Sunday, 13 November 2011

Why Slow Climate?

The modern world is speedy, but there is often a benefit in stepping back and taking a longer look at things. In science, in climate science maybe more than others, there is a benefit in realising that the right answer won't be immediately apparent and that no single fact will ever prove completely decisive to our understanding of the climate system. It pays to take it slow.


A while ago, I came across the manifesto of the Slow Science movement and much of what they said echoes what I had been thinking. It is not possible to make an instant judgement of how a single paper or new piece of research changes your own (let alone a wider) view of science. These things take time to bed in, to find their place and true significance. It is in their relationships to other pieces of knowledge and in discussions with others that they are guided to where eventually they settle.

However, I don't agree with the opening line of their manifesto as a general truth about scientists, nor as a guiding principle: "We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time."

Werner Heisenberg, whose scientific chops few could doubt, noted that "Science, is rooted in conversations." Blogging and twittering are simply conduits for the conversations of our times. They won't replace the peer reviewed literature any time soon, but they do help to map out the web of inferences that connect all that information together. Conversations tug on those connections, testing their strength, working out by the most delicate of vibrations where the juiciest unclaimed bugs have landed.

OK, don't blog if you don't want to. But taking one's time and blogging are not necessarily antithetical. Some fine scientists blog. One can tweet or blog on a subject one has thought about deeply and slowly and the discipline of putting those thoughts into words can often help guide and objectify that thinking. Also, scientists do very often make rapid (days rather than months) decisions - when they are asked to review papers and proposals, or when they attend conferences and enter into the public and private conversations that follow them.

They even do it, in a more private way, every time they read a paper. The act of reading a paper is to make a series of judgements based on the evidence and argument provided in the paper against what is already known. Some people make notes about each paper as an aide memoire, others present their assessments in journal clubs and seminars or in more formal reviews. That's kind of what I want to do here: take the papers I've been reading and add my perspective to the range of views out there.

Blogging is also an invitation to the wider world to discuss a particular subject in an open manner. In doing so one can help to work out where the rough edges are on good ideas, rapidly find where the greatest flaws are in the bad ones. And, to work out what's nitpicking and what's not. In a more open discussion environment you also encounter people from outside of the discipline you work in and convincing them - or at least trying to convince them - of a particular point that convinces you (and vice versa obviously) can add a dimension to your understanding of the physical world that you would not otherwise have found. I'm open to people from all realms of knowledge to come along and join in, but I might also ask you so many questions, you'll wonder why you bothered.

This approach comes with caveats.

First, there are few papers I genuniely feel are so good that their methods can't be criticised. I'm not reviewing the papers here so I won't necessarily make constructive comments about the paper.

Second, though I try not to pick nits, I do. Nitpicking often serves as a proxy for something about the paper that bugs me, but that I can't quite put my finger on - an itch I can't scratch. Sometimes I figure it out, sometimes I don't, but I do occasionally revisit papers looking for the deeper scientific problem that irks me.

Third, my view of climate science isn't broad. Some bits I know better than others so oftentimes when reading a paper I end up with a series of questions to follow up (usually more papers to read) rather than anything conclusive. The converse of this is that what I think of as a decisive counter point in favour of or fatal to a paper's conclusions may be different to yours.

Fourth, my choice of papers is likely to send y'all to sleep. I have my interests, you have yours. I'll look at papers of wider interest when I read them.

Fifth, I reserve the right to change my mind. I know this confuses some people. So I thought it only fair to warn you.

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