Wednesday, August 5, 2015

More on "Professionalism" in the Climate Change debate

I am back from a brief blogging hiatus as I took some time off-line to have a holiday with my family. During my holiday I was mostly out of electronic contact except for a brief period last week, when I had Wi-Fi and got into another one of the typical climate change arguments. The discussion included one of my most ardent foils, a gentleman well-known to this blog: the blogger known as andthentheresphysics (ATTP). He is reportedly Dr. Ken Rice, a Reader of Astronomy and Public Relations Director at the Institute for Astronomy, within the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh (UK). I was responding to another well-known blogger “Sou from Bundanga” the proprietor of a blog called HotWhopper. Sou, reportedly Miriam O’Brien a management consultant in Australia, was berating another blogger about using “stolen” emails from the now-famous “hack” at Skeptical Science. 

The basis for the disagreement was my taking on the role of the Devil’s Advocate in the discussion. I, personally, think that it is rather rich when a group that was willing to broadcast material taken under false pretense from the Heartland Institute by Dr. Gleick (now known colloquially as “Fakegate”) would complain bitterly when the shoe was on the other foot. Dr. Gleick has publicly admitted to having misrepresented himself and used illegal methods (one might even use the word “stolen” if one was so inclined) to access and then distribute the Heartland documents. The distribution included the addition of at least one critical document that Heartland claims was composed entirely of deliberate misinformation…source unknown but presumed. Sou’s outrage was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black and my discussion with Sou demonstrated that she was entirely satisfied with doing just that. 

ATTP interposed himself into the conversation to complain, once again, about a previous post of mine: The implication of "Professionalism" in Climate Change discussions which he feels impugned his professionalism and misrepresented him. This has been an ongoing discussion about which we continue to disagree. As anyone who has read the cited blog post can see, I quoted ATTP directly; I did not edit any of his comments and included our entire exchange. I’m not sure how quoting someone correctly, completely and in context represents a misrepresentation but hey that’s just me?  Admittedly, I also included a discussion of my personal interpretation of his comments with specific relationship to the concept of professionalism in the field of climate change. My concern at the time was the absence of any significant repercussions for the authors of Climategate and Dr. Gleick following their respective revelations. That an academic could do what Dr. Gleick admitted to having done with no professional repercussions continues to amaze me. ATTP’s insistence that university ethics oversight programs are sufficient to address ethical shortcomings of senior academics is laughable in light of the Fakegate and Climategate affairs. ATTP may have intended to get one point across, and to a certain population (his fellow academics) he may have; but to me his words were explicit and clear. While I added my own commentary, ATTP’s own words spoke for themselves quite eloquently.
This discussion reminded me of similar conversations I have had over the last years. As many of you know, my wife is a teacher and I spend a lot of time socializing with teachers. For those of you not familiar with British Columbia politics, the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation (the BCTF our version of a teacher’s union) has spent the last decade engaged in an all-out war with our current right-of-center government. As part of the battle, the BCTF has been arguing quite strenuously about how hard they work with respect to other employees in British Columbia. Now I have seen the classes my wife has taught and agree that teachers can have ridiculously bad classes with way too many students and way too few resources. I also recognize that teaching can be an incredibly tough job and most teachers go above and beyond to help their students succeed. Where I disagree with the BCTF is when they complain about their long hours of work. In a moment of bad judgment, I actually calculated and presented the numbers which demonstrated that an average teacher’s work year is substantially shorter than virtually all other public employees and well below those of private sector employees. This placed me firmly in the familial doghouse and so let’s pretend I didn’t bring that topic up.

What I have come to recognize from my discussion with teachers is that most teachers are not really in a position to have a reasonable conversation on this topic. This is not because they are irrational; it is just that most teachers have never left the education system and so have little understanding how the rest of us live and work. Most teachers went to elementary school, then high school, then university, then teacher’s college and finally to a position teaching. Certainly many of them worked after-school and summer jobs but most have never actually worked 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, for year after year after year. During the 10 months of the year they work, they do work very hard but for their entire lives they have been given a spring break, at least two weeks off at Christmas and almost two months off as a summer break. As such, they have no basis for understanding how the rest of us live with only 10 statutory holidays (in Canada) and two-three weeks of paid holidays a year.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the climate change debate but in talking to ATTP I had a moment of clarity where I began to understand the division between the academic activists in the climate change world and the rest of us. What I had missed in my “professionals” post (and its sequel post On Appeals to Authority, “Climategate” and the Wizard of Oz: a Personal Journey from "Trust Me" to "Show Me") was an additional feature of the people from the “trust me” crowd. They are mostly senior and career academics and as such have lived their entire lives in an entirely different world than the rest of us. The old expression about working in “ivory towers” didn’t just fall from the sky but is based on a basic recognition that their work lives differ markedly from the rest of us.

During their early school days most current academics were likely the smarter kids in their classes and got exceptional grades. To have succeeded in the academic sphere they had to have studied hard in university typically being in the top percentiles of their classes. This allowed them to get into grad school where once again their current status is likely the result of them being in the top percentiles of their grad school classes. They have thus lived their entire lives as the crème de la crème in their academic disciplines and peer groups. Even the lowliest “second-rate academic” did better in school than 90% of their peers and ranks amongst some of the most academically gifted members of our society. Finally, to succeed they had to put in a lot of individual work, often with little requirement for teamwork but rather a lot of time working with individual mentors and individual supervisors. Derived from all this is the fact that they are used to thinking of themselves as the smartest person in the room and have come to believe that this means that their opinions (even on topics outside of their area of expertise) mean more than those from the rest of us.

Given the nature of the academic enterprise they have also flourished in an inherently hierarchical system where they now sit at the top of that hierarchy. Having spent their entire careers in this hierarchy they seem to find it hard to hear their opinions challenged by people who do not fit within that hierarchy. When they speak of the “show me crowd” as being full of “engineers” and “other professionals”, it is not necessarily meant as an insult but rather shows a lack of understanding about how the other half of the professional world works. Every one of those engineers has experienced the “university experience”. These engineers have had an opportunity to see, albeit very briefly, how the other side lives but now live and work in a world where they are required to work in teams and accept criticism from their peers and from their clients on an almost daily basis. Most importantly they have worked in an environment where their actions are overseen by ethics boards and their success is dependent on the stressors of the private sector.

As for the hardships of being an academic, I have to laugh when I read them complain about facing the dilemma of “publish or perish”. Every private sector worker I know lives under the same cloud. Ask a plumber what happens if they can’t consistently find work? Show me a thriving consultant who consistently fails to achieve results for their clients or who fails to meet the standards of their profession. The big difference between private sector workers and tenured academics is that we don’t have tenure so if we screw up we can’t fall back on a comfortable teaching position. In the private sector if you were caught fiddling with the process, like the scientists fiddling with peer-review in the Climategate files, you would be summarily fired. Were he subject to a professional ethics board the actions admitted to by Dr. Gleick in his Huffington Post blog would have resulted in him being censored and possibly stripped of his professional designation and unable to work in his chosen field.

As I pointed out in my post Type I and Type II Error Avoidance and its Possible Role in the Climate Change Debate and further discussed in my post Does the Climate Change Debate Come Down to Trust Me versus Show Me? - Further thoughts on Error Avoidance these academics live in a world where the emphasis is Type I error avoidance and where review by a limited number of peers is the norm. What I missed in those posts is that the academic’s career trajectory will necessarily have limited their interactions with professionals in other fields. It is in light of this fact that we should reconsider how the two “sides” in the Show me versus Trust me debate should interact. I admit to having failed to sufficiently recognize and acknowledge how fundamental the differences are between the two groups...and I spent over a decade working for team “Trust me”. Now that I have worked on the other side of the fence I accept the inherent value of the “Show me” approach. In my previous comments I may have failed to recognize how this fundamental difference in views colours our daily actions and reactions. I must learn not to feel insulted when an academic talks down to me. It is not intended as an insult but rather is simply a “feature” of their upbringing. That being said, I will not kowtow to, nor show the deference that academics, like ATTP, feel are their due. That being said, I can acknowledge the difference and like the ambassadors to the Chinese Royal Courts of the 1800’s I will endeavour to work out mechanisms to not unnecessarily damage their pride while insisting that they recognize legitimate differences in our worldviews.


  1. I don't think your description of academics is quite true. Until they got their PhD in their late twenties, they were indeed used to be being best in class. That is followed by a rather brutal period (for most) in which they find their position in the pecking order. No longer the best, many indeed develop a compulsion to show they're better than most.

    Ken Rice is a case in point. His career as an astronomer rather lacks in lustre, and that frustration shows.

  2. You are quite right in that point. It is a bit more subtle than I indicated was the case in my post, but it does explain the behaviour of a number of the bigger names in the activist camp.

  3. I think their problem is their inability to grasp what they don't know. I'm an engineer who supervised scientists, and had to worry about their career development, including their ability to work in multidisciplinary teams. Some took to it very well, others, in spite of being very smart, were untrainable. The climate issue and the risk analysis and options development are incredibly complex. And these scientists just don't seem to grasp complexity very well. I think most of them are too specialized.

  4. Most teachers went to elementary school, then high school, then university, then teacher’s college and finally to a position teaching.

    Maybe. Not in my experience in New Zealand high schools though. Most of my colleagues have worked outside that loop before becoming a teacher.

    Those of us who have come to teaching after another career are well aware that teaching has great holidays. Even when I work in a holiday (which is most weeks, in fact) it's not like working a 40 hour week.

    If you are a good teacher, much of the job is fairly cruisy. If you are a bad teacher, it's a terribly stressful job. The unions tend to be defending those that are struggling (where they should, in my opinion, be working on getting them gently into other occupations).

    Regarding the main point about academics, it is important to remember that they behave very poorly in their own spheres too. The tantrums and toy-throwing of many academics when people disagree with them via "proper" channels like peer review is often not a lot better than how they behave to climate sceptics.

  5. I do not think the general academic environment, nor his position within it, explains ATTP’s approach. Neither do the differences between academia and the professions , nor with “Professionalism” in general.
    In many professions, such as medicine, law, accountancy and surveying those most highly valued are those who are able to give an opinion to a client based on specialist knowledge and ethical standards. In many cases the best opinion might not be what the client wants to hear, and might be most valuable in making the best out of an undesired situation. My experience of ATTP’s commenting and blogging are that he never recognizes other people may have their own opinions or values. Nor does he admit that there are limits to his own knowledge, nor appreciate that outside of his very specialist field people possess knowledge and understanding well beyond his own. In comments, and postings on his blog he often interjects to distract attention from the main thrust of the argument. As I have found, commenting and posting it is often in the form of blocking alternative views being related, by distracting in various ways from the search for alternative and deeper understanding. This might be due to ATTP’s area being in the hard sciences, rather than in the softer and more applied sciences, the social sciences and the arts.

  6. In the year or so since I first encountered attp's comments, I have come to describe his attitude towards others in the climate debate with one particular word. However, you would likely prefer I don't use it here :P

  7. Can you post links to the discussions that prompted this post.