Monday Mirthiness: Severely unsettled science?

Dr. Jerome Ravetz writes in with this humorous research post job advertisement, writing:

Here’s an extract from an advertisement for a research post at the London School of Economics:

The Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science [London School of Economics] is seeking to appoint a Post-Doctoral Research Officer to contribute to the AHRC [Arts & Humanities Research Council] funded Research Project ‘Managing Severe Uncertainty’. The Research Officer will be expected to carry out supervised research within the remit of the project, with a focus on the nature and implications of scientific uncertainty and/or decision making under uncertainty, especially with regard to climate science and policy.


I wonder why they simply didn’t just advertise for a cat herder?

Maybe one of these guys could apply for the job:

MIT’s “wheel of climate” – image courtesy Donna Coveney/MIT


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October 15, 2012 9:08 am

Easy job.
All they have to do is declare: “There is no safe level of climate change. Even a little climate change has the potential to be harmful.” Once they’ve got that accepted then a single car, or even a single breathing human being, could be declared a threat since their heat and waste emitting processes would most certainly have at least some level of effect on some small part of a defined microclimate. And since microclimates can never be *completely* walled off from the larger climate, there much be an overall effect as well.
Unless you want to get into quantum theory… hmm… I’d actually never THOUGHT of that approach until just now! LOL! Could come in useful in some of my debates!

October 15, 2012 9:09 am

At least they have tacitly acknowledge there is uncertainty in “climate science”

October 15, 2012 9:18 am


David Larsen
October 15, 2012 9:19 am

Good job MIT. Maybe reconstruction of past cycles might provide insight into potential future cycles. Is it a sine or cosine wave?

October 15, 2012 9:27 am

Stan: “Don’t you think the professor is a trifle cuckoo ?”
Ollie: “He is as sound mentally as you or I.”
Laurel and Hardy

October 15, 2012 9:36 am

Does this mean the London School of Economics has problems dealing with the concept of ‘uncertainty’? (severe or otherwise).

Tom G(ologist)
October 15, 2012 9:38 am

“Geologsts make better intelligence officers than physicist or chemists, because they are used to making decisions on faulty data.”
Harry Hess, former Rear Addmiral, Navy reserves, geology professor at Princeton and framer of the theory of sea floor spreading.

David L.
October 15, 2012 9:40 am

Here’s a thought experiment: If humans lifespan was that of an insect, only about a month or two, what conclusions would they draw about “normal” weather/climate?
Would those born in the spring lament for their childern’s impending doom of a warming planet and those in the fall lament the next ice age? What generation would think they were living in “normal” times?

October 15, 2012 9:43 am

“… and/or decision making under uncertainty, …”
Every quant on the planet does that for a living, every second programmer knows probability theory, fuzzy logic, neuronal networks, filters that work for noisy signals… What is it with these people? We constantly manage uncertainty.

October 15, 2012 9:45 am

Have dartboard — will travel. Where do I send my resume?
Does it pay well?

October 15, 2012 9:56 am

Anthony – I’m not sure from the wording if Ravetz sent this to you and you think it is humorous, or if Ravetz is the one that thinks this is humorous?
The description seems to be a watered down version Ravetz’ PNS…. which I regard as a rather disengenuous and dangerous attempt to hijack the scientific method. Nothing humorous about it.
REPLY: He made the title of the post, “Severely unsettled science?” so I thought he thought it was humorous. I surely do. – Anthony

Luther Wu
October 15, 2012 9:57 am

Oh dear, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings…

October 15, 2012 10:19 am

davidmhoffer says:
October 15, 2012 at 9:56 am

Anthony – I’m not sure from the wording if Ravetz sent this to you and you think it is humorous, or if Ravetz is the one that thinks this is humorous?

You sound uncertain. Have you thought about applying for the position?

Gary Hladik
October 15, 2012 11:06 am

I don’t understand. Since we all know “the science is settled”, there is no “uncertainty” and therefore no implications to research. This sounds like a pretty cushy job. 🙂

October 15, 2012 11:38 am

David L said “If humans lifespan was that of an insect, only about a month or two, what conclusions would they draw about “normal” weather/climate? ”
Exactly, excellent point. Most people don’t realize that our lifespan is really no more significant than that of an insect.

October 15, 2012 1:20 pm

I think I am indecisive, but not really sure……..
I could be a perfect fit for this job opening :^X

October 15, 2012 1:49 pm

Can anyone tell me how this is any different from Operations Research (OR), which Harold Larnder invented in 1938? I did OR for most of my scientific career, and this is what my job was mainly about.

D. Patterson
October 15, 2012 3:48 pm

Settled science is what you find on the bottom of the oceans along with all of the other shipwrecks.

Robert of Ottawa
October 15, 2012 3:56 pm

decision making under uncertainty
You mean, like, playing poker?

October 15, 2012 4:08 pm

Luther Wu wrote, “Oh dear, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings…”
Ahh! A typical Denialist! Mr. Wu, are you trying to deny that butterflies EXIST??? Or perhaps that they FLAP THEIR CUTE LITTLE DEADLY WINGS????
Hmph. At least it’s not as ridiculous a theory as that whole wacky caterpillar thing.

Philip Bradley
October 15, 2012 4:18 pm

Some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, such as Karl Popper, tried to quantify scientific uncertainty and failed.
IMO, it’s an unsolvable problem.

October 15, 2012 4:45 pm

“I wonder why they simply didn’t just advertise for a cat herder?”
Nah , Cat herder would be overqualified for the job as while they have to be able to be able to react to and anticipate an extreme range of uncertainties at the end of the day the cat herder has to achieve an objective of having all the cats inside , I suspect the holder of the advertised position would need to be able to categorically state that all the cats were inside and cite that the presence of cat fur on the furniture confirmed it in spite of the absence of any actual cats other than those outside screaming at the back door to be let in .
What They really need is a “Stand up Philospher ”

Philip Bradley
October 15, 2012 4:48 pm

On second thoughts, if we are talking about a theory of specifically the Earth’s climate, rather than a general theory of planetary climates, then that’s a bounded problem and perhaps uncertainty can be quantified.

October 15, 2012 4:57 pm

Schroedinger’s cat clearly teaches us that parts of the world have already passed tipping points, and a passing tourist or satellite will kill us all. It is only aerosols fuzzing the view that is delaying the collapse. Stop looking.

D. Patterson
October 15, 2012 5:41 pm

Jim Cripwell says:
October 15, 2012 at 1:49 pm
Can anyone tell me how this is any different from Operations Research (OR), which Harold Larnder invented in 1938? I did OR for most of my scientific career, and this is what my job was mainly about.

It’s really very different. Post-normal science is an oxymoron wherein the uncertain future is treated as a certain future, while the certain past is treated as uncertain. It takes inspired leadership to manage such certain uncertainty.

John Whitman
October 15, 2012 5:48 pm

The job offered is to contribute to a project called ‘Managing Severe Uncertainty’ especially with regard to climate science and policy.
The title Ravetz gave to the post was ‘Severely Unsettled Science?’.
The research remit presumes the existence of climate science uncertainty that is ‘severe’ and Ravetz presumes, by his question, that unsettled climate science could be ‘severe’. NOTE: Having some exposure to Ravetz’s PNS, I am predisposed to conclude his question is rhetorical and I think he does have a presumption that the unsettled science must be severe.
The characterization of being ‘severe’ presumes it is known that the climate science efforts are sufficient to say that. I do not think the science community has concluded the climate science efforts are even remotely sufficient to say there is a ‘severe’ condition coming in climate. The use of ‘severe’ is an intellectual artifice that I think is intentionally used to steer the dialog away from reasonable avenues.
I think the most reasonable avenue to take and the most reasonable important decision to make wrt climate science is how to stimulate finally an open and transparent dialog with finally all the climate science participants available from the general science community (not just alarming AGW supporters). That new dialog must finally be: 1) completely unlinked to the bias in the US government funding process; 2) completely unlinked to the hidden ideological environmental activism in the IPCC leadership and lead authors who bias assessments toward alarming AGW fallacies; 3) completely unlinked to the possibility of scientific journals whose paper selections and review processes can be influenced by outsiders who interfere as power brokers while calling themselves scientists.
The ‘severe’ ploy doesn’t work anymore in the promotion of the PNS meme.

Crispin in Jakarta
October 15, 2012 5:58 pm

@michaeljmcfadden says:
>All they have to do is declare: “There is no safe level of climate change. Even a little climate change has the potential to be harmful.”
You are really on the right track there. The whole concept of ‘danger’ is rooted in unquantified potential risk operating in a world where all risk has danger attached down to the antfokker level.
Having by fiat ‘determined’ that there is no lower limit of risk/damage for any level of human-induced ‘change’, then logically (if the word actually applies at this point in the argument) anything mankind does increases risk and therefore potential danger. From there it is a simple step to conclude that all human activities are harmful at some scale – we therefore have a responsibility to stop all activity that ‘contributes to climate change’ which would in extremis include breathing or printing copies of Das Capital or the Magna Carta on dead trees. It is a world view, it is just not mine.

October 15, 2012 5:58 pm

‘Managing Severe Uncertainty’…especially with regard to climate science and policy.
Great. Just what the world needs, a silver trader posing as a climate scientist.
On second thought…

October 15, 2012 6:22 pm

I applaud the advertisement, and the implied intentions.
Sarcasm about the advertisement lacks scientific gravitas and adds nothing at all to the science except contumely and ill-will. In the non-scientific world, sarcasm is generally held to be the lowest form of wit.
In the world of scientific policy advice, only fools are 100% certain; in the world of policy decisions, only fools are 100% certain. The starting point for both should be that the only certainty is uncertainty, and, from there, that the only way to deal with uncertainty is to acknowledge it, get the best possible handle on it, and to integrate probability into policy decisions. The science can never be settled. But it can be mostly settled. And that is the best that policy decision makers will ever get. The rest is up to them.
Given the mish-mash of sometimes completely conflicting national and international policy settings on atmospheric CO2 emissions (some nations moving to reduce CO2 emissions, some nations moving to increase them), It is clear that, at a global level, we are not getting uncertainty and probability right at the moment.
The advertisement is no laughing matter.
As for those who mock the advertisement, there is an appropriate line in the Good Book,
[‘Forgive them father for they know not what they do.’]

October 15, 2012 9:09 pm

The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy
Chapter 25

They shrugged at each other. Fook composed himself.
“O Deep Thought Computer,” he said, “the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us …” he paused, “… the Answer!”
“The answer?” said Deep Thought. “The answer to what?”
“Life!” urged Fook.
“The Universe!” said Lunkwill.
“Everything!” they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Tricky,” he said finally.
“But can you do it?”
Again, a significant pause.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought, “I can do it.”
“There is an answer?” said Fook with breathless excitement.”
“A simple answer?” added Lunkwill.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought. “Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But,” he added, “I’ll have to think about it.”
A sudden commotion destroyed the moment: the door flew open and two angry men wearing the coarse faded-blue robes and belts of the Cruxwan University burst into the room, thrusting aside the ineffectual flunkies who tried to bar their way.
“We demand admission!” shouted the younger of the two men elbowing a pretty young secretary in the throat.
“Come on,” shouted the older one, “you can’t keep us out!” He pushed a junior programmer back through the door.
“We demand that you can’t keep us out!” bawled the younger one, though he was now firmly inside the room and no further attempts were being made to stop him.
“Who are you?” said Lunkwill, rising angrily from his seat. “What do you want?”
“I am Majikthise!” announced the older one.
“And I demand that I am Vroomfondel!” shouted the younger one.
Majikthise turned on Vroomfondel. “It’s alright,” he explained angrily, “you don’t need to demand that.”
“Alright!” bawled Vroomfondel banging on an nearby desk. “I am Vroomfondel, and that is not a demand, that is a solid fact! What we demand is solid facts!”
“No we don’t!” exclaimed Majikthise in irritation. “That is precisely what we don’t demand!”
Scarcely pausing for breath, Vroomfondel shouted, “We don’t demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts. I demand that I may or may not be Vroomfondel!”
“But who the devil are you?” exclaimed an outraged Fook.
“We,” said Majikthise, “are Philosophers.”
“Though we may not be,” said Vroomfondel waving a warning finger at the programmers.
“Yes we are,” insisted Majikthise. “We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!”
“What’s the problem?” said Lunkwill.
“I’ll tell you what the problem is mate,” said Majikthise, “demarcation, that’s the problem!”
“We demand,” yelled Vroomfondel, “that demarcation may or may not be the problem!”
“You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job aren’t we? I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”
“That’s right!” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

October 16, 2012 12:20 am

Hands up anyone that thinks this job position will advance the human race? now hands up if you think it’s just grant grabbing by a greedy Uni but need a patsy to pretend they are doing research?
And you guys missed a bit ‘The Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science’ –

October 16, 2012 1:15 am

I am certain the sun will shine on the coast of Scotland on the 4th of November. Do I qualify?

October 16, 2012 2:22 am

I suspect that climatologists are subject to the same cognitive biases that produce compulsive gambling.
By focussing on one’s successes and discounting one’s failures, a distorted mental picture develops that encourages one to pursue efforts that any rational and impartial observer would immediately recognize as unproductive.
Reliance on such biases is one way to cope with the data deficit that is connected with “uncertainty” in climate science.
Uncertainty in climate *policy* is an anthropogenic problem, subject to the vagaries of the decisions made by people whose thought processes are inherently incomprehensible.

David L
October 16, 2012 4:35 am

Tom Davidson on October 16, 2012 at 2:22 am
I suspect that climatologists are subject to the same cognitive biases that produce compulsive gambling.
Wow. Folks should go to that link and review the list of biases and see how many are at play in the world of climatology. It’s staggering. That field is one bias after another.

October 16, 2012 6:27 am

I’m not certain about uncertainty. But I know there is chaos in uncertainty and uncertainty in chaos. Chaos rules the Universe. Is there “Severe Chaos?”

October 16, 2012 6:29 am

What idiot or troop of idiots would try to impart certainty to a chaotic system? Like,say, the “global climate”.

Crispin in Jakarta
October 16, 2012 7:05 am

I am in Indonesia and I just saw a butterfly flap its wings. Better watch out Scotland, come the 4th of November. There is a terrible storm coming. There will be chaos, of that I am certain.

October 16, 2012 2:06 pm

With as many cognitive biases that exist, is it possible that humanity at large can ever have certainty of anything? Check your neck- you probably have a redneck bias, too. (One way or the other!)

Brian H
October 17, 2012 3:14 am

Well, see, first you have you known unknowns, then …

October 17, 2012 3:48 am

“There is always doubt. There’s no doubt about that.”

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