Return to Website

Number Watch Web Forum

This forum is about wrong numbers in science, politics and the media. It respects good science and good English.

Number Watch Web Forum
Start a New Topic 
View Entire Thread
Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

When you elevate to a level of respect, you realized that you can't know everything about everything. You expect to have your opinion respected and as such you start to respect other's in their lofty halls opinions also.

We can't start from fundamental for everything. We take short cuts all the time to get to real answers. We assume professionals in other disciplines are as professional as we are. From there we get into trouble.

I am sure you have seen Dr. Muller's presentation here. He describes the problem succinctly. (Of course I may just think he described it well, because it was so poignant to me).

"I understand charts, I can read this chart and put the leverage of my credibility behind it!"

Then he shows the missing data...

There are two conspiracies out there. Cover your ass AND Butter my bread. I had a conversation with a pathologist the other day. He is well aware of all the issues surrounding his profession. The trend toward more tests. The challenges associated with the testing when used as a screen. The need for extra tests. The bottom line padding of tests. (Once again I may have read more into his words than were actually there). At the end of the day though, he needs to clear his board so that he can help people. He can't fight all the battles. It is easier to just do worthless tests than attempt to get rational thought into management. You can get a manager to recognize the futility of the precautionary principle. You cannot get him to ignore the public relations issues around ignoring the precautionary principle. PP leads to CYA which leads to BMB or maybe a little more clearly "Butter my children's bread"

We all admire the people who stick their necks out. We don't always want to be that person.

Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

I'd been wondering the same thing until I came upon a piece, possibly by James Delingpole, criticising Steve Jones, and the penny dropped.
Steve Jones is a geneticist and genetics now does very little experimentation and much computation. David King is also heavily into computers, and I'd expect the others to be as well.
I suspect such people are so accustomed to using computer models and accepting the results that they automatically assume that all models are correct. Certainly David King did with the modelling of the recent FMD outbreak. Look closely into a True Believer and I'll bet you find a computer modeller (who, although they call themselves scientists are really only technicians, on a par with laboratory machinists and glass-blowers).

Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

In reply to Orde I'd say what you're calling the 'scientific ability paradox' is just a re-statement of the 'decline of the polymath' or 'death of the polymath' observation which somebody writes an article about in science magazines and other intellectual-type magazines every now and again. The argument goes that science is increasingly specialised, with people knowing little outside their main field of expertise. It does beg the question though, if there are no longer any polymaths around, as to what is the point of government chief science advisers, or having a President of the Royal Society (other than for ceremonial purposes), or having a single individual review BBC science coverage.

In reply to Disputin and his assertion "Look closely into a True Believer and I'll bet you find a computer modeller", I think the situation is more complicated than that. I would agree that any science academic who is pro-AGW is very likely to have an uncritical attitude towards computer modelling. However I doubt that any of the four scientists Jones, Nurse, King and Beddington are actually computer modellers themselves, but it is possible they may all have been nominally in charge of research which involved computer modelling. King certainly was in charge of a computer modelling exercise for the UK Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in the early 00s as described in this link:

King even claimed that a computer model resulted in the setting of the date of the UK General Election in 2001 as being June 6th rather than May 5th.

But in contradiction to the 'true believers are computer modellers' claim, quite a significant number of AGW sceptics do have some experience of computer modelling, particularly people with an engineering background, and one of the driving forces for their scepticism is that climate science doesn't seem to have the same 'verification and validation culture' as engineering computer modelling. Climate scientists don't seem to have to build the test rigs that engineers do to give confidence that the modelling software works satisfactorily or demonstrate that they can handle a simpler problem before moving to a very complicated problem.

There's even an argument that climate scientists are under a delusion that they think they're writing physics programs when in reality what they're doing is more akin to writing engineering codes (programs). This article by Roger Peilke Sr expresses this view:


An extract from the Peilke article:

"This text seeks to equate climate modeling with the development of fundamental concepts in basic physics. However, these are not the same. Whereas fundamental physical constants such as the speed of light were the focus of the Michelson and Morley study, climate modeling relies on tunable parameters and functions in their parameterizations of clouds, precipitation, vegetation dynamics, etc in the construction of the models. Climate models are engineering code not basic physics. Only advection, the pressure gradient force and gravity provide the fundamental physics in climate model. The combination of a fundamental component of the model with an engineering component (in which the physics is tuned) results in engineering code, not basic physics."

I think one of the main problems with climate modelling is that, in addition to all the Greenies that seem to work in it, the discipline seems to be full of people with maths degrees and also joint physics/maths degrees, and I wonder whether these people know the difference between physics and engineering or even when the subject is more approximate than engineering.

Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

Good reply, Dave, but if you don't mind me saying there are a few logical howlers there. For instance, I only said that most TBs are computer modellers, not that all TBs are computer modellers, much less "all computer modellers are TBs".
Your pointing out the essential difference between engineering models (modelling a well-understood system and rigorously validated against the real world) and GCMs, which can only attempt to make predictions and then compare their output post facto goes to the heart of the whole argument.

Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

As Will Rogers pointed out, all of us are ignorant, only on different subjects. The temptation is perhaps to think that because you know a great deal about X, you also know a great deal about X±δ, as though a tennis champin considered that he or she must also be a star at badminton.

Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

In reply to Disputin, I'll admit I did interpret myself what you said as being most TBs rather than all TBs, as I was pretty sure you were aware that JEB is a former computer modeller, albeit from about 50 years ago in the days when computer runs often failed due to a valve in the computer blowing. However I thought that the casual reader of the forum might interpret it as all TBs as you didn't specifically use the word 'most'.

Your post reminded me of a thread I started in 2010 called "Why politicians like computer models", where I launched into a diatribe against computer models. One of the reactions to that post was that it should be made clear that engineering computer models had to be regarded a bit differently, which I thought was a valid point, and thought it was worth introducing into this "Scientific ability paradox" thread, as casual readers of the forum might not be aware that there are "two cultures" when it comes to computer models, one bunch that puts some effort into proving that their computer model 'does what it says on the tin' and another bunch that doesn't.

But if the statement "Look closely into a True Believer and I'll bet you find a computer modeller" is clarified to "Look closely into a True Believer and I'll bet you find most are fans of computer modelling", there are still some complications. True believers, to me, consist of three important groups - 1) climate scientists and their supporters in the wider scientific community (like jones, King, Beddington, Nurse), 2) politicians (in the UK this seems to be virtually all politicians judging by their attitude to the Climate Change Act), and 3) the Green movement.

Out of these three groups, I'd say 1 and 2 are fans of computer modelling but the attitude of the Greenies (who to me are the most important of the three groups, without them on board the AGW cause would collapse in my opinion) to computer modelling is highly variable. If computer modelling supports the Green political agenda, they are keen on computer models, but if the model goes against their agenda they don't believe it or just ignore it. So the Greenies are pretty keen on computer modelling related to AGw, but the computer models used to claim the safety of nuclear power are disbelieved. Another example would be badger culling in the UK. The decision to cull is I believe based on a computer model, but in a case like that Greenies don't accept the idea of computer modelling.

Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

As a professional engineer of long standing (1967) I deplore computer modeling.

When did it come to be that scientists began to believe that the future could be foretold? Projecting forward into time from past data, no matter how accurate the past data is, will not and can not foretell what will happen at any future time.

All this is but a modern crystal ball, with the monitor being what is seen, and perhaps printed.

This planet rotates about its axis, and the world continues to change. In reality, in random ways.

Ego has often produced the most curious fantasies.

Re: The Scientific Ability Paradox

It is the celebrity culture we live in.
For some reason, people at large seem willing to believe that a celebrity is an authority. Hence they are willing to listen to some film star telling them how to vote.
A scientist is a form of celebrity within that context and once they step outside their own field they are no longer to be relied upon as being any more reliable or insightful than, yes, the man in the pub.
Perhaps they only associate the scientific method and ethos with their own field.
They can, outside that field, be as inclined to inspiration and intuition and plain silly thinking as anyone else.
There ought to be an embargo on anyone with the least taint of celebrity from speaking about anything other than their own speciality and even then, perhaps silence is golden.

The reality is that angst ridden Hollywood stars believe their Prius car is saving the planet (they don't worry where the electricity comes from and they don't belief studies which show that on an ashes to ashes basis a 4x4 comes top of the environmentally friendly list and Prius about 63rd) but their eco-sensitivity lets them create dangerously influential and misguided ill informed public declaration fully aware that it is their celebrity status that ensures "belief", and not any inherent truth in what they say.
Worse still, some of them become activists of the worst sort e.g. Ted Dansen with

Scientists have vanity too.