Red-Teaming the Climate Question

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High Rock Canyon, Nevada, photo by the author

Recently, thousands of people, and even a few penguins at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, turned out to protest against the politicization of science.  The protestors insist that policy making in government circles should be evidence based, and that heavyweight decisions on issues such as climate change should be made by reference to scientific fact, rather than deep state politics.

On the surface, that’s hard to argue with.

But not every scientist believes in climate change, and even amongst those who do, arguments rage on endlessly about the genesis. Is it human caused? Are ice-ages and warming trends part of the natural ebb and flow of the planet? Are scientific groups fudging the numbers to boost their research dollars?

For the average citizen, trying to form an educated opinion on the topic, and choosing where to put our loyalties, can be difficult, particularly if one is trying to keep an open mind and avoid being swept overboard by a rogue wave of fad science. Truly, I’m no scientist, and the only contribution I can make to the conversation is anecdotal: it used to snow more, didn’t it? Didn’t that lake have more water in it, once? So, like most of us, I’m dependent on the integrity of scientists and their research to help me form an intelligent opinion.

Enter Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist and former undersecretary of energy in the Obama Administration. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Koonin recently offered a terrific idea: Red Team it.

Red Teams were probably first brought to the general public’s consciousness by the notorious frogman Dick Marcinko, whose Red Cell unit terrorized and embarrassed the US Security apparatus by, among other capers, breaking into submarine bases, planting bombs near Air Force One, and kidnapping flag officers. They actually did all of those things. The point was to expose weaknesses in the security arrangements, both the obvious ones and the obscure ones, with an eye toward improving them.

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Near Shiprock, New Mexico, photo by the author

The embarrassment Red Cell created among the top brass probably cost Marcinko his job, but the point lingered and, as Koonin writes: “The process is now considered a best practice in high-consequence situations…It is very different and more rigorous than traditional peer review, which is usually confidential and always adjudicated, rather than public and moderated.”

What could be of more consequence than a theory suggesting that climate change is going to destroy the planet we live on? Koonin writes that he recently attended a meeting with over a hundred government and university researchers, who challenged each other vigorously in an effort to “separate human impacts from the climate’s natural variability.”

In other words, climate change is far from “settled science”, if such a thing is even possible.

Koonin also points out that documents purporting to be a kind of final word, such as the United Nations’ Summary for Policymakers, “largely fail to capture this vibrant and developing science. Consensus statements necessarily conceal judgment calls and debates and so feed the ‘settled’, ‘hoax’ and ‘don’t know’ memes that plague the political dialogue around climate change.”

Koonin goes on to suggest an innovative idea: take a published report used to help policymakers, such as the US Government’s “National Climate Assessment,” then form a Red Team of scientists to critique the document. Form a Blue Team to “rebut the critique.” Do it again. And again. And do it in full public view, so that average Joe’s, like you and me, might form a better understanding of the “certainties and uncertainties” in climate science. Koonin writes that Red Teaming the discussion in such a manner would “more firmly establish points of agreement…identify urgent research needs…and put science front and center in policy discussions, while publicly demonstrating scientific reasoning and argument.”

It’s hard not to like Koonin’s idea. Every single one of us has a dog in this fight, for obvious reasons, but with so much hair and spit flying around the discussion it can be very challenging to see what is actually going on—what the actual state of the science is. Koonin’s notion, whose outcome is so wonderfully unknown, could only result in making us better informed so that we might then weight our opinions beyond the realm of Facebook memes, fuzzy anecdote, and pure emotion.

So, why not Red Team it? In keeping with Dick Marcinko’s tradition—his team made videotapes of their missions so that there could be no doubt of their success–I might even watch Climate Change debates on television. In fact, if I were a producer, I would pilot a program called “The Real Scientists of Climate Change”, sell some ad time for soap and soda pop, then sit back and pray for ratings.

Thursday nights could get a lot more interesting if edgy scientists were allowed to openly debate their positions–and so inform the world–on what is probably one of the more important questions of our time.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper 25 April 2017

 

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11 thoughts on “Red-Teaming the Climate Question

    • I think that would go a long way to eliminating the fraud claims of the opposition, and I think Koonin suggests that in his piece as well. Part of the problem is that instead of red-teaming this in the open, there has been adjudicated peer review, which has opened the field up to criticism that has not been satisfactorily answered.

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      • Just make sure none of the guests are slouching in their chairs and or showing arm tattoos (inside joke). Great idea Craig and I would watch / participate in such a program as well. As a whole we struggle to critically evaluate anything without the involved becoming hysterical.

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  1. Speaking as someone with multiple degrees in science, I’d like to point out that science is only settled until it isn’t. What I mean is that science by its very nature can’t be completely settled because it is always open to challenge, new data and models, and revision.

    I’m not saying that the Red Cell approach is bad. I think it’s an excellent idea and should be tried. But it won’t necessarily provide a definitive result.

    There is very much an orthodoxy in climate change, The same can be said for cosmology, evolutionary biology, or most any subfield in the sciences. Those who hold with the orthodoxy may or may not be correct. Scientists are people. Their discussions can get pretty heated and involve things other than data, such as ego and potential funding. I’ve seen it happen more than once. (And I would so watch a show like “The Real Scientists of Climate Change”.)

    Relying on the experts isn’t necessarily the best strategy. Sometimes the dissident voices are the ones that are correct. One example is that all the experts laughed at Wegner, but his model of continental drift and plate techtonics is now the standard model, with some revisions. The other example I’d provide is diet and nutrition advice. Compare what we’re told we should and shouldn’t eat today with what we were told 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

    Will something similar happen in the field of climate change? I don’t know. We don’t understand our planet as much as we sometimes think we do. We need more data. And that I think everyone can agree on.

    Sorry for rambling on. I’ll be quiet now.

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    • I so hoped you would chime in, thank you. This blog is only settled until it isn’t. And I think you are right, it’s the lack of data, and the strange legerdemain that surrounds much of it, that seems to have created the gigantic rift between believers and non-believers and average guys like me who just don’t know enough–and don’t trust the voices enough–to know.

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      • I’m glad I had something positive to contribute. My comment turned out to be longer than I intended.

        I think part of the problem is that science has become so politicized. Current models are accepted as “the way things are”. When new data or discoveries come along and invalidate or contradict that model, the public loses confidence in the scientific method.

        The scientific method as it actually is, not as it’s taught in schools. Taught in schools being that list of steps in the first chapter of your high school science book that you take a quiz on and then never use the rest of the year. Instead of performing investigations and forming their own conclusions, students memorize facts they take on faith and learn to plug and chug into equations. Too many are totally unprepared to deal with the intersection of science and policy because they don’t understand how science is supposed to work.

        I’ll get off my soapbox now.

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  2. Aaaannnddd…someone was triggered enough to write you a reply in the Nugget on a wonderfully proposed suggestion that in fact fits within the constructs of the scientific method – keep researching, keep researching until there is no delta in your findings and then run a few more tests…
    We could use a lot more Red Teaming.

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    • Yes, wasn’t that marvelous? I’m not sure they even read the column. It’s possible the triggering rendered the writer of blind with rage, and unable to read further, and endlessly muttering “peer review” while publicly castigating me as an apostate. lol. Can’t make this stuff up.

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