Monday, 28 April 2014

Climategate: the vindication of science

In recent posts I defended the right of climate-change doubters to air their sceptical views, even if they are wrong. But I didn't explain why they are wrong to be sceptical. This is an important point, because scientists make a lot of noise about what amazing all-questioning, all-doubting truth-discovering geniuses they are, so what's wrong with everyone else being a bit sceptical, too?

The problem is that people don't understand what scepticism means to the professional scientist. If they did, then they would have treated an event like the 2009 Climategate scandal, which purported to reveal that scientists spend half of their time slagging each other off, as a glorious vindication of climate-science research.

For most people, being sceptical means saying, "I don't believe you! Prove to me you're right!" But there's no point doing that unless you know enough to judge the answer you get. How much you need to know to be usefully sceptical depends enormously on the situation. There are times in everyday life when you don't need to know very much at all. For example, on those blessed lucky days when you get a call from the mobile phone company.

"Good evening, may I take a few minutes to slash your monthly phone bill?"

"Actually, I'm busy right now trying to feed a baby and a three-year-old--"

"That's fine, this will only take a few minutes."

"Plus I'm trying to cook a lavish meal for a dinner party that starts in 45 minutes. There's a very fiddly French chicken dish that requires careful concentration…"

"I'm sure you can handle it."

"…and I have to translate the recipe from French as I proceed."

"One more piece of multi-tasking won't hurt you."

Our harried hero is then presented with a series of options for a new phone, combinations of free call time and text messages, daytime calls, evening calls, weekend calls, international calls, data plans, and contract lengths. At the same time, as he barely manages to catch the baby as she leaps from her high chair, put a plate of fish fingers on the table at the same moment the three-year-old announces his intention to rip all of the speaker wires from the stereo, and glaze a chicken, he also scribbles down the phone plan costs in the margin of the French cookbook. While converting 3.5 tablespoons into teaspoons, which are all he has handy, and halving the recipe, he also adds up the prices, and concludes that the new phone deal is indeed marginally cheaper.

"I will save only pennies each month. Why should I bother?"

"Our customer service is better."

"How can you prove that?"

"And transfer will be automatic. You just have to say Yes."

"Plus a changeover fee?"

"Of course."

"Goodbye."

This is the sort of scepticism that our expert parent and novice French chef can be justifiably proud of, and further dramatise as he gloats about it over dinner. But this skill is entirely meaningless when presented with a scientific discipline that most practitioners learn over four years of undergraduate study, five years of doctoral training, and seven years of post-doctoral research, at which point only 6% of the original students remain, and half of those are dunderheads who will eke out the remainder of their academic careers in obscurity.

Imagine, nonetheless, that he receives another call the next day.

"Good afternoon, I would like to convince you that the recent BICEP2 observations confirm inflation of the early universe."

"Ok. My kids are at school and there are plenty of leftovers in the fridge. Go right ahead!"

"Thank you. Let's begin. What do you know already about the cosmic microwave background?"

"I'm afraid I only cook with gas."

"I can see this will take some time…"

We have reached a point where mere scepticism is not enough. It is entirely possible that he could ask enough probing questions to make a judgement just as informed as a celebrity cosmologist, but not before the kids get home from school.

You might argue that, unlike cosmology, climate change is such an important topic that non-experts should be able to do something to check up on the climate scientists. And there is something you can do. You can make sure that the scientists are exercising their own highly trained sceptical skills. To help you out, here is an example of good scientific conduct.

A scientist turns up at her office one morning, and discovers in her email that her most hated competitor has just published a wonderful new result.

"That's impossible. He's a moron!"

She prints out the paper, then locks her office door and turns off the lights and puts on some massive noise-canceling Cyberman headphones and pumps evil thrash metal through them for the rest of the day, while she pores over the paper. Every line, every equation, every table, every figure, and especially every citation, is studied with the utmost suspicion. She finally concludes that the paper is rubbish, based on unjustifiable assumptions, sloppy methods, and flawed analysis, and that in fact precisely the opposite conclusion must be true. She will now devote the next week to proving it. It becomes her Number One priority. She tells her postdoc, "Prove me right, or your contract won't be renewed." She tells her graduate student to stop writing up her thesis. "This is much more important! You can graduate next year." Her lectures for the coming semester are given precisely zero preparation time, ensuring that she will once again receive teaching evaluations so poor, and some containing death threats, that she is guaranteed rapid promotion.

The week-long project extends to a month, and then a year, and finally, eighteen months later, she is forced to admit that her competitor was right after all. But in the process of trying to prove otherwise she (i.e., her long-suffering postdoc and graduate student) have produced a related result that she is confident will irritate him almost as much as his result infuriated her.

That is what top-notch scientific scepticism is like.

If you want to be helpfully sceptical about climate change, you can devote 16 years to becoming an expert, or you can just make sure that the scientists are maintaining a sufficient level of professional bitter rivalry. And that is why Climategate was such a relief. Behind their demure public image, the scientists appeared to be pummelling their data with every trick they knew, and treating each others' ideas with utter contempt. Just as they should.


Next: My expert prediction.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Hannam Effect

Whenever you think of a cold and heartless scientist, feel free to think of me.

The fate of humanity doesn't especially concern me, or the fate of the planet, for that matter. Humanity will die out in N generations. N could be two or it could be two million. It could also be 0.2, in which case I will be personally very upset, but that's just too bad. Similarly, planet Earth, and all the miraculous variety of life that mushy animal-lovers coo over, will be gone in M generations. I expect that M will be much larger than N, although the fiction industry has squeezed a lot of dramatic mileage from the possibility that M=N (Earth is blasted out of space when we least expect it by a disgruntled author), or M < N (we all bugger off to another planet, and for poor old Earth it's detonation on departure). I would certainly prefer it if human society steadily progressed to the point where we all lived in a joyful utopia situated on a thriving Earth, but that's just the result of some strange culturally-imposed idealistic compulsion, which I'm sure can be cured by appropriate medication.

So when I complain about climate-change doubters, dissenters and deniers, it's not because I think it's important to save coral reefs, polar bears, or even my favourite ski slopes. They upset me because they misunderstand science. If we're all going to die in an incredible special-effects apocalypse of poisonous air, rising oceans, and all-consuming wars fought hand-to-hand by the last survivors amidst raging storms, that's fine with me, so long as (a) we do so with at least some basic understanding of the scientific method clear in our heads, and (b) someone films it.

I'm afraid to say that the number of sensible clear-headed scientists like myself out there in the world appears to be very low. People either refuse to accept the scientific evidence, or triumphantly trumpet the evidence because it's on their side. How many people are there whose views are informed by the evidence?

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine that I am a climate scientist, and I discover a new effect. I will of course have no choice but to call it the Hannam Effect. Here is the Hannam Effect: when greenhouse gases rise beyond a certain percentage in the atmosphere, a whole new as-yet-unobserved climate mechanism will come into play, and a set of air currents will develop that cause the gases to collect in isolated clumps. The areas where the greenhouse gases are less dense -- which are in fact vast sections of the atmosphere -- will act as huge vents that allow the planet to cool, or at least not rise in temperature any further. Ice-cap melting, glacier recession, and of course ocean rising, will reach a certain level and then stop [1].

Now, what happens after I've discovered the Hannam Effect? We can imagine two extremes. One is that the climate change deniers (i.e., the major industrial big shots) will embrace my theory, will promote it with the most lavish financial support they can muster, and in no time at all the climate-change case will have collapsed, and there will be no hope of serious environmental legislation, etc., etc., for decades. The other extreme outcome is that the climate change community rigorously block my research, refuse to publish it, discredit me, and throw me out as a heretic, and the Hannam Effect is ridiculed as a crackpot theory that circles the lowest depths of the nutjob blogosphere.

It is easy to imagine either of these outcomes, depending on your present view of climate change. I like to think (and we're assuming here that the Hannam Effect is real: every subsequent experiment, test, and new piece of evidence only increases support for it), that the truth will win out. But even if it does, I suspect that plenty of climate change crusaders will fight it with their last breaths. Why? Because as much as they claim to be on the side of science, they're really on the side of an ideology (i.e., environmentalism), and aren't especially interested in the facts. It would clearly be better if we cared more for the environment, they argue, and if the spectre of climate catastrophe is what we need to get that to happen, then so be it. I would like to think that these people are a tiny minority, the scum floating on the surface of good science, and that no true scientist would take such a shabby stance. But a "true scientist" is as hard to find as the Loch Ness Monster; I know people who claim to have sighted one, but never have myself. Do you think you are one? You can measure your position on the scientific-objectivity scale by your own particular personal reaction to the Hannam Effect [2].

In case you're a climate-change sceptic who's feeling smug right now, I might add that I can also consider a thought experiment that highlights bias in the other direction. Imagine that there is a Second Hannam Effect, a mechanism that incontrovertibly demonstrates that a growing atmospheric density of greenhouse gases causes the average ocean and surface temperatures to steadily rise, leading to radical climate change. Unfortunately, I don't get to name this process after myself, because it has already been discovered. It is called the Greenhouse Effect, and the scenario in which it is supported by a continuously growing collection of evidence is not a thought experiment; it is reality.

You may not care about being one of these mythical "true scientists"; you might think that unless we employ intellectual guerilla tactics, then we will be unable to stop the water from rising. I disagree. I am sure that I will be completely safe, up here on my scientific moral high ground.


Next: Climategate: the Vindication of Science.



Notes.
1. Yes, I know that my little for-the-sake-of-argument idea is immediately shot down by the geological record, which suggests that the Earth has in the past been so warm that the poles were tropical, and so clearly no such mechanism exists. Please don't get hung up on these details. Just assume that I can dissemble my idea into plausibility for as long as it takes you to get to the end of this article. Speaking of which, time to go back.

2. These days we are all of sufficient philosophical sophistication that we do not use the term "objective". Our views are not objective, they are "evidence based". I prefer the current term. But a current scientist would, wouldn't they?

Monday, 21 April 2014

Easter break

Nothing new today -- I've decided to enjoy the long Easter weekend. There was so much to do. This year it wasn't just celebrating the anniversary of the great marketing coup of Christianity ("Everyone has a martyr. We need to go one better..."). It was also mourning the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's times like this when you start to understand why people want to believe in miracle rebirths, even if it's difficult to understand how they actually manage it. (The belief, I mean.)

In a token effort to pretend that I was not entirely lazy, I created a page with links to my favourite posts so far. If you've been reading along, then none of this is of any use to you, but you might like to comment. The page is here.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Fantastically Irresponsible

The curious case of Clive on climate brings up the issue of scepticism. He argues that scepticism is essential to science, if not our whole modern secular civilisation, and tut-tuts anyone who tries to shout down his right, nay duty, to quietly raise objections. That has to make any scientist stumble in the midst of even their most passionate rant on the coming climate apocalypse. Oh, yeah: aren't we supposed to be the proud sceptics around here? Seasoned climate-science advocates will respond that the deniers are always trying this trick, and that the anti-evolution Creationist crazies do it as well, and that the evidence is so compelling that this is almost the same as arguing that you have a duty to be sceptical of gravity. Weeellllll, not exactly. The evidence is far from being quite that compelling, and isn't a little scepticism always healthy?

This feels like the real issue: scepticism of climate change is far from healthy in the current political climate. In a little meeting of 15 even-tempered scientists, occasionally raising your hand and saying, "I'm sorry, but I really must object," is entirely reasonable [1]. In a world where millions of dollars, pounds, euros, bones and clams are poured into lobbying against political action, where the climate-change hypothesis is accepted by 97% of expert scientists but only 50% of the general public, and where those expert scientists have been saying, "We have to act NOW" for over 20 years, and the overriding effect is for the anti-climate bankroll to grow -- in such a world, isn't this the wrong time to play your sceptic card? Isn't it just a fantastically irresponsible thing to do?

That was my first reaction when I read Clive James's most explicitly sceptical article: is he really allowed to say this? Can't someone stop him? To become such a respected cultural commentator, don't you have to pass some sort of factual rigorousness test? Can't you lose your "Respected Cultural Commentator" license for peddling slippery arguments that belong on conservative US talk radio and right-wing hack blogs, or come out of the mouths of stooges of those poster boys for capitalist evil, the Koch brothers?

Why didn't someone save him from such folly? What about his old friend Ian McEwan, who, at the same time CJ was digging his intellectual hole, was writing a novel entirely devoted to climate change, and joining the 10:10 project? Didn't it cross his mind, "Forget changing to energy-efficient light bulbs -- I've got to stop Clive!"? At the first sign of trouble, he could have popped over one afternoon for a quiet chat. He could have argued cogently and convincingly with his friend about climate science for 45 minutes, and then drugged him and bound and gagged him and locked him in the closet, for his own sake. Maybe he did, and is wondering to this day how the old bastard escaped. What about his other famous intellectual friends? Julian Barnes phones up to reason with him. Salman Rushdie suggests a vacation together ("Come on Clive, let's go into hiding for a year. I know just the place."). Martin Amis takes him out for a drink while Christopher Hitchens goes around to his flat, and with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a tumbler of Scotch in one hand, somehow shimmies up the drainpipe, in through the bathroom window, and pilfers his laptop. James stumbles home late that night to find only the searing 1500-word essay the Hitch dashed off before departing.

At this moment in history it seems natural to consider vocal public scepticism of climate change to be appalling and irresponsible. On reflection, however, that view is insidious. While I took that view, while reading CJ's painful missives to the masses, there was a little memory flashing in my conscience. Incongruous as it might seem, it was a memory of a book I'd once read. In fact, like many books, it was a book I read only because Clive James had introduced me to its author. It presented a different picture of people who tell us to be responsible.

The book was Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. It is a short book, divided into four sections. In the first section a young Jewish writer, Nathan Zuckerman, visits his literary hero, and, amidst what looks like the driest possible fictional scenario, a night of surprising drama unfolds. In the second section Zuckerman, trying to get to sleep after his tumultuous evening, recalls some recent troubles. He has written a short story based on a money-grubbing swindling uncle. His father is upset at this public airing of family history, which also plays directly into pernicious Jewish stereotypes. His father goes to a highly respected man in their community, a judge, who, it seems, differs from the father's opinion and writes Zuckerman a long sympathetic letter. The letter begins in a tone of kind understanding, and the judge reminds Zuckerman of how common it is for the artist to suffer at the hands of the ignorant and ill-informed who misunderstand their work. He emphasises the important role of the artist, who must stand apart from ordinary society, and weather their criticism. He adds, though, that this role confers on the artist a great deal of responsibility, and feels compelled to ask Zuckerman a series of questions that he thinks will help the young writer to better understand his work and his vocation. We are then given the list of questions, and the judge's mask of support is immediately whisked away at the first one: "If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?"

The list goes on in the same sententious vein, and the riotous send-up of this conceited old coot of a judge is, following the masterful set-up, a piece of comic genius. I obviously have not done the story justice -- if I could do justice to a Philip Roth story, then right now I too would be pretending not to wait for a Nobel Prize in literature.

The lesson from the story is clear. Ever since I read it, every time I hear someone express a very sensible argument why it is irresponsible for a writer (or anyone else) to state their views, I can't help but put that someone in the same ridiculous box as that pompous pedant of a judge. This story helps me to pop their self-righteous bubble. It's one thing to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, but it's quite another to make a calm 10-minute broadcast on Radio 4.

If Clive James wants to air his opinion, even if it is a wrong-headed opinion on a critically important topic, then he has every right. Maybe he even has a duty. He reminds us that the scientific conclusions on climate change are misunderstood not just by those blinded by stupidity, ideology, or money; the basic workings of science are misunderstood even by some of our most accomplished thinkers. If they don't get it, then we're doing a bad job.


Next: The Hannam Effect.



Note.
1. Who am I kidding? In all the years I've worked in science, I've never sat in such a meeting.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Postcard from Delusion

Previously, on The Fictional Aether: I noted the existence of truly clever people who doubt global warming, and made the grandiose claim that I would gently extricate them from their delusions at no risk to their personal pride. I then tabled my favorite example of such a figure, the polymathic critic Clive James, but was so busy praising his incredible oeuvre that I never got around to his actual climate-change opinions. Which leads us to today's thrilling episode…


In 2007 Clive James gave a series of weekly broadcasts for the BBC Radio 4 show, "A Point of View". His very first statement in the very first installment was, "In my household, I'm the last man standing against the belief that global warming is caused by human beings." My devotion was not yet shaken: for the rest of the broadcast he kept safely hidden below several layers of self-deprecation; he must have been playing devil's advocate. But two years later he firmly raised his hand as a climate-change dissenter. He did it while defending the importance of scepticism, and it was almost possible for a life-long devotee such as myself to generously find him a way out, and interpret climate change as just a convenient example of a topic where scepticism was unwelcome. That last part was certainly true, and James was immediately given a drubbing by George Monbiot, who accused him of providing zero evidence for the claim that the number of scientists who were climate-change sceptics was growing (and indeed no names or numbers were given), and attributed his views entirely to being an old fogey.

A few weeks later came the Climate Research Unit scandal that was inevitably dubbed Climategate. James gladly took the opportunity to respond more explicitly, and devoted an entire broadcast to lampooning anyone who made dire predictions about the distant future. If earlier he'd merely put his foot in his mouth, he now leaped on stage and danced a jig with the damn thing still in there. I can understand the reaction: rather than admit you're wrong, it's tempting to come out fighting with the attitude that really you were right. But my gallant efforts at generosity don't hold up: even now, almost five years later, he still takes the chance to insert jibes about climate change into his columns of television criticism [1]. He's also published his Point of View broadcasts in a book, and stands by his views in a postscript to the text of the first broadcast.

I am willing to go a long way to give Clive James the benefit of the doubt, but this is a doubt I cannot trust, and the evidence cannot be denied that he is a serious denier of evidence. And so we drive headlong into a difficult question: what the hell is going on here?

The standard technique to answer a difficult question is to answer an easy question instead. One much easier question would be, "Why does this moron dispute science?" which has the easy answer, "Because he's a moron."

Sorry, but CJ is no moron. He is an extremely intelligent man and a shrewd and careful thinker.

Another attempt to simplify the problem: "He's ignorant; he even admits he knows little about climate science."

Wrong again. Don't be fooled by CJ's disarming "I don't know much about this, but…". He has made a career out of using extensive research in aid of a careful performance of comic ignorance. In one of his best travel documentaries, Clive James in Japan, he bumbled around the country in a haze of seeming misunderstanding. When my high-school Japanese class was shown the video, the teacher could not control herself from repeatedly crying out, "That's not true! That's not true!" while all of the students cried back, "We know! We know! Can't you tell he's joking?" All of the parts that were not obviously jokes were a series of far-from-obvious observations, made apparently by accident. But they were no accident. It is only from his later writings that we discover that for several years he obsessively studied Japanese culture, including learning the language, and his casual Innocent Abroad act was based on enough research to drive any standard documentarian to quit and join the talk-show circuit. He later distilled his knowledge into perhaps his best novel, about a Japanese student's misadventures in London.

Let's try again: "He's a heartless old man who doesn't care about the fate of his grandchildren." James was indignant at this perceived accusation, and rightly so: what do we know of his emotional state? And to further squash the nonsense logic of this common irritating invocation of our benighted descendants: if he doesn't believe that global warming is a serious problem, then presumably he also doesn't believe that his grandchildren face a perilous fate for him to be heartless about. Plus, wherever CJ lives on the ethical spectrum from selfless saint down to genocidal despot, this is irrelevant to the legitimacy of his argument [2].

As a final last-ditch effort, we could always reach for the conspiracy theorists' playbook. Clive is in the pay of the oil industry. He wants the world to burn for humanity's sins. He wants to flood out all the poor people so that his heirs can live in luxury as the court jesters of the one percent. But let's not do that. Let's leave the environmentalist conspiracy theorists to go and fight the right-wing blognuts, and dream that they will annihilate each other.

So. We cannot simply dismiss him, but we can hardly agree with him, either; one clever writer, no matter how well-read, doesn't quite trump thousands of expert scientists. He clearly doesn't see it that way. Why not? Where has he gone wrong? And can he be convinced to change his mind?

The answer to the last question is obviously purely academic, because I seriously doubt that Clive James is one of this blog's 12 readers. But since I am purely an academic, I consider these questions worth thinking about a little more.


Next: Fantastically Irresponsible.



Notes.
1. Anyone who follows that link may notice that yours truly has inserted a shameless plug for this blog in the comments. My only defense is that using the letters page for self-promotion is a technique I first learned from CJ himself.

2. His claim that Monbiot claimed that he couldn't care less about the future is somewhat exaggerated, but we'll let that pass. I imagine plenty of people did think that, and they deserve a slap over their sloppy reasoning.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

On Clive James

As much as our idealistic little scientist brains would rather not admit it, there do exist in the world very intelligent people who are scornful of the standard conclusions of climate science. A perfect example, and the original motivation to start this series of articles, is the Australian writer Clive James.

Clive James is most famous as a 70s television reviewer turned 80s television personality, and you might wonder why his opinions on climate change are of any concern to us. But his exploits as a critic extend far beyond the little box. He has written essays on literature, culture and politics that have been collected in 16 books, including his 2007 Cultural Amnesia, made up of 106 mini-essays of reflections on the lives of people ranging from Dick Cavett to Adolf Hitler, from Tacitus to Terry Gilliam. He has written five memoirs, four novels, nine books of poetry, and last year completed a translation of The Divine Comedy. He is, personal appearance and self-deprecating remarks to the contrary, no slouch.


I have admired Clive James since I was an impressionable teenager, and the impression couldn't have been deeper if he'd driven over me with a truck. At the time he was at the height of his celebrity, beaming out of the old cathode-ray tube in the corner of our living room, in a show that in one incarnation had the characteristically self-aggrandizing and cleverly twofold title of Clive James on Television. The voice that came out of this balding fat suited man was unlike anything I had heard before. As a New Zealander, I had grown up inculcated with the expectation that I would never hear an Australian accent applied to complete sentences, let alone sentences quite this large, delivered with a droll gleefulness that inflated them until they enveloped three distinct ideas and finally burst into four separate punchlines. As always, YouTube can take you back to the good old days.

But the television wasn't what turned me into a disciple. That began where any appreciation of Clive James should begin, with the first slim volume of his Unreliable Memoirs. This virtuoso comic performance recounts his youth in postwar Sydney up until his departure to England, where he would remain, a fact that helps infuse the whole enterprise with a moving undercurrent of nostalgia and longing. It is a rushing succession of tales of being a child terror, and of a childhood terrorized, by killer snakes, scout leaders, unattainable girls and pathological boys, and at one point a barbed-wire fence that will have every male reader involuntarily clenching their knees in horror. Then the young CJ goes to university, and his voracious consumption of higher culture begins, starting with the student newspaper, which he fills with his own articles and poems, and he even writes the bulk of the reader's letters, which are devoted to arguing over the brilliance of the articles and poems.

It feels perverse to place this book in that yawner category of "growing-up-slash-coming-of-age". I devoured it when I was 17, when I fit into that category myself, and bits of it are so deeply burnt into my worldview that I probably think I came up with them myself. Or the other way around: I sometimes suspect that every opinion I have on art and culture derives directly from a perfectly crafted CJ sentence grafted deep into my cranium.

I read Unreliable Memoirs in the summer before I went to university. I liked it, but assumed it had no more effect on me than any other book I read. When the semester began I rushed onto campus, all summer reading long forgotten, ready to begin in earnest my undergraduate study of physics, and went straight to the offices of the student newspaper to sign myself up. I informed them that I would write television reviews. It seemed like the most natural thing for me to do. The most natural thing for you to do right now would be to slap your forehead very hard.

My CJ enthusiasm continued. He remained an excellent guide to culture. His best essays, which ranged across history and politics as well as the arts, were a miraculously choreographed combination of entertainment, education, and analysis, with a moral streak sharper than that infamous piece of barbed wire. An easy example is his essay on Albert Speer, which I first read in a copy of Snakecharmers in Texas that I discovered incongruously shelved on my brother's bookshelf amongst a solid collection of Wilbur Smith [1]. You can read it now on CJ's website, where you can also find the excellent series of video interviews that he recorded in the late 90s. He claims that this was a pioneer effort, long before YouTube, and I'm in no position to argue. They were certainly the first of their kind that I had ever seen. If you watch Clive James and Martin Amis gush together over Philip Roth, you'll probably do exactly as I did, and find that you've been introduced to another great writer you should have known about all along [2].

Clive James has often stated that one of his goals is to act as a guide to a young person's interest in the arts, and in that sense he might consider me an ideal satisfied customer. Except that now he has weighed in as a climate-change skeptic, and his loyal fan is reluctant to follow along.

Since 2011 James has suffered from leukemia, and does not travel far from Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. I was in Cambridge for a conference two weeks ago, and I thought of stopping by Addenbrooke's to pay him a visit. But I assumed they would not let me in.

"I'm sorry, no fans allowed. Talking tires him."

"What about a fan with misgivings?"

"Definitely not -- listening tires him even more."

Without the opportunity to bore him with my views on his views, I will have to bore you instead.


Next: Postcard from delusion.



Notes.
1. Even clearer examples are the more recent articles on honour killings and anti-Semitism.

2. For those who do not have thirty minutes of procrastination time written into their employment contracts, you'll be pleased to know that the relevant discussion is at the very beginning of the programme. But if you want to stick around for the bit about Amis's father's wonderful characterization of Joyce, then you'll have to find yourself another job.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The E.M. Forster of Climate Change

Prologue: A few years ago I read a profile of the band Radiohead. I had been a Radiohead fan for some time, but not yet a fanatic. That article pushed me over the edge. It was the moment where they casually described themselves as "the E.M. Forster of rock." I don't even know what that means, but what a glorious aspiration! My loyalty was now absolute. No matter how much they challenge my pedestrian musical tastes with increasingly "difficult" songs, I will purchase any album they produce, even if it consists of nothing but clicks and hums and apocalyptic wailing. In fact, I think I already have.


Let's get back to Climate Change. Even though I know very little about it, and just about everything intelligent on the topic has already been said by all of the people who do know something about it, and all of the stupid things have already been said by the even greater number of people who potentially know even less about it than I do -- nonetheless, there is something irresistible about the topic. Not climate change itself, of course, that's rather dull and depressing; it's climate-change denial that I'm interested in.

Climate change is a curious thing, from a scientific epistemo-sociological point of view. This may sound like an especially glib thing to say, assuming it means anything at all: the many people distraught at the prospects for our planet would consider this statement akin to a man sitting on a beach, watching an approaching tidal wave bear down on him, and saying calmly into his phone, "There is a really quite fascinating phenomenon underway."

Picture it: a wide, empty beach, with just the one man sitting there. Behind him there are beachfront resorts, hotels and skyscraper apartment blocks, all full of people who have woken up this morning to the news that they are about to die, and who are now fighting uselessly to get out of their buildings and down to the streets and away, continuing the struggle even as the proof of their futility rises so high up out of the ocean that it casts an early-morning shadow across the entire downtown. And on the beach there is the man, staggeringly dwarfed by the gigantic wave looming over him, philosophizing into his phone, and not even about the actual wave. "Isn't the public reaction rather curious?"

I'm happy to be that man, except that I'm even more foolish, because I've gone down to the beach not just with my phone, but with my laptop as well. All I'm really worried about is getting sand in it while I try to write my blog. I also hope that that whopping great wave up in the sky is not going to block out my wireless reception.

And what am I going to write in these few moments remaining to me? I am going to present my own odd little take on the whole curious phenomenon of climate-change denial. I am going to explain the simple muddle that prevents many smart people from accepting climate-change science. I am going to take all of those very angry and passionate and irreconcilable people, and set them quietly on the right track. And, needless to say, I am going to save the world. When it's all over, and they write a 10-page New Yorker profile on me, I will describe myself as, "the E.M. Forster of climate change."

All of this might take a while, but we've got some time. Don't worry about that tidal wave. As we all know from the movies, in the especially dramatic moments just before the hero saves the day, everything moves in slow motion. I expect I'm even allowed to get stuck occasionally, and revert briefly to writing blog posts that make fun of academia. And sometimes even just a few hundred words of shameless filler, like this one.


Next: On Clive James.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Conference combat

Conferences are a roiling storm of egos. This is where science really happens. One of the most important lessons an academic can learn is that if they have a fantastic result, it is not enough to publish it in a paper. No-one reads papers. The paper only exists as proof that you got the result before someone else. No-one will know about your result just because you published a paper. They won't even know about it if you go to a conference and deliver a talk; no-one listens to talks. Only if you also individually corner every relevant researcher you can think of, and forcefully lecture them about your result during the coffee breaks, lunch, dinner, drinking at the pub, stumbling home from the pub, or even, and perhaps best of all, bleary-eyed over the hotel breakfast the next morning -- only if you do all of these things, will there be a small chance that not everyone will be ignorant of your result.

For those who remain ignorant, the next conference is the place to set them straight. If you are an especially brave young researcher desperate to become known, then you can force yourself to listen to their talks, and then interrupt with a mock-polite question that causes everyone else in the audience to wake up and understand the question as a statement: "I've done that already." Among senior scientists, such questions are reserved either for only the most bitter rivals, or are asked only by complete jerks with no sense of propriety who worship the sound of their own voices. But such deplorable characters are extremely rare, and make up only 73% of successful scientists.

No, the professional way to correct a colleague's misunderstanding of your results, is to have a quiet chat with them in private during a coffee break. "Private" may well mean surrounded by a small circle of their students, postdocs, and collaborators, and some tact will be required. The best technique is to act like you're interested in their work. "Oh, really? That's very impressive. Tell me more." Then slip in comments like, "I was working on something similar myself a few years ago, and your work puts it in an interesting new light." Your interlocutor, if they are also a professional, will understand what's going on or, at the very least, understand that a few polite questions about your work is the only way you'll give them a chance to blather on some more about their own. If you've done it right, the whole exchange will appear from the outside as a polite and open intellectual discussion between dedicated scholars.

In reality there are no open discussions at conferences. The phrase, "Let's think only of the science, and talk openly," is certainly very welcome, but only because it translates as, "I've run out of ideas, can I steal some of yours'?" There is no sweeter music to the professional scientist's ears. A truly open discussion amongst a large group of scientists is a sure sign that their field has reached a dead end. Some conference organisers will naively include a "discussion session" in the programme, perhaps because the act of conference organising has triggered a distant memory of the pure ideals of science, but more likely because six months devoted to conference organisation has left them in need of a few research ideas themselves. "If we're going to go through the trauma of conference organisation, don't we deserve a few free projects out of it?"

The surest sign of a field at its most active is a formal discussion session in which no-one offers a single view. A senior figure lists all of the most obvious pressing problems that everyone knows about already, and solicits answers. Several equally senior and equally out-of-touch professors will pontificate at length on their past successes in solving entirely different problems. Everyone else will sit there with smiles on their faces, and if called on to offer suggestions to solve the Ten Greatest Problems Facing Us, will reply, "Nope, sorry, nothing here."

Beyond these "professional" issues, conferences are great fun for everyone, although somewhat gruelling. Once upon a time a student could party all night, and then during the day they were provided with long sessions of vacuous talks to sleep through. Now they substitute the sleep for Facebook, which, besides the proliferation of embarrassing drunken photos, leads to dangerous levels of exhaustion by the end of the conference. Considerate conference organisers will disable the wi-fi network in the auditorium to guarantee an essential student recovery environment. Unfortunately, though, most organisers cater to the professors, who only stay out at night long enough to cackle over a few reminiscences of their own student conference experiences, before heading back to their hotel rooms to maliciously email last-minute talk-presentation suggestions to their students. For the conference sessions proper, the professors are awake and engaged in important work on their laptops, and also Candy Crush.

If you are wondering if anyone is listening to the speakers themselves, never fear. The speakers are listening to themselves, and nothing could make them happier. They are contentedly mumbling away to themselves down at the front of the lecture theatre, which is not so much a stage as a place of egotistical seclusion, a tranquil valley for the mind. On one side of the valley a massive screen displays the incomprehensible slides they jumbled together during the previous talk. On the other is a comforting hillside of laptop lids. In another life, they might have been tempted to whip out their easel and paint it. They don't mind that no-one is listening. It is enough that a jealous competitor will try to ask a difficult question, a desperate postdoc near the end of their current employment contract will suck up to them afterwards, and the odd dorky (or dorky odd) student will take notes.