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Blog item: Clarifying the Science with Mutual Respect, or: Can't We REALLY All Get Along?

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6 comments, last: Mar-1-2009   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Feb-23-2009)    Play a Video
Category: Philosophical & Quality of Life

Are truth and solutions the goals in debate, or is it making the other person look bad?A friend pointed out a blogger article that critiqued a scientific Web site for having what clearly appeared to be either an error in their data, or a major disappearance of sea ice.  Here is the beginning of that blog article:

Errors in publicly presented data – Worth blogging about?

I also looked at the actual NSIDC site, which currently appears to be quite clear in presenting their information, but they have actually disabled the real-time chart while working on their sensors:

Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis

If you look over both sites, beyond the story of the sea ice and the blogger and the scientist, a bigger issue stands out: civility and constructive public discussion.  The ability to work together to improve understanding is constantly being challenged due to polarization.  And, to avoid being naive or allowing the reader to be naive, I must point out that a good deal of that is due to commercial considerations.  Whether we are talking about climate change or political maneuvering, there seems to be only minor concern for the public good except as it affects the principals' commercial income or political power.

While some people believe businesses are the grease and the gasoline that run the pickup truck of societal progress (excuse the metaphor), in my experience those honors belong to the sincere, informed, and public discussion of conflicting ideas and goals.

As a result of carefully reading the above two Web pages, I wrote these two comments on the blogger's site.  The first was written after reading only the blogger site:

I was pleased in reading this article to see that there is not a noticeable contamination with planting doubt in readers' minds, and that Anthony Watts was raising a sincerely-held concern over accuracy in presentation of information, although I also commend NSIDC for doing the daily work of gathering meaningful data to improve our modeling and projections.

Mr. Watts raised a slightly subtle point about refining the presentation of data so as to raise the level of accuracy of all kinds of discussion, including in the news media. Trained in science myself, I do feel that the chart shown here should include a statement (or a link to a full statement) indicating that these were near-real-time data and that occasional equipment or data "noise" could lead to outliers (aberrant data points) in this publicly-visible data. In fact, a short article about why there is such noise would also be useful in raising public understanding.

As I see it, anticipating and documenting surprising details that may not mislead other scientists but that could confuse reporters or the non-professional public, is an active way to improve one's services, and is preferable to defending what is clearly a good service at gathering data in this important matter of climate change. The blogger, Watts, for his part hopefully showed restraint and respect while suggesting that NSIDC should pay more attention to the public perception of their data, and should be clear as reasonably possible.

After looking at the NSIDC page shown above, I wrote this second comment on the blogger page:

I looked at the NSIDC page, and they do currently have a generous amount of information about sensor drift and the nature of real-time data. I am not sure whether or how much of that was posted prior to the Watts blog entry. It does support the point of keeping discussion civil – it seems that Walt Meier and Anthony Watts have been having a cordial relationship. I would not call the NSIDC graph a true error, as they pointed out that this was raw data and the data goes through additional checks before being used in articles or being archived.

In other words, this dialogue should not be sensationalized, and any animosity between the principals should be minimal. This civility is one aspect of discussion that seems to have been lost to a large extent, for reasons of commercial attention; that loss is truly harmful to informed, societally-beneficial discussion of important issues.

The reason I am simply quoting my comments is that they were spontaneous and came from the heart, and I can probably not improve on them.  It saddens me to see our own USA government still engaged in political positioning while, possibly, our twin economic and environmental Titanics are in the process of sinking into the ocean.

Does the lack of intelligent, honest, and public discussion concern you?  Does the name calling, the ignorance of science, and the disregard for the reputation of others, concern you?  Does the tossing of trillions of dollars at an unclear target and the lack of progress on energy and environment issues, concern you?

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Comment by: City Worker (Mar-1-2009)   
In order to get along, sometimes, one must push aside one's idea of who is right and what is fair.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Feb-24-2009)   Web site

Certainly in the UK all three major parties fall over themselves to highlight their green credentials, although the Green Party complains that it is just window dressing. In Western Europe as a whole, I would say the debate about global warming is largely over and has been for some years; few question the science and discussion has moved on to the solutions.

In Mexico green issues take second stage to issues like the economy and law and order. The Green Party here is more popular than your version (it has 17 deputies and 4 senators), but in my opinion it is Green in name alone.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Feb-24-2009)   Web site

Reality will win out. I am concerned that there still seems to be a tremendous gap between the way these issues are discussed and the way they SHOULD be discussed, especially on the Internet. It is a waste of the medium, which could be a great source of exchange of ideas... but only if people truly listen to each other and study the validity of the other person's points.

It is interesting to hear that in other countries (I know you are familiar with UK and Mexico, at least) the discussion is less politically and culturally tinged.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Feb-24-2009)   Web site

I fear that in the USA climate change has become politicised like nowhere else. Green activists and climate change deniers yell at each other in much the same way as 'liberals' and 'conservatives' or religious fundamentalists and Darwinians. There is a link.

First, a large number (though hopefully a minority) of US children are brought up (often home-schooled) to be sceptical of science, to see it as just another viewpoint and to dismiss it totally if it contradicts their beliefs. (Such as, in the Creation.) There is a contagion effect from one science into another.

Secondly, the main US messenger about climate change has been Al Gore - a politician. This isn't to fault him, but the effect has been to make Republicans (and there must still be a few thousand of them) wary that green issues are liberal issues that they cannot support. (This isn't the case in most other countries.) The lack of civility between politicians on other issues naturally spills over into the environment.

And this incivility has itself spread to become the norm. The non-religious and the non-political use the same righteous and dogmatic tones they've seen employed elsewhere.

Hopefully politeness will return as, in the end, science will triumph. But in the shorter term, if the Church and the Republicans continue to back a losing horse they may have to pay a high price - a price they won't pay without vocal complaint.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Feb-23-2009)   Web site

Well CW, I must say, we should remember that they are MIDWESTERNERS. That is the way they communicate. We need to look beyond the surface expression. To me, those small steps, one after another, coming from a sincere place, will indeed make a difference.
Comment by: City Worker (Feb-23-2009)   

I am sorry, but to ME, even though those Duluth people in the video are saying the right WORDS -- that they want to have open, honest, respectful community dialogue -- the tone of the people's voices and their body language say something different. I see a great coldness and underlying contentiousness practically throughout.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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