Monday, December 21, 2009

God will know his own

Scientific publications are a backwater, terse, with half the words in obscure code written for an audience of perhaps a hundred people well known to the authors (and some of the papers have a hundred authors) and maybe their students who can ask one of the hundred for guidance. While this may appear to be an underestimate, scientists concentrate on small parts of larger issues. Thus someone who studies volcanic aerosol feedbacks may read papers on aviation effects on climate but needs to talk to a specialist to when trying to link her knowledge to study of contrails and visa versa. It is this coming together of narrow experts that drives good interdisciplinary science.

Some time ago Eli remarked on the weakness of strangers

What amateurs lack as a group is perspective, an understanding of how everything fits together and a sense of proportion. Graduate training is designed to pass lore from advisors to students. You learn much about things that didn't work and therefore were never published [hey Prof. I have a great idea!...Well actually son, we did that back in 06 and wasted two years on it], whose papers to trust, and which to be suspicious of [Hey Prof. here's a great new paper!... Son, don't trust that clown.] In short the kind of local knowledge that allows one to cut through the published literature thicket.

But this lack makes amateurs prone to get caught in the traps that entangled the professionals' grandfathers, and it can be difficult to disabuse them of their discoveries. Especially problematical are those who want science to validate preconceived political notions, and those willing to believe they are Einstein and the professionals are fools. Put these two types together and you get a witches brew of ignorance and attitude.
The literature has tended to inclusion because in small fields, everyone except the clowns, knows who the clowns are, and what the journal of last resort is. Email sped up the cycle in which problem papers are identified and subsequently ignored. In an expert oriented literature, the experts know what papers to ignore. Occasionally the error is subtle or so outrageous that a comment is needed and allowed by the embarrassed editors. Even less occasionally a bad paper raises serious issues that must be explored more thoroughly. In the past, when outsiders (governments, industries) needed an understanding groups of experts were assembled and told to first figure it out and then to dumb it down, thus the various national research councils, the IPCC, NIH and FDA panels, etc.

There are now fields (climate, parts of medicine, tobacco caused disease) where this model no longer functions. The good news is that the need for a new model is driven by public interest in the field. The bad news is that this is being manipulated by malign political and commercial interests who are replicating the suppression of science by the tobacco, and asbestos industries

A small number of ideologues are busy building Pielke villages, and we have not even got to the vanity press. These papers are trumpeted by the denialist propaganda machine

As Boris said over on Stoat, "If there's something stupid to believe, there is someone on the internet who believes it."

For what the editors consider important work published in Science, short descriptions of the new result are provided with an emphasis on context. This is a natural for electronic media, although obviously not every publication needs or deserves this treatment. To a great extent comments in an open review process provide this.

UPDATE: If you want to know about the picture, read the comments and blame Ankh.


Paul Kelly said...


Surely you see the Co2 global governance framework is collapsing. Seventeen years of COP inadequacy topped off by the Copenhagen snafu has got a lot of people fed up. It must be a slap in the face to many. It should be a wake up call, too.

I wonder if you and Wm. Connolly have any interest in all this other than as an academic exercise.

Anonymous said...

"As Boris said over on Stoat, "If there's something stupid to believe, there is someone on the internet who believes it.""

Oh the irony.

James Annan said...

Might have been better put as: If there's something too stupid to believe, there is still someone on the internet who believes it.

Anonymous said...

I think the original was "there is no idea stupid enough for nobody to believe it, and there is no idea brilliant enough for everybody to believe it".

Magnus said...

As a newcomer it might be easy to be swept away by the kindness of strangers … however be aware!

A super Swedish thing... you high-tech bunnies should try to force it on Metallica!

Dano said...

My current phrase is "there are (too) many willing consumers of the doubt product".

Nonetheless, this is a good post, Eli.



Arthur said...

APS has been doing something along the lines of Science's commentaries for the past year, highlighting editorial selected Physical Review articles:

I haven't seen a lot of feedback on how useful it is - it's a surprising amount of work to put together.

EliRabett said...

Paul, unlike some, Wm and Eli live on this planet.

Arun said...

Science publishing seems to be stuck in the scarcity model. It would be good for working scientists to write about (on blogs, for instance) of seemingly good ideas that did not work out. The high priesthood of science - which presumably was there because of the high cost of communications - needs to be more open now.

Sure, there is some downside to this. But overall I think science benefits.

Dano said...

The high priesthood of science - ...overall I think science benefits.

Esp when we can clearly see partisans spouting talking points couched as discussion!



Holly Stick said...

I think there is a parallel, if you don't push it too hard, between what is happening now and what happened when the printing press was established in Europe.

There was a Roman Catholic Church with scholars who had developed a sophisticated and many-branched theology over centuries; while most of the population learned basic theology by word of mouth from parish priests.

Then, suddenly, everybody could read the Bible for themselves and come up with their own interpretations. All sorts of Protestant sects started up, attacking various RC doctrines and splitting off from each other over specific points of doctrine, and publishing books and pamphlets pushing their interpretations. Some people felt so strongly about a specific point of doctrine that they would let themselves be burned to death, rather than recant. (As for those willing to do the burning, some may have done it over doctrinal points, but I think many were simply serving the status quo, the powers that be.)

With the internet, we have a similar explosion of people who don’t have to go to libraries to read scientific papers anymore; they can find lots of information on their computer. Most don’t have the scientific training to understand what’s going on, and probably don’t realise how much they would need to learn. As Rabett points out as well, they have not learned how to evaluate the sources of information.

Science is not religion, though science and theology are both areas of learning, and you may get similar human behaviour by scholars of both. But scientists are facing this explosion of communication of limited knowledge. I think basic good scientific practices are the best way to deal with it; sticking to the evidence, backing up your statements with good sources, insisting on high standards for peer-reviewed publications, etc.

It appears that revealing all of one's data is becoming a necessity - what that could lead to might be interesting, though often very frustrating when it gets misused.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Holly Stick:

Some would question whether theology is an area of learning.

Holly Stick said...

Rattus, some would be mistaken, then. There are many areas of learning, and you need not be interested in one to recognize that it exists and that other people are interested in it.

"...Augustine of Hippo defined the Latin equivalent, theologia, as "reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity",[1] Richard Hooker defined "theology" in English as "the science of things divine".[2] The term can, however, be used of a variety of different disciplines or forms of discourse.[3]

Theologians use various forms of analysis and argument (philosophical, ethnographic, historical, spiritual and others) to help understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of myriad religious topics..."

Deep Climate said...

When the amateur scientists get together with the professional politicians and PR operatives, then watch out!

Case in point Wegman on tree proxies:

Today we’ll take a closer look at Wegman et al’s tree-ring passage and do a detailed side-by-side comparison with its apparent main antecedent, chapter section 10.2 in Raymond Bradley’s classic Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary.

That comparison leaves no doubt that Wegman et al’s explication was substantially derived from that of Bradley, although the relevant attribution appears to be missing. There are, however, several divergences of note, also in the main unattributed, and some of Wegman’s paraphrasing introduces errors of analysis.

But the real shocker comes in two key passages in Wegman et al, which state unsubstantiated findings in flagrant contradiction with those of Bradley, apparently in order to denigrate the value of tree-ring derived temperature reconstructions.

Anonymous said...

One problem with the internet is that one can be very well informed of the current developments in a field and still ignorant of the basics. Over the last few years I have taken an interest in glaciology, reading all I find for free. Yet despite my apparent knowledge, I had not heard of Glenn's flow law.

It would be theoretically possible for a rank amateur to come up with a new contribution in an advanced field. More likely is that the issue had been done and just does not recieve current publishing attention, if the idea had any validity at all.

Pretty embarassing when you find Plinny the younger beat you to an idea.

Nonny Mouse
PS no bopping the field mice. It is clear your not just a wee bunny, lucky for you mices can only count to two.

Hank Roberts said...

Anonymous said...

Especially problematical are those who want science to validate preconceived political notions, and those willing to believe they are Einstein and the professionals are fools.

Even more problematic are pseudo-scientists who abuse statistics to validate their preconceived political notions. When these occur in groups, and they do not seek assistance from professional statisticians, chaos results.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Eli Wrote: Scientific publications are a backwater, terse, with half the words in obscure code written for an audience of perhaps a hundred people well known to the authors (and some of the papers have a hundred authors) and maybe their students who can ask one of the hundred for guidance.

This idea, and this practice are unfortunate manifestations of nineteenth century science as the old boys club with a dollop of page charges. One of my professors (when I was a student back in the medieval warming period) once said "you should put just enough detail in your papers so that others can see what you did but not how you did it."

Such ideas are completely inappropriate in a science upon which trillion dollar decisions with enormous consequences rest, and doubly so in the age of the internet. If you need to write 100 pages to make it clear what you did, do so! (as string theorists and other physicists already do).

Cutting details to fit into some dead tree journal of the nineteeth century (I'm talking you, Nature and you, Science) ought to be a firing offense.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

But to Eli's actual point, comments are a good idea, but they won't do anything to stem the tide of idiocy. That is driven by the stakes, which are trillions of dollars, not some academic's tenure or promotion.

When the stakes are high enough, denial can live forever - ask Darwin. That fact should increase our efforts to be clear, complete, and transparent, not vice-versa.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

It's not only possible for amateurs to come up with important results, it's actually fairly common. Neither Watson nor Crick was a biochemist, and Einstein was a patent clerk. That kind of feat is harder in a data centric field like historical climatology, and it might be impossible in physical climatology with it's dependence on multi-billion dollar satellite systems and models. All the more reason to be open and honest with data (and publishing decisions).

EliRabett said...

Anon 2:57 is another statistical fetishist. Scientist are neither formalists nor fanticists, mathematicians are, statisticians are anal retentive mathematicians.

EliRabett said...

Einstein was a formally trained physicist working as a patent clerk in order to earn a living. He was not an amateur, Watson got his doctorate in biology and worked with geneticists including Luria,Mueller and Sonneborn. He did a postdoc in Copenhagen with a biochemist. Crick's thesis was on X-Ray diffraction of polypeptides and he worked on the X-Ray diffraction of a helix.

The three of them would never have found employment as blog scientists. They had formal training in their fields and were integrated into scientific networks (at least in Einstein's case as a student).

Eli takes it that the pig did his training in the old country during the European Warm Period.

Steve Bloom said...

Watson was integrated so far that he got "permission" (from the researcher's boss but not from the researcher) to pilfer from her office the key evidence that led to the double helix hypothesis, and then conspired to make sure competitors (in particular Linus Pauling) didn't see it. The science, she is a cutthroat business.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Eli notes that "statisticians are anal retentive mathematicians."

...and Horatio would note that statusticians (of which Lomborg is the epitome) are anal expulsive political "scientists".

... and that "blog science", like "political science", is an oxfordmoron.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Moron Science by blog

Martin Vermeer said...

If you need to write 100 pages to make it clear what you did, then what you did is probably not very interesting. Or then you lack writing skills.

A paper should contain everything needed for a colleague to be able to replicate you, no more and no less. As all journals nowadays allow supp. information, use that. Code is a luxury item -- I like to include it. But it's irrelevant to meaningful replication.

guthrie said...

There was some amateur (actually amateur, lacking academic training and netowrking) who did some good work in meteorology and I think climatology back in the 80's and 90's, but I have no idea of the name. I just read about them a few years ago. And amateurs can be useful astronomers. But despite a few examples here and there the age of the amateur died over a century ago.

It's one of these myths that helps the denialists on their daily grind of misrepresentation, making shit up and avoiding the questions, that they are amateurs who can find the way that the hide bound normal scientists cannot.

David B. Benson said...

Eli --- At first I didn't recognize your self-portrait.


Hank Roberts said...

Don't miss the other imagery at plognark. Some of it you'll recognize.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Martin - If you need to write 100 pages to make it clear what you did, then what you did is probably not very interesting. Or then you lack writing skills.

Too bad Darwin was such boring literary dunce. Ditto Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and Adam Smith. Eli was explicitly referring to scientific obscurity through concision. A climate scientist whose work will influence a public debate has an obligation to be explicit even if he has to write a few more pages.
The world can't afford for him or her to act as if writing only for the members of his/her tenure committee.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Watson described himself as a bird watcher. Crick and their boss, Bragg, were both physicists. Their methods had little to do with traditional biochemistry, and Franklin was using another new technique from physics. Of course they were all engaged in inventing a new science, molecular biology.

The deniosphere is hardly populated exclusively by amateurs either. Roger senior and Bill Gray have substantial chops in atmospheric science, and double ditto to Lindzen.

Dyson, though, is a PhD-less professional amateur with big accomplishments in several areas.

guthrie said...

And the exception proves the rule - and I'm afraid that your description of watson and Crick does nothing to dent my understanding of them as non-amateurs. New to a field, yes, but if everyone is going to be described as an amateur before they invent something/ submit a world changing paper or whatever then we'll have to change the definition.

pasted from the nobel prize website:
"In 1947, he received a B.Sc. degree in Zoology. During these years his boyhood interest in bird-watching had matured into a serious desire to learn genetics. This became possible when he received a Fellowship for graduate study in Zoology at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he received his Ph.D. degree in Zoology in 1950. At Indiana, he was deeply influenced both by the geneticists H. J. Muller and T. M. Sonneborn, and by S. E. Luria, the Italian-born microbiologist then on the staff of Indiana's Bacteriology Department. Watson's Ph.D. thesis, done under Luria's able guidance, was a study of the effect of hard X-rays on bacteriophage multiplication."

I think that PhD topic is hardly that of an amateur birdwatcher. So what we have is 2 people (I'll leave aside the problems of who did the actual work etc) with previous experience of radiation and biology, and a professional understanding of them both, who managed to make the creative leap necessary to understand what structure DNA had. I certainly wouldn't call either of them amateurs. Have you done any x-ray diffraction? You have to know something of the properties of x-rays in order to match the patterns up with the 3D structure of the material you are examining, and of course you have to know enough biology to get the correct DNA stuff properly prepared to even shine x-rays though it.

EliRabett said...

Figuring out the structure from an X-Ray diffraction pattern was an art at the time before Jerome Karle and Herbert Hauptman figured out how to do it algorithmically.

The thing that stands out is the Crick had worked on the X-Ray diffraction of alpha helixes as part of his thesis work. He was well prepared.

Unknown said...

I'm with guthrie.

The difference is in the education in the natural sciences. How many denizens of the denialosphere can say they have a B.S. in, say, botany, zoology, biology, anthro., etc? Hardly any.

That is the difference.