rises to the level of fraud, and even if so, i can’t judge how important these people were in the overall debate.

    i know you enjoy the internet, seth, but it’s also clear that it — just as any communication media — is full of uninformed people pushing angry views in an attempt to stir up waves of angry people. it’s a soapbox. it’s very cheap to shout angrily on the internet, but as far as i am concerned i’d rather have a rational discussion.

    so here’s my request:

    if the climategate emails are important, a couple things should exist, and maybe you can point me to them:

    — a resource that explains these emails rationally in context and which keeps the temperature low
    — some people who have materially changed their minds about global warming as a result of this new data

  5. The Washington Post is a remarkably low standard of comparison, these days. The letter really says nothing more than “Climategate makes me think of cargo-cult science”, which the writer certainly thought before the e-mails came to light.

    I have had doubts about climate science, but the more I look at details, the more confidence I have in the results presented. (That’s not to say I expect high water levels a century on; a global freeze seems an equally likely ultimate outcome, but not a more appealing one.) Looking into the supposed “smoking guns” in the e-mails, I find simply nothing there. I also find lie after lie about what they are supposed to mean, and the lies are all on one side.

    When you find that somebody feels they have to deceive you to make their case, you don’t need to know much else about their case.

  6. I suspect that the practice of science exposed in climategate is not an anomaly but is common. Tribalism, attempts to suppress the voice of opponents, vicious insider battles, hiding inconvenient facts, all are part of the scientific world. Science is not at all practiced as per the idealistic descriptions.

    And yet, science works. No one can deny the reality of scientific progress over the last several centuries. Even with all its flaws, even with every human error and bias as part and parcel of the process, science works.

    In fact I suspect that flawed, vicious, spiteful science is probably MORE effective than would be science by the book. Nothing motivates scientists like the chance to show their enemies are fools, and a virtuous, objective science would never have such devoted practitioners.

    Climategate gives us no reason to distrust the conclusions of climate science, because science works despite (or perhaps even because of) the kind of practices exposed in those emails.

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