Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Public accountability gone amok?

Physics Today has a fascinating review by Naomi Oreskes of the book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars by Michael Mann.
In the Print edition the review is entitled, "A call to throw caution to the wind".
I suggest reading the one page review in full with two questions in mind:

How would you personally cope with the level of public scrutiny (and attack) that Mann was subjected to following publication of his 1998 Nature paper?
e.g., having emails and grant applications subject to subpoenas from politicians. The Wikipedia page on Mann describes the many investigations he has been subjected to.

Is it really possible for non-scientists to understand and realistically evaluate the evidence for and against scientific hypotheses concerning complex systems?
Oreskes seems to claim not in this political context and suggests Mann should not have been so cautious with his public pronouncements about ambiguities and subtleties in the data.

If people post their answers to one or both of these questions I will then will try and give mine.


  1. My response to the second question is that it may be very very hard for nonscientists (and even scientists) to evaluate complex problems, but policy decisions still need to be made even when problems are complex. As scientists, we shouldn't assume that skill in communicating within a technical community is the same as skill in communicating to a broader audience. If we work on topics that have public relevance, we should proactively develop our "external communication" skills, just like we hopefully work on our skills for writing great papers and proposals. Communication is only effective if the audience learns something....poor communication is never the audience's fault.

  2. 1) Very badly: it would most likely make me change careers.

    2) No. I don't think the problem is a lack of ability to understand, it's more that humans are not designed to come to beliefs based on rational analysis. The desire to be accepted by a group to which one wants to belong is a far more powerful influence.