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“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 1:30 AM GMT on December 14, 2009

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Yesterday I got into an exchange with a person who posted a comment wishing the curse of a pox to the students writing on the UoMichigan COP15 Blog . It reminded me of Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joe McCarthy, “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (Welch-McCarthy Exchange from American Rhetoric)

In the United States we devolve into something that is more like tribalism with sides taken based on the color of your uniform or who pays you the most. Discussion is based not on ideas and solutions, but on who makes a statement. Issues are advocated, and ideas are placed into extremes that take on attributes such as good and evil, for and against. The other side is wrong, and their intentions are of hidden control or hidden profit. This threatens our credibility and our viability.

US Senators pursue an investigation of climate science based upon the stolen and published correspondence of a small clutch of prominent scientists. Here at the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen the news says that we should anticipate a visit by Congressman Sensenbrenner to call for the end of “climate fascism.” This will place this US political tribe in solid alliance with, perhaps, Saudi Arabia.

For the conference as a whole, I, my students, my colleagues, new people I meet, the discussion in the plenary sessions – from all of these sources, I hear no serious discussion about any challenge the CRU emails present to the basic conclusions that the Earth will warm, ice will melt, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. I have had a small number of interviews, and the question is asked almost as a curiosity. It’s more like the scandal of the emails is really a scandalous aspect of the US culture, like displays of disfigured animals in the back lot of a traveling freak show.

Some of my American colleagues, those closest to the IPCC, these people spend time developing rational responses to calls for investigations, allegations of lies, searches for conspiracies, and efforts to control the participation of individual US scientists in IPCC assessments. They work to craft rational responses to the irrational. Members of the Congress form and dissolve COP delegations. The rationalist’s response to a process that is being managed to be irrational is, itself, irrational. As the rationalist counters the irrational, their irrationality becomes more and more damaging.

It took me several years of management at NASA to realize that there were some people who thrived on the fight. There were those who were disruptive and sometimes deliberately hostile. Others, who benignly fueled chaos. These efforts to cause organizational dis-structure, to increase organizational entropy – these efforts were their strategy for success. Or if not a strategy for success, it was a strategy to keep others from succeeding, of using the distraction to outlast efforts they viewed to their disadvantage.

I spent some time as a manager of scientists trying to find the rational arguments that would help people see the intent and advantage of what I was trying to do and to develop buy in. I had some success, but there was always a group that worked, deliberately or subconsciously, to sabotage. Their strategy was often to create disorder. Their tactic was often to isolate facts or conjecture that in their isolation suggested rationality, compelled a rational response. The rational response was, ultimately, parried with the next isolated fact or conjecture. This is a tactic to build selective doubt.

While at NASA I had the experience of being on a long camping trip with a person who had a psychotic episode. My companion started to hear voices in the radio background, and transmissions through rusted cans lying on the side of the trail. There were always perceived people with weapons in groups of people near us. My first response was to discuss the inability of people speaking through rusted cans. Then I proceeded to showing that nothing bad did occur following the perceived threat. I tried to use a rational description of reality to prove a point that was motivated and fueled by extreme irrationality. Irrationality ultimately anchored in fear.

As a manager, I became more aware of fear and the fear of change. I tried to make my contribution as organizing disorganized systems. I hired a sociologist to work with me at NASA. What I learned is that this tactic of developing the rational response to the isolated assertion, conjecture, or fact was, fundamentally, ill posed. I learned that irrationality and sabotage were a natural part of getting the job down. I learned that if you allow the isolated assertions, conjectures, and facts to grow to dominate the job, then progress will be slowed, perhaps stopped. I learned that if you want to make progress then the leader has to differentiate her/his self from the turmoil, objectify the irrationality and sabotage as part of the whole – and manage it. Place the disruption in its place – the place of the disruptors.

I also learned that it is important to listen to the disruptors, to truly understand the motivation of the disruption. Almost always a sound foundation of the disruption is offered. It was my job to determine if the stated foundation was the real foundation – what is the subtext? It was my job to determine if I needed to accommodate the concerns of the disruptors into the direction the project or organization needed to take. The reason people disrupted ranged from a true conviction that a certain path was wrong to strong emotional attachments to particular ideas and, even, pieces of software. There were always some who where, often by their own admission, contrarian. And, if one is contrarian, it is usually because being contrarian has been a successful strategy in their lives. There are a host of reasons to disrupt, to resist, and to sabotage change.

As long as the community of climate scientists engages in the disruption and the creation of selective doubt, the disruptors will garner attention and an exaggerated amount of success. The march forward will be slowed. The behavior of all will be reduced to one where it makes sense to question decency. The disruptors cannot be convinced by the exposition of the rational totality; they are not looking to be convinced. Their motivations are elsewhere.

The person who made the original comment on the blog responded to me that their comments represented civility in 2009 and suggested that I would be intimidated by and unwelcoming of the language of Shakespeare. I do not, however, accept that participating in this game of personal attacks, repeated slogans, and outrageous assertions is the form of how we must now carry out deliberations of serious issues. I find no relevance of the curses of MacBeth’s witches. If I behave like a character in a tragedy, then it is likely the results will be tragic.

This behavior of disruption is an old and common tactic. It is always in present in politics and management - really throughout life. It is something one imagines as absent in the purity of science, but it is not absent in the best of worlds; it is a community peopled by scientists. We in the US have allowed it to grow to a way of doing business that threatens our relevance and our viability.

I sit here in Copenhagen, not far from Hamlet’s castle of tragedy. I hear quiet men developing community-based climate adaptation plans to link to development activities in their countries. I see interesting technology in transportation and energy from countries eager for wealth. I see policy and practices developing in other countries that promote efficiency and environmental trade. I see the US distracted and wasting its intellect and time on disruptions designed to play to people at home, and which will assure to hasten our marginalization as a great culture. We don’t even look smart to our own children.


Other relevant blogs

Paul Edwards: IPCC Press Briefing

Paul Edwards: "Climategate," Not IPCC

Jeff Masters: Manufactured Doubt

Jeff Masters: Don't Shoot the Messenger

Rood: Climategate Copenhagen Impacts

Rood: Update from Copenhagen

And here is

Faceted Search of Blogs at climateknowledge.org

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.