Friday, June 11, 2010

More of Chris Mooney's Abysmal Understanding of Science

The New Atlantis Magazine has a review of Chris Mooney's latest book, Unscientific America, and rightly excoriates Mooney and his co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum for their complete and almost comical lack of understanding of what science is and what scientists actually do.

I didn't read Unscientific America, after someone I respect -- a prominent blogger you all know -- wrote me and said it was "a complete mess." I was not surprised, and decided not to waste any
time on it. Mooney's earlier book, Storm World, was way premature, and significantly wrong, and even his earlier book (The Republican War on Science) was completely blind to the left's problems with science, such as in the area of GM foods.

Mooney and his pal Matt Nesbitt have been busy these last few years telling scientists how they are are supposed to act -- as if they know. Mooney is an English major who couldn't convert Newtons to foot-pounds if his life depended on it. Yet he has the audacity to tell scientists how to act.

Look, despite anything Mooney or Nesbitt or Kirshenbaum has to say, scientists have one task, and one task only: to do science to the absolute best of their ability.

That is already difficult -- very difficult. It requires one's complete being, years of thought and even of  isolation. It's not like you do science from 9-12 and then have the afternoon free to talk to the media and think about how you should "frame" your argument or give lectures on how the US Senate ought to regulate the EPA.

That's not was science is and it's not how scientists work. It is not the responsibility of scientists to "frame" their work into something that will convince the action to take action on climate change. The job of scientists is to frame their science as... science. That is already the most direct method of expressing knowledge ever invented, and maybe it doesn't play on "Good Morning America," but that's their problem, not that of scientist's.

There are plenty of people around to convert science into action -- writers, innumerable NGOs, and (now) four public information officers (PIOs, also know as propagandists) for every journalist in the country. This is their job.

This is not the only place we see such nonsense. Sharon Begley wrote in Newsweek (3/17/10):
Scientists are lousy communicators.
BFD. A scientist's job is not to "communicate" -- his/her job is to do science. Period. If that does not satisfy mere journalists like Begley or Mooney (or me), tough shit. 

Doing science requires everything a scientist  has -- brain, heart, and soul. It requires a dedication and a skill set that rarely intersects with doing interviews with every English major that knocks on his door. PIOs or senior scientists who lead groups but do no science on their own can do that.

Let's stop blaming scientists because the world will not get off oil, and let's stop pretending that English majors have anything wise to say about how highly educated scientists are supposed to act.


rhhardin said...

Newtons to foot-pounds (?)

Another Mars mission wiped out.

Dano said...

I've been a David fan for years and appreciate this rant. I wonder what good is work if it doesn't do anything, and Naomi Oreskes does too:

"Scientists and academic institutions need to expand definition of what their “real work” is: “The work is not done, in my opinion, until it’s communicated in a way that citizens understand.

The band System of a Down went much further than this in their song Science, which in a way is Chris Mooney's point of his exercise in communicating knowledge and who does it and who communicates it to the publics.



rhhardin said...

Science runs on curiosity, not activism.

Dano said...

Good thing Ron can't actually produce evidence that activism has colored results!

So we just point out that scurrilous partisans will falsely accuse scientists whose findings negate their ideology of activism.

The scurrilous accusations of base partisans is the thing that David doesn't want to have happen. And Ron's scurrilous implication is what happens.

That is the issue, and thank you Ron for pointing out the tactics of scurrilous ideologues and their transparent mendacity!



rhhardin said...

Deniers are in the pay of big oil, is the common accusation. It seems like activism is thought to be unscientific sometimes.

That's because science gets its validity from curiosity.

Somebody will always say, "Hmm, that's a strange result. I wonder if ..." and either figure out why it's not strange at all, or fix it, when curiosity runs things.

Activism doesn't have that correction. Instead it shouts it down.

I like conflict of interest myself, by the way. Coleridge wrote that conflict of interest is the pulley on which good character is hoist into public view.

That was back when there was good character, of course.

Dano said...

If Ron had any evidence to back the denialist position, say, physics or climatology, he'd trot it out. Instead, he must make vague implications about activism.

This is why David is afraid of scientists explaining their work and the implications of it in public. The low-wattage ideologues will be mad that findings negate their self-identity, so will lie about scientist's intentions.



rhhardin said...

1. You can't solve the actual physics equations (Navier Stokes at bottom).

2. You don't get to pull an equation from your ass that you can solve instead (modelling).

So much for the physics.

Bayesean statistics: After aeons of huge changes and cycles, the earth has suddenly developed an instability, as indicated by a temperature rise. The odds of this are zero.

The evidence for it is bogus as evidence because, mathematical fact, you cannot tell a cycle from a trend with an amount of data that is short compared to that cycle. The hockey stick was a way around that, but the hockey stick turns out to have met its demise, and so we're back with no evidence that we're not in a simple cycle.

Bayes comes in because the earth has had only cycles before, and there's no evidence that this isn't a cycle. The odds aren't 50-50, they're zero.

Evolution: models that predict disaster get funding. Models that don't, don't, and wind up in the punch card recycle bin, their authors taking up some other problem entirely. Thus evolution (we do believe in evolution, don't we?) produces a population of model disasters as long as funding holds out.

Bayes strongly favors that evolutionary explanation over a runaway temperature trend.

Bayes is strongly aligned with common sense, which is why this esoteric statistics result winds up on the same side as the common man.

(I see AI is full of Bayesean statistics these days, trying to tap that connection. I have other put-downs for AI.)