Sunday, 18 May 2014

Dissonance & Evasion

What follows is a comment posted by "michel" on this post at BH yesterday concerning the Bengtsson affair. I post it verbatim because it is very good; it shows something of the psychological dissonance that some politically funded academics risk whilst they remain in their positions...


You have to think about this from the point of view of a well known climate scientist, perhaps an occasional commenter on this and other sceptical blogs.

His professional associates are all toeing the party line, which they don't even think of as that, they simply think its what the evidence shows. They know that if they start to step out of line, the result will be ostracism. Not simply professional but also social. Again, this becomes so internalised that its not even thought about, its just in the background.

Dissent from the consensus is going to mean no more going out for lunch, and it means similar things for my wife and children, who also will have their personal contacts restricted and changed. And then there is careers. I will have trouble getting my new material published, people will withdraw from co-authoring. Promotions, moves will be harder or impossible.

So now I start to be confronted with evidence that the consensus may be mistaken. First there is no warming. Well, it must be going into the oceans. Then there is the evidence on the value of the climate sensitivity parameter. I will do lots of stats and studies and will conclude that the articles have various questionable points which allow me not to pick a too low value. Now comes a real problem: the models don't match the observations. I will have to deny this of course.

My first line of defence will be to only use an ensemble of models and to say that the average is fine. As time goes by this will no longer wash, so I will resort to saying that they never were predictions. They were scenarios or projections.

By now I will have retreated totally from drawing public policy prescriptions. I will now be expressing generalised alarm. I will not be advocating wind farms covering the UK as a way of lowering the UK emissions and thus the planetary temperature. I will be retreating steathily from claims about coming catastrophe. But I will be sure that its warm, warming and that human activity is the sole or main cause, and that it is deeply worrying.

Now along comes Bengtsson. What do I think? One choice is to say he is probably right, and that the pressure he reports is quite wrong. But that will require me to take a very different view of my friends and colleagues and the intellectual circles I move in. I am going to have to ask, if I go that route, whether this is an isolated instance and what it tells me about them. This is impossible.

As R D Laing said, if you cannot talk about it, you cannot talk about the fact that you cannot talk about it.

So what do I do? Well, one thing is to write about Kappa. That is a diversion and it helps. But in the end, I have to conclude that nothing wrong was done to Bengtsson. This is just an old guy whose friends disagree with him, and he can't take it. Tough. Time to move on.

This is how it works, and not just for one. This is how it works for all of us. I have personally fallen to the same sort of stuff, much to my later shame. Its no disgrace. Cowardice sometimes is simply self preservation. We do not have the right to demand heroism, though we should respect it when it occurs.

But what our well known climate scientist might want to think is, how is this going to feel to him in ten years time when he looks back. He is going to be shaving one morning. What does he see?

I know that when I think back to my own failures, I do not like what I see, and suspect he will not either.


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