In Which I Utterly, Completely, and For the Last Time (I Promise, Really) Swear Off All Participation in the Hockey Wars

Dan Sarewitz is so predictably right that it’s become comical.

“(S)cience,” Sarewitz argues, “supplies contesting parties with their own bodies of relevant, legitimated facts about nature, chosen in part because they help make sense of, and are made sensible by, particular interests and normative frameworks.”

In the resulting hoohaws, Sarewitz argues, the debate happens on the terrain of science, rather than the terrain of the underlying policy/value disagreement, with each side believing it will win the larger battle if it can grab the scientific high ground.

I’ve long had a crude metric that I’ve used to guide my journalism on these issues: where’s the “bulk of the science”? It seems that it’s clearly my job to explain that to readers. Using that metric, it’s usually pretty obvious which side of each argument is picking outliers to bolster their case and which side is centered on the consensus. (Note to Chris Mooney: there are plenty of case studies in my life of the left picking outliers as well as the right. Scientization is an equal opportunity practice.)

A couple of years ago, when I first started playing around as a climate blogger, I naively thought defending the bulk of science in this area meant defending the classic Mann, Bradley and Hughes hockey stick, a paleoclimate reconstruction showing relatively flat global temperatures (the stick’s handle) followed by a rapid rise in the 20th century (the blade).

When a new hockey-stick-shaped climate reconstruction would appear in the literature, I’d blog it. I fisked the hockey stick’s critics. But I gradually came to the realization implicit in that last fisking – that the debate over the hockey stick was not really about our understanding of paleoclimate. It had become a “scientized” argument, to borrow Sarewitz’s helpful coinage.

Paleoclimate research has moved on, with serious critiques (see for example von Storch, McIntyre and McKitrick), defenses against the critiques (Mann et al.), Huybers and, oddly, von Storch again) as well as some really interesting new reconstructions (especially Moberg) and tests of methods. The science is really interesting, both strengthening our understanding of paleoclimate and also showing us where it is weak.

It’s the sort of rich and interesting scientific debate that plays out all the time in the journals, as new work questions old, views are overthrown or revised, new knowledge supplants or reinforces old. If it’s an argument about something detached from our everyday lives – water on Mars, say, or the expansion rate of the universe – we can all take up our ringside seats and enjoy the give and take. Or ignore it.

Ah, but when we step onto the playing field (the ice?) described by Sarewitz, it gets all weird. And so the Hockey Wars, played out again and again in places like Tech Central Station and the comment threads at RealClimate, ClimateAudit and David Appell’s late and much missed Quark Soup, played like an endless broken record: The Hockey Stick is Broken! No It’s Not! Mann’s a Scientific Fraud! McIntyre’s a Fossil Fool!

So I largely swore off the hockey wars.

But I’ve been forced (lured?) back onto the Hockey ice several times recently by comments in this blog.

By opening Inkstain for comments, I feel some obligation to engage in the discussion. But the discussion here has become something of a waste of time. In trying to argue against the allegations here that Mann’s work is a “lie,” “scientific corruption,” etc., I’ve lost many hours of my life over the last few days that I’ll never get back.

Here is why I felt compelled to jump into this.

The “fraud/fossil fool” tropes leveled by both sides in this ice fracas are Sarewitz’s “scientization” taken into the context of a sort of rhetorical excess common in the blogosphere wherein one characterizes one’s opponents as venal, stupid, or both. This is an easy way out, because it allows one to dismiss one’s opponents rather than engage them. And yet, any really interesting debate has honest and intelligent people on both sides. If you’re not recognizing that and engaging your opponents’ arguments respectfully and sincerely, you’re not really doing a very good job of holding up your side of the argument. The scientific literature turns out to be a great place for the substantive engagement, which is why I keep trying to steer the discussion in the comments here back in that direction. Sadly, I’m not being terribly successful.

I happen to think the new Osborn and Briffa paper, which started the latest hoohaw here, sheds some interesting new light on our understanding of paleoclimate. Unfortunately, the light drained quickly from the comment thread, reminding me of why I swore off the Hockey wars.

Which is why I’ve turned off comments on this post.