Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gut check...

There has been an interesting many blog and forth about guts and glory in climate science. It started (as much as Eli can say anything like this started somewhere) with Dave Roberts commenting on Andy Revkin's attempt at High Broderism. Reflecting on this Dave opined

Yes, we have to leave science to the scientists. But science is not a priesthood that can or should impose quietude on the rest of us. Our informed gut feelings about how things will turn out are legitimate. People make statements beyond what's strictly supported by the peer-reviewed evidence all the time. For some reason, internet wonks seem to hold public advocacy on global warming to a strangely prudish set of standards. We don't impose these kinds of strictures in other areas.
John Fleck responded with his own post and an interesting discussion broke out at Inkstain, Gristmill and now Brian Schmidt at Backseat Driving has added another viewpoint.

The bloggers and blogees, with various degrees of hubris and formalism go back and forth on how one can rely on "gut" feeling and still claim a scientific basis. There is the usual parsing about separating what we know to be stone cold silly, and stuff on the edges of probability. Eli has a slightly different experience of this issue, which he expressed to John and Dave in the comments on Gristmill:
However, you and Dave have raised the issue of the "informed gut". I worked for two guys who could not explain 2+2 = 4 to anyone, but KNEW exactly what was important to work on. I know that the trick is to figure out who has the "informed gut" and who just has a stomach ache. You cannot decouple previous performance from the gut issue.
A friend of mine put it this way. Whenever he has a problem, he goes to two of his colleagues. One of them, a Nobel Prize winner no less, always gives him the wrong answer for the right reason. The second, also an eminent chemist, gives him the right answer but for the wrong reason.
A nice illustration is found in Jim Hansen's review of An Inconvenient Truth:
I did not hear from Gore for more than a decade, until January of this year, when he asked me to critically assess his slide show. When we met, he said that he "wanted to apologize," but, without letting him explain what he was apologizing for, I said, "Your insight was better than mine."
Indeed, Gore was prescient. For decades he has maintained that the Earth was teetering in the balance, even when doing so subjected him to ridicule from other politicians and cost him votes.
Knowing when you have such a treasure is the most important thing, because, indeed it is easy to make fun of. Again Hansen:
An Inconvenient Truth is about Gore himself as well as global warming. It shows the man that I met in the 1980s at scientific roundtable discussions, passionate and knowledgeable, true to the message he has delivered for years. It makes one wonder whether the American public has not been deceived by the distorted images of him that have been presented by the press and television. Perhaps the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it.
The key is not so much what is being said as who is saying it and whether their guts level thoughts have checked out in the past. Jim Hansen, for example, has a good gut, Fred Singer, he's double zero.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Isn't it nice that all the science journalists and policy wonks are now fighting amongst themselves

"I'm in the middle", "Yeh, but I was there first", "My gut tells me I'm right", "Yeh, but your gut is full of crap..."

Keeps them from confusing the public with speculation about the upcoming IPCC report.