DDOS on climate science?

2009-12-16T11:01:57Z in science, data, politics

Ed Parsons has been beating the drum for open climate data. I like open data, but it's not not without its own problems. A potential problem for science, and scientific consensus, in a brave new world where we are all now climate scientists, is the ramping up of the social denial of service attacks identified by Steve Easterbrook:

But in reality, the denialists don’t care about the science at all; their aim is a PR campaign to sow doubt in the minds of the general public. In the process, they effect a denial-of-service attack on the scientists – the scientists can’t get on with doing their science because their time is taken up responding to frivolous queries (and criticisms) about specific features of the data. And their failure to respond to each and every such query will be trumpeted as an admission that an alleged error is indeed an error. In such an environment, is it perfectly rational not to release data and code – it’s better to pull up the drawbridge and get on with the drudgery of real science in private. That way the only attacks are complaints about lack of openness. Such complaints are bothersome, but much better than the alternative.

In this case, because the science is vitally important for all of us, it’s actually in the public interest that climate scientists be allowed to withhold their data. Which is really a tragic state of affairs. The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for.

Joe Gregorio has this social denial of service thing nailed:

Let's go back to electronic denial-of-service attacks. They worked because of an inherent asymmetry between the attacker and the attacked. [i.e. from earlier in Gregorio's post: The attacker performs very little computation to send the packets, but the server has to accept them and perform some computation to determine if they are valid or bogus. In this way an attacker with the same or less computational power can overwhelm a bigger host.] The same is true of the social denial-of-service attack where arguments, responses, rebuttals and more importantly time has to be spent responding to the bad faith objections, which are easily written up and tossed onto the mailing list.

Denial of service on climate science was bad enough before the leaked emails, now scientists have to read the emails, parse them, and explain how they don't falsify the science in every public forum and every media outlet. Next, add to the mix climate data and models. What happens when some blog or cable TV gasbag complains that not only do the model results of scientists not match his interpretation of the data, but that he couldn't even get the model to run on his computer, no matter how hard he tried, and that the code itself might be fraudulent. That's not going to be a victory for transparency.

Perhaps we need to match open climate data and models with a change in the rules of our climate debate. Gregorio explains the rules used by the IETF:

Remember that one way to fight a denial of service attack is to raise the amount of computation required by the attacker. In the case of a Working Group the way to do that is by requiring disruptions to take more time and energy. This is where the call for "camera ready copy in the form of a Pace" comes from in the AtomPub WG. Camera ready copy is much more difficult to write than a one or two line objection tossed into a mailing list. Only if you are willing to put in the work to write up a Pace with reasonable text will it start to take up the time of the WG. Your willingness to put in the time and effort to create camera ready copy will distinguish your proposals and objections from those of an attacker.

Similarly, in the climate debate, we could demand that denialists publish their arguments and supporting evidence in peer-reviewed journals. (Note that I'm distinguishing denialists from the skeptics who already do publish in peer-reviewed journals.) Does it risk giving them unwarranted credibility? Maybe, but I think that it's balanced by increased cost. Even low-cost electronic journals completely stacked with friendly reviewers will help level the asymmetry that makes a DOS attack possible. Forcing the denialists to read and personally sign off on the work of others, or even just keeping them occupied correcting each other's grammar and spelling, would be a good start.

We could demand this, and by "we" I mostly mean our media, but that would require our media to transform itself into something that infotains us a little less and edifies us a little more, and that's probably too much to ask, yeah? I don't have an answer, but it's interesting to look at some aspects of the climate debate as a denial of service attack, and I didn't see that perspective come up in any of the many comments on Ed's blog. I also recommend Bryan Lawrence's post on this topic. He doesn't use the word "attack", but certainly expresses some frustration at the extra load put on climate scientists in these times.

Comments

1Re: DDOS on climate science?

Paul Bissett, 2009-12-16T19:30:51Z

Sean,

I agree w/ many of your arguments. However, it is not as easy as you suggest.

1) there is a difference between those who deny warming occurring since the onset of the industrial revolution and those who question the relative impact of anthropogenic activities on the background natural climate variability. These two groups often get lumped together, but they are very distinct. Propagandists tend to be in the first category (warming deniers), credible scientists tend to be in the other (anthropogenic questioners).

2) having worked in the field of predictive oceanic modeling for nearly 20 years, and published in peer-reviewed journals, and guested edited peer-reviewed journals, I can tell you the science of modeling depends heavily on the assumptions of the model, the mathematical equations used to approximate the physical environment, the tuning parameters of those equations, data input to the models, the validation data used to verify the models, and the computational horsepower to run those models. The only people qualified to run those models are those in climate research centers. These models require huge computers, large staffs, and millions of dollars of infrastructure support.

The only way to create a critical review of the models predicting anthropogenic impacts is to fund a separate effort to develop and tune the models differently to see if alternative theories could explain the observations. In practice this is almost never done, because peer-review research is subject to peer-reviewed funding. The bigger the project, the more group support you need to get your project funded. This tends to create positive feedback in the scientific community; a noted flaw, but like democracy is the best system compared to everything else.

Good observations eventually rule. Part of the current debate lost in the noise is that the last decade has been marked by "unexplained" cooling since 1998. This is unexplained only in terms of how the models were previously being forced, which just goes to say the models were not quite right, and they don't quite know why.

Modelers step in when observations are too sparse or limited to definitely make a case. Climate researcher do not have the equivalent of Large Hadron Collider (a true shame). If they did, the scientific debate would be a lot easier.

2Re: DDOS on climate science?

Kirk Kuykendall, 2009-12-16T21:01:52Z

So maybe Al Gore just didn't want to distract Dr. Maslowski from his work ...

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/copenhagen/article6956783.ece

3Re: DDOS on climate science?

Paul Bissett, 2009-12-16T21:55:07Z

Kirk,

that's the problem on both sides, rhetoric rather than facts. NASA measurements show a 7.8% increase in seasonal ice cover since the low stand in 2007.

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/seaicemin09.html

Let the scientists do their jobs, fund the research adequately, and quit politicizing the science. The facts will surface, but they will take time and good measurements.

4Re: DDOS on climate science?

Kirk Kuykendall, 2009-12-16T22:51:39Z

Paul,

Yes, it will take time, but I don't think the Navy is waiting. I recall hearing about a classified doc produced by the Navy several years ago discussing where to move ports in response to rising sea levels. At the same time other parts of the gov't were saying there just isn't enough evidence to take action. Maybe the Navy's models are classified. (Malowski, incidentally, works for Naval Post grad school)

5Re: DDOS on climate science?

Jeff Thurston, 2009-12-16T23:49:10Z

Interesting points.

Having managed research in a University for a long time I offer the following.

1) Most research (esp. this type)is conducted by teams of people. The days of lone scientists completing work like this are few and far between. The denials of service would have to cover huge areas and large numbers of people.

2) Most universities expect scientists to do three things. a) teach, b)research and c) community work. The last item is the one that gets the shortest shift, yet it is the last one needing the most attention - for the situations you describe.

There needs to be more people explaining good science to everyday people in terms they understand, and to be doing it continually. Informed people can make better judgements.

What I find interesting is that few instititions actually sit with media to develop these forms of relationships.

6Re: DDOS on climate science?

Sean, 2009-12-17T10:20:47Z

Thanks for the comments. I'm very sympathetic to scientists who feel that global warming is over hyped and studies of it funded beyond reasonable levels. As an undergrad, I worked in a molecular biology lab under a professor who argued that the Human Genome Project was going to take more than its fair share of the pie and sideline other important work. I studied under some of the prominent skeptics as a atmospheric science grad student. I admire people who'll take an unpopular stand when necessary. I don't admire those who'll whip up the anti-intellectual segment of our societies into a DDOS on consensus.

Paul, I'm with you on observations, but there are some things I'm not willing to risk losing forever while we wait for absolute certainty. Personally, I'm a bit more concerned about direct damage to ecosystems and landscapes (over-fishing, deforestation, mountaintop removal) and the scientists studying these human impacts are just as vulnerable to consensus-jamming.

7Re: DDOS on climate science?

Kirk Kuykendall, 2009-12-17T15:11:53Z

I forgot to point out how the Navy is highly experienced in countering jamming efforts. (For some interesting history, read this story about the birth of spread spectrum.) In addition to rising sea levels, the Navy is also preparing for an ice free arctic. I expect renewed interest in Alfred Mahan.

8Re: DDOS on climate science?

Paul Bissett, 2009-12-17T18:33:24Z

Sean,

I think we're aligned in our concerns. Part of the reason for starting WeoGeo was an attempt to open up critical geospatial information that was locked in the silos of individual organizations. Kinda "Think globally, act locally" w/ respect to geo-content.

It has taken me away from direct science endeavors (which I miss), but I am hoping that by enabling easy access to quality measurements, our contributions will have an equally lasting impact.

Keep swinging at the blowhards. I got your back...

9Re: DDOS on climate science?

Bill, 2009-12-23T18:37:19Z

Sean, the points you raise have merit to be sure. But science is all about the examination of data. To deny the data to other scientists is to deny that science is being done. Denying access to the data is unforgivable in my view.

Second, you downplay the legitimate concerns of the people trying to get access. There is no question that there have been many serious errors in, for example, the hockey stick studies (data sets mislocated, data sets misrepresented, data sets used in the opposite sense of the original authors). We all make mistakes. But scientists go back and look at what they did, and at least do not repeat the same mistakes in the next paper. This is demonstrably not the case with Mann and his studies. That no one questioned follow on papers when these errors were publicly known is strong evidence of the corruption of the peer review process. The continued use of stripbark proxies when nearly everyone on the planet except these few agree that they are misleading is another example.

Third, while I agree that the world has warmed in the last ~130 years, the question of the rate of warming is a legitimate question at this point. As people begin to look at what parts of the record are available they are discovering that the adjustments are questionable. This has occurred in Australia, New Zealand, Siberia, Alaska, and Norway to mention just a few from the past couple of weeks. It may be the adjustments are appropriate, but in some cases it would be hard to see how this could be so (Darwin for example). And ultimately, it is the rate of warming that is most important. It is the rate(s) that will tell if we have serious climate issues or not. So it is vital we get it right.

10Re: DDOS on climate science?

Sean, 2009-12-23T20:20:09Z

Bill, you've got me wrong: I'm in favor of open data. As to the discoveries you say have been made in the past couple of weeks: let's get them written up and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

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