06 June 2013

Scientist mutual criticism

I've been active on twitter lately (@rgrumbine).  The 140 character limit poses the problems to me that regular readers would expect.  140 words is pretty short for me.  Still, there are some good things out there (I'll be posting a raft of links from my twitter feeds Real Soon Now).  And sometimes a short comment is sufficient, but reminds me of things worth more than 140 characters.

One short comment, bizarre to me, was that scientists don't criticize each other's work.  On one narrow aspect, there's some truth to this.  That aspect being that, for example, pretty much all the people studying sea ice think that sea ice is something worth studying.  Within any given niche of science, occupants of the niche think it's important.  The thing is, each niche is very, very, small.  Occupants of every other niche are more than happy to tell the sea ice people that sea ice isn't nearly as important as their own niche.  At length and volume.  Of course the sea ice people argue back.  And so it goes.  Every multidisciplinary meeting I'm at, this is routine conversation.  Partly it's just a game.  Partly it can lead to something interesting -- say when the sea ice person (finally :-) persuades the ... let's say boundary layer theorist ... that there really is something interesting -- to a boundary layer theorist -- about sea ice.  It's for this latter prospect that I play the game (sometimes being the persuaded rather than persuader).

Yet, even within a relatively small niche like sea ice, there are sub-niches, and sub-sub-niches.  Each of these divisions, even while agreeing that sea ice is important and important to study, is in disagreement about the how, why, what about studying sea ice.  One has in any natural science a certain amount of division between observation/modeling/theory.  The observers think what's really needed is more and better observations, modellers think you need bigger and better models, theorists think we need better theories.  All are right, to some degree.  All are wrong, to some other degree.  But one thing this guarantees is that the sub-niches are ready to criticize each other.  And do so.
Go down another level, to sea ice observers.  You've got divisions between remote sensing people (satellite-users, which includes me) and in situ observers (which doesn't, yet).  Both, again, happy and active at saying theirs is the more important.  Among the observers who like to be on the ice floe seeing what's happening, in great detail, they divide again -- some saying the ocean side is more important, some the atmosphere side.  On the atmospheric side, they divide yet again, some saying that it's the turbulence that needs most understanding (you're not surprised that these are the people who observe turbulence over sea ice), some the solar and earth radiation, some the clouds, and so on.

Having burrowed down this far, to the people who observe (rather than model or build theories) atmospheric turbulence, in situ, over sea ice, we're _still_ not done with the divisions, and thence occasions for the scientists to disagree and criticize.  After all, there are different ways of observing turbulence.  Surely mine is better than yours, else I'd be using yours.  Here's _why_ mine is better (criticism of yours ensues, you, for the same reason, counter with criticisms of mine).

Even having started down in a niche that's already quite small, we've got 5 levels of subdivision.  Every subdivision being an opportunity for one group to criticize another.  And that opportunity is taken, even though all are agreed that sea ice is important.

Now, why is this kind of thing not obvious to everybody outside science?  Many reasons, no doubt.  One I'll point to is that not many people know scientists personally.  Since you're reading here and I talk about this kind of thing (the 'doing science' and 'being a scientist' tags), you're not really in that group.  But, consider the American Geophysical Union annual meeting.  About 10,000 scientists get together for a week.  I guarantee that in the course of that week, there are at least 70,000 arguments/criticisms/disagreements.  (1 per day per scientist is a very low estimate).  There are also something like 10,000 presentations.  From that huge pool of criticisms and presentations, you'll see maybe 10 articles in the media, all about the scientific presentations rather than the criticisms.  Media coverage, unavoidably, presents not even the tip of the iceberg.  More like a few particularly interesting snowflakes on the iceberg. 

Some of this leads me to some other thoughts, which involves how scientists present science and themselves publicly (it's never just one thing, not even media) that I'll take up in another post.

Update from my twitter feed:
@hurricanejim 9 Jun
Why NOAA is quite likely wrong about their projection of Atlantic hurricane activity by the 21st century

Link is to a professional paper he published.  I'll suggest that there's criticism involved in that tweet.  Check in to scientists who are on twitter and you'll see much more of this than you ever will in the media.

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