I had a pleasant interview yesterday afternoon with Tom Yulsman of the Center for Environmental Journalism in Colorado. He also posted an article yesterday reporting on an interview with Roger Pielke Jr in which Yulsman described me as a “gadfly”. I don’t know whether this was posted before or after our interview; he didn’t mention it.
My first reaction was that this was a “pejorative” term, but, with a little research”, it turned out that Wikipedia cites Socrates as a “gadfly”, who was a goad to “slow and dimwitted horse”.
Gadfly” is a term for people who upset the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant.
The term “gadfly” (Gk. muopa) was used by Plato in the Apology to describe Socrates’ relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse … During his defense when on trial for his life, Socrates, according to Plato’s writings, pointed out that dissent, like the tiny (relative to the size of a horse) gadfly, was easy to swat, but the cost to society of silencing individuals who were irritating could be very high. “If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me,” because his role was that of a gadfly, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”
In modern and local politics, gadfly is a term used to describe someone who persistently challenges people in positions of power, the status quo or a popular position. The word may be uttered in a pejorative sense, while at the same time be accepted as a description of honorable work or civic duty.
In the article itself, Yulsman quotes Pielke Jr making points about the limitations of peer review that are very familiar to Climate Audit readers, and, in the process, praising the blogs for peer review services:
Q: Have we put too much faith in the peer review system? And should we seek sources outside the usual scientific circles?
A: Peer review is simply a cursory check on the plausibility of a study. It is not a rigorous replication and it is certainly not a stamp of correctness of results. Many studies get far more rigorous peer review on blogs after publication than in journals. I use our own
blog for the purpose of getting good review before publication for some of my work now, because the review on blogs is often far better and more rigorous than from journals. This is not an indictment of peer review or journals, just an open-eyed recognition of the realities.
It is hard to say who is outside and who is inside scientific circles anymore. McIntyre now publishes regularly in the peer reviewed literature. [Pielke is speaking of Steve McIntyre, whom I would describe as a climate change gadfly; he publishes a blog called “Climate Audit”] Gavin Schmidt blogs and participates in political debates. [Schmidt is a NASA earth scientist who conducts climate research.] Lucia Liljegren works at Argonne National Lab as an expert in fluid dynamics and blogs quite well on climate predictions for fun. She is preparing a paper for publication based on her work, but she has never done climate work before. I am a political scientist who publishes in the Journal of Climate and Nature Geoscience and blogs. Who is to say who is ‘outside’ and who is ‘inside’? Is participation in IPCC the union card? How about having a PhD? Publishing in the literature? Testifying before Congress?
The Wikipedia article refers to a BBC piece on gadflies:
The term ‘gadfly’ is usually pejorative and is often bestowed by organizations or persons who are on the receiving end of the gadfly’s attentions. It implies that the gadfly is an intellectual lightweight whose only intent is to annoy, thereby gaining attention for himself…Being a gadfly is generally a thankless task. People with something to hide will go to almost any length to discredit one who brings their behaviour to light.
Back to the “slow and dim witted horse”. I’m a little surprised that Yulsman likens the climate science community to a “slow and dim witted horse”, but who are we mere gadflies to argue? If so, I think that we can safely say that certain body parts are already spoken for.