Facilitating Disruption

December 17th, 2009 <-- by Richard Rood -->

“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

2 Responses to “Facilitating Disruption”

  1. Andi Chapple Says:

    Richard – thanks very much for this, I have found it very enlightening to go back and consider the actions of people I have been involved with in the light of your analysis. I too have spent a lot of time and energy trying to deal with people from the assumption that they had the same goals as I did, but we were just misunderstanding one another in some way I could never work out.

    Coincidentally, yesterday the fine Mind Hacks blog (http://www.mindhacks.com/) pointed me to an article about the motivation of internet trolls (people who subvert discussions, pick pointless arguments, etc. on forums and comment threads) at Cognition and Culture (http://www.cognitionandculture.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=559:conversation-hackers-trolls-argumentation&catid=32:oliviers-blog&Itemid=34) written by Olivier Morin and Sophie Claudel which you may find interesting.

    Best wishes, Andi

  2. nate Says:


    You are either wonderfully optimistic and naive or horridly cynical, I can’t tell which :-).

    The reality is that Climate Policy is a misnomer. Climate Policy is really People Policy. This is a Risk Management issue pure and simple which effects every living human being on this planet in one way or another.

    A theory has been put forward and has gained some traction. It is only now receiving truly intense scrutiy from outside the bullwork of bureacracy which is IPCC and of the society of friends which has been those leading the charge based around the notion of AGW.

    You are absolutely correct that there is much distraction going on and irrational behavior on every side of the debate. It seems to frustrate you. I actually find the interest healthy. My own interest peaked with ClimateGate and after reading through 150 pages of the EA e-mails, having to filter out “analysis” by an avowed conspiracy theorist, I find the scrutiny the actors both within CRU and without to be useful.

    As a professional Risk Manager, I’ve always found it useful to challenge the assertions/materiality of those who come to me with a risk in a respectful way. The individual making the assertion will have their position challenged. It’s healthy, and good preparatory work for me when I have to take the position to the Program Manager, get funding for mitigation, and assign the appropriate resource to develop the mitigation plan. Honest debate, discussed in a respectful way which separates known elements from the unknown is the only way I’ve found to seriously address Risk Management.

    The Climate Policy debate influences everyday people. The elitism shown within the ClimateGate e-mails is palpable. The reactions to it by many conformist institutions without a curious brain cell in their heads is predictable. Your article misses the point completely. Rationality is often about perception of same by the individual looking through their individual prism. In a diverse world one should not be surprised to discover diversity of thought. To write off those differences and character attribute is being irrational is to be too readily dismissive of those who are different than you. Any honest man or woman should be able to look in the mirror and admit that the image staring back at them does not represent the “ideal”. The viewpoints of that individual will be necessarilly fallible, and that each day represents an opportunity for learning from those who are different than that face we see.

    AGW theory proposes a risk and a source. IPCC seeks to quantify impact (remember, risk quantified = probability * consequence) and prepare policy recommendations for a path forward, all this based on confidence in both the evidence and the potential impacts of the incumbent scenario. IPCC seeks to validate the integrity of their advisory content through process and vetting of the characters who contribute the content.

    That the public speaking through their elected representatives holds these institutions and their designees to a high standard IS A GOOD THING!

    AGW theory and accompaning Climate Policy recommendations by those who are proponents of the theory represents one path forward based on a level of uncertainty both of the quantity of risk in evidence and now with ClimateGate, the integrity of those who submitted the content.

    The incumbent path forward carries with it incumbent risks AS DOES ANY DEVIATION THEREFROM.

    There is absolute certainty that the “consensus recommendation” COP15 was intended to drive represented risk. It came with a cost. Proponents would argue the framework and binding language desired came with overwhelming benefits that outweighed those risks.

    Proponents of COP15 language in the aftermath of the timid response from official participants remain frustrated, and “blame the messenger”. That messenger of course is the constituency the heads of state and designees present are accountable too.

    Frustration with that constituency by labeling them as irrational is elitest and foolish. Part of Climate Policy by necessity is to craft a message which seems rational to the ultimate customer and stakeholder of the proposed policy changes in question.

    Respectfully I say to your profession, buck up and prepare a “rational” policy roadmap going forward that appeals to the constituency you ultimately answer to, your fellow citizens of this globe and stop complaining or get out of the way and let new voices speak in a dialect that your fellow species members can better understand and appreciate.

    ClimateGate reveals individuals in a “cocoon” that really need to get out more. Spend some time with everyday people. Appreciate the salt of the earth. Listen to their challenges to your ideas. Respond with respect and courtesy to them…you’ll get further with them that way. Like it or not, they stand before you requiring persuasion. Coercion isn’t an option so dealing with those you consider “irrational” goes with the territory. Maybe if you take the time to get to know them a little better, perhaps there’s more logic to the “wisdom of the crowds” than you give them credit.

    Best wishes,


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