Manny's Reviews > A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming

A Vast Machine by Paul N. Edwards
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Mar 10, 2011

bookshelves: to-read, science, history-and-biography

A few weeks ago, I was on a train heading for Cornwall when a thirty-something guy sat down next to me. He was reading this book and making notes. We got talking, and he told me he was a meteorologist and that he'd agreed to review it for a meteorology journal.

It was evident from the title that the book was about the climate change debate, though he said that was partly a marketing tactic: in fact, most of it was about the process of gathering and interpreting climate data, the treatment was historical in nature, and it was only in the last couple of chapters that the climate change debate per se became an important topic. He showed me the key sections.

The presentation seemed very balanced and even-handed. The author said he was alarmed at the emotional tone the debate had assumed, particularly in the US, and appeared to be bending over backwards not to get emotional himself. One detail, however, I did find rather striking. Edwards explained that there was a spectrum of approaches in any science, that could be categorised by the level of certainty required before the researcher in question was willing to accept a result. You had cutting-edge people who went chasing the new stuff, but were forced by lack of data to publish things even when the evidence wasn't compelling, but only suggestive. And then you had more and more conservative types who required harder and harder evidence. The author said that, under normal circumstances, this was natural and healthy, and the different approaches complemented each other. Sometimes the speculative stuff panned out, sometimes it didn't, and it was very good that there were people who were willing to take the time to check it carefully.

What he didn't like was the fact that large business interests now appeared to be systematically exploiting this pluralistic approach, and creating scientists who were in effect professional sceptics who offered themselves for hire. He said there were researchers who methodically followed the relevant controversies, fighting statistical rear-guard actions for as long as possible to delay general acceptance of results which were already established to high standards of certainty. A few of these people had migrated through as many as four quite separate areas, starting with links between smoking and lung cancer in the 60s and ending up in climate change today.

Isn't scientific ethics complicated? I instinctively feel that a scientist who chooses that career path is doing something terribly wrong. But it's hard to find a clear argument to back up the feeling.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim I like this approach -- review books other people are reading!


message 2: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I've had it done to me enough that I thought it was time to retaliate :)


message 3: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Now that you've read Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, presumably the ethics of corporate-funded science disinformation have become clearer. Namely, the absence of any ethics among science deniers or professional contrarians.

And then you had more and more conservative types who required harder and harder evidence.


Interestingly, these "conservative" types rarely demand such a rigorous burden of proof for things they already believe. For example, in the context of man-made climate change, I doubt a single one of them demanded proof that burning fossil fuels is safe before adopting the standard Western lifestyle which is only possible by burning fossil fuels in vast amounts.

But you did say "conservative." Specifically, a "conservative" in this context is someone who requires no proof whatsoever for maintaining the status quo, while requiring an impossible degree of proof before changing it.


message 4: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny Yes, the full story is definitely the one in Merchants of Doubt, and it is indeed shocking. But when I said "conservative" here, I only meant in the scientific sense, in terms of requiring more rigorous standards of evidence, and I don't think that's a bad thing at all. It's just that people have found ways to abuse it.

In fact, I don't think "conservative" is a bad thing politically either. It's only when it turns into fanaticism and stops looking at the evidence that I get worried - and that is of course a mistake you can commit at either end of the political spectrum.


message 5: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel If we were conservative about the Earth's climate - in the sense of keeping it the way we found it - that would be a good thing. As Bill McKibben says, the true radicals are those who want to change the composition of the atmosphere.


message 6: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I agree. The thing that's wrong with many self-styled conservatives is that they're actually denialists.


message 7: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Merchants of Doubt cites a book relating to this notion of how much proof to demand: The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us jobs, justice, and Lives. Evidently the book explores the consequences of demanding an arbitrary standard of proof. There seems to be an unavoidable tradeoff between false positives (seeing what is not there) vs. false negatives (failing to see what is there). Picking a standard of proof that eliminates most false positives also tends to give you more false negatives. I guess this is primarily an issue in the complex system sciences.


message 8: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny Unfortunately, the problem of balancing false positives and false negatives is very difficult, and I don't believe there's any one-size-fits-all solution. You have to think carefully what the consequences of the two types of error are going to be.

With climate change, as Merchants of Doubt says, influential people have evidently been misapplying the standards.


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