Streetwise Professor

November 27, 2009

Sharp Knives, Big Stakes

Filed under: Climate Change,Politics — The Professor @ 10:30 am

Henry Kissinger once quipped “in academia, knives are so sharp because the stakes are so small.”*  This insight is largely correct.  In the absence of large pecuniary rewards, academics tend to receive remuneration disproportionately in the form of prestige and reputation.  One the positive side, these can be achieved by hard work and brilliance.  On the negative side, by manipulation, conspiracy, and backstabbing.

In the modern academy, peer review plays a major role in the establishment of reputation.  On the positive side, it can serve as an important tool in identifying errors, poor reasoning, and weak exposition.  On the negative side, it can serve as a mechanism for enforcing consensus even around dubious concepts, punishing dissent, and protecting incumbent interests.  As is the case with many social mechanisms, it tends to be conservative in nature, and hostile to true innovation.  It tends to filter out the different, with mixed consequences.  Bad work is often different, but not all that is different is bad.  Moreover, since in its operation it tends to empower the avatars of prevailing views, it can be used and manipulated to punish or otherwise quash those that challenge said views.

The Hadley CRU emails provide a window onto the often shabby operation of this process.  The Wegman report characterized the historical climate reconstruction community centered on Michael Mann as a clique.  The members work with one another and review each others’ work.  As a result of the insularity of this community, and its hostility to outsiders, the published peer reviewed work in the area all tended to reinforce the views of its members.  There were many different published papers, but because they were written or reviewed by the same people, often using the same data, these papers were not independent, in the mathematical/statistical sense.  A mere count of the number of papers gave a misleading view of the actual number of independent data points.  In statistical parlance, they gave an exaggerated view of the “size” of the tests in favor of the AGW hypothesis.

Moreover, by exerting undue influence on the peer review process, the clique suppressed dissenting views and the publication of truly independent work.  It then added insult to injury by condescendingly dismissing contrary work as not being peer reviewed, or being published in the leading journals (over which they exerted their influence).  It was a scientific Catch-22.

The Hadley CRU emails show just how right the Wegman report was.  Indeed, they demonstrate that if anything, “clique” is an understatement.  ”Cabal” or “mafia” is more appropriate.  The enforcers of consensus resorted to threats, slander, and crude insult to protect their precious reputations and squelch opponents.  They reveled in the death of one gadfly and expressed the desire to inflict violence on others who had the temerity to present papers that dared suggest the Emperors had no clothes.

In brief, the climate reconstruction mafia behaved exactly as Kissinger described, wielding their sharp knives.

The problem is that, unlike the run of the mill academic disputes described by Kissinger,  in this matter the stakes are anything but small.  Indeed, they are staggeringly large.  In such matters, typical academic failings are intolerable.  There needs to be a different mechanism for evaluating and appraising such policy-relevant research than reliance on a self-selected, self-reinforcing group of interested individuals.

This will present a great challenge.  When the political consequences of science are so great, it will be very difficult to keep politics out of science.  Where to begin?  The recommendations laid out in the Wegman report (emphasized in a comment by Mike Giberson) are a good place to start, but likely additional steps are required.

Follow up (noon, 11/27/09).  The normally sensible Megan McArdle states that “Sexing up a graph is at best a misdemeanor.”  I think she means “at worst,” but regardless, in context it is clear that she means to minimize the importance of the data and methodological abuses employed to create the hockey stick and related graphics.  I think this is incredibly wrongheaded.  There is NO excuse for lying with statistics in this way.  And, as the post points out, the stakes in this issue are immense.  The “sexed up” graphs have been used repeatedly in order to advance an agenda that will have enormous economic, and perhaps environmental, consequences.  (The economic costs are indisputable.  The environmental consequences are far less certain, because (a) as the debate shows, the scientific basis for AGW is on shakier ground now, and (b) even if AGW is correct, the effects of the measures currently contemplated may be very small indeed.)  Given these consequences, the expected cost of any distortion of the evidence is extremely large.  What’s more, the emails provide strong evidence that the sins go far beyond tarting up an inconsequential graphic.  These sins plausibly include, based on the code extracts and comments particularly, wholescale fraud.

* I have used this line from time to time in the past.  For instance, I used it in response to a lawyer’s line of questioning about what people have said about my academic qualifications during what was at the time the largest fraudulent conveyance claim trial in US bankruptcy law history.  The judge chuckled, and said something like “that’s true of judges councils too” and suggested that the lawyer try another line of questioning.  So, you see, I’m environmentally responsible: I recycle!

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  1. Because (supposedly) discrediting Mann’s work = discrediting the theory of AGW?

    Also, why no outrage over the huge sums spent by the oil industry, the coal industry, etc, to suppress inconvenient climate research and astroturf denial?

    And why no outrage over the breach of the right to private and rule of law by hacking into CRU servers?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — November 27, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

  2. Mann’s work–and the work of all of the others–has been extremely important in advancing and popularizing AGW. Moreover, they have been instrumental in suppressing contrary views.

    It is interesting that you mention “Theory of AGW” whereas Mann, Jones, et al, are empirical researchers. The question is whether the data are consistent with the hypothesis. Moreover, there are numerous unknowns, fudge factors, etc., re quantifying climate sensitivity to CO2. So the theory is not so clearcut as you would suggest.

    Re oil industry, etc. That has been amazingly ineffectual in terms of its impact on the scientific literature, and on the public consciousness.

    I already mentioned my ambivalence re means by which this information was disclosed, and that I will defer a more definitive judgment until the full circumstances are revealed. However, given that (a) most of this information, namely the raw data and the computer code, should have been disclosed long ago, and (b) it is clear that the individuals involved made active efforts to conceal this information, including stiffing lawful FOIA requests under both US and UK law, “rights to privacy” and “rule of law” appear to be weak reeds to crouch behind.

    The feebleness of your efforts on this matter and your choice of arguments speaks volumes about the substantive issues.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 27, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  3. Where should one turn to for some good discussion of AGW that is based on sound data — if there is any? Is Al Gore then fighting a non-existant figment of (someone’s?) imagination?

    Comment by Asehpe — November 27, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  4. [please delete previous comment]

    McCardle soft pedals a lot of other crap that as a pseudo-libertarian she ought to oppose as well. For example, using credit histories when investigating backgrounds of employees.

    While businesses may defend this ‘right’ as exercising discretion in hiring, from the perspective of individual privacy (banks know damn well anything they need to know about you and act as a backup for government databases), and the fact that the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) act as a quasi-governmental oligopoly (like that notorious health insurance monopoly in Alabama), she ought to be up in arms about it. Who gives a crap ultimately if its a corporate or government monopoly if one still gets the same crummy service and high cost? Ditto for the embargo against Cuba. I won’t assume that the Professor supports it, but come on, you think the HMOs want hundreds of thousands of Americans to give them the bird when denied treatment and go to an island 90 miles from the U.S. coast for waaaaay cheaper out of pocket treatment? Hell no. Another case where “right wing” or “left wing” policies are really about defending the quiet cartelization of the U.S. economy rather than ideology.

    Instead like most good Washington journo sheeple she acts as if it’s not a big deal. I mean seriously, why should a country of 300 million people only have three credit rating agencies for consumers, particularly after the corporate credit raters credibility is shot?

    I suspect the Professor, perhaps secure with his 720 rating and having never lost a job [sic[ is probably not worried about losing his tenure in this crisis. For thousands of Americans who worked in the life insurance biz, made some sales, but had $10,000 in chargebacks slapped on their record with companies treating them like debt slaves forever? Hey, they shouldn’t have signed the contract, that’s their problem.

    If the Frontline quote of Alan Greenspan saying that even fraud shouldn’t be fought by the government is true, than there is a kind of libertarianism that borders on Bolshevism for sheer idiocy and social destruction.

    Comment by Mr. X — November 28, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

  5. Plus Greenspan was worshipped as a kind of Lenin for neo-liberalism in the Nineties, which to me basically means Pelosicrats and Goldman guys taking over the Democrat Party, mainly because they couldn’t coexist in a party with redneck socially conservative Christian Republicans, not because they couldn’t just as easily (see Hank Paulson or McCain killing his last chance to beat Obama by supporting the bailouts) hijack the GOP.

    Comment by Mr. X — November 28, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

  6. Anyway, there is most definitely a cult of the banks/bankers in America, which folks like Dave Ramsey (also profiled in the Atlantic) are fighting, at least in terms of the staggering private debt burden. The bailouts only revealed it. One wonders of course how he feels about the biggest debtor of all, Uncle Sam.

    Looking over some posts, I see this site is pretty critical of the Russian government. While I don’t get all the credit derivatives regulation stuff (I doubt one out of 100 readers does), I am curious about what this blog’s author says to the Atlantic piece a few months ago from the MIT/IMF guru Simon Johnson who argued that basically the U.S. is becoming like Russia in the 1990s? I mean, substituting Goldman Sachs/Citigroup/BOA for the oligarchs, of course…
    “The Quiet Coup” May 2009

    Comment by Mr. X — November 28, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

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