Why we lost the atmosphere of constructive debates

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In my previous post I discussed the problem of overheated and narrow-minded debates between two opposite opinions [here]. And one thing was really clear for me: There was no atmosphere of constructive debate. How can this be? Two scientists discussed an issue and it became personal instead of focusing on what both sides have to tell. In fact, the outcome of this debate has a huge impact on science in specific and the society in general, so it should remain objective. But this happens not only to scientific debates; companies experience the same behavior in their working teams and managers have to solve personal issues between colleagues on a regular basis instead of focusing on the problems. In my personal experience the source of the problem is two-fold:

  1. The opponents are at separate locations, often without direct personal contact

In our information based society emails, social networks and blog posts are the main media for debates. This is useful to some extent, because writing something down clears your mind and you work on it to organize your thoughts. Nevertheless, no matter how accurate you write your sentences each reader will interpret them differently. The human nature is optimized to interpret information from their own perspective. Therefore a growing conflict is inevitable if we focus only on writing!

In a verbal communication, like face-to-face, the opponents provide redundancy in form of body language, voice control and empathy. This can help to reach common ground and solve conflicts before they start. Unfortunately though, communication on conferences and workshops as well as in many private sector working teams are usually not a place for constructive debates. The sessions or teams mostly gather people with the same opinion or at least with the same understanding or background.

A couple of years ago I attended a CO2 storage workshop in Berlin and most of the attendees were climate change advocates. When I told them that I was skeptical they rose their eyebrows and changed the topic of the conversation, instead of engaging in a constructive debate exchanging arguments.

  1. Avoiding disagreements

In the old days there was a patriarch or boss who said what everyone under his authority had to do. There was no debate at all. During the last several decades we developed a new approach on how we should debate. This approach changed companies and research organizations to what is called a flat hierarchy, where we now have managers and supervisors who inspire and take care of the team needs. Their duty is also to work with conflicts which is great, but we lost something on the way that we actually need. We forgot to debate in a constructive way. Instead of solving conflicts we learned to be nice to everyone and not to offend someone.

However, sometimes it is important not to be nice! In order to solve a specific problem you need conflict in the team, because you will never reach the bottom of the problem at hand if not all opinions are heard and discussed. Controversial opinions are always important to evaluate all aspects and risks of a given problem. A heated discussion can be very fruitful – as long as the attendees of the discussion can go to the pub afterwards and have fun together.

Conflicts are not per se bad, but should not be taken personally or used to humiliate others. A constructive debate should be built towards a conclusion. However, some arguments don’t necessarily get resolved during one meeting and should be discussed again at least one day later.

Did we ever have a period of constructive debate, you wonder? Usually only when something new is starting, like a new research or industrial project, newly founded company where no deep ties, structures or relations exist a climate of constructive debate is found.

As a personal example, I worked for a CTO once who was so afraid to have conflicts during his meetings that he basically ignored all project red flags given from his project managers. There was no debate and no climate where subordinates could thrive. The meetings deteriorated to nice small talks without any decisions or outcome. Because of this behavior the company had to resign two major projects and lost a big costumer.

In order to avoid conflicts some managers try to trivialize problems or assemble teams with the same background, culture, nationality or beliefs. But this in my opinion is absolutely wrong!

A team should always be assembled with different personalities, opinions and experiences. The more diverse the team is, the more creative and successful will be the outcome. Some of the team members should be creative and some should do the pedestrian work, but everyone in the team should be considered as equal. This is of course more work load for the manager who has to provide guidance, but the reward will be astonishing.

Our new living and working environment provides us with countless opportunities, but with some new challenges as well. We can use our opportunities in a good way if we remember that:

– It is essential to have direct personal contact to reduce the risk of misunderstandings.

– Constructive conflicts are essential for the success in scientific and industrial projects.

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4 reasons why climate change is controversial

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First published on LinkedIn, 28.07.2015

I am following the ongoing discussion between climate change advocates and skeptics since my studies in geophysics and meteorology at the University of Hamburg where one of the advocate group is located. I will not point fingers to one side or the other because both sides provide useful insights to solve the question whether anthropogenic climate change is real or not.

But since my study years the discussions grew from scientific disputes to religious-like beliefs and the discussions have reached a level of personal opinions rather than facts.

Let me illustrate this on a recently published dispute between Marotzke and Forster [1] as climate change advocates and Nicholas Lewis as climate change skeptic [2]. It contains three reasons for the controversy around climate change. But I start with a fundamental issue, which is only implicit part of the Dispute.

  1. Probable flaw in the main assumption

Correct modelling of the past don’t necessarily mean that the same model yields correct future predictions. Geological processes like plate tectonics, mountain building (orogeny) and meteorological processes like the water (hydrological) cycle happen in the same manner since the beginning of the earth until now and therefore we can predict future behavior by understanding the past. But the Earth‘s climate is a different category. It is known as a chaotic process which means that small changes in one parameter can cause large effects in the result (e.g. butterfly effect). In fact, some of the most popular chaotic figures, the Lorenz attractor, was discovered by Edward N. Lorenz a meteorologist by analyzing meteorological data and the underlying mathematics. He claims in his paper [3] that: “If the [weather] system is stable, its future development will then remain arbitrarily close to its past history, and will be quasi-periodic. …since the atmosphere has not been observed to be periodic…..no forecasting scheme could have given correct result…” In addition to the usual chaotic behavior one large (VEI >= 5; [6]) volcanic eruption will make all existing anthropogenic climate change forecasts obsolete for decades: And in the past 25 years there were 2 eruptions with VEI >= 5; [7].

  1. Simulation driven approach

Most of the anthropogenic climate change forecasts are model based rather than data driven and are built from a positive assumption. I will not go into the mathematics, but I have to show one equation to make my point. The following equation is the main subject of the discussion between Marotzke&Foster and Lewis where an energy balance is described as: ΔT = ΔF / (α + κ) + ε. Don’t worry, it is not necessary to understand the equation in detail. You just need to know that three of the four quantities ΔF, α, κ are parameters modelled from simulations and used to simulate ΔT due to lack of direct measurements. You can see from the quantities‘ names that they have no direct relation to known physical quantities: ΔF = change of effective radiative forcing, α = climate feedback parameter, κ = ratio of change in the heat uptake of a climate system. They are hypothetical constructs. The fourth quantity ε is a computer generated random value.

In short: they use simulation results to simulate something that cannot be measured directly. I am not saying you can’t do such thing, but it becomes more and more difficult to understand the reliability of the results, especially if at least one simulation is nonlinear or even chaotic. It doesn’t help to claim that the prediction is correct because 114 simulations based on the same model / assumptions provide the same results [1]. This is comparable to: 114 translations of Grimm’s fairy tales are similar, so the story must be true.

 

  1. Opinion and agendas before facts

Science has nothing to do with opinions and agendas. But we scientists, as social beings, have something to do with it and we have to work with that every day. Unfortunately, some scientists become believers of their own opinion instead to discuss issues in a constructive scientific way.

Marotzke is already convinced that the climate change is anthropogenic and he said [4]: “Sceptics who still doubt anthropogenic climate change have now been stripped of one of their last-ditch arguments”. This is an opinion not a fact!

Due to the nature of climate change the chosen approach is an inductive projection which means we don’t know exactly the mechanism behind climate change. We can’t even be sure that anthropogenic climate change exists. Measuring a temperature increase in the last hundred years and a change of our daily weather behavior compared to the last century hasn’t necessary something to do with an increase of CO2 or that it is manmade. There are other explanations that are equally probable. Maybe we have lived in a lucky period where the climate was quasi periodic and this starts to change now, independent of what we are doing?

  1. Missing constructive discussions

The concept of science is to find reliable and reproducible descriptions of observations we make. In other words: Is there something we don’t understand we try to find a scientific explanation. Due to our human nature we get sometimes lost in our hypothesis. Therefore we should embrace questions which contradict our hypothesis and should discuss them constructively.

Unfortunately, the opposite is quite often the case. I think Lewis provided a good mathematical explanation why the results from Marotzke and Forster don’t work. But he finished his analysis with following sentences: “The statistical methods used in the paper are so bad as to merit use in a class on how not to do applied statistics.” and “All this paper demonstrates is that climate scientists should take some basic courses in statistics and Nature should get some competent referees.” Writing these statements doesn’t help to convince the other side. But this shows how overheated the discussion already is and that the sceptics feel not been taken seriously.

Unfortunately, Marotzke and Forster are not taking Lewis analysis serious. They basically repeat in their answer what they already have published in Nature [5]. And the main reason for why Lewis wrote his analysis was rejected with following statement: “It has been alleged that in [1] we applied circular logic. This allegation is incorrect.” This shows the narrow-mindedness and arrogance of the advocates of climate change. To have the majority doesn’t mean they own the truth.

In order to solve the climate change issue advocates and sceptics should work together as equal partners in the same group or directly within the IPCC. Only if both sides are satisfied with the results we might be getting closer to the truth.

[1] Jochem Marotzke & Piers M. Forster. Forcing, feedback and internal variability in global temperature trends. Nature, 517, 565–570 (2015)

[2] http://climateaudit.org/2015/02/05/marotzke-and-forsters-circular-attribution-of-cmip5-intermodel-warming-differences/

[3] http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/1520-0469(1963)020<0130:DNF>2.0.CO;2

[4] http://www.mpg.de/8925360/climate-change-global-warming-slowdown

[5] http://www.skepticalscience.com/marotzke-foster-respond-to-lewis.html

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanic_explosivity_index

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_large_volcanic_eruptions_of_the_20th_century