Koonin Offers a Check on “The Science”

I ordered Steven Koonin’s Unsettled? more out of perversity than honest curiosity. It was a vote for a skeptic, for a man labelled a “denier” and thus worthy of canceling. I was wrong on several counts: it is holding on Amazon with a fairly high rating, and, I was able to get something out of it. He clearly wants to reach people like me, bewildered by charts and graphs. The tables are there, but his style and analogies accessible. (Which means it is dumbed down, but I appreciate his desire for a larger audience.) He has some of the commonsense of Lomborg: practical, prioritizing what is certain, seldom emphasizing the “wrong” and more often the imprecise, the unknown. Some reviewers found him full of himself, but his voice is that of a close reader, looking at the body of reports, comparing assertions and data with the summaries and interpretations. I assume his readings are honest and he is a good physicist but what do I know.

What struck me were the assumptions of a method he promotes, one other disciplines use and he sees as appropriate. In Chapter 11, “Fixing the Broken Science,” he suggests major reports on climate would benefit from being “Red Teamed.” The “Red Team” critiques it, “trying to identify and evaluate its weak spots,” “a qualified adversarial group would be asked ‘What’s wrong with this argument?’” Then the authors, the “Blue Team” rebuts, seeking more information, firming up arguments, gaining precision. He looks at examples where a report’s data did not support the conclusions or summaries (sometimes leading to popular articles with further overstatements). Perhaps the authors had more data, perhaps the summaries were written by those holding too strong an opinion to let the results stand on their own. Perhaps. . . But, of course, if conclusions don’t match research, that’s important.

Traditionally, peer review even in the humanities is designed to note such problems, but these have been less and less rigorous as more subjective definitions of “truth” evolve (or perhaps of careerism). More importantly, “The Science” (climate consensus) is not limited to the ivory tower; it influences awards of positions, grants, research. And, it affects policy. Seeing “The Science” as “settled” tempts those doing “science.”

One institution has long used an adversarial structure. Trey Gowdy noted some district attorneys (his job before entering politics) see themselves as arguing the defense. Traditional roles were designed to produce an adversarial court room, focused on proof from both tables.

Juxtaposing these arguments – Koonin’s and Gowdy’s – clarifies what’s central to a thinking, rational community. And that they are making these arguments reminds us that the core belief that truth is real, even if difficult to know, is not simply assumed. It has its own battle to win.

Koonin speaks of “The Science” –arguments claiming to represent science, arguing a broad concurrence. Of course, the assumption is that the majority belief is the “truth” – assumed by “twitter” and the mob, but also when we ask for a vote. It’s complicated. But our founders had the sense to make us stop: creating a republic which listens to its citizens’ carefully considered, rational conclusions, not our emotional first impressions, not our fears. We need to be willing (and able) to listen to arguments from proponents and opponents. Koonin notes sometimes messy conclusions by “the science” work steadily to ascertain, to define, to quantify. (His complaint is less that “The Science” is wrong than partial, while the measures gain in precision the breadth of variables muddle.)

Both imply the pursuit of facts is important. Much relies on it. In Biden’s world, a budget of trillions and eventual effects on millions (if not billions) of people. In Gowdy’s world, the guilt or innocence of an individual – one who may be a danger to society – a thief, a murderer, a rapist – or an innocent wrongly accused. Those and many more institutions rely on our beliefs that facts are real and often ascertainable, that speaking “my truth” has limited value. Adversaries are more likely to find that truth.

28 thoughts on “Koonin Offers a Check on “The Science””

  1. The Catholic Church used to have a Devil’s Advocate, whose job it was to argue against the merits of a candidate for canonization. I believe this role has been eliminated or eroded.

    It would be useful for corporations considering a major acquisition to also establish someone whose role it is to argue “dumb idea.”

  2. The late Michael Crichton back in 2004 ended his novel “State of Fear” about the ClimateScam with a proposal for an old-fashioned public adversarial trial of any “science” proposed as a basis for public policy, with the doubting side being well-funded.

    Good idea then; good idea today. But it will never happen, because the public policy is about Political Class control, not about any threat to the planet.

  3. Richard Feynman said something about; “if you can’t explain something to a child, you don’t understand it yourself.” .

    The climate “debate” is predicated on “data” that has been “corrected” with the original measurements in some cases lost and in other cases locked away from scrutiny by the unanointed. The methods and details of the “corrections” are always explained with a lot of hand waving and no actual information. We’re supposed to “trust” them.

    All of this is the hallmark of the con, where the success of the whole operation rests on stampeding the “mark” into handing over his money without actually examining the particulars.

    Considering that bad deals far outnumber good ones, you’d think David’s idea would be universal. Probably a shortage of people bent on career suicide. There are very few places where pointing out how stupid some boss’s idea is, is anything else. You’ll be long gone by the time you’re proven right and better not be holding your breath waiting for some sort of apology.

  4. There are very few people in BC, where I live, that doubt that global warming is real.

    After snapping temperature records by 10 celcius on several days, which killed perhaps 700 extra people in our province, and losing an entire town to fire, we are believers.

    As trailer trash myself, I am most blessed, a big ass air conditioner makes me among the few that can be comfortable in these conditions. I had never run it before, and had to figure out how to work it properly.

  5. Here comes Penny to move the goalposts again. You left out the word “anthropogenic”.

    A heat wave kills 700. If it were a new ice age and Vancouver lay under 5,000 feet of ice, how many would die?

    Lost an entire town to fire! Bet that never happened before.

    Who knew that the climate changes?

    I read a brief article about the heat wave in Portland. 116 deg. F Second highest temp on record for that city. Highest temp recorded was 118 deg. F, in 1898.

  6. LOL. Do you have any idea how much 10 celcius is?

    In 1886 idiots burned Vancouver pretty well down. We have never lost a town since, although many have been in fires.

    Lyton hit almost 50 celcius, some 122 Fahrenheit.

  7. I broke into my bursars desk, at the exclusive private school they sent me to, after my IQ test. It said 135 but I guess that changes over time. Oh yeah, the one they sent Prince Andrew to in Ontario. Conrad Black went to one of the that group as well, TCS in his case. We do produce some horrible people. ;)

    Do you know what a straw man is Mike?

  8. I know what scientific analysis of global warming shows. Lots of UHI errors, not all of which are accidental. Grants are the mothers’ milk of global warming. Lysenko would understand.

  9. Wow, thanks for the heads up! I had no idea Koonin had published a book, but it already has over 1,000 reviews at Amazon. It shows you how out of touch I am. I note that Koonin’s Wiki page doesn’t mention his important work in the area of inertial confinement fusion from the late 80’s to the mid-90’s. In fact, he was Chair of a National Academy of Sciences review of ICF in 1990 which, among other things, made the fateful decision to build the National Ignition Facility (NIF) instead of the proposed Laboratory Microfusion Facility. The latter would have been much more powerful, delivering from 5 to 10 megajoules as opposed to the NIF’s 1.8.

    Koonin was also a member of the Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee (ICFAC), which approved proceeding with building the NIF, with one dissenting vote – Tim Coffey of the Naval Research Laboratory. NRL had always favored direct drive (hitting the fusion target directly) as opposed to the hohlraum/indirect drive approach used on the NIF. Koonin chaired the ICFAC’s Target Physics Subcommittee, and was also Chair of the National Research Council’s Committee for the Review of the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program, which followed ICFAC. Members of the latter included Marshall Rosenbluth, author of some incredibly brilliant mathematical analyses of plasma hydrodynamics. I supported and wrote summaries of the proceedings of all of the above for DOE in my capacity as a Subject Matter Expert (SME). We were all surprised when Steve left to work for British Petroleum.

    Some years later I was doing a similar gig for a DARPA program to familiarize young professors with military needs in the area of computer science when none other than Steve Koonin turned up to address one of the meetings. By that time he was DOE Under Secretary for Science under Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, another brilliant scientist and certainly one of Obama’s best appointees.

    Based on the Amazon blurb about his book, Koonin hasn’t changed much over the years. He was always skeptical, and would be the last one to claim that science ever “says” anything, or is ever “settled.” Treating science as the source of established dogmas was anathema to him. A good example is his opinion that the National Ignition Facility was a dubious choice of names. He was perfectly well aware that the computer codes weren’t perfect, and worried about public reaction and political blowback if the facility failed to achieve ignition. Of course, as we now know, it didn’t, or at least hasn’t yet. The main reason he was so concerned about this was his awareness that the facility wasn’t really an energy project, but was being funded by Defense Programs at DOE. It’s primary purpose was to study the physics of nuclear weapons, and it would be an outstanding facility for conducting such experiments whether it achieved ignition or not. In retrospect, he was exactly right. The NIF now gives us a significant advantage over other nuclear weapons states in this era of no nuclear testing.

  10. Doug
    I was hoping one of physicists would comment – it is nice to see a rounded picture of the author and reinforcement of my sense that his tone was reasonable, someone concerned with proof and loving “science” rather than seeing “The Science” as a cudgel.

    On books about climate I’m a blind person in an unfamiliar room, but some verities keep popping up. I always felt any theory that required demonization of an opponent was not likely to be as solid as assumed, but that isn’t much of a reason. He goes out of his way to say that he hopes he has lead his readers less to argue than to read closely and ask questions about discrepancies between proofs and conclusions.

  11. Koonin has been on Tucker’s primetime show recently, and there’s more at the TC spinoff sites (not that I have been to any).

    He reminds me very much of the better hard science colleagues I worked with and among on campus–far to the left of me on most political issues, but calm, focused empiricists about the physical world.

    But as Niall Ferguson (also a frequent TC guest) puts it, being “conservative” among academics is a very low bar.

    Cousin Eddie

  12. As a working scientist for several decades, I have witnessed first-hand how the process can go off the rails. When working on an experiment in which you are emotionally invested, it is very easy to record observations that are concordant with your thesis and discard those which are not. I used a Harry Potter story with my graduate students. Specifically, the “Mirror of Erised”, over which was inscribed ‘I show not your face, but your heart’s desire’.
    Another and more insidious derailer of good science is money. I have been involved in a couple of projects over the years which flew in the face of well-funded conventional thinking. It becomes nearly impossible to get funding for controversial (albeit ultimately correct hypotheses) as those peers who sit on the funding review committees are personally invested in the conventional wisdom. This later is clearly the case in the so-called anthropogenic climate change hypothesis. And in true Harry Potter style, data continues to be modified to fit the hoped-for conclusion.
    Money, in the form of funding (on which almost all university scientists depend for salary), has to be removed as a de facto driver of the scientific process. I was lucky enough to fall into a situation where my salary was not grant dependent, and I was able to so some pretty innovative and non-conventional research. I could not have done what I did had I been grant supported. When I completed my PhD thesis, my professor told me to drop my line of inquiry. His English was marginal, but his advice will always stay with me: “If you are in front, and people are following you, you’re a leader. If you’re out front and no one is following you, you’re a pervert”.

  13. For centuries, rulers have justified their power by claiming that their positions and their actions represented the will of God.

    As conventional religiosity has declined, it works better for a ruler (or a would-be ruler) to announce that his policies represent Science.

  14. For what it’s worth, Feynman contradicted himself sometimes: “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize.”—Richard Feynman

    My career was spent working on very large experiments–multi-institution and large enough to require a team of full-time people to manage the money. Budget planning and requests were above my pay grade. But we all had to show up for the annual dog and pony show for the DOE (one prof called it the hooker’s ball) where the PIs tried to put the brightest shine on the past year’s work. Even talks for our working groups could count as publications when trying to show how productive each member of the team was.

    On the other hand, everybody knew that there was only one chance to make the measurement, and we had to get it right. In one experiment, each proposed paper was assigned “godparents” from other working groups, to go over the details and make sure all the i’s were dotted. Since the godparents weren’t personally invested in the paper (though their name would be associated with it if it were wrong), they could be a little more dispassionate about the thing.

    But even in the big carefully planned experiments, when politically flattened budgets meet inflation, scrounging for money can distort what gets done. We needed to archive data. Money was available for research into a fashionable data management tool being developed, that could manage archiving. We applied to join the research on this tool. After a few months it became clear that it wasn’t a good fit–it was like combing your hair with a baseball bat–but we’d said we’d develop the application and report on it, and we did. (We were able to salvage the bulk of the application and keep archiving.)

  15. DrBob57: “Money, in the form of funding (on which almost all university scientists depend for salary), has to be removed as a de facto driver of the scientific process.”

    That goes back to President Eisenhower’s warning in his 1961 Farewell Speech about the growing importance of FedGov funding for scientific research — and the associated risks of the politicization of science. Which is what we see around us today.

    The question is — given the high costs of scientific research, what is the alternative to government bureaucrats handing out taxpayers money to their own favorite causes?

    If R&D was immediately 100% deductible from taxes, many more commercial companies would probably fund significantly more research — and more varied research. In effect, the taxpayers would still be paying for it — but a much broader set of people would be making decisions on what kind of research to fund.

    It also seems clear that FedGov should have an obligation to fund research which is critical of any science proposed as a basis for public policy. “Green energy”, for example, would not last 5 minutes if it were subjected to well-funded objective analysis.

  16. When science passed beyond the comfortably well off gentleman puttering in his garden shed, some way find the money had to be found. Wealthy patrons sufficed for a while, and finally, wealthy institutions gave way to government. Now we have institutions wealthy from their share of government largess. Endowment money is for sports stadiums, actual advancement of knowledge has to carry its own weight in assistant deputy administrators.

    Nobody will willingly spend years of his life to prove the null hypothesis. And even if somebody was willing, imagine how the grant proposal would be received. Then imagine defending such a grant at a congressional hearing.

  17. MCS: “Nobody will willingly spend years of his life to prove the null hypothesis.”

    Au contraire! Attempts to replicate & validate hypotheses — or disprove them — are the heart of real science.

    I cannot fully recommend Stuart Ritchie’s 2020 book “Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth” — he tends to use paragraphs where a sentence would do — but he covers some fascinating & disturbing material. Especially interesting since he deals mainly with psychology research, far from the highly politicized areas such a Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming and “Renewable” Energy.

    He recounts being part of a group which tried to repeat a published psychology experiment which had yielded an unlikely result. In successive tests, he & his collaborators showed they could not replicate the original result. But when they tried to publish this information, academic journals turned their paper down. There was no interest. And thus erroneous claims build up in the scientific system, like cholesterol in the arteries.

    The issue is how to reduce the stranglehold over research currently held by politicians & bureaucrats doling out taxpayer money. And that is not an easy challenge.

  18. I bought the book and was pleasantly surprised. As a lifelong DOE guy he is perhaps a bit too optimistic about government run reviews. A friend of mine who worked at a national lab once described the “threat of the month” where you came up with issues on a project or program to get next years budget. You then proceeded to show the “threat” was not real or serious.

    But it s important to have people point out how climate modeling is still at an early and very unreliable stage.

  19. KISS (“Keep it Simple…..”) We have temperature records that are being “corrected” from about the last century. Illinois has has glacial cycles for the last 1-2 million years.

    It get cold; glaciers form. It gets warm and glaciers melt. I am pretty sure that the melting wasn’t due to guys in furry underwear running around with mastodon fat torches.


    The guesstimated temperature does not track CO(2) levels, but seems more related to meltwater dumps, volcano eruptions,, solar output (estimated for the last millenium or so by sunspot counts). Climate is always changing. Even if the data wasn’t being “cooked”, using the climate data we have to predict change makes about as much sense are predicting weath for next weekend’s picnic from the cloud covere at dawn this morning. You’d probably get more relevant data from “The Farmers Almanac” or your Grandfather’s bunyons.

    The “climate change” concept is a farce created by people who want to destroy the Western economies to get rich or because they want the resulting desolation as a launching pad for a Socialist conquest. The climate has always been changing and always will. We did a good job with local acid rain and getting the crap and chemicals out of our rivers. As far as global climate goes, it is absolute insanity to thing that we can do squat compared to solar output changes, orbital dynamics, and who knows what, especially when China and India are increasing their CO(2) output to build their economies.

    Fraudulent data ain’t “science”. If you don’t see the climate scare as anything but a plan for grift and conquest, I can get you into some condo property in Miami at a real good price. (I am all out of bridge options in New York City.)

  20. ” But when they tried to publish this information, academic journals turned their paper down. ”

    “Ghostbusters” probably did as good a job on Psychology research as an academic paper.

    When I retired from Surgery, I was only 55 and decided to indulge a long term interest in trying to measure medical quality. I spent a year at Dartmouth Medical School which had developed new research methods using statistical analysis of Medicare claims data (Plus census data.) I was interested in dialysis access shunts used to hook renal failure patients up to dialysis machines. End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) patients are 100% Medicare after 6 months and they need dialysis to live so followup is pretty close to 100%. I did manage to get one paper published but, when I tried to get more work in print I ran into reviewers who did not understand statistics and how to use large data sets. About 7 million people are on dialysis at any one time and the claims data is a big data set but minicomputers could do it. NIH reviewers could not understand what we were doing and we could not get a grant, I gave up. Ten years later, it was routine for similar studies, You can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.

  21. The climate change carnival isn’t the only example of problems with the present state of science. I give you Dr. Stacy McGaugh, professional astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist:

    I have become despondent for the progress of science.


    I make no claim to have any real understanding of his cosmological arguments, but based upon them I can surely recognize that something has gone off the rails, to borrow from an earlier comment.

    Science- at least in the West- has gone from searching out new knowledge to searching out ways to reinforce prevailing orthodoxies.

    Not a sign of success, I think.

  22. My cardiologists has a PhD in Astrophysics. I did not ask her why she gave up on Astrophysics after all that work and went to medical school. I have a suspicion,.

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