Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The end of tribalism?

Post-Climategate: debating the end of tribalism 
In a very reflective post, Judith Curry looks back at a courageous statement by Mojib Latif about the cooling of temperatures:
From an article in the New Scientist by Fred Pearce, written in Sept 2009:
One of the world’s top climate modellers said Thursday we could be about to enter one or even two decades during which temperatures cool. “I am not one of the sceptics,” insisted Mojib Latif of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University, Germany. “However, we have to ask the nasty questions ourselves or other people will do it.”

As usually, Judith Curry sums up the discussions surrounding this statement, pre- and post- Climategate, and provides some interesting links. But her main focus is on the term nasty. She writes:

  • Asking questions is at the heart of the scientific method, and science has been characterized as ‘organized scepticism.’
  • The questions are referred to as ‘nasty’, since presumably they are inconvenient for the audience (the UN).
  • Not wanting to be identified as a ‘sceptic,’ in spite of the fact that the perspective that he presents is consistent with with what many sceptics say.
  • There is a ‘we’ versus ‘other people’ , in terms of who is acceptable in terms of asking questions.  If this doesn’t define climate tribalism, I don’t know what does.  
Things changed somehow after Climategate. The reconciliation meeting in Lisbon maybe was of help, too. And Judith Curry's flashback also sheds some light on the role of the blogosphere:
Latif’s comments were made prior to Climategate.  I think that Climategate was a watershed event for climate science in the sense that the UN tribe of climate scientists started to realize that ‘other people’ were important in the public debate about climate change.   And that some of the questions being asked were important questions.  Some climate scientists are starting to engage with ‘other people’ in the blogosphere. 

For sure, Klimazwiebel "engages with other people"; and the Süddeutsche Zeitung a few days ago quoted her as an authority concerning the relation between the melting of the arctic ice and climate change: "Für Judith Curry vom Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, die sich als Klimaforscherin um differenzierte Erklärungen ohne alarmistische Töne bemüht, liegt der Anteil der Treibhausgase bei 50 Prozent." (For Judith Curry, a climate scientist known to provide detailed explanations without alarmism,  greenhouse gases contribute about 50%). This sounds pretty different from labeling her as a denier or skeptic, as it happened to her many times before.

Maybe post-Climategate, tribalism in the climate debate has lost some of its power, and skepticism is re-gaining its meaning as a scientific virtue.  If so, both Mojib Latif and Judith Curry contributed to this development; one in being courageous enough to make such a non-alarmist statement (as a member of the "UN tribe"!); and the other for analyzing tribalism and giving credibility to skepticism. Maybe it's too early to state that the climate wars are over; but there are indeed signs that the science-based climate debate is on its way back to the status of "organized skepticism".


sil_beck said...

Very good comment and important discussion!!!!
What strikes me it the close link that is made between tribalism and alarmism or skepticism and non-alarmism.
As an alternative I would suggest to distinguish between forms of organized skepticism in science and organized political skepticism where science is misused for political means. It is evident that there are significant differences between Curry and Fred Singer/ Heartland? OR? In terms of their goals, motives and last but least ways of treating science.

The main problem revealed by Latif and taken up by Curry is how scientists can be self-critical, reflexive and transparent in a political contested context, where this openess can be misused by "merchants of doubts", by interest groups by political reasons. Social sciences which try to contextualize science as "political practice" are confronted with pretty much the same problem.
"Climategate" indicates that idealized notions of "sound" univocal science made it vulnerable to the systematic "amplification of doubt” as Brian Wynne puts it.
In my view, Curry and Latif are moving in the most promising direction by calling for taking seriously alternative views and dissenting findings rather than ignoring, marginalizing or suppressing in order to make science more robust.

hvw said...


this is very interesting, but I am having a hard time to wrap my head around the various meanings of "skepticism" that you imply in the first paragraph. Differences between Singer and Curry? Very good question! We need more precise nomenclature and some sort of classification system. I believe there is truth in your 2nd paragraph. The analogous potential for abuse of the social sciences is a nice angle, Latour and Latif have a small talk topic. But independently, in a reflexive twist, it might be worth going back to the source (mp3, Latif's talk starts at 23:33, slides here), and see whether your impression that Latif is "calling for taking seriously alternative views and dissenting findings" persists. And if not, analyze how you acquired that belief.

Werner Krauss said...


you say:

" And if not, analyze how you acquired that belief." You should rephrase as a question, maybe?

@ Silke

My estimation of Judith Curry's contribution is the way she carefully develops her argument. In my understanding, she criticizes Mojib Latif: the use of the term "nasty" indeed is interpreted as an attempt to still exclude skeptics from participating in the debate. Her estimation of Latif is more subtle: even though he still separates the good (UN-tribe) from the bad (skeptics), he at least uses an argument which also might have come from the skeptics. That's what he gets the kudos for.

All in all, she attributes the greater acceptance of skeptics to Climategate; only post Climategate "the UN tribe of climate scientists started to realize the 'other people were important in the public debate (...)".

hvw said...

Sure, "belief." -> "belief?"

"he at least uses an argument which also might have come from the skeptics."

But this is a misunderstanding! He instills the fear of a skeptic's pseudo-argument, which he leaves no doubt is silly and obviously totally wrong, into his audience. And suggests that this could be preempted if only enough funding would be made available for research into decadal scale forecasts.

sil_beck said...

The German term is "unangenehm."
„Ich bin kein Skeptiker, so Latif. „Wir müssen uns aber die unangenehmen Fragen selbst stellen, sonst machen es andere Leute.“
Skeptiker versus Forscher: Macht der Klimawandel Pause oder doch nicht? - weiter lesen auf FOCUS Online: http://www.focus.de/wissen/weltraum/odenwalds_universum/tid-15472/skeptiker-versus-forscher-macht-der-klimawandel-pause-oder-doch-nicht_aid_434492.html

The translation into "nasty" is misleading. I would go for "unpleasant", "challenging" or "inconvenient" in the sense of "inconvenient truth".

Does this sentence indicate a form of tribalism? Or any gatekeeping exercises?

Reiner Grundmann said...

I hope your optimism is not exaggerated. You may know that Nature Climate Change has the following interesting comments with regard to a potential second term of Obama:

"The next round of greenhouse-gas policies is likely to consist of targeted measures, unlike the economy-wide cap-and-trade approach that failed in 2010. The Obama administration has regulated emissions from vehicles and required sharp increases in fuel economy; the next big target is electricity generation. Like the car industry, utility companies want economic certainty. Environmentalists want emissions reductions. Is there a way to ensure both without over-burdening consumers? Or could a carbon tax make a comeback as a way to increase revenues and lower income taxes?

Whatever the next steps, they will require bringing the business community together with scientists, environmentalists, workers and others. A clever leader might yet be able to build support for viable political solutions where seemingly narrow interests converge."

This sounds much less like tribalism, although some commentators have picked out those sentences which pay tribute to the old fight against deniers.

hvw said...


I don't get what could be gained from translating back into the original language the translation from Focus. I would rather interpret the sentence in its context than analyze single words.

Does this sentence indicate a form of tribalism? Or any gatekeeping exercises?

Certainly not "gatekeeping". Is it tribalism to push the own "tribe" towards working on having better answers than the other "tribe"? What exactly is the "nasty question" anyways, in your mind?

Tribalism (in the scientific community) would likely be fostered by attacking its members from the outside, i.e. by using their statements, made in the "scientific sphere", outside and out of context to support one or the other political agenda. And Curry's blog post is an example for just that. So no, I can't see these kind of skeptics gain acceptance by scientists and that is unlikely to change. What could change and hopefully is changing, is the quality of the public debate about policy, which currently is dominated by scientists and "skeptics" but needs much broader constructive participation.

Anonymous said...

Silke Beck,

großes Kompliment für ihren Beitrag in #1, den ich für viel besser und diskussionswürdiger halte als Currys Blogartikel.

Ihre Unterscheidung zwischen wissenschaftlichem Skeptizismus und organisiertem politischen "Skeptizismus" sorgt für die notwendige Differenzierung, die ich hier in der Klimazwiebel zu oft vermisst habe.

Latifs Aussage ist aus wissenschaftlicher Sicht recht trivial, ein Blick in die Temperaturaufzeichnungen der letzten 100 Jahre zeigt, dass es solche Dekaden der Abkühlung schon längst gab. "Unbequem" oder "nasty" wird die Aussage nur im Kontext der öffentlichen politischen Debatte unter dem Aspekt, was die letztgenannte skeptische Gruppierung aus solchen Aussagen machen wird, was Sie ja in ihrem zweiten Absatz angesprochen haben.

Probleme habe ich lediglich mit ihrem letzten Satz:
"In my view, Curry and Latif are moving in the most promising direction by calling for taking seriously alternative views and dissenting findings rather than ignoring, marginalizing or suppressing in order to make science more robust."

Ich stimme zu, dass es die Wissenschaft stärkt, wenn auch wissenschaftliche Fakten, die in der politischen Diskussion unbequem sein können, offensiv thematisiert werden. Was aber sind die "alternative views", die ernst genommen werden sollen? Kennen Sie denn Beispiele für wissenschaftliche Alternativen, die nicht ernst genommen werden? Oder meinen Sie, dass für Pseudowissenschaft a la Vahrenholt ein Platz in der Wissenschaft bzw. in der öffentlichen Debatte vorhanden sein muss?

Gestatten Sie mir noch ein paar Bemerkungen zu Judith Curry:

Als Klimaforscherin gehört sie zum Latifschen "we", keine Frage. Ihre Bedeutung in der öffentlichen Debatte erwächst aber nicht aus ihren wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten, sondern als aktiver Teilnehmerin an dieser Debatte. Das tun viele Klimaforscher, ihre Sonderrolle entsteht dadurch, dass sie sich als als "Abweichlerin" bzw. als "Häretikerin" geriert, was ihr eine überproportionale Beachtung in den Medien verschafft. Als Kommunikator von Wissenschaft versagt sie m.E. regelmäßig, ich erinnere z.B. an ihren Post, in dem sie die Absurditäten eines Murray Salby zum Kohlenstoffkreislauf als "interesting" bewarb. Was mich noch mehr stört, ist ihr Schweigen zu vielen anderen wissenschaftlichen Irrtümern der skeptischen Seite, so als wolle sie ihre skeptische Anhängerschaft nicht vor den Kopf stoßen, Dialog in diese Richtung scheint nur mit einer gewissen Anbiederung an deren Positionen möglich zu sein.

Wäre mir im Grunde ziemlich egal, wäre da nicht die Beobachtung, dass Teile der Öffentlichkeit Curry als glaubwürdige, neutrale Instanz irgendwo in der Mitte zwischen unfassbarem Alarmismus und böswilligem Skeptizismus wahrnehmen. Vor einigen Monaten habe ich hier in der Klimazwiebel einen Aufsatz von Ihnen gelesen, den ich ganz interessant fand, wo ich mich aber wunderte, wie überproportional J. Curry zitiert wurde. Ich wurde den Verdacht nicht los, dass auch womöglich Sie ihr in gewisser Weise auf den Leim gegangen sind.


Werner Krauss said...


bei Ihrer Kritik an Judith Curry sollten Sie nicht vergessen, dass die Klimadebatte Lager hervorgebracht hat, die durch jeweils eigene Mythen und Narrative gebildet und zusammen gehalten werden. Marginalisierung ist ja nur ein Wort, wenn es so dasteht. Aber es hat auch die Personen, die marginalisiert wurden oder sich so gefühlt haben, zutiefst geprägt. Das gilt ganz bestimmt für Judith Curry & Co. Genauso wie auch die "andere" Seite solche Identifikationsmythen (und damit oft verbundene Fehlleistungen) hervorgebracht hat. Lagerbildung zeichnet sich dadurch aus, dass man, um das Lager zusammen zu halten, auch manchen Unsinn in Kauf nehmen muss. Schließlich haben wir hier ja schon oft genug betont, dass die Klimadebatte nur vordergründig wissenschaftlich, eigentlich aber (wissens-)politisch ist.

Vielleicht haben Sie ja mit einigen inhaltlichen Vorwürfen recht, aber ich schätze an Judith Curry vor allem dass sie manchmal einen intellektuellen Ton in diese Debatte bringt. Sie denkt tatsächlich nach - etwas, was in einer Welt, in der jeder mit Zahlen und Statistiken "beweist" dass er recht hat, nicht allzuoft vorkommt. Es ist ja ein Kennzeichen der Klimadebatte, dass sie intellektuell verarmt und teilweise auch einfach sehr eindimensional ist - der Preis, den man für den Anspruch Leitwissenschaft zu sein und durch die systematische Ausgrenzung aller "weichen" Wissenschaften eben zahlen muss.

Und hier macht Judith Curry eine Ausnahme, die auch mal jenseits der Aktualität und jenseits ihres Gebietes was liest und darüber nachdenkt. Wie zum Beispiel über tribalism, organisierten und politischen Skeptizismus. Und das ist ein Beitrag, den man ihr hoch anrechnen muss!

froginblender said...
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