Science and sensibility.

In the ordinary way of things, I steer clear of the science debates over global warming. I served my time in those trenches many years ago and though it’s an important part of the overall push back, I concluded I could be of more use elsewhere and in different and perhaps less virtuous ways. However, I do keep an eye on the topical issues by lightly following a few sciency blogs and the twitter feeds of people evenly placed along the migratory way stations to climate skepticism.

It’s just passive sigint, something I monitor. I never get involved and just leave them to handbag away at each other. It gets a tad bitchy at times but mostly they all seem to be enjoying themselves in a dry academic sense and on occasion it’s not a bad spectator sport. It keeps them off the streets and out of trouble, I suppose.

One of the people I keep an eye on is Judy Curry, who’s someone for reasons I’ve never quite fathomed I’ve always thought of as the Ellen Ripley of climate science; one arm protectively carrying the child Newt AKA some sort of scientific objectivity but in the other a bloody good over and under pulse rifle complete with underslung grenade launcher and a flamethrower duck taped to the side of it. I do like the way she stands her ground and is up for a bit of war when it’s required; no weak sister there …

This week she became engaged in a soft to medium Twitter firefight with a turnip called Gavin Schmidt over something sciency, the tedious details of which are not worth disturbing the serenity surrounding a Brahmin like your good self, but the turnip got his ass handed to him in short order. The propagandists are slightly afraid of her, and with good reason.

A few acid tweets by a very strict Mistress Judith and the freshly lashed turnip morphed into a trussed up turkey but his rather pathetic parting shot as he limped away from the scene with both his hands clutching the by now tender dangly bits between his legs was “there are degrees of correctness”.

There sure are, turnip boy, and on that occasion you were definitely on the zero degrees end of it.

At an immediate level, it’s an abuse of that precise instrument called language. Correct as a word is uncompromising – it doesn’t have degrees of correctness. You are, it is, or whatever, is correct or it’s not. Quite simple really. Anything else is the sludge mind verbiage of every jackass found out in public and beating a hasty retreat, or a lazy propagandist at work, but either way it’s a binary state word. It’s like saying there are degrees of pregnancy. Perhaps that’s the way pregnancy works in turnip world but not in this one; the real one. The bun is in the oven or it’s not.

Despite wot I might occasionally write, I am at heart a bloodless grammarian and find such sloppy use of language objectionable. Granted, from time to time I break a few of the rules myself but knowingly so, and it’s only ever for reasons of readability and cadence; never for tawdry things like tricking the reader.

As long as my intent gets through to you, I don’t really mind if it finally got there on a manky old handcart I’m pushing through a fierce headwind into driving rain up cobbled streets with a plaintive version of that god awful song Molly Malone ringing in my ears. I’d like it better but sometimes you’ve just got to get the thing there, ugly or otherwise.

It’s an example of what I call language creep that seems endemic if not epidemic in climate science. A tentative scientific assertion is made deep in a paper, but with caveats and some sort of confidence guestimate. By the time a summary of the paper for policy makers is done or the press release for it is issued, all uncertainty has been magically banished as though it never existed. Phrases like conceivably might happen successively mutate into probably could happen and finally arrive at will happen.

All those little adjustments to wording and fudging over the uncertainties are all driven by the science is settled mantra, because having to admit they’re not sure, never mind they simply don’t have a clue, might bring down the whole house of cards. When you look into the detail of so much climate science, the uncertainties are large, the climate models are basically crap from any predictive perspective and overlooking and ignoring those problems will neither bottom them out nor make them go away.

Climate science is actually in its infancy. At this stage, even calling it a science is a bit of a reach. There are simply too many unknowns, unknown unknowns and some of the vital enablers such as a robust mathematical treatment of things like turbulence are still a long way off.

Words are important, because that’s the language we use to process pattern and order in the world about us. If you’re too sloppy or lazy to use language precisely, then that’s the way you’re going to think; sloppily and lazily.

In the beginning was the word, and all order came thereafter.


Related articles by Pointman:

Make no mistake, words are ammo.

Conflation, confusion and conditioning.

Armageddon Report No. 5.

Butt wiggling and the science of uncertainty.

Click for a list of other articles.

13 Responses to “Science and sensibility.”
  1. Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:

    Truth, worthy of acceptance.


  2. Denis says:

    Good article, Pointman.

    To me “climate science” is more about ‘political correctness’ and is driven by just another bunch of so called social justice warriors.


  3. levieuxcoq says:

    Not to forget the irregular verb—

    “Irregular verbs:
    I have an independent mind
    You are an eccentric
    He is round the twist”


  4. Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” gives highest place to this admonition: “Simplify, simplify, simplify”.


  5. Blackswan says:

    Well said Pointy.

    Turnips have a limited vocabulary. They only speak in buzz words, catch phrases, cliches and slogans. And if caught short they invent their own language … or purloin other words to give them a whole new meaning – such as ‘catastrophic’ or ‘global’ or ‘warming’.


    • Blackswan says:

      BTW – Turnip is a brilliant nom de guerre P.

      Fuzzy green bits on top and hiding under the dirt is a bland, colourless, tasteless tuber of little nutritional value, often misshapen and resembling a couch potato, usually fed to pigs or cattle to exercise their jaws and fill one of their many stomachs.



    • Denis says:

      Hey Blackswan

      Tell the folk what has happened to ‘green’ Tasmania electricity.

      I sit in the Philippines so am no longer personally concerned with cold weather.


      • Blackswan says:

        Hey Denis,

        This issue is not about Green power but as usual … money, and lots of it.

        More unintended consequences of PM Gillard’s Carbon Tax as our once-self-sufficient Hydro power generators decided to cash in by generating full power for its lucrative carbon credits even though our lake levels were dropping with low rainfall.

        “Hydro Tasmania made a calculated decision to increase output – and run down water storages – to sell as much electricity as possible at the higher rate.”

        In 2006 a foreign-owned company opened a Bass Link Cable to the mainland, allowing us to buy and sell power to the state of Victoria. The exercise was never about providing half a million Tasmanians with electricity or fibre optics, it was always about the Money Men of London and Singapore hedging their bets and playing with money (and other people’s lives) on their global chessboard.

        BPL’s ultimate holding company surprisingly is domiciled in the Cayman Islands. There are reasons for such complicated structures apart from generating fees for investment bankers. One is to minimise tax and another is to frustrate claims and limit liability.

        So, as the cable remains stuffed and our mothballed gas turbines are fired up, and 200 diesel generators are imported and begin guzzling fuel, with some of our highland lakes down to 5% capacity seriously threatening serious damage to Hydro power plants, all the Green Turnips can offer is … “See? We told you Catastrophic Global Warming is gonna wreck the joint!”

        Yeah, right. The Money Men have nothing to do with it.


  6. 1957chev says:

    Reblogged this on "Mothers Against Wind Turbines™" Phoenix Rising… and commented:
    Pointman Speaks About Climate Science & “Language Creep”. He definitely has a “Way With Words”.


  7. Michael 2 says:

    I appreciate your recognition of the distinction between correct and effective use of the English language. These were judged independently in my Navy career. Correct is desired but effective is what keeps the ship afloat.


  8. asybot says:

    I am just unable to understand the idiocy of what is going on our planet. It is truly beyond belief. The people that are our so called “leaders” are so f.d up I really wonder how long this farce is going to last. All we can do is to prepare our loved ones for the worst but that is even become a hard thing to do. IS there some answer?


  9. Dodgy Geezer says:

    …All those little adjustments to wording and fudging over the uncertainties are all driven by the science is settled mantra, because having to admit they’re not sure, never mind they simply don’t have a clue, might bring down the whole house of cards…

    Let’s get this straight. This ‘certainty’ is down to the fact that this is NOT science – this is activism using science for it’s own ends, and simply altering it when it doesn’t say what the activists need….


  10. erl happ says:

    By God Pointman, you write well.


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