Category: twitter

All Blog Names are Wrong

As soon as I thought of the name for this blog, I thought I might be on to a good thing. The George Box quote from which it is taken is one I repeat in my public talks and university lectures, to make the points that:

(a) climate* scientists do not believe their models can exactly reproduce the real world; and

(b) climate models are imperfect, but they can still be useful tools to understand the planet.

* I say ‘climate’ because it is more recognisable, but I mean ‘earth system’: the whole or any individual part of the planet. For example, I currently work with glaciologists modelling the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

Not everyone agreed with my assessment when I asked for opinions on Twitter. I was surprised that a senior academic tried to persuade me, fairly forcefully, not to use the name.

I’ve put most of the conversation here (emphasis mine). It highlights two schools of thinking on how best to communicate climate science and partly reflects, I think, the difference between the relatively calm conversations of the UK and the polarised, antagonistic debates more common in the USA. The scientists over there are attacked and are therefore (understandably) defensive. Over we are prodded, or huffed at, in the British way, and it is easier to respond candidly.

@flimsin: Probable title of my new blog: (George Box quote). Main point of my job is estimating how wrong. Whaddya think?

Hydrologist Peter Gleick (Pacific Institute) was not keen…

@PeterGleick: @flimsin Title is serious error.Buys into “everything is uncertain” meme.And argument that politicians don’t hear about uncertainties is BS.
@PeterGleick: @flimsin Another comment on your proposed blog title. Look at this essay, especially item 2 on “uncertainty” and “knowns versus unknowns.”

In this essay, Donald Brown writes that the climate ‘disinformation campaign‘ is

a social movement that…consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition

I started to defend my position…

@flimsin: @PeterGleick I just think we shouldn’t attempt to hide or spin the fact that models are not reality. My research is in quantifying uncerts.
@PeterGleick: @flimsin Of course. Do you really think the climate debate is about scientists claiming models are reality? And do you not see the
@PeterGleick@flimsin intentional efforts of many to overemphasize uncertainties while ignoring certainties?
@flimsin: @PeterGleick There’s more than one debate. I want to reflect the conversations inside sci community about best ways to quantify uncert.
@flimsin@PeterGleick More of a publically-accessible blog about my own research than a blog aimed at the public.
@flimsin: @PeterGleick Of course I see it. But I also see ppl in other research areas wanting to know more about how we deal with predictive uncerts.

He pressed the point, asking what kind of people supported me:

@PeterGleick: @flimsin great idea, but title is important, and using the first half of that famous quote would, I think, be big, big, mistake.
@PeterGleick: @flimsin @ret_ward other “climate scientists” think it good idea? Most positive comments I saw weren’t from climate scientists but skeptics.

I pointed out that several climate scientists had approved, including:

@AidanFarrow: @flimsin > strongly approve
@icey_mark@flimsin it sounds a great space for conversations. You’ll have to have your armour on sometimes! Good luck and thanks for engaging
@ed_hawkins@flimsin Good name! I wouldn’t pick .com though. How about .org instead?
@richardabetts: @flimsin @d_m_hg @ret_ward @Realclim8gate Yep, I really like (sub-heading “…but some are more useful than others”)
@clv101@flimsin Box quote is a great starting place for a blog. Not easy topic to cover well for a broad/public/sceptic audience though. Good luck!

though one was cautious:

@d_m_hg: @flimsin The 2nd part ‘some are useful’ finishes the idea-can it be incorporated somehow? Otherwise you might attract skeptic troublemakers.

(but I do want to attract them!) and Bob Ward, policy and communications director of the London School of Economic’s Grantham Research Institute, politely suggested an alternative:

@ret_ward@flimsin Some might confuse it with allmodelsareuseless! How about howskillfularemodels? 

But this tweet from Peter was the most unexpected:

@PeterGleick: @flimsin Last comment…. not all models are wrong.

Er…pardon? This is the crux of it. How can anyone make that claim? My best guess is that to make his point he is wilfully misinterpreting the word in the way he says others will, i.e. that wrong = useless.

@flimsin: @PeterGleick Sir, it appears we have a profound philosophical disagreement 🙂 Nothing can precisely simulate reality, only approximate.
@PeterGleick: @flimsin Does that make them “wrong?” “Wrong” to you means “uncertain.” “Wrong” to public means “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
@flimsin: @PeterGleick Exactly – all the better to explain the difference. Better to improve scientific literacy than to patronise, I think.
@PeterGleick: @flimsin But who’s the audience? The public? Policymakers? Other scientists or science communicators? It matters, as does the title.
@flimsin@PeterGleick All those welcome. 1. Publicly funded -> communicate my research. 2. Research exposure 3. Engage sceptics. 4. Practice writing.

The excellent Richard Betts of the Met Office Hadley Centre put it rather well:

@richardabetts: @PeterGleick @flimsin Which model is right? Please can I have it?
@PeterGleick: @richardabetts flimsin Richard, which model is “wrong?” Wrong is the wrong term. It’s not what you mean, and it is misunderstood by public.
@flimsin: @PeterGleick @richardabetts All are wrong…better to try and educate that science has shades of grey than try to give appearance of B&W
@PeterGleick: @flimsin @richardabetts I repeat “wrong” is the wrong term. It WILL be misunderstood and misused. Read that essay:

I found this a little heavy-handed. We are all entitled to our opinion, and I didn’t enjoy being shoehorned into someone else’s vision of science communication. I think this is a very dangerous approach, as Richard pointed out:

@richardabetts@flimsin @ret_ward Be wary of advice “This might be misused by the sceptics” Start of slippery slope from objective science into advocacy.
@richardabetts: @PeterGleick @flimsin Brown says “climate denial machine … has made claims that mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars” (cont)
@richardabetts: @PeterGleick @flimsin IMHO only way to combat this piece of disinformation is to prove otherwise by public discussion of science warts & all

As did physicist Jonathan Jones:

@nmrqip@richardabetts Yep. Lying “to avoid being misunderstood” never ends well @PeterGleick @flimsin

One of the problems we need to overcome is a lack of trust in climate scientists by some members of the public – or even other scientists – by showing that we do science no differently from anybody else. If we start to ‘spin’ the science, to gloss over the known unknowns, then we deserve these accusations.

Anyone that wants to talk about the ways we estimate confidence in predictions of the future (or studies of the past) is very welcome to come here and discuss it, at any level. Anyone that wants to misrepresent climate science by cherry-picking snippets of sentences will do that regardless, no matter what what the blog name or content.

Conclusion: if my blog causes this much debate before I’ve written anything, I think I’ve chosen the right name…