I first published this May 12, 2010. It seems even more appropriate in the light of what Gleick has done.In a comment on my Montford review, Byron said this:
“while it is possible that sometimes an emperor needs to hear that he has no clothes from a child, in general, credentials matter. I would not presume to be able to judge between competing scientific professionals working on climate change. Instead, I will have a strong bias towards those who are actively publishing in recognised peer-review journals and whose work is accepted by reputable national and international scientific bodies.”
As a general point, I think this has some force as an argument. Philosophically speaking it is an appeal to authority, and whilst, as such, it has no logical force (literally none!) and is irrelevant to an argument, in human terms I see it as significant, and reasonable to take into account. The question is: is the child seeing something that everyone else can see when it is pointed out? Or is the child not seeing something because it requires education or maturity in order to see it?
When Luther nailed his theses to the church door, he was protesting against corruption in the church. The reason that his protest triggered the Reformation (rather than it happening at a different time, eg a hundred years earlier) was because of two principal things (IMHO!): a widespread understanding that the church was rotten, which undermined the support for the church from within, and the political situation in Germany which allowed Luther to gain practical support and shelter. I’ve always found it intriguing that the countries which ended up Roman Catholic were the countries where there was an existing realpolitik settlement with the Vatican in 1517.
The question at issue with regard to the Hockey Stick raises similar issues. When McIntyre started up his Climate Audit blog, it was the equivalent of the 95 theses. In just the same way as Luther believed himself to remain a faithful Christian, and not be inventing a new religion, (and, in fact, had the church responded with integrity, he would have remained a Catholic) so too do McIntyre’s criticisms not raise any questions about the theory of scientific investigation. Instead, the questions raised are about the current practice of that scientific investigation, most especially with regard to paleo-climatology and the weight given to certain alleged results in that field. More broadly – and Montford is good at bringing out these details – the questions raised by McIntyre cut very deeply into the rhetoric of science as it is presently employed. The issue is whether the current practice of peer-review is sufficient for establishing truth, or whether, in this particular case as an exemplar, the process of peer-review has been corrupted, allowing vested interests to control the flow of funding and research. In other words, in just the same way as the medieval church preserved the rhetoric of Christianity whilst collapsing into corruption and turning salvation into a cash-cow, is the scientific establishment now colluding in the covering up of malpractice in order to keep the lines of funding open?
Let’s return to the question of authority. In the medieval era the priests were the embodiment of authority, with the ability to excommunicate all rebels. In the contemporary era excommunication takes the form of withholding or withdrawing funding. Just as priests had the capacity to bully, eg through the confessional, so too do present scientific authorities have the capacity to distort processes in their own interests, eg through blackballing particular researchers or boycotting or belittling particular publications that do not toe the line. This was what “climategate” was about. As repeated by most of the participants, the actual truth of the Hockey Stick graph is in itself pretty marginal to the question of AGW. What it is not marginal to is the question of the legitimacy of the scientific establishment. A light has been shone into the inner workings, and just as the church tried to obscure the reasons for Luther’s protests (called the Catholic or Counter-Reformation) so too do the propagandists for the establishment say, either, ‘move along now, nothing to see, everything is fine’, or else, ‘just a few bad apples, the rest of science is healthy and fine’.
The truth of this depends on the truth about the Hockey Stick itself, which is why it has acquired totemic significance. Which brings me back to the question of the Emperor’s New Clothes and how we are to argue about the science. Byron’s comment at the top of this post is not, as such, an unreasonable position to hold. It does, however, assume good faith on the part of the scientific community. If that good faith is held in question then there is nothing else to be done except to begin to investigate the points at issue. To say that this can only be done by scientists is to accept the closed circle of authority – it is the equivalent of the church saying ‘trust us’ to Luther. That does not mean that everyone has equivalent authority (the Protestant error) – what it means is that the only way to establish truth is for all the arguments and assumptions to be brought out into the open.
It is this which has most persuaded me that McIntyre is on to something. The response of the establishment to McIntyre’s questioning has been to close ranks and stonewall. What an outsider can do most effectively is raise up settled assumptions to the light. A genuinely scientific community will be able to defend those assumptions, or, if they are indefensible, be able to creatively renew itself by revising those assumptions. Although I am not a trained scientist, I am a trained philosopher, and what that training has given me is the ability to judge a good argument. In other words, it is beyond my capacity to assess, eg, the impact of cloud cover in climate models (IMHO the modellers are still awaiting a Copernicus – the models seem like Ptolemaic systems about to collapse under the weight of their own complexity). It is not beyond my capacity to assess whether, eg, the RealClimate community is engaging with the arguments that McIntyre is raising. When I see evasion, equivocation, deception and the refusal to release information – in short, when I see science not treated as a holy endeavour – then red flags go up and I start to suspect that indulgences are being flogged to build a new St Peter’s.
If agw was a purely abstract argument then the scientific community could be left to get on with it, and the paradigm shifts can be allowed to happen on generational time-scales, which is normal. The difference is that the agw thesis is highly politicised, not just in the vast funding being put towards it, but in prospect. In the end, the best arguments will win – and the best arguments are those that expose themselves completely to the judgement of the community. They are the ones that allow little children to ask obvious questions, and run the risk of being found naked. They are not the ones that employ a vast retinue of retainers to suppress all dissent, and ostracise such small children from the conversation.
This is something that the better scientists have recognised, and are taking steps to address (I’m thinking here of someone like Judith Curry, who seems to me to be asking all the right questions). More broadly, I’m coming to see that the process of peer-review, which has not historically been a necessary part of science, could best be replaced by transparency. Information wants to be free. What the vernacular Bible was to Protestantism, the blogosphere will be to this new science – a sociological revolution triggered by a technological shift. Of course, I could be completely wrong, but in my view, just as Luther triggered the Reformation, and in due course the Protestant church, I suspect that what McIntyre has done is trigger a new and Reformed style of science – one in which openness and transparency are the hallmarks, and which is faster, more dynamic, more creative – and more accurate – than the existing magisterium.