RE: [asa] ESA: Wilkins Ice Shelf under threat

From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
Date: Wed Dec 03 2008 - 10:16:58 EST

That is right; one ought to distinguish between talking climate science
and talking about climate science. The former is science; the latter is
the philosophy of climate science, which includes values, purpose, etc.

Our department has invited Nicola Scafetta (Duke U) to talk about global
warming. He wrote an opinion piece in Physics Today, "Is climate
sensitive to solar variability?"
His research gave rise to a letter exchange

Hope you can access both websites, if you cannot and want a copy of the
file, please let me know.



From: [] On
Behalf Of Don Winterstein
Sent: Wednesday, December 03, 2008 9:24 AM
To: Lynn Walker
Cc: asa
Subject: Re: [asa] ESA: Wilkins Ice Shelf under threat



"Climate scientists are the best qualified people to talk about climate
science, but they have no qualifications to talk about public


The best I've heard so far about the way to connect climate science and
possible public policy was from Eric Barron, dean of the Jackson School
of Geosciences at UT Austin and director of the National Center for
Atmospheric Research. This was in November at the annual meeting of the
Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) in Las Vegas.


Barron went into detail on how the problem is primarily one of values,
not of science. The science will help define various options, but
people will have to decide what consequences they'll be willing to live
with and how to adjust. He pointed out that in general the science is
least certain on the issues that concern people most.


The SEG summary of his talk is at


As for controlling GW, I think people are going to be in favor until
they realize they have to pay for it big time. At that point,
politicians who attempt to force the issue are likely to get voted out.
As I've pointed out here, the USA has many problems that are defined far
better and are more urgent than problems from GW--such as financing of
Social Security & Medicare--but has consistently failed to take action
because fixing those problems will cost people something. How will
anyone be able to get Americans to make serious sacrifices to counter
the more nebulous possible consequences of GW?





        ----- Original Message -----

        From: Lynn Walker <>

        To: Murray Hogg <> ; ;

        Cc: ASA <>

        Sent: Wednesday, December 03, 2008 12:46 AM

        Subject: Re: [asa] ESA: Wilkins Ice Shelf under threat



        On Wed, Dec 3, 2008 at 2:11 AM, Murray Hogg
<> wrote:

        Hi Lyn,
        ...I'll only add - in reiteration both of a point Rich Bline
made in a previous post on this thread and which follows from my second
paragraph above: to quote the media in response to credible scientific
agencies is hardly convincing, ..


        You know, you're right. Please allow me to quote Dr. Higgs
regarding just who is, and who is not qualified to speak on various
scientific and economic matters:
        Peer Review, Publication in Top Journals, Scientific Consensus,
and So Forth
        Robert Higgs
        Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The
Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute?s quarterly journal
The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns
Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington,
Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics,
Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford
University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National
Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including
Depression, War, and Cold War.
        In following the discussion of global warming and related issues
in the press and the blogosphere, I have been struck repeatedly by the
assumption or expression of certain beliefs that strike me as highly
problematical. Many writers who are not scientists themselves are
trading on the prestige of science and the authority of scientists.
        Reference to "peer-reviewed research" and to an alleged
"scientific consensus" are regarded as veritable knock-out blows by many
        Yet many of those who make such references appear to me to be
more or less ignorant of how science as a form of knowledge-seeking and
scientists as individual professionals operate, especially nowadays,
when national governments most notably the U.S. government play such an
overwhelming role in financing scientific research and hence in
determining which scientists rise to the top and which fall by the
        I do not pretend to have expertise in climatology or any of the
related physical sciences, so nothing I might say about strictly
climatological or related physical-scientific matters deserves any
        However, I have thirty-nine years of professional experience
twenty-six as a university professor, including fifteen at a major
research university, and then thirteen as a researcher, writer, and
editor in close contact with scientists of various sorts, including some
in the biological and physical sciences and many in the social sciences
and demography.
        I have served as a peer reviewer for more than thirty
professional journals and as a reviewer of research proposals for the
National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and a
number of large private foundations. I was the principal investigator of
a major NSF-funded research project in the field of demography. So, I
think I know something about how the system works.
        It does not work as outsiders seem to think.
        Peer review, on which lay people place great weight, varies from
being an important control, where the editors and the referees are
competent and responsible, to being a complete farce, where they are


        As a rule, not surprisingly, the process operates somewhere in
the middle, being more than a joke but less than the nearly flawless
system of Olympian scrutiny that outsiders imagine it to be.
        Any journal editor who desires, for whatever reason, to reject a
submission can easily do so by choosing referees he knows full well will
knock it down; likewise, he can easily obtain favorable referee reports.


        As I have always counseled young people whose work was rejected,
seemingly on improper or insufficient grounds, the system is a crap
shoot. Personal vendettas, ideological conflicts, professional
jealousies, methodological disagreements, sheer self-promotion, and a
great deal of plain incompetence and irresponsibility are no strangers
to the scientific world; indeed, that world is rife with these
all-too-human attributes.
        In no event can peer review ensure that research is correct in
its procedures or its conclusions. The history of every science is a
chronicle of one mistake after another. In some sciences these mistakes
are largely weeded out in the course of time; in others they persist for
extended periods; and in some sciences, such as economics, actual
scientific retrogression may continue for generations under the
misguided (but self-serving) belief that it is really progress.
        At any given time, consensus may exist about all sorts of
matters in a particular science. In retrospect, however, that consensus
is often seen to have been mistaken.
        As recently as the mid-1970s, for example, a scientific
consensus existed among climatologists and scientists in related fields
that the earth was about to enter a new ice age. Drastic proposals were
made, such as exploding hydrogen bombs over the polar icecaps (to melt
them) or damming the Bering Strait (to prevent cold Arctic water from
entering the Pacific Ocean), to avert this impending disaster.
        Well-reputed scientists, not just uninformed wackos, made such
proposals. How quickly we forget.
        Researchers who employ unorthodox methods or theoretical
frameworks have great difficulty under modern conditions in getting
their findings published in the "best" journals or, at times, in any
scientific journal. Scientific innovators or creative eccentrics always
strike the great mass of practitioners as nut cases until their findings
become impossible to deny, which often occurs only after one
generation's professional ring-masters have died off. Science is an odd
undertaking: everybody strives to make the next breakthrough, yet when
someone does, he is often greeted as if he were carrying the ebola
        Too many people have too much invested in the reigning ideas;
for those people an acknowledgment of their own idea's bankruptcy is
tantamount to an admission that they have wasted their lives. Often,
perhaps to avoid cognitive dissonance, they never admit that their ideas
were wrong.


        Most important, as a rule, in science as elsewhere, to get
along, you must go along.
        Research worlds, in their upper reaches, are pretty small.
Leading researchers know all the major players and what everybody else
is doing. They attend the same conferences, belong to the same
societies, send their grad students to be postdocs in the other people?s
labs, review one another's work for the NSF, NIH, or other government
funding organizations, and so forth.
        If you do not belong to this tight fraternity, it will prove
very, very difficult for you to gain a hearing for your work, to publish
in a "top" journal, to acquire a government grant, to receive an
invitation to participate in a scientific-conference panel discussion,
or to place your grad students in decent positions.
        The whole setup is tremendously incestuous; the interconnections
are numerous, tight, and close.
        In this context, a bright young person needs to display
cleverness in applying the prevailing orthodoxy, but it behooves him not
to rock the boat by challenging anything fundamental or dear to the
hearts of those who constitute the review committees for the NSF, NIH,
and other funding organizations.
        Modern biological and physical science is, overwhelmingly,
government-funded science.
        If your work, for whatever reason, does not appeal to the
relevant funding agency's bureaucrats and academic review committees,
you can forget about getting any money to carry out your proposal.
        Recall the human frailties I mentioned previously; they apply
just as much in the funding context as in the publication context.
Indeed, these two contexts are themselves tightly linked: if you don't
get funding, you'll never produce publishable work, and if you don't
land good publications, you won't continue to receive funding.
        When your research implies a "need" for drastic government
action to avert a looming disaster or to allay some dire existing
problem, government bureaucrats and legislators (can you say
"earmarks"?) are more likely to approve it.
        If the managers at the NSF, NIH, and other government funding
agencies gave great amounts of money to scientists whose research
implies that no disaster looms or no dire problem now exists or even
that although a problem exists, no currently feasible government policy
can do anything to solve it without creating greater problems in the
process, members of Congress would be much less inclined to throw money
at the agency, with all the consequences that an appropriations cutback
implies for bureaucratic thriving.
        No one has to explain all these things to the parties involved;
they are not idiots, and they understand how the wheels are greased in
their tight little worlds.
        Finally, we need to develop a much keener sense of what a
scientist is qualified to talk about and what he is not qualified to
talk about.
        Climatologists, for example, are qualified to talk about the
science of climatology (though subject to all the intrusions upon pure
science I have already mentioned). They are not qualified to say,
however, that "we must act now" by imposing government "solutions" of
some imagined sort.
        They are not professionally knowledgeable about what degree of
risk is better or worse for people to take; only the individuals who
bear the risk can make that decision, because it's a matter of personal
preference, not a matter of science.
        Climatologists know nothing about cost/benefit considerations;
indeed, most mainstream economists themselves are fundamentally
misguided about such matters (adopting, for example, procedures and
assumptions about the aggregation of individual valuations that lack a
sound scientific basis).
        Climate scientists are the best qualified people to talk about
climate science, but they have no qualifications to talk about public
policy, law, or individual values, rates of time preference, and degrees
of risk aversion.
        In talking about desirable government action, they give the
impression that they are either fools or charlatans, but they keep
talking worst of all, talking to doomsday-seeking journalists
        In this connection, we might well bear in mind that the United
Nations (and its committees and the bureaus it oversees) is no more a
scientifc organization than the U.S. Congress (and its committees and
the bureaus it oversees).


        When decisions and pronouncements come forth from these
political organizations, it makes sense to treat them as essentially
political in origin and purpose.
        Politicians aren't dumb, either vicious, yes, but not dumb. One
thing they know above everything else is how to stampede masses of
people into approving or accepting ill-advised government actions that
cost the people dearly in both their standard of living and their
liberties in the long run.

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Received on Wed Dec 3 10:16:52 2008

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