Marfa Dialogues #2: Texas State Climatologist on Belief, Reason and Evidence.

John Nielsen-Gammon (John N-G) – Texas State Climatologist, and core part of the recent Marfa Dialogues organized by Cape Farewell – was a member of the audience at my Marfa talk. One whose presence made me a bit nervous to be honest, since he was clearly capable and prepared to slice and dice any bad science I put forward. After the talk, he took me aside, saying conspiratorially “Tom, great talk. But you’ve got one big problem …” (gulp!) “… and it has to do with your frog” … (I use the image of a frog, paralyzed in a warming pot of water on a stove to drive our imaginations about the climate problem) … “It’s a myth. Lose it.” Good advice from a great guy. Note to self: use the frog, just ensure it’s clearly a metaphor …

John N-G is one of the more broad-thinking climate scientists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. He may be a hard-core scientist, but he’s just at home speaking philosophically of Bayesian probabilities and belief formation, cognitive biases, communication strategies around climate change. A good communicator, and passionate about both his core area of expertise and its surrounding environs, John N-G’s a great resource for anyone thinking about the subject. I imagine his analysis might have to be all the more rigorous, given his Texan audience … His blog in the Houston Chronicle – Climate Abyss – is a good place to start.

A key piece of Hot Water (my new book with, yes, the frog on the front cover) centres on the Siren Song of Denial – the seductive psychology of climate denial: cognitive biases that skew belief formation, and the ongoing effect of historical patterns of beliefs in our neurally-connected noggins. John N-G is more (sometimes less) aligned with my own views (so I’m guilty of peer group bias? affect bias?) – but he’s well worth reading. Crucially, while his subject matter can be complex, he’s highly readable …. Below are links to four of his blogs. – Gauging our reaction to evidence for something we have decided – apriori – is extremely unlikely. If someone gives you evidence for ESP, for example, you’d likely consider the author dishonest, or mistaken, before you’d take the evidence seriously.

Note: On a Bayesian view this is being perfectly rational even if the evidence presented is strong. Bayesian probabilities for evidence evaluation involve prior probabilities, or the likelihood that other conditions leading to the evidence are sound (author integrity, etc).  Contra John, I would argue improper evaluation of prior probabilities is itself a form of irrationality, not evidence of the opposite. My father – an academic and scientist – believed evidence and discussion would eventually lead to the ‘truth’. He believed this for social science, and not just sciency-science. He was wrong, of course. Here, John G-N further discusses the role of the key attribute of “trust” in belief formation, and why a lack of consensus on who to trust actually drives opinions further apart as more evidence comes in. Here, John N-G draws some (controversial, paradoxical) lessons from the last two blogs: scientists are trusted, but only as an (easily broken) default position; actions matter more than words, repercussions for self-policing of science and openness about doubt in scientific communication; ‘college matters’, the better educated we are the more likely we are to disagree. A subject dear to my heart: are we really rational? John N-G’s position is more subtle than mine (I say, bluntly, we are not); but ultimately, we both land on that old bug-bear of trust.

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One Response to Marfa Dialogues #2: Texas State Climatologist on Belief, Reason and Evidence.

  1. Roland Kennedy Chem Engineer UBC 1968 says:

    Tom..i have very close friend and fellow class of 68 chem engineer who spent his career with Chevron, Republican, retired and lives in Houston. He is convinced the planet’s warming is part of a usual warming/cooling cycle…and that mankind’s contribution is minimal. i don’t agree with him. you cannot pump 100 million tons a day, year after year, into the atmosphere – a closed system of sorts – and have no impact.

    is there any one, peer reviewed article that nets out that mankind indeed is driving the warming, the acidification of the oceans, etc?? he contends there is no ‘proof’…which drives me crazy.

    i will read whatever you suggest.

    just about finished reading your book (Waking the Frog) and …congratulations…very thoughtful, very convincing (to a believer).


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