This is yet another blog article that fell by the wayside as other projects took over, but I had put too much effort into it already to abandon it completely. So, here it is even if it may no longer be quite as interesting as it might have been a couple of weeks ago – but hopefully still somewhat relevant – or maybe its the other way around.
Over at Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit, the topic of discussion has moved away from the parsing of the Michael Mann defamation suite and the shenanigans of blog commenter Nick Stokes towards a multi-part discussion of the publication of the recent “non-corrigendum” by the PAGES2K Arctic Workingroup of a significant revisions to their PAGES2K Arctic database of paleoclimate data. The series started with McIntyre’s Revisions to Pages2K Arctic back on October 1st.
The original version of this particular product of the PAGES Consortium had garnered strong criticism at Climate Audit in the past particularly in regards to the inclusion of several contaminated lake sediment proxy series, the use [or misuse] of several series in an orientation that is either ambiguous or inverted to that used by specialists in the field, and a small laundry list of other complaints since it was first published in 2010. McIntyre said of the publication:
Kaufman and the PAGES2K Arctic2K group recently published a series of major corrections to their database, some of which directly respond to Climate Audit criticism. The resulting reconstruction has been substantially revised with substantially increased medieval warmth. His correction of the contaminated Igaliku series is unfortunately incomplete and other defects remain.
McIntyre goes on in his ensuing series of articles to dissect in great statistical detail precisely what the remaining defects are in the PAGES2k Arctic database, why he thinks it is important that they be corrected as well, and why he thinks a formal corrigendum at the original publishing journal, Nature.com, is warranted – so those errors do not remain “in play” for other scientist to use [or misuse] by continuing to cite them in future research.
All of McIntyre’s reasoning seems reasonable and correct to me – the last and least among the readers who are non-experts at CA.
For those interested in the history of this particular set of discussion I direct you now to: Revisions to Pages2K Arctic / Okshola: which way is up? / PAGES2K: More Upside Down? and PAGES2K vs the Hanhijarvi Reconstruction and which a the time of completing this article spans now to Warmest, uh, Since the Medieval Warm Period.
Comments to these posts tended to fall into two categories: highly technical questions and response by CA regulars of a certain statistical rank and more general commentary on the decrepit state of the science and some of scientists with included speculations about what might be really going on with these people – from a Climate Audit insider’s point of view.
This latter tendency lead me to attempt to make a point about the difference between people who are genuinely masters in their field – and everyone else – namely: how they think, how they communicate, and how people who are not at the level of mastery themselves can tell who the real masters are.
It has been my experience that if you’ve been following a group of people for a while you can develop a pretty accurate idea of who the real experts are, and where on the power-curve everyone else lies. Since I’ve been following the discussions at Climate Audit for over seven years now, so I’ve built up an opinion of my own.
My original comment all the way back on Oct 4th article: Pages2K More Upside Down, in my usual obtuse style:
So, what’s really going on with all of this upside down business? is it really disingenuousness or merely defective thinking?
It is my observation that people who are the real experts in their field, the ones who are genuinely top rank – whatever field that may be – one of the distinguishing features of such people is that they think so completely in the language of that field and are thus almost automatically able to detect errors and inconsistencies in the work of others that relates to the language of their field – statistics in this case. The casual intuitions of such people are very often born out when the language and methods of the field are rigorously applied because their intuitions are guided by a deep, almost uncanny, understanding of both the physical and mathematical behavior of the processes involved.
Maybe you feel the same way.
Tony Marchaj – another master in his fields – [aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, and sailing] used to use the example of Frederick W. Lanchester who was able to intuit that the importance of the difference in the flow pattern about two and three dimensional foils was caused by the difference in spanwise lift distribution in a wing, and which is itself traceable to the disposition of the circulation – seven years before the Wright brothers flew and before or the experimental discovery of a finite wing’s tip vortex system.
Marchaj wrote on an observation by Sir Graham Sutton:
It is worth noting that, at the time Lanchester evolved his concept of circulation and tip vortex efffects, such evidence… …did not exist and the whole idea is ‘an outstanding example of a man of genius finding the correct solution to a baffling problem ‘without any experimental results to guide him, a feat perhaps more appropriate to the world of the ancient Greeks than our own.’
Eventually wind tunnels were constructed that could visualize the twisting strands of vorticity being shed from the trailing edge of a wing [or sail] eventually gathering themselves into a much larger wing tip vortex system and eventually a mathematics was developed to analyze the phenomenon, but those efforts were guided by one man’s intuition and a hand drawn sketch derived from a well founded imagination.
Some people think they are that guy, some people wish they were that guy, some people are that guy.
Now you figure out who is who in this case.
I was very careful – so as not to offend anyone by leaving them feeling disincluded – not to actually identify by name the person who it was that I was holding out as my exemplar of master-hood at Climate Audit. I was also careful to be vague as to numbers allow delicate egos the possibility that I might also mean them too. Of course, all along, the one person I was referring to was the resident master, Steve McIntyre, himself.
Well, not unsurprisingly that statement lead to a few miffed responses from commenters and clarifications in response by me, which I invite you to check out, but leads me now to some further thoughts in general about the nature of master and types of defects in thinking that, in particular, smart people tend to make.
What is a master exactly?
A wizard may have a subtle way of telling the truth, and may keep the truth to himself, but if he says a thing, the thing is as he says, for that is his mastery. 
Attempting to distill my notions of masterhood down to a simple statement:
A master is a person is a of superior ability and achievement in their chosen field and usually represents less than 5% of the workers in that field. He think so completely in the language of that field and posses a such a deep, almost uncanny, understanding of both the physical and mathematical behavior of the processes involved that little going wrong in the works of others misses their attention. Masters are the ones breaking new ground in their field and whose work stands the test of time, they also notice things that other competent workers miss. Masters are meticulous in their thinking and their methods; even their casual intuitions are very often later born out later by rigorous investigation. Masters also undertake the formality of later conducting the later investigations and perform the necessary calculations to back them up. They put their money where there mouth is. Needless to say a master is rarely caught being wrong, in the long run, because that is the nature of being a master.
And another thing.
The true masters are also meticulousness in their professional conduct, a trait often lacking in lesser workers in their profession, its how they attain mastery. It may also be the case that they don’t suffer fools gladly and can have a particularly incisive wit, but they are still meticulous in constructing their criticisms. This is why Meme Merchants try to mind their P’s & Q’s over at Climate Audit, or at least maintain some self-awareness when we stray.
I’m not wrong
The question I have is: why is it that so many other people seem to misunderstand this, or where they lie on the power-curve?
The first, and most obvious problem, is that many people place themselves incorrectly on the power-curve because of a tendency to the systematic over-estimation of their level expertise and mastery, which is itself is based on an under-estimation and hyperbolic discounting of the number of their own errors. This tendency is a version of the Overconfidence Effect a basic overconfidence in one’s own correctness, or a steep discounting in one’s likelihood of being wrong. This is a phenomenon that can be traced back to the developmental stage of magical thinking as a child starts to reach the threshold of real thinking. The naive and childish syllogism is this: “If I can think it, it must be true because I was able to think it,” – notice this is also somehow tautological. It can be seen immediately that this false syllogism is formed around the mandrel of the budding ego of the developing personality. It is very easy under certain hereditary and environmental conditions for ‘to be right’ to become the entire basis for the child’s self-concept, “I am because I am right,” another false syllogism and not a very healthy one.
Once a personality reaches legal adulthood the false syllogism becomes a little more convoluted: ‘What I think must be right because l hang around people who are also right; also, I’m smart, I know I’m smart because I hang out with other smart people and always do well on standardized tests; I’m also well educated because I’ve been to all the ‘right’ schools where all of the other ‘right’ people go, and I have lots of degrees. With all of this going for me what I can think must be true because I was able to think it – and I’m always right.’
This can become a pernicious complex early on because for the child growing into adulthood being wrong, about even trivial matters, is experienced as ego-annihilation, which the child’s ego incorrectly perceives as self-annihilation and death – crazy.
The professional overconfidence effect
Ever wonder why some people fight to the death being shown that they are wrong?? because for that poor soul it is a fight to the death, and sometimes they would prefer it be you that die and not their bright idea.
This strong form of the problem we might call the professional overconfidence effect. This complex seems to particularly afflict the otherwise intelligent and well educated professionals – especially those operating in fields where being right is the basis of what they are supposed to be doing and but does not give strong and immediate feedback to their errors. Maybe you can think of some career fields that are like this.
The question I ask myself, and I think it is a perfectly valid question to wonder aloud about, is what fraction of the people working in the sciences today might fall victim to the strong or weaker form of the professional overconfidence effect? Maybe you can think of some people who suffer form this complex.
If you happen to think its one of us, I caution you to remember that all of the Meme Merchants take as a first principle that we are wrong about everything, in whole or in part, we’re just waiting for the happy news from you about which parts are the wrong parts – so we can be less wrong – the whole point of this blog, actually.
Another variation of the professional overconfidence effect is where someone who has some expertise in one field assumes incorrectly that his expertise transfers automatically to other fields. This is seen, classically, among straight physicists and their spherical cows. Very smart, very well educated, and a master in his own domain may not necessarily make a brain surgeon out of a quantum physicist, or even a dairyman. This is not to say that it should not be possible, or it should not be encouraged, for people to work across fields whether professionally or as a diversion. All that is required is an honest appraisal of what the real overlaps are, what the real deficits might be – and possibly a change in throttle setting to keep yourself out of the region of reverse command.
Which is not to say that there cannot be remarkable overlaps between what appear to be rather different fields.
A case in point from Toronto
Steve McIntyre is an interesting case in point. Mr. McIntyre regularly has the validity of his arguments and criticisms of the field of climate science, especially paleoclimate reconstructions, dismissed by others for no other reason than he is not a “climate scientist”. This comes from both established workers in the field of climate science and outsiders in the journalistic world who are experts in nothing at all. Very often Mr. McIntyre is described professionally in the media as: “a retired mining executive” or a “mining consultant”, which is true enough, but belies the more important fact that Mr. McIntyre is a well respected expert in precisely those branches of statistical science that climate scientists rely upon to draw any scientifically meaningful conclusions from the measurements that they make when they venture out into the field – if they ever venture out into the field further than an hour from the nearest Starbucks.
As an expert in the mining exploration business, Mr. McIntyre has a whole career’s experience and expertise in drawing statistically reliable conclusions from all sorts of geophysical measurements as well as experience in the preparation, presentation, and preservation of complex data and statistical analysis. This in an industry where there are strict rules of due diligence in all aspects of the work that touch the public financial system. This is also an industry where if you are incorrect in your predictions your career is short and if you bodge the data you jail term might be long.
What this seems to suggest is that the two fields, paleoclimetology and mining exploration have broad overlaps, such that an expert in one field may with sufficient effort make real and valid criticisms and contributions to the other. At this point after more than a decades work behind him, it is my opinion that the quality of Mr. McIntyre’s work ranks with any of the specialists in the field, at least in term of testing the validity of the statistical techniques used by his ‘fellow workers’. He has also on at least one occasion showed some of the biggest mouths in the field that he can out do them in field work as well on an occasion when he and a small guerrilla-dendro team successfully proved the Starbucks Hypothesis while updating portions of the infamous Greybill bristle cone series. Something one big-mouth said [my bold]:
Most reconstructions only extend through about 1980 because the vast majority of tree-ring, coral, and ice core records currently available in the public domain do not extend into the most recent decades. While paleoclimatologists are attempting to update many important proxy records to the present, this is a costly, and labor-intensive activity, often requiring expensive field campaigns that involve traveling with heavy equipment to difficult-to-reach locations (such as high-elevation or remote polar sites). For historical reasons, many of the important records were obtained in the 1970s and 1980s and have yet to be updated.
I’m not an expert so I don’t know, but my meta-analysis of the situation suggests to me that history will not be kind to certain big-mouths – history never is kind to big-mouths. It also seems to me entirely possible that when future generations of scientists look back at this particular episode in the history of science, Steve McIntyre will be regarded as one of the most important people working in the field of paleoclimatology in the early 21st century, while many others will be forgotten or will be remembered only in infamy on Wikipedia [that’s got to hurt]. Perhaps none of us here may live long enough to see that assessment published, but that’s the way science actually works, sometimes it takes a couple of generations to put things in their proper perspective.
Of course I could be wrong about all of this, maybe one of you would be kind enough to explain how in comments.
- Czesław A. Marchaj, The Aero-Hydrodynamics of Sailing, 3rd ed, Adlard Coles Nautical, London, 2000, p.349
- LeGuin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. Bantam Books, New York, 1968, p.95