I’m no historiana. Which self-deprecating preface I would preface further by saying, the list of things I’m not is far longer than the list of things that, tentatively, I would claim I am. That list, while longer, probably, than Descartes’ is still a short one. For the past 19 years, I was paid to do climate science. For most of that time, if you’d asked me whether I was a climate scientist, I would probably have said nob. No one ever asked me though, so I got away with it. I would also say, that not being a climate scientist was no bar to doing climate science. Being a climate scientist certainly would have helped, but it’s not necessary. My lack of credentials thus established, we can continue.

I’m no historian1… so the past constantly surprises mec. I was delightfully surprised to read this quote from the reading of Guy Callendar’s paper – The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature – at the Royal Meteorological Society:

Sir GEORGE SIMPSON expressed his admiration of the amount of work which Mr. Callendar had put into this paper. It was excellent work. It was difficult to criticise it, but he would like to mention a few points which Mr. Callendar might wish to reconsider. In the first place he thought it was not sufficiently realised by non-meteorologists who came for the first time to help the Society in its study, that it was impossible to solve the problem of the temperature distribution in the atmosphere by working out the radiation.

The phrase that stuck with me when I first read it was “non-meteorologists who came for the first time to help the Society in its study“. Callendar’s Wikipedia page says he was a steam engineer and inventor as well as being an “amateur climatologist”. Amateur or otherwise, his study is now seen as one of the landmark papers in climate science. He got a lot right in his paper, even if, as the responses to it suggest, the full story was a bit more complicated than that.

Since that time, many non-meteorologists (and latterly, non-climatologists) have come to help the Society and the wider community with their studies. For the most part, this is a wildly positive thing: climate science draws on a very broad range of people with a fascinating diversity of expertise, knowledge and backgroundse. However, it does not always go well. Most climate scientists know the feeling of horror attending the receipt of an email that starts “I am a retired engineer…d“. What follows is rarely edifying, at least not in the sense that the correspondent probably hopes. The instinct is usually to respond along the lines of Sir George, to offer some polite if slightly back-handed compliments, followed by mention of a few things “not sufficiently realised by non-meteorologists who came for the first time etc…” (In the era of social media though, it’s more common and more forgivable to mute and blockm).

Usually, responding to such an email is as simple as providing a stock answer to a stock objection. It requires time, but little thoughtf. It’s rare to come across a novel or meaningfully innovative objection, but very common for the objection to be presented as if it wereg. The responses to Callendar’s paper cover a wide range of the arguments one typically encounters. It’s clear that lots of the “standard” climate grumbler rambling points were already being made in 1938. And by meteorologists no less. A quick scan reveals the following arguments:

  1. It’s more complex than that.
  2. climate change has always happened
  3. it’s natural cycles
  4. yeah, but is the warming significant?
  5. the observations are dodgy

Callendar answered these objections the best he could. Since then, these questions have been revisited over and over again and well hashed out in the literature… over and over again. This is the normal process of science. An objection or problem is encountered and, then after a while, it ceases to be a problemk.

If we assume that our retired-engineer (or, whatever) correspondent is sincere, and possessed of the expertise they claim, then how can it be that they are unaware that the arguments they are making have been decisively answered, not just once, but over and over again? How can someone with deep expertise in a technical subject, make trivial mistakes in another subject which they have studied to the extent that they feel confident to question an expert on the topic?

I suspect there are many answers to this question.

Maybe one is that training in a scientific discipline consists of learning a bunch of things that everybody in the area knows but no one writes down except perhaps in passing, in a textbook or training manual. This kind of things is easy to miss if you are new to a field, but working outside of it. Each field has its own ways of doing things, usually adapted to the types of problems it’s dealing withh and usually passed on from one practitioner to another – teacher to student, mentor to mentee, guru to disciple or from one stressed out grad student to another. Sometimes it isn’t taught at all, it’s just something everyone picks up from spending hundreds of tedious hours tickling eels (or whatever the equivalent is). Without this groundwork, without the possibility to ask someone who has hit all the same snags as you (but maybe a year or several earlier (though in the case of the grad student, it might be days)), it’s possible to go quickly awry, get stuck, or spend months (even years) slowly reinventing an item that turns out to be disastrously ill-suited as a wheel substitute. Worse, the people you do have around you might reinforce you poor practices because their background is so similar to yours.

Working in other disciplines can also be subtly disorienting. People within a discipline, can use words in a way that can lead outsiders astray. I once completely misunderstood a paper on global temperature by a statistician because we had completely different understandings of what the phrase “natural variability” meant. To me it means changes in the climate that arise spontaneously within the climate system, things like El Nino. To them it meant the errors peculiar to a single data sets. Working effectively across disciplines takes time and effort. It also takes good will, of which there is usually no shortage in actual research, but which can be lacking in the sometimes fractious online environment.

Some people try to apply methods that “work” in one discipline to problems in another. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily a good thing either. Results of this approach are mixed and hard to interpret. What works in a discipline that allows for tightly controlled, physical experiments, wouldn’t work in a discipline where experiments are far harder to control, or impossible to perform at all. What works in a discipline with well developed quantitative theories would not transfer to one without them. Expecting all problems to yield to a single approach is almost comical if you give it a moment’s thoughtL.

Long training or long-immersion in a particular culture can be inimical to thought. It sounds terrible put like that, but it isn’t all bad. If you had to think carefully about every single thing you did all the time, you’d get nothing done. Experience and training provide quick answers in many complex situations, distilling, in some cases, life-times of thought and practical experience into a rule of thumb or shortcut. Without this, it would be hard to make advances in any direction. The elements that are questioned least are generally the most fundamental (there’s a lot resting on them, often teeteringly balanced, so you really don’t want to muck around unnecessarily unless you are that way inclinedo) and these are often the things we learn earlier on and are often not clearly stated (these different answers tread on each other’s toes as these things tend to do).

If your experience of many years as a successful scientist tells you that they way to solve a problem is to apply a Gooblehopper, then you are apt to apply a Gooblehopper to solve all problems. You are also apt to find questionable anyone who claims to have solved a problem without one. If they claim never to have heard of a Gooblehopper, you might even mock their ignorance and wonder how they ever solve problems at all. None of these Gooblehopper-related responses require thought. You don’t, for example, consider what makes a Gooblehopper good at solving your problems, or why it might suck for solving other kinds of problems. You might not ask what this Swarglethumper thing is they are using to solve their problems. You know how science is done: it’s Gooblehoppers all the way.

It might seem a little harsh to suggest that learned, erudite and experienced researchers are not thinking flat-out all of the time. That’s why they exist after all, no? However, I believe it is the case. Thinking is hard work even for people who think for a living and are well-practiced in doing so. People will do almost anything other than think really hard, particularly if they feel they have a good excuse not to (particularly when there’s a good enough answer just sitting there Gooblehopperishly). What might constitute a good excuse? It doesn’t need to be much: a suspicion that the Swarglethumper isn’t quite as smart as you arei, or that Swarglethumpers are politically dubious, or because they once got something else wrong, or because you’re busy or a bit angry, or hungry, or both. Any number of things can distract you from deep thought. The brain is also good at retrofitting reasons to behaviours. You might justify the decision to use your Gooblehopper because you want to “independently check” the claim of a Swarglethumper. This sounds appealing, of course, but it might well ignore why a Swarglethumper was used in the first place as well as the real reason you did it being that they were out of Mars Bars at the snack machine.

This is, I am sure, a very partial list of reasons why smart people make dumb mistakes when stepping outside their area of expertise (it might also serve to explain, again partly, why smart people make dumb mistakes within their nominal area of expertise). I’ve tried to think of more generous reasons than one would usually encounter. I’ve not mentioned the more extreme forms of motivated reasoning, which clearly play a role in some (if not many) situations. No one is quick to question a conclusion they believe in already. Anyone can think up a hundred reasons to question one they find disagreeable.

It’s worth bearing in mind too that people aren’t necessarily as smart as they think they are (or as smart as you think they arei). The obvious caveat to all of this is that this is not my area of expertise either. As mentioned above, it is one of the many things I am not.


a Usually a good sign that what follows should be taken with a pinch of salt. I recommend packing what follows in salt for a period of no less than three weeks. Soak in water before cooking.

b The reasons: I had no training in climate science, climate science is a very broad and diverse subject of which I’ve studied only the tiniest fraction, most of the time I wasn’t really doing climate science anywayj, general imposterish feelings, the feeling that I might, if answering positively, be asked to do something.

1 Actually… I have, for years, called myself a probabilistic historian in my twitter bio. This was a silly reference to the uncertainty in historical data sets. Fortunately, no historical knowledge or expertise was required in the writing of this article.

c The present too; apparently my ignorance means I am doomed to experience portions of the past as if for the first time, when I could, with a little effort, have had fair warning. The same people who point this out will often shriek when you reveal minor plot details of a TV show they are watching. Even if I wasn’t so terribly ignorant, lots of other people are, which would mean that I would be well informed, but still unable to stop it. I’m not 100% sure that this is better.

d I’m not picking on engineers here specifically, though they do seem to constitute a large fraction of the people who disagree with the general underpinnings of climate science. I chose engineers because of Callendar’s particular counter-example (as well as the Society’s reaction to it). I might as well have chosen geologists or physicists (also seemingly over represented) though as for that, the dissenters come from all branches of science and, indeed, all walks of life.

e Though, of course, it could always be usefully wider. Much wider.

f There is a large group of people who are experts in this strange world of rehearsed call and response. Some have elevated it to an art form and area of study all its own.

g When actual meaningful objections arise, they become part of the science, get analysed, addressed and the science moves on. It’s interesting to watch how people respond to such a situation. If your response to this process is, “Excellent, we’ve spotted a problem in the science, we can now fix it, woohoo it’s fixed” then congratulations, you are a normal person. If, on the other hand, your response is “We’ve spotted a problem in the science, scientists must be idiots” and you stop there, then you’ve clearly put yourself outside the scientific process.

h Though not always, of course. Poor practices can affect large groups, which can, even once it’s pointed out, be slow to change their ways. I kept wanting to mention the Dunning Kruger effect when writing this but it turns out that the experimental method used to demonstrate its existence in various situations was flawed.

i The conviction that other people are idiots is a common one. I mean, the evidence is everywhere. Everyone says so…

j They say you need to practice something in a dedicated and directed way for 10,000 hours to truly become an expert. I think this is nonsense, but it’s interesting to ponder exactly how many hours a typical researcher racks up for different tasks in the process of their careers. I once did this and concluded that after thirty years, I might have become an expert at poorly organised meetings, going to the coffee machine and screaming at Microsoft products.

k Imagine the problem is a mountain: you can go over it, round it, through it or under it, picking up all manner of new and thrilling skills in the process. You can also pretend you were never really in the mountain-crossing business and develop a very close and careful study of valleys and their contents.

L Like those people who talk about the scientific method, as if repeated application of a fixed procedure will somehow ratchet you towards the truthn.

m Apparently Arthur C. Clarke responded to screeds in this vein like so: “You may be right.” This seems to me nicely disarming, but it would, I fear, lead to some kind of

n Among the more scientifically minded climate grumblers, Popper is considered the purveyor of the finest scientific method. It’s usually clear that their understanding of Popper’s general philosophy is less than passing and the things said in his name would have made Sir Karl howl at the injustice of being so thoroughly misunderstood. In strict Popperian fashion, I should note the observation that howling at injustice was what he used footnotes for and he felt misunderstood to a very high level.

o I don’t know what FAFI means in general parlance, but when I heard it, I thought, that’s science in a nutshell with a BWIDCA(IYASA) hanging on the end – But Write It Down Carefully Afterwards (If You Are Still Alive). If nothing else this footnote serves to illustrate the point (way above) that one’s habits of thought dictate one’s understanding of new information and curtail the natural curiosity and conceptual elasticity that would allow a less hidebound mind to adapt.