Being Wrong

I have had very little scientific training, and no formal education in climatology. If you’ve read my About the Author page, you’ll know that I’m a student and aspiring climatologist. You might think I’m a university student, probably in my undergrad.

I’m not. I’m going into my last year of high school. Many of my classmates don’t even know that the theory of anthropogenic global climate change has been endorsed by anyone other than Al Gore. They’re too wrapped up in regular high school drama. Here I am spending my spare time urging political action against climate change, and I can’t even vote yet.

All of my education in climate change has been informal and independent. I stay up late reading IPCC reports. I borrow university chem textbooks so I can understand how greenhouse gases work. I direct all my questions to a climatology prof I know. In a few years, I will have the opportunity for formal training that begins to specialize in climatology. But I’m too impatient. I want to do all I can now.

If credibility is “expertise + objectivity”, my expertise is limited by my circumstances. However, I can still spend time increasing my objectivity. I check my sources. I separate science from policy. I ask myself, “What if I was wrong?”

Since I started this blog, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to pinpoint your mistakes and fix them is to collaborate with others. A lot of you have been fantastic in the comments section, helping to improve the accuracy of my posts. Because of you, I’ve learned that Anthony Watts does not have a PhD, that the same band of radiation can only be absorbed by carbon dioxide once, and that the category of “publishing climatologists”, which is more credible than scientists from other areas on the topic of climate change, should really include atmospheric physicists and radiative physicists.

Without people telling me that I was wrong, I would never have known that I was making mistakes. Without admitting that I was making mistakes, my posts would remain inaccurate.

I believe that admitting your mistakes and fixing them is one of the best ways to increase your credibility. It lets people know that you are willing to change your mind when new evidence warrants it. Basically, it shows that your quest for accurate information surpasses your ego.

Peer-reviewed journals use this tactic all the time. If one of their publications is proven erroneous, they print a retraction. Accurate, up-to-date information is their greatest priority. What else could you ask of a journal?

We all make mistakes, as Big Bird told us when we were small. Nobody is infallible, not even the folks at NASA. Since we can’t escape making mistakes, the best thing we can do is to admit to them and fix them. In a world demanding scientific accuracy, there is no room for egos.

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25 thoughts on “Being Wrong

  1. You’re probably already aware of this, but just in case: there’s a blog about climate science run by working climate scientists called RealClimate:

    http://www.realclimate.org/

    It’s by far the best climate science blog on the net.

    You should also be aware that not only does Anthony Watts lack a Ph.D. (which isn’t really that relevant in my opinion), his opinions on climate science are not to be trusted. If you want evidence you’ll find is here and here and here and here and here, among other place. If you’re serious about understanding climate science, don’t trust anything you get from Watts.

    There’s also an excellent textbook on climate science, by Prof. Ray Pierrehumbert of the Univ. of Chicago, available online. You’ll find the textbook here:

    http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~rtp1/ClimateBook/ClimateVol1.pdf

    and the web site (which also includes a link to an accompanying workbook) here:

    http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~rtp1/ClimateBook/ClimateBook.html

    • Wow, nice debunking of Watt’s analysis on your blog. It certainly looks like he’s making some pretty elementary mistakes. Either he doesn’t know how to properly analyze data, or else he knows and is deliberately misleading us…

      I’m having trouble opening the climate science textbook, though – are you sure you typed the addresses correctly? Or perhaps it’s geo-locked (only available to US viewers)?

      • I had a nice chat two months ago with Richard Alley via email. He also recommends Ray Pierrehumbert’s book which is close to being published. Mr. Alley was kind enough to answer a number of questions I put to him. He also recomended Spencer Wearts “The Discovery of Global Warming”. This is available on line at the AIP (American Institute of Physics) website and as a book.

        Recently I have been rereading “Six Degrees” by Mark Lynas which I got on the recommendation of Eric Steig who wrote an essay on the book at the Real Climate website. The review is well worth the read. Although the book itself is rather sobering.

        Cheers

        Patrick

      • Alright, I’ll add “Six Degrees’ to my growing list of books commenters have recommended…..you people are way too well-read….:)

      • Ever considered opening up a new thread explicitly for reader submissions? If nothing else, it’ll serve as a great place to link people to if they express an interest in reading more about climate change as a scientific or social issue.

        Of course, I’ll add a caveat: There’s a lot of great books out there. Prepare to drink from the fire hose.

  2. Many of my classmates don’t even know that “climate change” means the same thing as “global warming” …

    They do not have the same meaning. ‘climate change’ is a general term, referring to any sort of change in climate, whether or warmer or cooler, wetter or dryer, etc. Climate change is also more general in that it can refer to climate change in a small region, a large region, or any region, as well as global climate change. Climate change could refer to the cooling that took place during the transition from the Eemian interglacial to the most recent major glaciation – or to the warming that followed the major glaciation. It could refer to the regional drying that took place in the American southwest in about 1200 AD, or the regional drying that took place in Mesoamerica in about 900 AD. Global warming, on the other hand, refers only to global climate change, and only to change that includes warming.

      • I will add another thing. Whenever “climate change” or “global warming” is heard in a casual conversation or popular press it is almost always implied “anthopogenic”, even though I think that a clear distinction is always necessary.

  3. Kate,

    It’s very admirable that you’ve decided to enter a physical science field before finishing high school. I frequently tutor high school and first-year undergraduate subjects, and passion for the physical sciences is a rare sight indeed.

    For instance, I recently had the opportunity to serve as a grad student mentor to several high school classes (most of them 10th grade) in a ‘virtual classroom’ discussion on climate change. The good news was that there was only one outright denialist, and after having his claims eviscerated (in a polite, “why do you think this?” way), he remained quiet. The bad news is, as you say, across four schools, only about five students really ‘got’ what climate change meant. This probably strikes close to home, as all the schools were in Alberta (I’m in Edmonton).

    The encouraging part about that discussion group, though, was that the few who really ‘got it’ were very informed and steered the group discussions toward very insightful areas – related energy and water issues, geopolitics, science communication, and local activism all showed up in the discussions. (No one wanted to be a climatologist, but everyone who spoke wanted to be part of the transition. I chalk this up to ‘scientist’ being an un-sexy position to aspire to in high school more than a lack of interest.)

    Re: Watts. One must also remember that he is not engaging in political activism, no sir, not one bit.

    Re: Pierrehumbert’s book. I have no trouble accessing it with a Canadian connection. It’s also not behind an academic paywall, as I’ve downloaded a copy of it at home as well.

    • Hey Brian, thanks for dropping in. What area are you doing your grad studies in?

      In my school science is actually quite popular, and especially within my social group. We have a great humanities program as well. My geography class a few years ago was taught in a very environmentally-centered way (seminars on David Suzuki, writing a paper on An Inconvenient Truth, etc) and I think that was one of the major reasons I became interested in the environment – an aptitude for math and science is what steered me towards climatology specifically.

      I think if you catch people at around the age I am, where they’re mature enough to understand world issues, but young enough to have an open mind, you can get some really good discussions going. We almost never read out of the textbook in that class. We discussed stuff instead. And it helped me learn about the issues so much better. If you care about the topic, it doesn’t feel like work….

      • Hey Brian, thanks for dropping in. What area are you doing your grad studies in?

        Cognitive science, though my undergrad was in physics. Like you, I wanted to be a scientist in high school, but I chose the wrong field when I entered university. By the time I realized that, I was so close to finishing my physics degree I completed it on momentum before moving on. The same thing is happening now with sustainability (I’m losing interest in cog-sci in favor of conservation engineering and environmental policy), so who knows where I’ll be in a few years?

        If you’re as highly motivated as you seem, have you ever considered applying for a summer student position at a university? Many labs hire summer students, and there are short-term positions available at some universities for high school students. My campus, the University of Alberta, for instance, has a program called WISEST which, in part, connects interested young women with labs in science and engineering, making hands-on experience easy to obtain. (I’m actually rather jealous of the program since there’s no equivalent for men.) The work isn’t glamorous by a longshot (usually it’s just clerical data-entry work) but it gets you exposed to a lab atmosphere and connects you to actual researchers and professor/grad student mentors in your field of choice (very useful for answering questions and recommending courses/readings). If you’re just entering your final year of high school, then you’re at the best possible time to track these positions down, in time for next summer before you start your undergrad.

      • Cognitive science sounds very cool. This is a great article regarding climate change which relates more to psychology, but you may find it interesting anyway: http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0702-26.htm

        I’m working with a non-profit climate change education organization this summer, but working at a university might be good for next year. Thanks for the tip.

  4. I just clicked the links, and they work fine for me (I assume you have a pdf file viewer). I can’t explain why it’s not working for you, I can only suggest you keep trying.

  5. I saw a few inconspicuous hat-tips in the post there :)

    I can see your interest in this subject far outweighs the speed at which the accompanying science will be presented to you in a classroom/university environment. Nothing to worry about.

    I will suggest a great book for you: Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences. It’s in 6 volumes and goes for something like $1800 on Amazon, but I’d look for it at alternate locations too, in a more convenient format. Probably the number one reference, and very multidisciplinary. If you can find it — you win at life.

  6. Oh, great. Now when I reference ClimateSight during GW debates, people will say “oh, the author’s in high school, you can’t trust her.” Oh well, I’m sure I’ll figure out some way around it. XD

    But in all seriousness, your honesty is very refreshing. You truly think like a scientist.

    • I’ve done just as many science courses as most members of the general public….and I can boast an average over 98%….but my favourite comeback to that objection is that students are the most credible because we are the most open-minded. We’re used to learning new things which force us to give up our previous way of thinking (eg all that crazy modern physics stuff). Our opinions are still fairly new and not very well-set, so we’re less susceptible to bias. Since we spend most of our time around teachers, who know more than we do about the topic at hand, we haven’t yet developed intellectual arrogance (well, except for that guy who told me that climate change was fake because “once dinosaurs lived on Earth and now they can’t”).

      • You are of course correct, and that’s a good perspective. Additionally, with today’s internet and easy-access libraries, information is not so hard to come by.

  7. Your passion for climate is inspiring. It’s great to hear that other young people are spreading the message. If you haven’t already checked it out, the “Climate Champions” program (very active in Canada) is a great opportunity for high schoolers like yourself to get more deeply involved in climate change solutions and activism.

  8. Kate,

    I’m also here by way of Michael Tobis’s link. For Open Access material directly and indirectly related to climate, I’ve begun compiling a list of resources, both text and audio/visual here [I’m avoiding hyperlinking to fly under the spam filter’s radar]: http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/open-source/ Something I’ve yet to add, but plan on soon is a section for completely Open Access journals. There are quite a few that publish papers relating to climate issues (http://www.bentham.org/open/toascj/; http://www.biogeosciences.net/; etc.).

    I also have a list of books (available either online or at most public libraries) you might find helpful: http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/books/

    Cheers!
    TB

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