I first got to know Judith Curry—the Georgia Tech researcher who blogs at “Climate, Etc.,” and has been drawn into controversy for, in her words, “challenging many aspects of the IPCC consensus”—when I was working on my second book, Storm World. I spent a fair amount of time with Curry, and with the other scientists profiled in the book—interviewing them in person, getting to understand their research. This is what science writers do.
At the time, Curry and her colleagues were just coming off a media feeding frenzy after having published papers linking hurricanes to global warming right in the middle of the devastating 2005 hurricane season.
When Storm World came out, it is no exaggeration to say that Curry gave it a rave review. I want to quote in full from her Five Star endorsement at Amazon.com, which is entitled “Science writing at its very best.” Bear with me, this will all become very relevant; and I’ve bolded a few important parts:
To provide a frame of reference for this review, I and my colleagues Peter Webster and Greg Holland are among the scientists that are featured prominently in Storm World. Our involvement in the issue of hurricanes and global warming began when we published an article in Science shortly before the landfall of Hurricane Rita, where we reported a doubling of the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally since 1970. When Chris Mooney first approached me with his idea for writing a book on this topic, I was somewhat skeptical. I couldn’t see how this could be accomplished given the rapid changes in the science (I was worried the book would be outdated before it was published), the complexities of the technical aspects of the subject, a concern about how the individual scientists would be treated and portrayed, and a concern that the political aspects of the issue would be handled in a partisan way. Over the course of the past year and a half, it became apparent that Mooney was researching this issue extremely thoroughly and was developing a good grasp of both the history and technical aspects of the subject. Upon finally reading the book, I can only say Storm World has far exceeded any hope or expectation that I could have had for a book on this subject.
The book is surprisingly rich in technical detail, and Mooney has grasped the nuances of the breadth of scientific arguments and uncertainties. He provides a fascinating history with rich insights into the current controversy. The individual scientists are portrayed accurately as well as sympathetically and colorfully. The political aspects are treated in an insightful and nonpartisan manner. I am most impressed by the fresh insights provided by this book, which besides being a ‘good read,’ Storm World is an important and timely contribution that deserves careful consideration in the dialogue and debate on hurricane policy in the U.S. Storm World is science journalism at its absolute best.
After Storm World came out, Curry also invited me to speak at Georgia Tech, where she works.
Given that I got to know Curry and greatly appreciated her support for my endeavors, I avoided criticizing her in subsequent years—even though we were increasingly on different “sides” of the highly polarized web battle over global warming. And for the most part, she didn’t really seem to criticize me either (or at least, not that I noticed).
So imagine my surprise when I came across this post at Curry’s blog, about my new book The Republican Brain. Unlike Storm World, Curry admits she has not read the book. Nevertheless, she cites a variety of critics—none of whom seem to have read the book, either—and uses labels like “neurotrash” and “neurobabbling” to describe what, she seems to think, I am up to.
In the process, Curry repeats a common but fundamental misunderstanding of the research on the psychological or biological underpinnings of ideology—suggesting that I’m claiming that “a defensive ideology is hardwired into [conservatives’] brain.” Nope. Wrong.
Continuing her misunderstanding of the subject matter, Curry posed a classic false choice:
Multiple choice test: Republicans are more skeptical than Democrats about climate change because:
a) A defensive ideology is hardwired into their brain
b) A growing distrust of scientific institutions because of the politicization of science
First, and to repeat, there is no “hardwiring.” That is not the ‘psychology of ideology’ thesis. But there is such a thesis, and it is based on a great deal of research.
Second and more important, the conservative distrust of science is America a combination of both conservative psychology and also developments in the political environment. This is something I explain in detail in the book that Curry has not read. It is also something I explain in a new item at Salon.com.
To draw an analogy with the hurricane climate debate, these sorts of errors are roughly on par with saying that global warming ’caused’ an individual hurricane (nonsense), and with saying that if we have a quiet hurricane season, then there must be no global warming, or no global warming effect on hurricanes (nonsense). The hurricane-climate issue is scientific complex and characterized by uncertainty, and so is the psychology-politics issue—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t serious science on both topics, or a need to report on it.
I fully expect dismissive reviews from ideologues who have not read my book, and from contrarians who don’t want to admit what the science has to say about political ideology. But from someone who has called my previous work “science writing at its absolute best”, and extolled me for grasping “the nuances of the breadth of scientific arguments and uncertainties”?
I am not asking Curry to suddenly become an expert in political psychology. All I’m asking is this: Doesn’t a writer who, in your own words, practices “science journalism at its absolute best,” merit a more, shall we say, engaged treatement?