Most warm weekends, you can find me in Central Park by the Tavern on the Green playing the beautiful game of petanque. This is the French version of bocci, only unlike the Italian game, which uses effeminate wooden balls, we use manly balls of steel.
The game goes like this: each team takes turns throwing 800g balls six to ten meters towards a small colored ball, called the cochonette. The goal is to get as close to the cochonette as possible. When each team has thrown their six balls, we walk up to the cochonette and try to see which team’s balls is closer. Often, of course, it’s a narrow call whether my ball or my opponent’s ball is nearest.
Now, I have stood over the cochonette literally thousands of times—it helps to understand that I have perfect vision and have never needed glasses—and in a large fraction of those times I would have sworn, on my soul, that my ball was the closer of the two. Sometimes, of course, it is, but if you know me as a player, you know that is a rarity. Usually, my ball is the furthest, but it is often manifest, I pledge on my honor, that mine is best! Not only does my ball appear closer, but it is so obviously closer, that I cannot for the life of me see why there is an argument from my opponent.
But there is invariably a dispute, so out comes the stick, usually a telescoping radio antenna stripped from its base. Somebody bends down and measures the distance between all the balls and the cochonette. Once the objective results are in, there are usually groans from one side and calls of “It was obvious” from the other.
Psychologists are well familiar with this phenomena; in science it is called the experimenter effect. It describes what happens when an honest scientist carries out an experiment in the absolutely fairest way possible, looks at the results, and sees exactly what he expected to see, only to find that, later, other scientists have shown his result to be a statistical artifact or due to a forgotten, unaccounted variable. This is why, for example, double-blind trials in medicine are required, else the doctors would always find that the “active” pill beats the placebo.
You must understand that our scientist is a nice person, is kind to small animals, pays his taxes, and votes the proper way. He, with the best, and most honest, intentions carries out his experiments in the most meticulous manner he knows how. He is unbiased and exceptionally bright and in no way delusional or politically motivated. Only, it turns out, he is far too confident in his results. This is no dig against our scientist: most people in most things are overconfident; this is another thing that psychologists well understand.
It is true that greater than 99% of all climatologists are like our scientist, forthright, incredibly bright, and diligent. Too many “climate skeptics” have accused climate researchers as being driven by politics or by money (in the form of grants), and so seek to disregard results from these scientists on that account. But this is no different than the “green activist” denigrating findings from scientists whose research was funded by private companies. All results have to be analyzed on their own merit.
Climatologists are, I believe, too confident in their results: if there is any political temptation here, it is towards the tendency to make public statements that convey more certainty than research warrants; but there is no attempt to mislead. Without question, “activists” are annoyingly precise in their pronouncements, and since theirs is a political life, there is no temptation to which they will not give in. But many skeptics, too, could use a dose of humility. To say, for example, that “global warming is a hoax” is carrying constructive criticism too far.