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The genius of academe

Ivory Tower by Sue Barnes (Click for details)Google Alerts advises me of a new paper in the journal Research Policy entitled 'Boundaries, breaches, and bridges: The case of Climategate'. Penned by Raghu Garud of the Business School at Penn State and colleagues from the University of Alberta and MIT's Sloan School of Business, it examines the aftermath of Climategate, looks at efforts to restore the credibility of climate science, and considers why people still doubt.

The authors have a bit of a problem though. While they claim to have read Watts up with That and Climate Audit, neither blog is cited in a meaningful way. Similarly, The Hockey Stick Illusion is named in passing, but this blog and Hiding the Decline don't even warrant a mention. Garud and his colleagues have learned about Climategate and global warming sceptics from tomes such as Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand by Haydn Washington and John Cook (cited seven times), J.L. Powell's The Inquisition of Climate Science (cited ten times) and Mann's Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars (seven times).

You can see where this is leading. Our dogged detectives learn that 'deniers' (a word used throughout the article) are so-called because they 'deny the truth', and that they use 'multiple tactics ranging from "conspiracy theories" to “logical fallacies"'. They also discover that those implicated in Climategate were exonerated without a stain upon their honour. Then, however, the headscratching begins. How can it be then that people still don't trust the utterances of climatologists? What can be done?

The answer to this conundrum is - you will never believe it - to be found in the realms of communication. Although Garud and his colleagues note that some observers think that communication is not enough, and point to such initiatives as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team (seriously!) that are already in place, they suggest that something called a 'narrative approach' might also be a part of the solution.

A narrative approach recognizes that “facts” must be categorically embedded within the cultural symbols in currency and rendered relevant by contextualizing them into stakeholders’ lived experiences...

...narratives convince by ringing true (or what Bruner, 1986 calls “verisimilitude”). In this way, a narrative approach shifts the conversation from issues of uncertainty to plausibility, without succumbing to the problem of “overselling certainty”.

If you are still not entirely sure what they mean by this (and before you ask, yes the whole paper is written in that style) you are in good company. However, the authors go on to discuss Judith Curry's comments about fiction as a vehicle for explaining the complexities of climatology to the lay public and so they seem to be saying that the public can be brought into line with a whole lot of novels based on scientifically plausible scare stories.

It's a plan I suppose, but it has something of familiar ring to it in my humble opinion. I wonder what conclusions they would have reached if they'd read just a teeny bit more widely before they put pen to paper?

It's rather extraordinary that a group of academics from top universities could go careering off into a field in which they seem to have no apparent expertise, read a hopelessly biased selection of the literature and come up with precisely the same ineffective plan that everyone else has come up with in the last three years. Rather surprising too that a journal would publish it. It's even more amazing that students pay good money to receive the benefit of an education from any of those involved.

But in terms of entertainment value, you can't knock it.

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Reader Comments (78)

Hi Barry,
It was also a time when cuts in funding (and jobs!) were being threatened.

Disappointing (but understandable!) that they were willing to sign without reading any of the emails.

Certainly it was a political statement. There was much propaganda at the time hyperventilating about global warming and pre-empting the approaching Copenhagen talks. Richard Black of the BBC was doing his 'Copenhagen Countdown' and the Met Office had produced their Global warming pamphlet with its super-mega 'hockeystick' .

(unfortunately the Met Office link no longer works - Richard Betts had the link severed when it was pointed out to him the sort of propaganda the MO was producing at the time of Copenhagen)

Amazing the very shoddy reports that can be secured by govt. funding (either direct or indirect). John Shade's recipe above is one example that can generate no end of funding and I am sure that is the reason we're having the sociology set jumping on the bandwagon! The report cited by the Bishop above seems to be one such, it seems due diligence is something our current academe (of certain subjects!) don't believe in!! If only they had read the Climategate mails themselves they may have reached a different conclusion but perhaps that is assuming a certain level of integrity.

Sep 16, 2013 at 2:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterMarion

Simple translation:

Let's create a compelling narrative that imparts truth to the public in a culturally sensitive way = Let's brainwash these bumpkins

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterMickey Reno

Well I understand it perfectly. It means if you want to convince a bunch of deluded idiots, you need to get them thinking.

Unfortunately they fail at the first hurdle: Assuming that they themselves have intelligence.

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterDoug Young

Once again Penn State leads the way down.

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterNoblesse Oblige

Why is it that the more vacuous and discredited the message, the more people like Garud try to dress it up in meaningless pseudo intellectual language.

Simple to the point English would do. People might even read it and then dismiss it as the usual warmist piffle, rather than look at the first sentence and think, incomprehensible warmist piffle designed to say absolutely nothing of merit.

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterStu

In the U.S., there's always been a tendency to equate a strong football team with a strong University. In the past, Penn State have been known for their football teams ...

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeP


More or less infamous than their hockey equipment shenanigans? Jail time for both in a just world.

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:39 PM | Registered Commenterflaxdoctor

Paul Mathews comment, paraphrase ... these people write incompressible garbage ... reminds me, a mathematician, invigilating a Sociology Exam in the 1960s, and reading through the Paper looking for typos, it didn't help --- it was all pretentious garbage like that.

Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida have a lot answer for.

Grüss, omb

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:46 PM | Unregistered Commenterombzhch

This article might be another hoax article like the Sokal affair. If it's not a hoax, it supports the point being made by Sokal.

Sep 16, 2013 at 3:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeC

Is anybody wondering what was the instigation for this research. Given the lead author's residence at Penn State, the acorn does not fall far from the tree.

Sep 16, 2013 at 4:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterManniac

Penn State - read no further. There is no college in America that is more tainted with scandal. A serial offender such as this institution would normally cease to exist but this one has joined the ranks of zombi institutions that lives on.

Sep 16, 2013 at 4:14 PM | Unregistered Commenterdp

The parallels between present day climate science and pre-Copernican astronomy continue apace, we have our sociologist bishops pushing bills of anathema, the only thing missing are the jails and executions.

Sep 16, 2013 at 4:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterJEM

Bishop don't be surprised. You and your flock are wimps. Stiffen your spine, stop speaking out of both corners of your mouth, become more strident. Your flock are deluding themselves if they think that the skeptics are winning the argument.
The IPCC is still there. Climatology is still considered a science. Climate change is still the mantra of the private and public sphere. And the journalists? They are the pires putains du monde.

Sep 16, 2013 at 4:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Steiner

The climate activists' burden.

Sep 16, 2013 at 4:58 PM | Registered CommenterHaroldW

The authors are not terribly biased in any one direction. It has the usual social-sciences mumbo-jumbo terminology but all social sciences have these. I like reading these sorts of papers.

The biggest flaw in the paper is the uncritical laundering of Mann's Hockey War book, Cook's 'book' and the Powell guy's book. Quoting passages from these things should be fine, but some of the premises in these sources have been internalised in the paper (which is the unfortunate part). Look past that, and a familiar analytic framework is presented in the paper: it is the boundary business everyone's talking about. Within the core of this analysis, and holding one's nose to the authors' use of just these three sources, it is possible to see what the authors are trying to say (it is nothing earth-shattering).

To the point of Bish's post though, yes, their diagnosis is wrong and therefore their treatment will be wrong too. The boundaries are breached, destroyed, and are breaking because there are problems within and not because 'skeptics' or 'deniers' are doing something from the outside. The illness is inside. 'Boundary repair work' won't work. It will take a long time and it will, from the looks of it, take place only when some of the toxic characters eventually move out of the reckoning in this field. (In other words, not going to happen).

A similar analysis must be undertaken, but from within the skeptical side. It must be from one intimately familiar with the innards and details of the Climategate story, and not be afflicted by tunnel vision, an uncharitable streak, or personal vendatta against climate science or climate scientists. (the authors in question above suffer from lack of familiarity of their chosen topic). It must be done sympathetic to science and to the questions raised by Climategate - both!

Sep 16, 2013 at 5:01 PM | Registered Commentershub

The article is typical postmodernist thrash, with a touch of Kuhn and a pinch of Derrida. May have been generated by the Postmodernism Generator ( Click on the external link provided, and voilá: an illuminating and unique anti-enlightenment essay is promptly generated for you.

Sep 16, 2013 at 5:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterH.M.


Thanks for the analysis.

But I think I'll wait for the film ..assuming it has English subtitles.

Sep 16, 2013 at 7:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

The more smoke you blow , the more BS your trying to hide.

Sep 16, 2013 at 8:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterKNR

"I don't often say this, but thank heavens the paper is behind a pay-wall."

That is both incisive and very funny.
Well done.

Sep 16, 2013 at 9:12 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie

Mike C

I also was thinking of Sokol when I read this. But then they seem to have some kind of point they wanted to make in the actual article.

Sep 16, 2013 at 9:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie

Sep 16, 2013 at 2:33 PM | jamesp

Nothing beckoning. They're there without trying.

Sep 16, 2013 at 11:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterManfred

Jimmy Haigh wrote "As I've said before, many times, clever people don't need to use big words to get their meaning across."

I grant that foolish people commonly use big words to try to obscure their foolishness. I grant that that looks like what is happening here. I might go so far as to tentatively agree with H.M., "typical postmodernist thrash." But I think your point as stated goes too far, so that it is incorrect. In truth, sometimes clever people find they need to use big words to get their meaning across.

For a decent example which happens to be online at , the first volume of the Feynman lectures on physics is generally well-regarded, and people generally agree that Feynman was clever. Nonetheless in e.g. I find "equipartition", "Brownian [motion]", "qualitatively", "molecular", "kinetic", and so forth. They are not tossed together in obscurantist word salad, but them's big words, yup.

For a harder-core example (harder-core because so many of its words name unfamiliar intangible unfamiliar concepts, unlike Feynman's words like "qualitative" and "kinetic" that many readers will be somewhat familiar with), I have a cheap Dover reprint of a nifty book explaining, starting at roughly a US-high-school math level, Abel's classic impossibility theorem showing that there is no way to generalize the quadratic theorem to arbitrarily high-order polynomials. (There are generalizations to polynomials of order 3 and order 4, but there are no generalizations to polynomials of order 5 or higher. The book is Maxfield and Maxfield, _Abstract Algebra and Solution by Radicals_.)

It seems to me that the authors do a good job of avoiding *unnecessary* use of big words. Nonetheless, they still naturally use quite a few technical words, including quite a few that they define en route to the result (such as "automorphism" and "homomorphic"). Similarly, they also define and use many technical phrases (such as "irreducible integer" and "equivalence class" and "cyclic group" and "splitting field"), and those phrases have such carefully defined specialized meanings that they are essentially equivalent to big words: coining new words such as "irreducinteger" and "equivaclass" and "cycligroup" to replace the phrases would change the book hardly at all.

Maxfield and Maxfield get their meaning across. They use big words, and they use jargon phrases that are the moral equivalent of big words. The difficulty does not seem to be that they are such un-clever people that they can't find some natural small-words way of explaining their meaning. It's that the meaning that they are getting across (largely the basics of "Galois theory", plus the basics of prerequisite abstractions such as group theory) is sufficiently arcane that in more than a century no one has ever found a natural small-words way of explaining it, and we might suspect that none exists.

Don't use big words where small words will do. But small words won't always do.

Sep 17, 2013 at 12:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Newman

The bottom line why?
Why is it so fundamentally necessary for the general public go with this message? Why are such methods even contemplated? If there is substantive proof of manmade global warming then it should be explainable and relatively easily done so.
No, CO2 global warming/climate change is hokum and the public are catching on to it. Where is the basic science that says that manmade CO2 causes warming? If they can not explain why for the majority of the last 20 years warming has not happened then they can not explain anything and their theory is broken. Until the basic theory is fixed then all climate mediation measures should be scaled back. CO2 taxes and 'greenhouse gas' reductions must be re-assessed.

Sep 17, 2013 at 2:16 AM | Unregistered Commentertom0mason

Look On My Words, Ye Mighty, And Despair! Here's the source:

The "Chomskybot!"

Sep 17, 2013 at 2:41 AM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

So Brian, 50 years ago, when SCI FI term first surfaced, would you have objected to it too? Answer:

Cli fi is just a shortened form for "climate fiction" novels" be they pro AGW or anti AGW, or Atwood or Nathaniel Rich or Ian McEwan or Cormac McCarthy. Fiction, novels, about climate issues, that's all the sign at Foyles says. At the St Pancras store they had another sign that reads: ''CLI FI: climate fact and climate ficiton" - Foyles is the first bookstore in the world to put these signs at such cli fi tables. and putting Chrichton there was cool. I am open to all POV. now we are friends?

Sep 17, 2013 at 3:17 AM | Unregistered Commenterdan bloom

"However, the authors go on to discuss Judith Curry's comments about fiction as a vehicle for explaining the complexities of climatology to the lay public and so they seem to be saying that the public can be brought into line with a whole lot of novels based on scientifically plausible scare stories."

Never underestimate the power of Hollywood progressives to remake the culture is support of their political ideology. Forget An Inconvenient Truth. The China Syndrome had an enormous impact by demonizing nuclear power with a "plausible scary story."

Sep 17, 2013 at 4:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterGaryM

@ bernie and mike c

Re Sokal - the comparisons with now are instructive. Sokal had noted the anti-intellectual nature of liberal arts departments and sought to publish some utter bullsh1t in one of their journals to prove them stupid. His view, IIRC, was that the reverse was not possible: that a liberal arts academic would never be able to hoax a science journal with a piece of flimflam science.

We now know that Sokal was wrong: it is entirely possible to get abject climate science or CAGW bullsh1t published, as long as it wears the right colours politically. As he commented afterwards, "The editors...liked my article because they liked its conclusion...They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion".

This is the only basis I can imagine for anyone publishing anything by cook, Nuccitelli or Lewandowsky.

Sep 17, 2013 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterJustice4Rinka

@ William Newman who writes
I find "equipartition", "Brownian [motion]", "qualitatively", "molecular", "kinetic", and so forth. They are not tossed together in obscurantist word salad, but them's big words, yup."
No, they are everyday words for a scientist who deals with chemistry.
We & our cousins, the pharmacists, are working the opposite way. There are at least 4 main layers of complexity in chemical names, starting with the IUPAC description (which is unequivocal and can be used for independent synthesis of the compound); there is the short chemical name; there is the label name; then the formula name the latter 3 increasingly shorter than the first and of less information content.
e.g. methylbenzene = toluene=gas (as in petrol component) = C6H5-CH3
This does not mean that chemists talk to each other in convoluted language. We try to use short words and clear English or other language, together with large techie words sufficient to convey the scientific meaning.
Perhaps the sociologists writing in the above examples are doing similar? I don't think so, for they have few parts of a sentence that are small, clear words. Their jargon is nothing more than an affectation.

Sep 17, 2013 at 11:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

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