26 October 2012

What is Wrong with Embellishing Science?

embellishingpresent participle of em·bel·lish (Verb)

  1. Make (something) more attractive by the addition of decorative details or features: "blue silk embellished with golden embroidery".
  2. Make (a statement or story) more interesting or entertaining by adding extra details, esp. ones that are not true.
Yesterday, before heading back to the National Hurricane Center to help deal with Sandy, Chris Landsea gave a great talk here at CU on hurricanes and climate change (we'll have a video up soon). In Chris' talk he explained that he has no doubts that humans affect the climate system through the emission of greenhouse gases, and this influence may affect tropical cyclones. He then proceeded to review theory and data from recent peer-reviewed publications on the magnitude of such an influence. Chris argued that any such influence is expected to be small today, almost certainly undetectable, and that this view is not particularly controversial among tropical cyclone climatologists. He concluded that hurricanes should not be the "poster" representing a human influence on climate.

After his talk someone in the audience asked him what is wrong with making a connection between hurricanes and climate change if it gives the general public reason for concern about climate change. Chris responded that asserting such a connection can be easily shown to be incorrect and thus risks some of the trust that the public has in scientists to play things straight.

This exchange came to mind as I came across the latest exhibit in the climate science freak show, this time in the form of a lawsuit brought by Michael Mann, of Penn State, against the National Review Online and others for calling his work "intellectually bogus" and other mean things (the actual filing can be seen here). I will admit that for a moment I did smile at the idea of a professor suing a critic for lying (Hi Joe!), before my senses took back over and I rejected it as an absurd publicity stunt. But within this little tempest in a teapot is a nice example of how it is that some parts of climate science found itself off track and routinely in violation of what many people would consider basic scientific norms.

In Mann's lawsuit he characterizes himself as having been "awarded the Nobel Peace Prize." Mann's claim is what might be called an embellishment -- he has, to use the definition found at the top of this post, "made (a statement or story) more interesting or entertaining by adding extra details, esp. ones that are not true." An accurate interpretation is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, and the IPCC did follow that award by sending to the AR4 authors a certificate noting their contributions to the organization. So instead of being a "Nobel Peace Prize Winner" Mann was one of 2,000 or so scientists who made a contribution to an organization which won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Here we might ask, so what?

I mean really, who cares if a scientist embellishes his credentials a bit? We all know what he means by calling himself a "Nobel Peace Prize Winner," right? And really, what is an organization except for the people that make it up? Besides, climate change is important, why should we worry about such things? Doesn't this just distract from the cause of action on climate change and play right into the hands of the deniers?  Really now, is this a big deal?

Well, maybe it was not a big deal last week, but with the filing of the lawsuit, the embellishment now has potential consequences in a real-world decision process. A journalist contacted the Nobel organization and asked them if it was appropriate for Mann as an IPCC scientist to claim to be "Nobel peace prize winner." Here is what the Nobel organization said in response:
Michael Mann has never been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mann's embellishment has placed him in a situation where his claims are being countered by the Nobel organization itself. Mann's claim, rather than boosting his credibility actually risks having the opposite effect, a situation that was entirely avoidable and one which Mann brought upon himself by making the embellishment in the first place. The embellishment is only an issue because Mann has invoked it as a source of authority is a legal dispute. It would seem common sense that having such an embellishment within a complaint predicated on alleged misrepresentations may not sit well with a judge or jury.

This situation provides a nice illustration of what is wrong with a some aspects of climate science today -- a few scientists motivated by a desire to influence political debates over climate change have embellished claims, such as related to disasters, which then risks credibility when the claims are exposed as embellishments. To make matters worse, these politically motivated scientists have fallen in with fellow travelers in the media, activist organizations and in the blogosphere who are willing not only to look past such embellishments, but to amplify them and attack those who push back. These dynamics are reinforcing and have led small but vocal parts of the climate scientific community to deviate significantly from widely-held norms of scientific practice.

Back in 2009, Mann explained why the title of his climate book - Dire Predictions -- was an embellishment, and this explanation helps to explain why a small part of the community thinks that such embellishments are acceptable:
Often, in our communication efforts, scientists are confronted with critical issues of language and framing. A case in point is a book I recently co-authored with Penn State colleague Lee Kump, called Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming. The purists among my colleagues would rightly point out that the potential future climate changes we describe, are, technically speaking, projections rather than predictions because the climate models are driven by hypothetical pathways of future fossil fuel burning (i.e. conceivable but not predicted futures). But Dire Projections doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. And it doesn’t convey — in the common vernacular — what the models indicate: Climate change could pose a very real threat to society and the environment. In this case, use of the more technically “correct” term is actually less likely to convey the key implications to a lay audience.
So long as some climate scientists are willing to talk about their work as being "correct" in scare quotes in the context of a desire to shape public opinion, they are going to face credibility problems. Think Dick Cheney linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, and you'll understand why such efforts are not good for either science or democracy.

The late Stephen Schneider gained some fame for observing that when engaging in public debates scientists face a difficult choice between between honesty and effectiveness (as quoted in TCF pp. 202-203):
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.
Often overlooked is what Schneider recommended about how to handle this "double ethical bind":
 I hope that means being both [effective and honest].
That is a bit of advice that nowadays a few in the climate science community seem to have forgotten as they make embellishments for a cause. Such action have consequences for how the whole field is perceived -- which is comprised mostly of hard-working, honest scientists who deserve better.


  1. The issue of Mann and his Nobel Prize is just another example of his ego getting the better of him.

  2. What Schneider couldn't get himself to say, evidently, was 'Do what your mother told you to do - just be honest.'

    "So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have."

    Please note: he didn't say 'we find ourselves offering up.' He says 'we do (that which is not honest). There is no ethical bind between telling the truth as you know it, and doing otherwise. There is a strategic bind. The picture you paint with the quotes above is of a man who had lost his moral compass, and had successfully fooled himself to believe otherwise.

    Again, please note the mealy-mouthed "I HOPE that means being both." When it comes to telling the truth, there is no need for hope.

  3. Something that has started to struck me as really awkward is this: why do many respected climate scientists start with a confession-like statement such as:

    "In Chris' talk he explained that he has no doubts that humans affect the climate system through the emission of greenhouse gases, and this influence may affect tropical cyclones."

    Why do we do this? Has climate science become so polarized that they have to show that they really "believe"? That otherwise they will be be labeled heretic or denier? Are they so afraid to lose credibility, or will damage "the good cause"? That only if you show you belong to the "right" group you are allowed to critize?

    I have started to see so many climate scientists do it that it is giving me the creeps, and at the same time it is starting to make less and less sense.

    I'm lost ...

  4. -3-Jos

    Thanks ... here is an anecdote: Last week when Landsea's talk was announced at a faculty meeting one of our faculty said "I Googled this guy and it said he was a 'climate skeptic' and I wondered, what are we doing inviting him here to speak?"

    Perhaps that helps answer some of your questions:-)

  5. Does this mean my shirtmaker is no longer a Nobel Laureate despite the gold pin given him by a scientist , and his unstolen e-mail correspondence with the IPCC?

    The world wants to know.

  6. Russell please don’t do cryptic ;) Just refer to Monckton directly :)

    I remember his apparently getting a tie pin made saying he was a Laureate. I know I found a site referring to the buffoon Monckton stating he was a recipient or such like - but I forget where.

    The best thing is that the buffoon Monckton got called out by a guy from the Nobel committee and people quite rightfully laughed at him. I believe Monckton later claimed he was joking.

    Who believes that laughable excuse?

    Now we hear that Michael Mann has been censured by the same guy from the Nobel committee for the same exact reason.

    Now we worry :(

    Another fascinating aspect to the story is the fact that the IPCC went to the trouble of making 2000 charmingly fashioned little facsimiles of the award as an extra pat on the back to 2000 lucky devils!

    I wonder who got them is there a list someone can FOI? ;).

    Who decided who to give out these delicious little slices of cake?

    Does that speak of the underlying culture of favouritism at the IPCC? I mean we know Monckton didn't get a certificate :)

    R. Christ and R. K. Pachauri seem to have been the representatives of the Nobel committee judging by their benefactions I guess Norway knew this ;)

  7. ==================
    "I Googled this guy and it said he was a 'climate skeptic' and I wondered, what are we doing inviting him here to speak?"

    There is much talk of certain groups using the Internet to cause a lack of respect for science. I wonder if the academic realised that this type of comment would greatly aid their cause.

  8. "a few scientists motivated by a desire to influence political debates over climate change have embellished claims"

    I'd think it's more accurate to say that MANY scientists when making public pronouncements have embellished claims. It's the modus operandi of CAGW set, as Schneider's many comments have made clear.

    "these politically motivated scientists have fallen in with fellow travelers in the media, activist organizations and in the blogosphere who are willing not only to look past such embellishments"

    Even worse is that scientific organizations are heavily involved as well. For example, can the APS statement of "incontrovertible" evidence be seen as anythng other than an embellishment, and for the same reasons as Schneider laid out? Given that this statement was reaffirmed by the APS membership, doesn't this implicate at least a majority of physicists in the embellishment racket? If only this were an affliction of a few!

  9. I would just like to point out to Brian that the APS membership did not affirm or reaffirm that statement. The APS asked for comments from the membership but then did nothing with them. I know they received many complaints about "incontrovertible".

  10. Jos - it should be making more and more sense to you. Trust your judgement.

  11. Man throws can of worms at hornet's nest.

    For me the story of global warming is political, not scientific. Mann's Nobel prize has a back story. It seemed to me that Mann was given a mission to eliminate the inconvenient MWP.

    Tom Lehrer wrote that Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

    It didn't. In 2007, as we can see from the photo above, the oil industry was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the planet. Gore, like his father is/was a lifetime front for Occidental Petroleum

    Pachauri was on the Board of Directors of the Indian Oil Corporation (January 1999 to September 2003) while he was head of the IPCC !!!

    That other great planet saviour Margaret Thather's husband was a director of Burmah (sic) Oil and her government was defined by its subservience to the oil industry with a high speed revolving door in operation.

  12. Mike,

    You are correct that the APS membership didn't affirm the statement in the sense of voting on it. As you note, the APS did solicit comments from the membership. Once was in October 2009, the result of which was the recommendation of the Kleppner committee to keep the statement but to consider improvements in "clarity and tone." A second solicitation was sent out in February 2010 for members to review the statement and a commentary, prepared by the Moore subcommittee.

    Given that this process involved two solicitations of members along with the actions of the Council and multiple committees of APS, which resulted in the decision to keep the statement and add a commentary, I don't think that your comment "but then did nothing with them" is accurate. While the contents of the comments were never made public, it seems unlikely that the members of the Council and various committees would be completely out of step with the expressed interests of the membership. A more reasonable interpretation is that the majority of membership comments were supportive of the overall statement, while not completely comfortable with the way it was worded. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that the APS membership has no great objection to the statement on climate change.

  13. Brian,

    Since there is no transparency about the whole process there is no way to know, but you might be right. I myself am an APS member who greatly dislikes the original statement and who commented negatively on it when they solicited comments. I am greatly disappointed that they have not corrected such an unscientific statement.

  14. "We must continue to lie, if we must (while salving our conscience with the righteousness of our end), to the masses because we don't want them to harbor the same doubts we have, lest they decide against our interests" seems to be an accurate summary of Schneider's position. Panem et circenses indeed.

    The stain of tainted credibility spreads wide and indiscriminately, and this is why real scientists refrain from advocacy: commitment to a cause other than following the truth wherever it may lead is fraught, and fundamentally unscientific. Furthermore, it's unethical: a scientist whose credibility is damaged and whose work is called into doubt damages those who have, in good faith, relied upon that work.

    Of course, anyone is free to be an advocate for a cause (that is supposedly based in science), but intellectual honesty then requires relinquishing the title of "scientist".

  15. Mann is simply consistent and true to form. The best outcome Mann can hope for, as his work and life come under scrutiny, is the outcome of the plaintiff in Leon Uris' book, "QB VII".

  16. Found interesting the following this quote

    "Chris responded that asserting such a connection can be easily shown to be incorrect and thus risks some of the trust that the public has in
    scientists to play things straight."

    I have to say I get the impression that even for the honest scientist honesty is just instrumental for maintaining his credibility.

    What happened with being wrong to tell a lie? Virtue seems quite and outdated word these days.

    I'm pretty sure Chris is a great guy, but if we always start from the premise of doing the useful instead of doing the right thing I can't see we getting into a moral abyss before too long.

  17. Given that I hold a UK passport, that the UK is part of the EU and the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, then that would make me a Nobel prize winner in the world of Mann. So please leave this Mann alone and stop bursting my bubble.

    (I would appreciate it if nobody contacts the Nobel Committee to check the autheniticty of my claim, thank you.)

  18. Climate scientists who lie for “The Cause” are like police officers and prosecutors who lie during a criminal trial because they are convinced the defendeant is guilty and they don’t want him to get off an a “technicality.” Then after the convict has been in jail for several years, DNA tests show he is not guilty. The liars were wrong! But they were convinced that their judgement should trump that of the judge and jury, and of the legislators who created those “technicalities” for a reason: as the best way to seek and get justice. Message for climate scientists: Don’t impose your judgement on me, by lying. I have a moral right to think for myself.

  19. I am sure you are aware of your neighbors to the north who claim Nobel status also. In a letter to the editor of our paper about climate change, I noted that this was not true. They had only done research for a Committee that won the prize. I also note that this was NOT for science, but for political activism, basically. There is a Nobel prize for work in science, but it's not the same thing.
    If honesty cannot win the cause, the cause is lost anyway.

  20. Hey, don't be beating up on us Nobel Peace Prize winners. (I won this years' by virtue of being a citizen of an EU country.)

    Once receiving the news (I didn't get a 'phone call from Norway; the line must have been busy) I modestly instructed my colleagues that the usual celebrations and honors would not be necessary, and was disappointed to find out they hadn't been planning any.

    Professional jealousy is so ugly.

    Anyway, at NR they're gleeful about this lawsuit. It's highly unlikely Mann can win it under US law, and they're already collecting donations to make the pretrial discovery process feel like a wisdom tooth extraction.

  21. What do Mother Theresa and Yasser Arafat have in common? The Nobel Peace Prize-

  22. Mark Steyn's response to the suit was to debate whether it's more like Oscar Wilde's suit against the Marquis of Queensbury, or Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

    He concludes it's like Oscar Wilde invading Russia.

  23. The Right Wing Professor

    I suspect Mann's motivation in bringing the suit was to expose his tormentors as having political views the majority of educated people would reject. Ridicule has been a very common tactic in the (particularly British) climate wars.

    I take the view that ridicule is the reason for Exxon's funding of right wing bodies like the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Exxon has publicly accepted the AGW narrative for 7 or 8 years. BP, Enron and Shell welcomed the Kyoto Protocol

    I am not attacking you or your views, just replying to your message.

  24. When you stop being objective and honest you are no longer a scientist.

  25. The IPCC has described its interaction with the Nobel Institution on the matter and what it did in an Email to Eli. Let the parsing commence

  26. Eric--I don't understand your comment. I cannot find where Exxon publicly accepted the AGW narrative (best case, they said climate science was getting a little better). BP appears to support the idea of decreasing CO2 output, but not by means environmentalists would approve of. As for supporting right wing causes, expecting an industry to support a government that wants to shut it down is irrational. Greenpeace doesn't give to both political parties, nor does Al Gore. What point are you making?

  27. Eric.

    I suspect everyone has political views a majority of educated people would reject, educated people being a pretty diverse bunch.

  28. losingthesagebrushsea

    I don't think President Obama wants to shut down the oil industry.

    US may soon become world’s top oil producer

    NEW YORK—US oil output is surging so fast that the United States could soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest producer.


  29. losingthesagebrushsea

    Enron officials later expressed elation at the results of the Kyoto conference.


    Exxon supports carbon tax

    Exxonmobil corp., the world's largest crude oil refiner, supports taxing carbon dioxide as the most efficient way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, its chief executive said


    Exxon website

    There is increasing evidence that the earth's climate has warmed on average about 0.7 C in the last century. Many global ecosystems, especially the polar areas, are showing signs of warming. CO2 emissions have increased during this same time period - and emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes are one source of these emissions.

    ExxonMobil scientists have undertaken climate change research and related policy analysis for 25 years and their work has produced more than 40 papers in peer-reviewed literature. In addition, our scientists participate in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and numerous related scientific bodies


    BP calls for ratification of Kyoto Protocol

    The multinational BP has challenged the Australian Government to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. BP's South Australia and Australasia president, Greg Bourne, has said that Australia's economy will suffer if the nation doesn't commit to ratifying the protocol which regulates greenhouse gas emissions.

    Shell Canada

    The debate about climate change is over and we need to take action," says Ertel, Shell Canada's climate change expert.


  30. Hi Roger,

    Is Chris Landsea's Oct 25 CIRES talk on-line yet? Sandy is the topic for the Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board this week, & the talk might be a good reference.


    Brian Schwartz

  31. -30-wakalix

    For some reason it is behind a password. I have asked to have it made public. Thanks!

  32. -30-wakalix

    Here you go: