Thoughts on Chris Mooney’s Storm World
I recently finished Chris Mooney’s great new book Storm World. There have been lots of reviews (see Chris’s blog for a pretty complete list), so I won’t write another one here. Instead, I thought I would highlight the part I particularly appreciated, and what I think needed more emphasis in the book.
First, the high point: The book does a great job of detailing the turbulent interface between knowledge and ignorance where science operates. Science is a contact sport, and it is not for the faint of heart. New ideas, especially bold ones, have to survive in the crucible of science — where they are subject to bombardment by every imaginable criticism. Good ideas survive this test and help us push back the frontiers of knowledge. Bad ideas crumble.
On the other hand, one of the points that I thought could have been better explained was the unique role that Bill Gray played in the debate. All scientists, regardless of their true motivation, want to be seen dispassionately pursuing truth. And in order to do that, it is generally accepted practice that scientists never personally attack other scientists. At least, not in public. You might believe that a scientific competitor of yours is a dishonest scumbag and a hack, and you might even tell a close colleague in private, but you would never, ever stand up at a scientific meeting and say that. It is simply not done.
And there’s a good reason it’s not done. To see that reason, you can look at what happened when Bill Gray broke that rule. After Emanuel, Webster, Curry, Holland, et al. published papers in 2005 connecting hurricane activity with global warming, Bill Gray repeatedly said to basically anyone who would listen that these scientists were only producing these results in order to get more funding. This was a startling accusation, and one that I personally heard him make at a meeting last summer.
By and large, scientists are human. And when someone accuses them of fraud, they strike back. So they responded in kind, and from this blowback came the now-famous Judy Curry quote on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that Bill Gray suffered from “brain fossilization.” And the debate went downhill from there. In my opinion, much of the really nasty aspects of the hurricane-global warming debate could be traced back to Gray’s breaking the cardinal rule not to personally attack other scientists.
This is not to say that the aspects that Mooney emphasizes, in particular the battle between the observationists and the physicists, are not important. But these differences exist in virtually all scientific debates. Whether it’s satellite people versus in situ people, oceanographers versus atmospheric scientists, GCMers versus simple modelers, almost every high-stakes scientific debate contains a range of people with different intellectual backgrounds. And while these differences might generate tension, the debates always stay civil, at least publicly. But, as Bill Gray showed, it does not take much for all hell to break loose.
Overall, I think this book helps pull back the curtain from science. Science is much messier and, frankly, less scientific than most people realize. Despite that, science is incredibly successful and, I believe, a force for good in this world, and I am proud to be a scientist. For those who are interested in seeing science in action, I recommend this book.