As we continue on in our post-truth world, one can either give up entirely on “facts” or work harder than ever to clean up the mess driven by our gamed internet economy. Kudos to the Weather Channel for standing up for accuracy in reporting on climate change, particularly when that misinformation is amplified by the US government. The accompanying video below offers sound advice for journalists, “try consulting a scientist first.”

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


31 Thoughts on "Let’s Make the Facts Louder than the Opinions"

We consult scientists for the facts. And as Kait points out in the video facts are the consensus on what’s happening reached by scientists. That being the case why isn’t a consensus on climate change reached by Breibart staff also facts? Breibart consensus is not fact because of how that consensus was formed. The consensus Kait speaks of is the result of scientists engaging with events and reaching an agreement based on that engagement of what the events are and how they work. Breibart’s consensus is the result of Briebart staff engaging with one another but no scientists on events and their explanation. Sort of like talking with yourself and concluding that that talk explained the world.

Let’s be careful with terms, consensus and fact chief among them. Science has never brooked consensus before and shouldn’t start now. Nor should we hurry to “agree on” facts. I am puzzled as to why this one area of inquiry, climate change, is exempt from the maxim that science is never settled. So far theories on anthropogenic climate change have had very little predictive power, our chief way of testing a hypothesis. So yes, Breitbart is crazy but no, not because consensus rules.

Thanks Marjorie, this is a really important point — “majority rules” is not the way to decide what’s accurate and what’s not, and I wrote about this subject here:

That said, we can agree on best practices and methodologies, particularly in holding researchers to a high standard of accuracy when describing their research results (and similarly hold journalists to high standards of reporting).

Whatever “theory” you may hold about how science works or what it is, my conclusions are based on observing the actions of scientists. One example I often use in speeches is acid rain. After acid rain was first proposed as a possible cause of lake acidification and forest decline scientists examined this possibility for 19 years before a “scientific” consensus was reached that acid rain was likely the cause of both acidification and forest decline. And that the acid rain was likely the result of electric generation from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. This particular example is documented in lots of places. An accessible source is “Merchants of Doubt,” by Naomi Oreskes. Such consensuses are the heart of science. They are how science gets done. And they define scientific facts, a word invented in the 16th and 17th centuries specifically for science. Yes, consensus in science is almost never complete. Even today, over 25 years after the acid rain consensus was reached there are scientists who refuse to accept it. Currently climate change science has reached this same consensus. Near complete but not quite. So, yes consensus can be overthrown. But not often. This is not the place the go into detail about the predictions of climate change science. Suffice it to say that so far the predictions have been useful and generally accurate. A lot to say for science as complex as climate science.

This is not the place to debate the climate change issue, which could easily swamp TSK with comments pro and con. If anyone wants to see the debate in action I recommend “Climate, etc.” at Curry is proffessor and ex-chair of Georgia Tech’s Atmospheric Sciences department. She has created a unique debate blog where all sides are well represented. Posts often run to 500 comments and the debate is very lively.

I agree that this is not the place to debate climate change. I’m just trying to clear up the misunderstandings about science in this post. Also, I consider Breibart a danger to not just the US but the entire world. I take every opportunity to work on destroying it and its influence.

But the nature and role of consensus in science is itself controversial, especially in the climate change debate, so these are opinions, not “misunderstandings.” (You are using that term as a rhetorical device.) In climate change the term “consensus” tends to refer to a position, not a fact. It is almost a proper noun, as in “the consensus says X.”

Scientists disagree, sometimes quite vigorously on research and methodological emphasis. But no scientist I know disagrees about the basic process of science. Conduct and publish research results. Other scientists either review and choose to replicate the research, or they do not. Reviews and replication results support continuing the particular research agenda under review, or do not. This process is repeated until a consensus is reached. See the example of acid rain I presented in a previous comment. Scientists may continue to disagree with the consensus science but it’s difficult to overturn a consensus once reached, since it involves so much time, work, and resources to reach it. Science is always a position. Consensus is a position. Fact is just word invented to describe consensus among scientists. I assume you’re adhering to some sort of “realist” philosophy. The “observer” limitation makes all forms of realism untenable.

Ken, at this point I literally have no idea what you are talking about. When you quotemark a term it means you mean something other than what the quoted term means. But since you do not explain what these terms mean I do not know what you mean.

I agree that consensus is a position, but facts are facts. The facts are what science is after. That is a surprisingly hard row to hoe. But reality is stil there, humans aside.

But in the case of climate science here is no consensus, so the meaning of consensus is somewhat irrelevant. Climate change is arguably the greatest scientific debate in history.

I don’t have space or time here to explain all this to you. You might want to read these: 1. A History of the Modern Fact, Mary Poovey; 2. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Ludwik Fleck; 3. Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil; 4. Constructing Quarks, Andrew Pickering. Facts are made, created. That process has a 500 year history. So, no, “fact are not facts,” not til made so.

I have interviewed over 150 climate scientists. They all believe there is a consensus among scientists on climate change. I also attend the conferences of these scientists. There too there is consensus on climate change. With 2%-3% dissenters. Which is quite normal for scientific consensus. The most likely impacts of climate change and their time line is still uncertain. No consensus yet.

Facts are discovered not made. The fact that the earth goes around the sun predates humans by a wide margin. So yes I believe in a real world that is independent of our observations. Do you not? Of course our understanding of the facts is relative to us, especially to the concepts we have at the time, but that is a different matter. Facts is facts.

A quote from one of my teachers, Andrew PIckering, in his book “Constructing Quarks” will help begin my answer to you. Pickering is both a physicist and a sociologist. “I try to avoid the circular idiom of
naive realism whereby the product of a historical process, in this case the perceived reality of quarks, is held to determine the process itself. The view taken here is that the reality of quarks was the upshot of particle physicists’ practice, and not the reverse: hence the title of the book, Constructing Quarks.” The case of the heliocentric model is no different. It is always possible to invent an unlimited set of theories, each one capable of explaining a given set of observations. Of course, many of these theories may seem implausible, but to speak of plausibility is to point to a role for
scientific judgment. And judgement means invention. All this merely exemplifies the “observer effect.” A limitation recognized by scientists and philosophers for 500 years. Simply put, the facts are invented and change with new observations and new theories. There isn’t another option for human observers. Unless you’re claiming the role of God, only this is possible for humans.

There is nothing naive about believing that the world exists without humans. You and the folks you cite are apparently confusing our understanding of facts with the facts themselves. If quarks exist then they existed long before humans discovered (and named) them. Facts do not change, only our understanding of them changes. And we are often wrong when it comes to deep facts, but not so much when it comes to easy facts, like the fact that I have three dogs..

Nor are our concepts simply invented, as opposed to being discovered. The words we use have the meanings they do because we are trying to say what is true about the world. The words “three” and “dogs” are good examples. Most of the words in every human language exist precisely because there is something important in the world that we need to be able to talk about. Someone first named dogs, as such, and that was a major discovery.

It is true that there is no option besides observation and understanding, but that has nothing to do with the world we are trying to understand being there, as is, where is. Your 500 year old “observer effect” is metaphorical at best, more likely just conceptually confused. When I observe the sun I have no effect on it. That it is the same sun every day is a very recent human discovery, compared to how long it has been that way. But in no case is it a human invention.

David, I’ll try this one more time before I give up. You believe a lot of things, e.g. quarks, the sun, the earth, etc. exist. Since science is merely an enhancement of how humans gain knowledge, the focus is on observation and using those observations to construct (to imagine) a structure that fits those observations. Science calls these structures “theoretical constructs.” An unlimited number may be put forward to explain our observations. This is the unique blend of imagination and empiricism that typifies homo sapiens. Scientists take this further in two ways. Scientists never stop making observations. And, scientists always look for new perspectives (e.g., tools, locations, forms) for observation. Something simple to help. Rocks exist only after observations of colors, textures, hardness, size, shape, etc. have been put together by observers and subsumed under the name rock. A more complex example. The Sun. The Sun exists only after humans assemble observations of round, in the sky, bright, hot, etc. and subsume these under the name Sun. And things assembled to construct rock or the Sun have their own construction history. All this varies in complexity depending where humans focus observing. I’ve skipped a lot of subtleties but this is the basic picture.

Ken, you say “The Sun exists only after humans assemble observations of round, in the sky, bright, hot, etc. and subsume these under the name Sun.”

You are not talking about the Sun. You are talking about the name (and concept of the) “Sun” which is very different from the Sun. Existing as a human concept and existing per se are two very different things. Facts are about the latter, not the former. When did we discover the Sun is an interesting question, but it is not about the fact of the Sun’s existence.

I am indeed talking about the Sun. The name and concept of the Sun is all that’s available to humans. Take it or leave it. To use the language of science, Sun is a theoretical construct. As are, for example, gravity, light, acceleration, mass, etc. Therefore, realism is naïve. It rests on assuming humans have capabilities and can do things they cannot. The authority of science rests on continuous observation using as many tools and approaches as possible, and on consensus among scientists. Not on contact with “reality.”

As long as the IPCC controls the data collection and archival, the process is inherently political rather than scientific. The purloined East Anglia emails show that scientists are not above misreporting the data to get the desired outcome, just as CNN reporters are not above cheating with advance copies of debate questions.

The election is over and science blogs should get over it. I’m getting weary of the post-truth and fake-news meme to explain Trump’s victory. Let’s just admit that Hillary lost the election because she herself was a slightly-inferior candidate (and “move on” — to borrow her 1990s meme). Elizabeth Warren or maybe even Bernie might have won handily. We will never know because Debbie Wasserman Schultz rigged the primary.

I agree that we need to move on from the election (and you’re the one who brought it up), but this is about the communication of scientific results, best practices, and journalism. Cherry picking results to fit a preordained agenda is not acceptable for a scientific journal and should be similarly unacceptable for the reporting of those scientific results.

The use of misinformation and propaganda didn’t begin with the recent election, nor did it end on election day. As professionals dedicated to the communication of accurate descriptions of information, I’m sorry to tell you that I suspect this subject is going to continue to draw interest.

So-called “cherry picking” is the primary argument that WC advances, but Delingpole makes a detailed response. In fact all of the surface temperature “data sets” (actually complex statistical models) show the rapid, La Nina driven drop. This always happens. The bigger the El NIno, the bigger the La Nina.

More broadly, each side typically accuses the other of cherry picking whenever their opponent points to specific evidence. The argument is usually invalid. The terms “misinformation” and “propaganda” are also widely misused to characterize what are actually just opposing views.

I will not respond to your political comments. But on the IPCC I say this. It has its share of problems, like all international scientific work. These are complex enterprises. But lets put the East Anglia emails away forever. Eight separate investigations found no wrong-doing represented in these emails. Can scientists be abrupt and even cruel? Yes. Can scientific work sometimes involve stiff and even brutal competition? Yes. But based on the peer reviews of the research collected and published by the IPCC the conclusions of the IPCC are about 90% sound. In the real world that’s as good as it gets.

It is perhaps telling that a significant portion of Breitbart’s reply is dedicated to questioning Kait Parker’s authority because she is, “a pretty girl.”

That is James Delingpole’s satirical style. See his book “365 ways to drive a liberal crazy”.

But space-wise most of his reply is responding to the WC scientific arguments. Here is his original piece, which WC attacks:

The fact is that we had a super El Nino and it will take about 5 years to see what if anything it and the ongoing ensuing La Nina do to the temperature trend, if anything. This has happened before.

Being an a-hole on purpose is actually worse than being one accidentally.

Personal insults are characteristic of the climate debate. Perhaps because of its heavily politicized nature, although pure scientific debates can get similar heated.

Personal insults are not acceptable in serious journalism nor scientific communication. I understand that sometimes human beings act like human beings, flaws and all, but open acceptance of such behavior lowers us all. We need to hold everyone to a higher standard.

Ha! You got me. To be fair, I’m neither a journalist nor a scientist these days, but if I’m going to ask others to stay out of the gutter, I need to do so myself (even in the face of deliberate bigotry).

Delingpole isn’t an a-hole. He’s just British. But neither is he a scientist.

Breibart follows its usual pattern in its response.
1. Belittle whomever’s being attacked.
2. Blame it on someone else. We just used something someone else has put out there in the public realm.
3. Make lots of rebuttal claims, all of which have been successfully rebutted at least half-a-dozen times.
4. Close with something like “you’re so dumb.”

Whitehouse (who is also British) is another matter. Whitehouse is from all accounts a competent astrophysicist. But he is not a climatologist. His claims are really old news. I and many others have graphed the temperature data from four sources. The relationship between CO2 concentration and temperature is certainly not a straight line. It is a curved upward moving line. Steepness of the curve depending on the data period graphed. Considering the physics and math involved this is not surprising. El Nino and La Nina certainly impact the pattern but do not change the direction or general magnitude of the curve.

Breibart has many motivations for their actions regarding climate change and climate change science. Good science is certainly not one of them.

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