On How to Have a Useful Conversation

I’ve not been posting on climate change much here at Inkstain recently for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, I’m trying to marshal all of my spare time (and Inkstain is a spare time gig) to think about western water.

Second, the whole climate blogothing has seemed to be increasingly less than helpful, where all the people playing have already made up their minds, and spend all their time trying to win the argument they’re having with all of the other people who have also made up their minds, and it’s all a colossal waste of time.

(a bunch of climate blogo insider stuff to follow – click through if you’re one of the five readers who cares)

That’s why I can’t be bothered with Yamal. I don’t really need to know – my understanding of climate science at this point is pretty robust to either outcome, and I’m happy to wait and read it sorted out in the literature. The blogoshouting just eats time and gives me a headache.

I realize this shortchanges a lot of really helpful blog work. Michael Tobis is great, however much we may disagree about some core issues. Andy Revkin seems to have found a way around the blogoshouting problem. Roger Pielke Jr. is useful and interesting about half the time almost all the time. (The other half rest of the time he gives me painful tribal blogoheadaches. Sorry, Roger, but I don’t much care about the upsidedownness of William Connolley’s thinking on paleoclimate reconstructions. Like Yamal – or is this Yamal? I’m confused, TLDR – my understanding of climate science and scientists is at this point pretty robust to the outcome.)

(update: Roger took issue with my math here – “about half the time” – and he’s right. I went back through a bunch of his posts and virtually all were in the “interesting stuff worth thinking about category. I was overly fixated on the bits that annoyed me.)

But this core dilemma is really what the latest shouting match, between Keith Kloor and Joe Romm, is all about. I recommend not spending too much time on it, but Keith’s a member of my tribe, and I also happen to strongly agree with him, so I feel some obligation to have his back in this affair. That said, I’ll share here an elaborated version of a comment I left over at WC’s place.

I for one have appreciated Keith calling Romm out for his bad behavior. If Romm were merely one more vitriolic blog, I’d be content to see him a) cheered on by a people who already agree with him, b) made a useful stalking horse by the Moranos of the world, and c) ignored by everyone else. But the attention he’s gotten from people like Friedman makes him an Important Voice. The fact that he engages in slash-and-burn, ad hominems, guilt by association attacks (Keith Kloor as Morano’s BFF? C’mon, that’s just bullshit, and the person who says stuff like that needs to be treated appropriately in response.) therefore makes him a problematic figure.

For those who accept the science, and the need for action on greenhouse gas reductions, there are hard and open questions about what might be the best paths forward. We need to be having serious and thoughtful discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. I don’t know the answers, and I really want to think hard about the best arguments made by a bunch of different smart people about how best to approach the problems of greenhouse gas reductions, geoengineering and climate change adaptation. Joe’s decided that he knows what’s right, which is fine, but his approach of labeling and trashing those who disagree with him, of essentially trying to silence them (“unquotable and uncitable”) rather than thoughtfully discussing the differences, makes him a harmful figure at this point.

He’s a harmful figure I’d rather just ignore, but unfortunately he’s made that difficult.

Plus, 2,700 words to trash Keith? Can’t you be a little more economical there, Joe? I mean, I know bits are essentially free on the ‘Net, but your readers’ time isn’t. Have a little respect for them.


  1. For me, the blogo winds blow 20,000 feet above where we are working. We are just trying to get something real accomplished and have it supported by science and engineering.

    Like you, I have dropped out of the climate change blurricane on the Web.

    Will the same yelling and not listening occur over water?

  2. Really nice work on this post, John, and much needed. The online vitriol on this issue, carried to the nth degree by the shameful Romm attack on Kloor, about puts one over the edge on the climate blogosphere, notwithstanding the wheat amidst all the chaff, as you point out. The with-us-or-against-us attitudes of some of those most convinced by the “consensus” science undercuts the value of their substantive contributions, while the head-in-the-sand blustering of those uneducable on the science repulses from the other side of the spectrum. A pox on both their houses, at this point, as there indeed is serious business to get done on this serious issue. And the needless and counterproductive animosity and venom only gets in the way. Glad you did this posting, and I’ll hope to point others to it as something of a last word on this recent tawdry exchange. Now back to the real work of addressing climate change and impacts. Lots worth doing on that score.

  3. I agree this is good work, John. But you didn’t provide a snapshot just of climate change debate.

    Starting with health care (or abortion or guns or … ), how many other hot socio-political debates did you summarize accurately with this statement?

    “… (A)ll the people playing have already made up their minds, and spend all their time trying to win the argument they’re having with all of the other people who have also made up their minds, and it’s all a colossal waste of time.”

    That’s our government and political system at its (unfortunate) best in 2009.

    So, well said!

  4. I also felt the need to “have Kloor’s back” in the Romm affair. (See Talking Trash at CEJournal.net.) Last night, my wife asked me why I felt so strongly about it. I told her that Keith’s being a friend and colleague was part of it, but that something else was even more important: Bullying, vituperative outbursts by Romm are doing much harm to the cause of grappling with climate change, just as Bud suggests.

    To borrow a term from the geosciences, Romm is the typesection for climate activist zealotry — the example by which all others are identified. As much as we would like to just go about our business and ignore him, his excesses must be called out.

  5. Um, Kloor has taken several whacks at Romm. Repeated whacks. It got so bad that Nature had to remove defamatory comments that Keith made on their blog, Climate Feedback.

    Is that part of the discussion?

  6. A couple of short items from the Fleck Five Six.

    First, Romm’s importance does not come from Tom Friedman, but his reputation and place in the DC policy establishment. You have it backwards, Friedman gives him ink because of this.

    Romm has worked the policy circuit for a long time. If you object to this you obviously have a serious problem with Roger Pielke Jr. who is engaged in the same activity.

    Second, it’s a mistake to think of Romm as a journalist especially in this case. Caldeira and Romm have known each other for a long time and Romm was very familiar with Caleira’s ideas.

    Third, Kloor has become the leading edge of the Colorado phalanx against Romm. Roger lost a lot when he went after Hanson full tilt and is not about to repeat that mistake. Kloor got one back in the nose when he really went too far and now is whining full time

    You have to read RPJr and Kloor’s blogs in tandem to see what is going on. It’s interesting to watch the difference between Kloor’s approach and Ben Hale’s.

    Finally, dsquared is the one to quote and it applies to Kloor

    “Okay, point one. The whole idea of contrarianism is that you’re “attacking the conventional wisdom”, you’re “telling people that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down”. In other words, you’re setting out to annoy people. Now opinions may differ on whether this is a laudable thing to do – I think it’s fantastic – but if annoying people is what you’re trying to do, then you can hardly complain when annoying people is what you actually do. If you start a fight, you can hardly be surprised that you’re in a fight. It’s the definition of passive-aggression and really quite unseemly, to set out to provoke people, and then when they react passionately and defensively, to criticise them for not holding to your standards of a calm and rational debate.”

  7. The problem is both sides are using deception and ad hominem attacks. I find myself in the middle. I think the climate is always an important issue, pollution is obviously a problem, the world has on average warmed over the last 159 years. BUT, I don’t think CO2 is causing the warming or the pollutant we need to be focusing on. I think both political parties are using skewing the issue is an extremely dangerous manner.

  8. My problem with Kloor: He accused me of making “ad hominum [sic] attacks and weasly [sic], unsubstantiated guilt-by-association smears” and “irresponsible character distortions,” while promoting a Pielke Jr piece in which Pielke accuses me of McCarthyism.

    I’m not sure how Kloor’s comments were part of a “serious and thoughtful discussion.”

  9. Brad –

    I’d agree that “weasly” and “smears” is not helpful language. I would hope Keith is learning something here about his use of language like that in these discussions.

    But Keith is factually correct in arguing that your piece in question used ad hominem arguments with respect to Ropeik and Pielke. You did not address the substance of what either of them said, but rather encouraged your readers to dismiss their views solely on the basis of their associations. That’s a textbook ad hominem argument. That does nothing to help me, as your reader, understand in any sort of serious and thoughtful way why you might think Ropeik and Pielke are wrong.

  10. There is, as they say, a back story.

    The problem with your criticism of Brad is that the subject of his post was a figure in Gore’s talk to the AAAS, where Roger had had a fit about a graph Gore showed. This got telephoned to Andy Revkin.

    At the end, it turned out that that graph Gore showed had come from the NY Times and was an accurate representation. Moreover, the graph that Roger claimed to be accurate, was not.

    Of course, Eli blogged on it with screen captures and graphs.

    In short Roger P. dissembled about what Gore said and showed and got called on it, but not before the whole thing had blown up.

    I guess it’s time for another blogger ethics panel.

  11. Eli/Joshua –

    If that was Brad’s substantive concern regarding Pielke’s comments in Andy’s story, he should have said that. He did not, choosing the ad hominem argument instead.

    By way of comparison, you made a substantive argument. So I don’t think this is, as you said, “a problem with my criticism of Brad,” so much as an illustration of the problem with Brad’s post.

    P.S. Thanks for keeping your Pielke comment record on my blog intact!

  12. Some bunnies (not Eli, I hasten to add) might think you are extremely forgiving when it comes to Roger and the stunts he has pulled, and become deeply unhappy when they are pointed out. Some bunnies (not Eli, I again hasten to add) might claim that you have given the impression (note I say “impression”, not that you have actually said so directly) that you are defending Keith Kloor out of professional loyalty. Those bunnies might think (although Eli never would) that you are really struggling here and getting a mite impatient, though Eli would never think such thoughts.

    Some people (not Eli, once more, as I hasten to add) might be persuaded that there was a pattern of attacks over at Prometheus against Gore, Hansen and now Romm, that departed from reality sort of instantly, and that ventures into technical matters were fraught, but somehow always came out at the same place. Perhaps Brad (and Eli would never think of talking for him), but just perhaps, Brad had seen ten, twenty, thirty or more of these posts, and concluded that there was an underlying cause, but as Eli said, this would be a conclusion that perhaps others had drawn. And then, those others, not Eli, of course (and that is true) thought how this pattern might be motivated by other connections. True that is drawing a conclusion based on a pattern, something always fraught, but just maybe there is a history to all this.

    Still, members of the Pielke fan club do comment on things in the water world and intend to continue in the spirit of fraternal exchange which we know (unlike others) that shall always be present at inkstain.

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