Lewandowsky Scratches the Scab

Lewandowsky has a new article at

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/november-2013/the-subterranean-war-on-science.html

co-written with his faithful sidekick Michael Mann, plus two medical researchers and a psychologist. His big finding is that because different scientists in different disciplines all get threatening letters, vexatious FOI requests, and harrassment from astroturfers, therefore the criticisms they receive cannot be scientific.

It’s tempting to speculate that he may be losing his marbles. He actually cites the Moon Hoax and Recursive Fury papers, and refers to the “re-examination of one of the first author’s papers to eliminate legal risks that is ongoing at the time of this writing”.

I’ve commented below the article. I can see my comment, but I imagine the thread is like Hilda’s at “Scientific American” and my comment is invisible to everyone else. Barry Woods reports that his two comments have failed to appear.

There are articles at

http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2013/11/1/the-secret-science-society.html

and

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/11/01/mann-and-lewandowsky-go-psychotic-on-skeptics/ 

*        *        *

This article is actually about a forthcoming event at Bristol University:

http://www.bris.ac.uk/decisions-research/seminars/2013/stephanlewandowsky

Stephan Lewandowsky – Taming The Wilful Ignorance Monster: Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Change

7 November 2013, 1 pm: Experimental Psychology Common Room, Priory Road 12a.

ABSTRACT: Uncertainty forms an integral part of many global risks, from “peak oil” to genetically modified foods to climate change. In many contexts, uncertainty is cited in connection with political arguments against mitigative or corrective action. Using climate change as a case study, I show that a proper understanding of uncertainty should compel action rather than forestall it. Although risk judgments are inherently subjective, an analysis of the role of uncertainty within the climate system yields three mathematical constraints that are robust to a broad range of assumptions and that all suggest that greater uncertainty provides greater impetus for mitigative action. The constraints involve (a) the inevitable positive skew of estimates of climate sensitivity; (b) the inevitably convex damage function, and (c) the inevitably bounded aspect of the carbon budget. Those normative constraints are related to human behaviour and the nature of scientific endeavours.

This subject has already been discussed by  Lewandowsky in a series of three articles

http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/lewandowskyUncertainty_I.html

http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/lewandowskyUncertainty.html

http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/lewandowskyUncertainty_Floods.html

Ben Pile saw through Lewandowsky’s peculiar logic at

http://www.climate-resistance.org/2012/06/reinventing-precaution.html

and Ben’s article was spotted and discussed by prominent climate scientist James Annan at

http://julesandjames.blogspot.fr/2012/06/costs-of-uncertainty.html

where I unwisely got involved in a discussion about Bayesian statistics, and got roundly sneered at bey the regulars for my statistical ignorance. I unwisely started a discussion about the bra sizes of women in woolly jumpers, and got rapidly out of my depth, despite Lucia’s gallantly coming to my rescue.  Annan even posted an article about a new fallacy which he attributed to me. How kind. The discussion with some pretentious philosopher spilled over to Climate Resistance, where it got so boring Ben finally wiped it.

The lesson I learnt was not to get involved in an argument with someone with expertise in the subject  in a hostile environment, even when you’re right and they’re spouting insanities.

Because insanity it is. What  Lewandowsky is saying in the above abstract is that “under a broad range of assumptions” in a wide (though undefined) range of “human behaviour” and “scientific endeavour”, the more uncertain we are, the more reason we have to act, rather than not.

There’s a trivial sense in which this is nonsense, since in most situations except the childishly simple (“O’Grady says…”) both alternatives of any pair of possibilities can be defined as “action”. There’s no way you can define one course of action as “doing something”, and the other as “not doing something” that can’t be reversed.

But there is a deeper nonsense buried in Lewandowsky’s argument. He is claiming, not only that the less certain we are of the facts, the more reason we have to act, but that this is a mathematical truth: that the shape of a graph can tell us something about our duty to take certain decisions.

This is bonkers, as anyone who struggles through Lewandwsky’s three turgid articles will realise (Though James Annan and his fans don’t think so).The trouble is, you need to be a mathematician with a good grasp of Bayesian statistics to  be able to demonstrate that it’s bonkers, and I’m not.

Anyone out there who can help?

(Since you ask, bra sizes came up because I was looking for an analogous situation to estimates of climate sensitivity, which form a skewed distribution with a long tail towards the high end. Breast size seemed a good fit, since most are small to middling, with a sizeable minority tailing off towards the ginormous. If you believe Lewandowsky, the less you know about actual breast sizes, the more reason you have to believe any woman in a floppy jumper to be well-endowed in that department. And that’s a mathematical fact: – a necessary truth, in the Leibnizian sense).

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10 Responses to Lewandowsky Scratches the Scab

  1. Dodgy Geezer says:

    …If you believe Lewandowsky, the less you know about actual breast sizes, the more reason you have to believe any woman in a floppy jumper to be well-endowed in that department. …

    I’m afraid that my grasp of Bayesian statistics is probably smaller than yours. But I would like to volunteer to assist with any practical examination, should you be thinking of setting up an actual experiment…

  2. TinyCO2 says:

    Mathematically I can’t help you but logically, maybe. If the less we know about a serious hazard then the more we should act then there are far greater threats to humanity than CO2. For instance a meteorite could hit the Earth with very little warning and potentially wipe out everything down to the microbes. Even with warning we currently don’t have the technology to stop one. If we are throwing smaller, known problems out the window then that should siphon all the money available for hazard mitigation, not AGW.

    Similarly if we are looking at threats to humans then the viruses H7N9, H5N1 and the MERS are much more pressing problems. They have the capability of wiping out huge percentages of mankind very quickly and at the very least causing huge trauma, tragedy and societal damage. CO2 would stop being a problem over night. Scientists don’t know if or when these might make the jump to humans but worryingly H7N9 and MERS have most of the genes they need to do so and have been passed from human to human in short runs. Scientists don’t even know if the human strains would be as deadly or even more so after the transition because there are no rules that says they have to become less harmful. Some experiments with H5N1 produced variants that were 100% fatal. With our modern travel links, the virus would be all round the planet before the authorities knew there was a serious problem and only complete isolation until a vaccine was developed would improve the safety individuals. Few governmental plans for a deadly outbreak include any attempt at lockdown. The existence of those viruses and the knowledge of how to progress them is now available to read and potentially a suicide group of terrorists could create a virus straight from Hollywood movies and release it on the world. Plenty of unknowns there.

    To take Lew’s theory to it’s logical, or do I mean dumb, conclusion then what about the deadly risks we know nothing about? Should we spend all our money on finding out if there’s something even worse than viruses, meteorites and CO2?

    Lew’s theory also doesn’t distinguish between acting and successfully acting. Many of the current attempts to reduce CO2 are ineffective and are done as a sop to anxiety. If we were serious about CO2 being a problem then we could reduce CO2 production to ‘safe’ levels almost instantly. Unfortunately for the warmists those methods would be extremely unpleasant for mankind and won’t go down well with a dubious public.

    All his brain tinkering misses the fundamental flaw in climate science – it’s unconvincing. How do I prove that – easy, people are not convinced. People who are truly convinced of a hazard (and I don’t mean they just say they are) act on that problem. Statistically the number of people who are personally cutting CO2 is minute. Oh I don’t count the political or even business spending on AGW. It’s easy to spend other people’s money or cut other people’s lifestyle, far more significant to cut your own.

    Incidentally, one of the first signs of sustained transmission of a deadly virus will be the lack of science and medical correspondents available to comment. I’d bet most of them have developed a pandemic plan and it won’t involve sitting in front of a camera telling other people not to panic. That would be real concern.

  3. catweazle666 says:

    Ah yes, Bayesian statistics…a vital part of the Post-Modern Scientist’s toolkit.

    Also known as “Making Stuff Up”.

    Very useful if you haven’t actually got any data to back up your hypothesis, or worse, if the data you DO have makes your hypothesis look like a load of old donkey droppings.

  4. Pingback: Lewandowsky forgets who funds his university: the Aussie taxpayer | The GOLDEN RULE

  5. Soarer says:

    @TinyCO2

    “Lew’s theory also doesn’t distinguish between acting and successfully acting. ”

    Quite so – or what sort of response is proposed.

    I have some watermelon friends, whom I love dearly. They are highly educated (much more than me) but even so believe in CAGW. I pointed out the them that one major country had reduced its CO2 emissions dramatically in the last 10 years. The USA is now back below what it was emitting in 1994 – mainly due to fracking and horizontal drilling for natural gas.

    Suddenly, fracking was the enemy – not CO2. And again when nuclear was proposed to reduce CO2 emissions, that became the bete noire.

    Quite clearly, amongst the Green lobby, the problem is not so bad at all, if small additional risks are not allowed in solutions to this (apparently not very) pressing problem.

  6. MangoChutney says:

    Geoff,

    All comments are held in moderation (probably in the same way as The Guardian)

    “Comments on Observer stories are moderated. Submitted comments do not appear immediately on the site. Certain articles may draw an unusually large number of comments that may take a few days to process.”

  7. Adam Gallon says:

    I’ve posted a comment, my comment’s visible to me, but no other comments are.

  8. Barry Woods says:

    I made a few comments on the APS website 5 months ago… they are still yet to appear.

  9. johanna says:

    Geoff, I think that TinyCo2 hit the nail on the head. It’s not a question of “mathematics”, it’s a question of logic. I read the Ben Pile thread that you linked, and while Ben did a brilliant deconstruction, IMO he (and a lot of commenters) over-complicated the issue.

    The irony is, good mathematics is entirely logical. So, anyone who tries to support an illogical proposition with numbers is just making stuff up. It doesn’t matter how fancy the numbers are, or if the “model” is internally consistent and accurate or not.

    Loo’s proposition – that uncertainty is a reason for action, and that we should always assume the worst (while also maintaining that the science is settled) is just gibberish. It fails every test you care to apply. It simply doesn’t make sense.

    You need to trust your own instincts more🙂. You put up a very good defence of using logic instead of numbers in that thread, as Ben did. No need to leap into the quicksand of getting into arcane arguments about statistics on a topic where the basic proposition falls at the first fence.

    Love your work, BTW.

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