25.11.09

RECANT, OR BE EXCOMMUNICATED. Angus at Kids Prefer Cheese explains the climate change consensus.

Thanks as always to Tyler for bringing this "scandal" to my attention. I am using quotes here because, in my opinion, this is just business as usual in academics. There may not be such a blatant electronic "paper trail" on display, but protecting turf, punishing heretics, and rewarding your friends is the coin of the realm.

Take macroeconomics for example. Who is the premier employer of monetary economists? Yes, it is the Federal Reserve System. Who as a class of researchers really deeply loves them some Fed? Yes, it is monetary economists. Fed independence is taken as a given an as a desideratum. Heretics (sour grapes warning: I am a Fed heretic) find it extremely difficult to publish dissenting views.

As a commenter to the post notes, confirmation bias.

Arnold Kling extends the argument.

The main reason I am a climate skeptic is (D2). My reasoning is very simple. Macroeconomists do not have enough data to verify hypotheses. (See my lost history paper.) Climate science has even less data. Therefore, climate science is even less reliable.

Before you protest that climate scientists have hundreds of years of data and many observation points, read the "lost history" paper. The point is that the information content of a seemingly large data set can in fact be quite low. Macroeconomists spent a good part of the late 1970's and the 1980's coming to terms with this (although some economists did not come to terms with it to the extent that I think is warranted). I think that climate scientists are unwilling to come to terms with it. That is why I am willing to challenge their expertise, even though I have only a superficial knowledge of the theories involved.

My sense is that another common feature of macroeconomics and climate science is that protagonists resort to bullying and ad hominem attacks relatively more often than in microeconomics or in other scientific fields.

In microeconomics, the bullying takes a more subtle form: one must be proficient in dressing up a straightforward idea in exotic clothing. For example, I suspect half the game theory articles that invoke Borel algebras and their attendant symbolic clutter could make precisely the same point without the apparatus.

The point of academic research, no matter how recondite, is to be a part, no matter how small, of that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the TRUTH can be found. To participate means to accept the possibility that subsequent researchers will find improvements to, or suggest errors in, your research. (I recently had the opportunity to review a paper extending a result I published 25 years ago. People are that hard-up for topics?) Here's Voluntary Xchange, suggesting some of the participants are not willing to grasp the full implications of continual and fearless.

Many are missing the point: it isn’t about a conspiracy or about nastiness.

It’s about having your positions tested.

Let me offer an analogy to help explain what the CRU hack has revealed about the A list of pro-AGW scientists.

They believe they’re writing great novels.

Their evidence is that they think their own novels are great.

To check that they swap their great novels with other people who believe they’ve also written great novels, and then they glad hand.

But their approach to the broad body of potential readers is defensive: they don’t want to actually show anyone their great novels because they might point out their flaws.

So they respond with elitism: they have patrons who can pull levers who do see value in their great novels. And only the patrons count.

And thus does sifting and winnowing degenerate into protection of received doctrine. That degeneration further weakens higher education's precarious position: the nonaggression pact between professors and students at the 100 or so claimants to the 20 best universities can not be rationalized as making possible Great Thoughts that will Improve The Human (pronounced Yuman) Condition. Stir in the watered-down course offerings ... Here's Ilya Somin.

Most of us, however, lack expertise on climate issues. And our knowledge of complex issues we don’t have personal expertise on is largely based on social validation. For example, I think that Einsteinian physics is generally more correct than Newtonian physics, even though I know very little about either. Why? Because that’s the overwhelming consensus of professional physicists, and I have no reason to believe that their conclusions should be discounted as biased or otherwise driven by considerations other than truth-seeking. My views of climate science were (and are) based on similar considerations. I thought that global warming was probably a genuine and serious problem because that is what the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists seem to believe, and I generally didn’t doubt their objectivity.

At the very least, the Climategate revelations should weaken our confidence in the above conclusion. At least some of the prominent scholars in the field seem driven at least in part by ideology, and willing to use intimidation to keep contrarian views from being published, even if the articles in question meet normal peer review standards. Absent such tactics, it’s possible that more contrarian research would be published in professional journals and the consensus in the field would be less firm. To be completely clear, I don’t think that either ideological motivation or even intimidation tactics prove that these scientists’ views are wrong. Their research should be assessed on its own merits, irrespective of their motivations for conducting it. However, these things should affect the degree to which we defer to their conclusions merely based on their authority as disinterested experts.

At the same time, it’s important not to overstate the case. I don’t think we have anywhere near enough evidence to show that the academic consensus on global warming is completely bogus, or even close to it. Nor has it been proven that all or most prominent scientific supporters of global warming theory are as unethical as those exposed in this scandal.

On balance, therefore, I still think that global warming exists and is a genuinely serious problem. But I am marginally less confident in holding that view than I was before. If we see more revelations of this kind, I will be less confident still.

There are multiple theses questioning the received consensus nailed to Newmark's Door. I liked this.
[Climate Audit's Steve] McIntyre has a section on his site, "Econometric References". It lists a dozen articles from the economics literature on how to do statistical analysis properly. The list doesn't make him right, but it does mean he's probably better read on a key issue than 99.9% of the journalists who write about global warming. (And probably more than a few of the scientists, too.)
Max Planck, call your office.

5 comments:

JT said...

"The point of academic research, no matter how recondite, is to be a part, no matter how small, of that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the TRUTH can be found."

Rather, the point of academic research is instead to provide wages to the researcher. Everything is clearer viewed this way. A clever researcher may be capable of participating in a search for TRUTH as well, but most lack the bandwidth.

Stephen Karlson said...

I'd be interested in the evidence for your claim.

JT said...

Seriously? Perhaps its my inexperience talking: I only did 4 years of grad school (no post-doc), and been in industry 8 years since (all in engineering), but I've never seen any evidence in that time that my peers are/were involved in a fearless sifting of truth so much as a job, whose protection always comes first, and the easiest route to that is / has been politics.
Perhaps econ is different and more ideological or pure?

Stephen Karlson said...

Yes, seriously. Funded research (whether corporate science, as might be the case in engineering colleges, and is frequently the case in medicine and allied health, see University Diaries, or under government grants) provides opportunities for careerist behavior or for the milking of the latest theoretical fad, and I do not dispute the presence of that dynamic. The "lack the bandwidth" poses a different challenge.

I note, however, that the principle of academic freedom, and the defense, if one is left, for detached scholarly inquiry, is precisely to investigate those things that might not have immediate commercial value.

In economics, the PhDs who would rather work on topics that have immediate commercial value tend to hire out at consultancies for much larger salaries.

JT said...

Ah, we are in near complete agreement (with your comments being far more articulate!).

You said: "if one is left," and I think one is left, but I had assumed the fraction devoted to it was vanishingly small. (And I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing.)

Thank you for your well-written thoughts.