Bryan Lawrence : Jetlagged thoughts on amateurism

Bryan Lawrence

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Jetlagged thoughts on amateurism

I knew that I might come into some criticism for using words like "Pretentious" and "dribble" and "drivel" about Monckton's "article" in the Sunday Telegraph. It has started already (see the comments). One of the problems about my using this sort of language is that it opens the door to others using the same sort of language about me ...

Fair enough. I suppose I should have tried to be more temperate. I will try (for example, I've severely censored my original verision of what follows). But it makes me very VERY annoyed that newspapers give this sort of stuff oxygen.


Last week I was driving from somewhere to somewhere, and on route I listened to an interesting piece on Radio Four about Poincare. One of the things they said resonated: Poincare was working at a time (the last time!) when it was possible for an outstanding mathematician to understand in detail the entire breadth of mathematics.

I don't know when the last time was that it was possible for someone to understand in detail the entire breadth of atmospheric science, but it sure isn't now! An observational atmospheric scientist will not understand numerical modelling in detail (heck, even a modeller is unlikely to understand in detail all of the GCM she/he is using, one has to rely on experts in other fields, for example, a GCM has an atmosphere and an ocean, Q.E.D.)

So how do we cope. Peer Review is how we cope. We rely on a mechanism which ensures (as far as possible, it's not perfect) that the pieces we put together are validated by peers - that is, by people who do understand in detail those pieces - and the joining together of the pieces is validated by people who understand the joining together, and then the interpretation is validated by people who understand the methodology of interpretation. And all the while we try and include quantified uncertainty, and probability estimates, and caveats, caveats and more caveats. And sometimes we find fault, we find errors in what has been done and published, and so we redo, we improve, and we move forward.

Then someone comes along, drives a truck and trailor through this, simply cannot have done due diligence, and hacks away at some poorly understood detail. The whole process is damned in a few words. The work of hundreds of scientists is attributed to "the UN" as if some civil servant somewhere had produced a briefing paper, rather than the IPCC process being about the best synthesis of knowledge about climate it is possible to create (I'm not saying it's perfect, but I am saying there is currently nothing better). I'm sorry, but the day of the educated amateur has pretty much gone (and Richard Lindzen, if you ever read this, the day of the MIT professor knowing all there is to know about everything has gone too!)

With no peer review, just a dose of editorial whimsey, and Monckton's thoughts get read by more people than any of the thoughts of the hundreds of individuals who have spent years contributing to understanding the climate.

Don't anyone mention "balance" either. If the ST published reviews of the hundreds of papers that have been peer reviewed and gone into this work, then fair enough, they could publish the other stuff too - but this isn't balance, it's the equivalent of putting Monckton's gnat on a giant seesaw with a few battleships on the other end, and claiming his end would sit on the ground.

So, should I waste my time reading his article through properly, and damning the arguments? No I shouldn't. I blog for many reasons, sometimes for fun, sometimes to contribute my pieces to public understanding of science, sometimes for catharsis - like now - and sometimes professionally to provide notes to myself and my colleagues . Responding might fit in the Public Understanding category, but I think my time would be better spent elsewhere. And when he gets his thoughts published in a serious journal, I'll take them seriously. Frankly, it's this sort of nonsense that stops some of my colleagues blogging. They simply don't want to open themselves up to the tedium of responding. The nice thing about peer-review is that rubbish only has to be rejected by two or three reviewers. We don't all have to waste our time.

I'm sorry if that sounds elitist. It's not a cult of the elite. I'm more than happy for anyone to try and distil the state of knowledge, and in my own little way, I sometimes try and contribute to the public understanding of science, but damn it, enough's enough ...

Yes, it's five a.m., and I'm jetlagged, and can't sleep, and this hasn't helped.

Categories: environment

Trackbacks (1)

Jetlagged thoughts are ok by me (from "Bloody Fingers" on Monday 06 November, 2006)

Bryan Lawrence’s jetlagged thoughts are clearer than mine, even when I stay in my own time zone: Peer Review is how we cope. We rely on a mechanism which ensures (as far as possible, it’s not perfect) that the pieces we put together are va...

Comments (1)

Vincent on Monday 06 November, 2006:

Your jetlagged thoughts are clearer than mine :-)
Good post. Try to get some sleep ;-)

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This page last modified Sunday 05 November, 2006
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