Amateur Hour

Three science philosophy papers and two recent findings seemed to fit together for this post.

Divergent Perspectives on Expert Disagreement: Preliminary Evidence from Climate Science, Climate Policy, Astrophysics, and Public Opinion :
James R. Beebe (University at Buffalo), Maria Baghramian (University College Dublin), Luke Drury (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), Finnur Dellsén (Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences)

“We found that, as compared to educated non-experts, climate experts believe (i) that there is less disagreement within climate science about climate change, (ii) that more of the disagreement that does exist concerns public policy questions rather than the science itself, (iii) that methodological factors play less of a role in generating existing disagreement among experts about climate science, (iv) that fewer personal and institutional biases influence the nature and direction of climate science research, (v) that there is more agreement among scientists about which methods or theoretical perspectives should be used to examine and explain the relevant phenomena, (vi) that disagreements about climate change should not lead people to conclude that the scientific methods being employed today are unreliable or incapable of revealing the truth, and (vii) that climate science is more settled than ideological pundits would have us believe and settled enough to base public policy on it. In addition, we observed that the uniquely American political context predicted participants’ judgments about many of these factors. We also found that, commensurate with the greater inherent uncertainty and data lacunae in their field, astrophysicists working on cosmic rays were generally more willing to acknowledge expert disagreement, more open to the idea that a set of data can have multiple valid interpretations, and generally less quick to dismiss someone articulating a non-standard view as non-expert, than climate scientists. ”

Any scientific discipline that lends itself to verification via controlled experiments is more open to non-standard views. It really is amazing how fast a new idea can be accepted when an experiment can be repeated by others. In climate science, no such control is possible, as the verification process can take years, while the non-standard views continue to proliferate. No wonder climate scientists get hardened to outsider views, as they have no way of immediately dismissing alternate interpretations.

On the other hand, astrophysics has a long history of being open to outsider opinion, with the amateur astronomer often given equal attention to a new finding. Two very recent cases come to mind.

These are two very concrete and objective findings that can be verified easily by others. So kudos to these two amateur sleuths for their persistence.

However, it's not so easy to verify that one is achieving verifiable progress in areas such as hydrology, as an ongoing debate series reveals that "Hydrology is a hard subject" (with a not to Feynman). The following paper tries to argue for a more open interpretation to the scientific process.

Debates—Hypothesis testing in hydrology: Pursuing certainty versus pursuing uberty
Victor R. Baker

Every scientist borrows techniques from each column, but it is certainly true that the lack of being able to devise controlled experiments in climatology and hydrology places those researchers at a disadvantage compared to the lab-based researchers, or to incremental event-based discoveries (such as with astronomy).  Baker is almost suggesting  that a  better qualitative measure of holistic progress (uberty?) should take the place of a complete quantitative understanding.

And even if one could make sense of a hypothesized behavior, one still has to navigate the landmines of prediction versus a probabilistic forecast.

Stigma in science: the case of earthquake prediction
Helene Joffe, Tiziana Rossetto, Caroline Bradley, and Cliodhna O’Connor

Earthquake prediction is at a cross-roads, with a rather obvious debate going on at the USGS (and spilling over to other research groups) on whether lunisolar gravitational forcing can provide a significant trigger to the timing of an earthquake. Again, because of a lack of controlled experimentation, the argument can only take place in statistical  terms, and will take time and more observational data to resolve.

Yet, bottom-line, the question remains, who owns disciplines such as astrophysics, climate science, hydrology, and seismology?  To take as an example, the entire data set for the ENSO climate behavior can be reduced to the monthly time series of barometric pressure measured at only two locations, one in Tahiti and one in Darwin. This is as open to public interpretation as the amateur astronomers that scan the night-time skies for fresh discoveries. The three papers all say that experts disagree on how to solve or model the big geophysics problems.  I'd suggest that we allow the educated non-experts take a crack and listen to what they have to say.

3 thoughts on “Amateur Hour

  1. More amateurs discovering an atmospheric behavior that somehow escaped notice of professional scientists and scholars through the years

    "Canadian Amateurs Discovered a New Type of Aurora
    It started as a loose collection of sky watchers, who braved the cold on countless nights to catch the shimmering colors of the aurora borealis dancing above them.

    It developed into a friendly argument between amateurs and experts, which erupted over beers one evening at a pub in Calgary, Canada.

    And it ended this week, with a peer-reviewed paper in a well-known scientific journal."

    Alberta Aurora Chasers

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