Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dr Heidi: “Scientist”

“Dr. Cullen, a climatologist with a doctorate from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University” gets interviewed by a self styled ‘science’ reporter for the NY Times.

I found the interview revealing: it looks very much like a poor attempt at damage control. (Emphasis mine unless otherwise noted)

Extract 1:
Q: How did the Weather Channel executives know of you?

A: I think they’d been asking around. They were hunting for a Ph.D. scientist who could explain the science behind climate news. As it happened, my doctoral thesis has a lot of relevance to current affairs. Part of it involved looking at how to use climate information to manage water resources in the Middle East. It’s often said that the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water.

For my thesis, I studied droughts and the collapse of the first Mesopotamian empire — the Akkadian civilization. I was able to show that a megadrought at roughly 2200 B.C. played a role in its demise. I found the proof by examining the sediment cores of ancient mud. When one looked at the mud from the period around the Akkadian collapse, one found a huge spike in the mineral dolomite. That substance is an indicator of drought.
Here’s a tip to those who aspire to be thought of as “scientists”. Scientists understand the difference between ‘indications’ and ‘data’ . They also know the difference between ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’. They never confuse any two of the aforementioned. And they never fail to establish bounds around their assertions or hypotheses. I’ve read the paper(PDF here) (co)authored by Dr. Cullen.

While the paper presents evidence of correlation in time between drought and collapse, there is no “proof” per se as far as I can divine*. I see lots of (quite proper) weasel words and caveats. So I would also remind Dr. Cullen that scientists can tell the difference between ‘correlation’ and ‘cause’. It appears Dr Cullen knew the difference when she authored the paper, but it isn't clear she remembers it now.

*My Caveat: I concede the obvious and non-paper-worthy observation that droughts, in all likelihood, do not make anything easier on any society or culture. Duh.

Extract 2.

Q: What’s the point of knowing this?

A: Because until recently, historians, anthropologists and archaeologists were reluctant to say that civilizations could collapse because of nature. The prevailing theories were that civilizations collapsed because of political, military or medical reasons — plagues. Climate was often factored out.

And yet, indifference to the power of nature is civilization’s Achilles’ heel. I think the events around Hurricane Katrina reminded us that Mother Nature is something we haven’t yet conquered.

Now, I am far more ancient than Dr. Cullen, and even I learned in school that ‘nature’ was a major factor in the disappearance of the Anasazi (although we kids just knew them as ‘cliff dwellers’ back then). Perhaps Dr. Cullen is using the term ‘recently’ in terms of a geologic scale?

I only ask, because a quick side trip to the JSTOR archives confirms my childhood memories: in scientific journals, climate/drought shows up repeatedly in the 1940s as one possible factor in the depopulation of cliff dwellings. By the 1970’s, the number of papers published identifying climate/drought as a PRIME factor was growing.

Extract 3.

Q: Rush Limbaugh accused you of Stalinism. Did you suggest that meteorologists who doubt global warming should be fired?

A: I didn’t exactly say that. I was talking about the American Meteorological Society’s seal of approval. I was saying the A.M.S. should test applicants on climate change as part of their certification process. They test on other aspects of weather science.
Wow. Leading and inflammatory question aside, Dr Cullen is doing a little Three Card Monte with the truth in her response. What she wrote (link in original):
"I'd like to take that suggestion a step further. If a meteorologist has an AMS Seal of Approval, which is used to confer legitimacy to TV meteorologists, then meteorologists have a responsibility to truly educate themselves on the science of global warming.
Using the Reasonable Man approach to his statement, what else could “confer legitimacy to TV meteorologists” mean other than “confer employability”?

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