Political Oracles

November 4, 2012

Cuomo:

Lo, the oracles of science have spoken!  Andrew Cuomo (D) and Michael Bloomberg (I? R? D?) have announced that climate change is responsible for the destruction in metro NYC…er, will be responsible for similar destruction in the future if we don’t act…er, no, contributed to this destruction…etc.

Some have dubbed this sort of media treatment “Tabloid Climatology.”  Most are not interested in what scientists such as Klaus Jacobs and Radley Horton, both associated with GISS and Columbia University have said: that it is difficult to make any credible case that this hurricane/storm was the effect of human contributions to CO2 in the atmosphere over the last hundred years.

As for these politicos who have suddenly got religion, where have they been during the last twenty or thirty years while some of these same scientists, and many engineers and geographers, have been pressing the point that NYC and the region are vulnerable now and not because of climate change, but because of our inaction, bad policy, poor development decisions, and aversion to spending money on capital assets that voters don’t clamor for? Bloomberg in particular, has done nothing, and now he makes a great show of endorsing the right candidate for president for the wrong reason.  I wonder how he feels about Obama’s tax program??  As Pielke observes on his blog:

Yet, Mayor Bloomberg is also an elected leader. What is he going to do about the fact that his city was less prepared than it should have been for a disaster that was expected and one of a sort will certainly recur, climate change or not?

It is a sad reflection of the state of the media and its treatment of science that this excellent piece by Roger Pielke, Jr. could never see the light of day in the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, but must appear in that Rupert Murdock organ, the WSJ. Here’s the intro:

Hurricane Sandy left in its path some impressive statistics. Its central pressure was the lowest ever recorded for a storm north of North Carolina, breaking a record set by the devastating “Long Island Express” hurricane of 1938. Along the East Coast, Sandy led to more than 50 deaths, left millions without power and caused an estimated $20 billion or more in damage.

But to call Sandy a harbinger of a “new normal,” in which unprecedented weather events cause unprecedented destruction, would be wrong. This historic storm should remind us that planet Earth is a dangerous place, where extreme events are commonplace and disasters are to be expected. In the proper context, Sandy is less an example of how bad things can get than a reminder that they could be much worse.


Day of the Dead

November 2, 2012


November 2 is The Day of the Dead in Mexico and other Latin American cultures.  This image is by Posada, a popular graphic artist from the early 20th century, obviously an inspiration for some 1960s hippie types.

I am hanging out in Baltimore, MD where there is power and normalcy, planning on returning to NJ on Sunday, with a few tanks of extra gasoline just in case things don’t get sorted out up there soon.

As for Sandy and climate change, which has been in the news, I can only say that what happened to NYC has been expected for at least 25 years, probably much longer, by engineers and geographers who study the place.  As one scientist said of the storm, what was remarkable about it was that it happened in NYC. If climate change predictions hold true, such flooding will be worse in the future, but wasn’t it bad enough as it was to pay attention? If fears of climate apocalypse get people to take constructive action, I won’t complain too much about their misguided notions.


One man’s poison is another man’s meat

August 27, 2012

Click for source and interactive data map

That goes for natural habitats too.  With less rain falling in the middle of the country during the current drought, there’s less polluted runoff to the Mississippi.  That means that the river’s discharge to the Gulf of Mexico is a lot cleaner than usual.

An analysis of the Gulf from Aug. 15-21 covered more than 1,200 miles of cruise track, from Texas to Louisiana. The team found no hypoxia off the Texas coast while only finding hypoxia near the Mississippi River delta on the Louisiana coast.

Hypoxia is a condition in which the ocean waters have very low levels of dissolved oxygen present, which means that living things can’t survive there.  Fish do breathe, but through their gills.

“We had to really hunt to find any hypoxia at all and Texas had none,” says Steve DiMarco, associate professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University. “The most severe hypoxia levels were found near Terrabonne Bay and Barataria Bay off the coast of southeast Louisiana.

Basically, the dissolved fertilizer from agriculture stimulates high levels of algae growth in the waters.  When they die, they sink and decay, which uses up the oxygen in the water.  Then everything dies.  As long as the amount of chemical nutrients coming into the system is in balance with the dynamics of the waterbody, the oxygen level fluctuates within bounds that local life can tolerate.  Pollution by industry, agriculture, or local sewer systems can upset that balance.


Sustainability?

May 27, 2012

I have been reading a lot about sustainability lately, trying to pin down what it really means.  I am doing this because I have grown tired of hearing the term bandied about thoughtlessly, used as a marketing slogan in my profession, used as a rallying cry for unthinking do-gooders in the public sphere, and because it is connected with ideas I find fascinating, i.e., the notions that we have to connect us with nature, and the notions we have of nature itself.  Two pieces I looked at are this booklet by a professor in England who’s specialty it is, and this article on ‘carrying capacity‘ by a human geographer at Berkley.

Th images at the head of this post represent the two paths we are told we can follow:  The first is that of bacteria reproducing in a petri dish, the population growing rapidly, then crashing – that’s the path we are supposedly on now; the second is the ‘closed loop’ of eco, bio, sustainable, new age, no growth economics that the prophets seek to bring us to.  The theological/ethical dimensions of the latter view are obvious simply from the array of images presented when you google ‘sustainability’ for images.

Mr. Jackson’s booklet (Prosperity without Growth) goes into great detail about the inequalities, inefficiencies and spiritual dogmas of our present cultural ecology of free enterprise capitalism and consumerism.  He tells that countries with much lower GDPs than the USA or UK have the same, or better!, life expectancies, same or better infant mortality rates, and that new measures of ‘happiness’ show no strong link between materialistic or consumer abundance and satisfaction.  Is this news?  Is this what the Sustainability Program amounts to – a plea to examine the nature of The Good Life, and to act accordingly?  Very old wine in new bottles.

For the record, I largely agree with this philosophic critique of our current social arrangements, but where I part company with the prophets is my belief that our current path IS sustainable, though not preferable (to me).  What these folks are doing is packaging an ethical, philosophical, moral, religious, spiritual and political point of view inside a pseudo-scientific theory.  The logic goes, if we do not change towards a sustainable path, we, human civilization, will crash like those one-celled creatures in the graph at top.  (The intellectual incoherence of this view is dissected in Nathan Sayre’s essay that I have linked to this post.)  Without the Damoclean sword of global meltdown hanging over us, why would anyone do anything to change?  Because society would be more just, more fair, more satisfying, less damaging to the ecological communities we cohabit with on Earth?  There’s too much money to be made to bother with that stuff!

So, what do we end up getting in the absences of a reasoned and organized attack on the status quo?  We get the same old economic system and its injustice and inequality, but we get bike-lanes (I like ‘em), ‘green products’, (I hate ‘em), tony new-urbanist developments (works for me), hipster eco-esthetic (I like to shop there) carbon footprinting (useless and deceptive) and so on…


The End is Near, again…

May 11, 2012
 
Just had to parse this one…
 
Game Over for the Climate 
By JAMES HANSEN
New York Times, May 9, 2012

GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.  That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”[Most scientists agree that the Earth has gotten warmer in the last 150 years, but there is disagreement over just how much, and why.  The IPCC says it is highly confident that 'most' of the observed warming is due to mankind's use of fossil fuels.  If the observed warming is 1 or 1.5 degrees, F, that's 0.5 or 0.75 degrees due to mankind, so what about that other half?  It's not much, anyway.]

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.  [The game will go on, with us or without us...]

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk. [Saying that the tar sands contain more CO2 than we have produced throughout history sounds shocking, but could be said about any of the major fuel reserves, coal, oil, natural gas, that are left.  It amounts to saying that if we burn up everything on earth for fuel, we will have discharged more CO2 than in all of human history.  Similarly, there are more people alive today than the sum of all who have lived before.  It's a sound-bite.  Hansen goes on to assume that this will happen quickly, and that the effects will be just as he predicts, although such a thing has never happened before.  He assumes the Doomsday scenario of polar ice meltdown, and ignores the possibility that if his predictions appeared at all correct, that people would stop using fossil fuels.  Right now they have little reason to, if they listen to just him.]

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.  [Hansen has been making predictions for decades.  The only one that is indubitable is that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere did rise.  Will he keep score on these?]

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground. [Glad he recognizes that he is being apocalyptic.  If we 'reduce emissions dramatically,' just what will be accomplished?  How much is 'dramatic?'  Has he asked the Indians, the Chinese, and the rest of the developing world?  Most reduction scenarios that are at all technically, politically, and demographically plausible will have minimal impact, if his models are correct. ]

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, [according to him, who made the prediction...] as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change. [Whoa!  That's a claim.  I wonder who he includes in that we can say?  I would like to see the scientists who will sign onto that statement!]

We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. The right amount keeps the climate conducive to human life. But add too much, as we are doing now, and temperatures will inevitably rise too high.[They will rise, but how much they will rise is the million dollar question.  His predictions depend on feedback loops that are speculative.] This is not the result of natural variability, as some argue. The earth is currently in the part of its long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would normally be cooling. But they are rising — and it’s because we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control. [Hmm...is the goal to have a climate system that we control?  Then adding CO2 is the way to go!  We cause it, we control it!  I agree, however, that reducing the use of 'dirty' fuels is a good idea for a lot of reasons.]

We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.  [Here here!  By all means, let's tax carbon and make the cost more closely approximate the real cost, including all the externalities.  I'd love to see it!  We could do all sorts of great things with the money, including fund research on major alternative energy technologies.  At the very least, the result would be a serious drive towards efficiency and conservation.]

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling. [Well, here I more or less agree.]

President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open, honest discussion — explaining that our continued technological leadership and economic well-being demand a reasoned change of our energy course. History has shown that the American public can rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential.[Agree here too, but not with him!]

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.  [If it is so clear, then why is consensus presented in terms of statistics based on computer projections that are subject to great uncertainty?  The amount of science that is clear, e.g. that CO2 causes some warming, does not occupy the core of what the policy debate is about, which is basically an assessment of risk.]   This is a plan that can unify conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and business. [Dream on, prophet.]  Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. [This is flatly untrue and dishonest.  There have been many statements that global warming is real, that humans contribute to it, and that if current predictions are correct, the effects could be serious.  That's a very different statement.]  The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.


More climate of fear…

July 20, 2011

Another few bars in the endlessly played dirge, The End is Nigh, from the NYTimes:

ENJOYING the heat wave?

The answer is probably no if you live in Abilene, Tex., where temperatures have been at or above 100 degrees for 40 days this summer. It’s been a little cooler in Savannah, Ga., where the mercury hit 90 or more for 56 days in a row.  How does this compare to business as usual, I wonder?  Those are hot places.

Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma are coping with their driest nine-month stretch since 1895I always wonder when I hear claims like this, was it hotter in 1895?  Is this the first year since 1895 that the ’95 record is surpassed?  Why was it so hot then, global warming?  How much hotter was it?

 Yes, it has been a very hot summer after one of the most extreme-weather springs on recordJust what does that last phrase mean?  Cold springs, hot summers, it’s all global warming!  Is she referring to the flooding?  

It’s time to face the fact that the weather isn’t what it used to beAlways a safe statement.

Every 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recalculates what it calls climate “normals,” … climate of the last 10 years was about 1.5 degrees warmer than the climate of the 1970s, and the warmest since the first decade of the last century. Temperatures were, on average, 0.5 degrees warmer from 1981 to 2010 than they were from 1971 to 2000, and the average annual temperatures for all of the lower 48 states have gone up.   A barrage of stats in no particular order.  “All gone up,” how much?  0.5 degrees?  Not very much!  1.5 degrees warmer than the ’70s, but what about that “first decade of the last century.”  More clarity would be nice.  Seems like throwing a lot of stuff to see what sticks.

The numbers don’t take sides or point fingers. They acknowledge both powerful natural climate fluctuations as well as the steady drumbeat of warming caused by roughly seven billion people trying to live and prosper on a small planet, emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the process.  Not much talk about natural fluctuation, but quite a drumbeat about AGW!  Where’s the link?

Even this seemingly modest shift in climate can mean a big change in weather.   This is having it both ways.  It’s modest, or it’s not.  Fact is, it is modest, but that doesn’t fit with the message.

Shifting weather patterns influence energy demand, affect crop productivity and lead to weather-related disasters. In the United States, in any given year, routine weather events like a hot day or a heavy downpour can cost the economy as much as $485 billion in crop losses, construction delays and travel disruptions, a recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found.  Take out the word “shifting,” and you have a statement that is both true and unremarkable.  And weather is always shifting, i.e. changing. 

In other words, that extra 1.5 degrees might be more than we can afford. And while the new normals don’t point to a cause, climate science does. Drawing from methods used in epidemiology, a field of climate research called “detection and attribution” tests how human actions like burning fossil fuels affect climate and increase the odds of extreme weather events.   “Might be more than we can afford..,” and maybe they might not be.  Just throwing it out there…Maybe we should spend and plan more for how to deal with extreme weather events regardless of whether there will be more of them.  We do a pretty bad job of that now.  Please note the lack of discussion on just how these epidemiological methods work in the field of climate studies.

Heat-trapping pollution at least doubled the likelihood of the infamous European heat wave that killed more than 30,000 people during the summer of 2003, according to a study in the journal Nature in 2004.   Let’s assume that this claim is true, and that nobody else has published different results since 2004.  Certainly, this author will not tell us if they have or not.  Just what were the chances for the hottest summer in Europe since the 16th century?  Pretty small, I imagine, and double a small number is still a small number.  That’s the nature of a rare event.  As for the horrible death toll, that was largely due to the complete lack of preparedness for such events – alerting systems, cooling centers for senior citizens, public education on how to survive a heat wave – because such an event was unprecedented.  Government health agencies should have considered the possibility, but that’s not the fault of climate change.

And if we don’t ease our grip on the climate, summers like that one will likely happen every other year by 2040, the study warned.   People make warnings all the time.  The world was supposed to end in May 2011…

Using climate models, we can project what future Julys might look like.  Time to dust off my collection of crystal balls for sale…


Global Warming Sinks Island Republic

July 19, 2011

The NYTimes had an OpEd piece today telling the sad tale of a tiny island republic, Nauru, that is doomed to obliteration, because of global warming, it would seem.  Reading the entire article closely, however, the cause is not so clear-cut.  The article is typical of many that appear in the news and advocacy press, so I am going through it point by point, my comments in bold.  The plain text of the original piece can be read here.

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country…

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years….an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits...  Yes, cultures that take root in locations with such limits are fragile.  Consider the vanished Easter Island societies. 

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on…  This is certainly the most serious ecological disturbance that was visited on the island.  If not for that, the people could live elsewhere on the island, and the state of the coastal zone would not be so critical for them.  Nothing to do with climate.

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate…  Not clear why the rest of the world is taking the same path by burning fossil fuels.  Clearly, the industrial world has many things it can do better, but the problems of Nauru are not the problems of most of the world.

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding  The sea level rise that is claimed so far, if it is accurate, is quite small.  Why would it be responsible for such damage to Nauru already?   More likely, the destruction of the natural land cover has led to a drainage situation in which the land is steadily and rapidly eroded.  The island is being washed away.  As for the three-foot sea level rise, that is a worst-case scenario that should be taken with many grains of salt.

…and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.   They may vanish, and they may not…  Hasn’t happened yet.  People are running from flooding, not ‘record tides.’  One reason they flee is that most urban development has been taking place in flood-prone areas, despite the advice of engineers and geographers.   In many of these places, the land is sinking, which makes things worse.

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.   The usual litany, recited without any support.  Droughts, floods, and heat waves are always with us.  More people, more urbanization in the wrong place, better reporting – more disaster.  “Expected to become more frequent…” is simply a crystal ball prediction, not a proven fact.  Just pile on the horror stories…

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes….    There is always competition for scarce resources: which ones are at issue here?  Water?  That’s been a concern for decades, rightly so, and has nothing to do with climate change.  Food costs?  The subsidies for ethanol have more to do with global food riots than does climate change since they resulted in a reduction in food grain exports.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us...   Unfortunately for Nauru, if the global warming predictions are correct, it’s already too late to help the island escape the effects of climate change.

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking.   Good show!  For such a small and vulnerable environment, that’s what is needed, especially forest restoration.

I wish the people of Nauru all the best with their efforts.


Global Warming: Save the hypothesis!

December 29, 2010

Christmas Day delivered a special present to critics of the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) point of view:  an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Judah Cohen – Bundle Up, It’s Global Warming.  One couldn’t ask for a better example of an intellectual house of cards being passed off as science than this wonderful essay.  Like George W. Bush, for whom the answer to any economic problem – slow growth, budget deficit, budget surplus, whatever…  was always to cut taxes, for Mr. Cohen, all observations lead to global warming as an explanation.

Anyone who seriously thinks about climate change understands that weather and climate are not the same, and that  just as a few cold winters don’t disprove AGW, neither do a few hot summers prove it (although that latter point is not often heard from AGW advocates!)  Nevertheless, the record cold in Europe and North America seems to fly in the fact of the AGW theory.  Why the freeze if the Earth is getting warmer?  So, Mr. Cohen leaps into the fray to answer just that question…Of course, one wonders why he feels he must address this ‘question’ if weather is not climate..?

Mr. Cohen is a forecaster for a firm (AER.com) that sells information, or rather, data, to firms that need to estimate their exposure to climate-based risks.  Certainly a reasonable service, but it’s not the same as science.  And like all forecaster/modelers, he must have an explanation for everything, or his credibility falters.  In this regard, he is like a conspiracy theorist, the type of person who has a theory that explains everything!  To leave any question unanswered is to invite a withdrawal of confidence.

Cohen presents a complicated explanation for how the earth can be warming and yet experience colder weather in the northern hemisphere.   It’s very logical, and even plausible…but it’s all speculative.  There is no proof for any of it, and he offers none.  It also happens to be derived from his pet theory that he has modeled and flogged before.  Time will tell if the Earth continues to behave in a manner that could be explained by his notion.  Meanwhile, his ideas offer no proof at all for the AGW theory, but simply constitute an example of “saving the hypothesis.”

Saving the hypothesis is the tactic one takes when observed phenomena seem to invalidate one’s theory:  Construct another theory to “save” the original one!  Blaise Pascal exposed this tactic brilliantly in his epistolary debates on the vacuum, although he did not give it that name.  Aristotle, and centuries of his successors said that Nature could not “tolerate” a vacuum, so all evidence that a vacuum can be created was explained away with new substances, ethers, compounds, etc. that we can not see or measure, etc. etc.  No matter what evidence one presented from direct observation, there was always a reason why one was not observing a vacuum.  So, today, no matter what the evidence – and the recent weather is not evidence of much of anything either way! – it must support the accepted idea that AGW does exist.


Saint Augustine, Dunning-Kruger, and rules of debate

June 6, 2010

Smite the unworthy!

Those who waste their time with this blog know that I can be argumentative, but I do try to give the other person a chance to explain and defend alternate views.  Anyone who comments on blogs will certainly be aware that this is not the rule.  Venom, flaming, insult, and complete lack of interest in hearing any dissenting views are very common.  Well, it’s a free cyber-world, and if people only want to engage with those they agree with already, that’s their choice.

Since I am interested in the controversy over climate change – anthropogenic? proven? – I visit blogs that take the so-called consensus view, with which I disagree.  Sometimes I comment.  Generally, the response is anything but measured and polite, and a debate at the level of grade-schoolers ensues.  To be fair, the same has happened on blogs that I do generally agree with when I have begged to differ on some particular point.

How to conduct a rational debate with those you disagree with, even fundamentally, has always been a fascinating question for me.  What are the limits?  Reading Saint Augustine’s City of God, commenting on RealClimate, and following up on the Dunning-Kruger Effect [Full Text] has brought this all together!

If you follow the link to RealClimate, a premier pro-AGW blog, moderated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Science (right around the corner from the Seinfeld diner) you can decide for yourself how well or badly I was treated if you have the patience to follow the thread that begins at comment No. 22.  One fellow suggested I was suffering from psychosis, others intimated that I was a nefarious troll, feigning real interest in the discussion, but intending only to sow dissent and distraction at the site.  (Really, they didn’t have to respond to me – are they that easily sidetracked from their great work?)  Many commented that despite their repeating the obvious logical case for AGW over and over, and presenting me with incontrovertible evidence, I remained recalcitrant.

I was reminded of accounts of witch trials and inquisitorial interrogations I have read – the sinner refuses to recant or confess, maintains innocence, despite being presented with indubitable evidence of his guilt.  His stubborness is further evidence of his sinful, heretical nature – burn him!

As in the period of the great religious wars of 17th century Europe, there is an unwillingness to accept that some matters cannot be settled definitively, at least not yet, and that judgement of men and women plays a part.  For the AGW crowd, it’s all settled, the evidence is in, to maintain that one’s judgement of the evidence leaves one unconvinced simply demonstrates that one is:  stupid; ignorant of science; a shill for the oil companies; psychotic; all of the above…OR, a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect!

Ah, now we are getting somewhere!  But before we dive into contemporary academic study of incompetence (I kid you not), let us give an ear to Saint Augustine.  Fine man, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.  At least, not people he knew were fools!  Here is what he says at the opening of Book II, The City of God. [He was refuting pagan authors who laid the blame on Christianity for the recent sack of Rome.]  Anyone who has read AGW denunciations of skeptics, deniers, denialists, and other ‘crackpots’ will have a frisson of déja vu.

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth!  If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith, effected a cure!  In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussions on order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.  But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible.  Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see.  The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with theirs eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of the discussion and talk of we think we must always reply to replies?  For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentions that they refuse to given in even if they do understand.  In fact, as the Bible says, “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly”  You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try and refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they  speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments.

Many of us have had the experience of arguing with someone in thrall to some weird conspiracy theory (men did not land on the moon!) and it is very frustrating.  At some point, you have to give up.  But at what point?  And how do you tell if you are arguing with a person uninterested in reason or someone who just completely disagrees with you?  A certain amount of trust in the good faith of the other is absolutely essential, and a willingness to bend over backwards to try and understand them.  This is rarely present in abundance.

And why bother when the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is handy?  (I’ve been it’s victim several times, according to some bloggers.)  The simple truth is that those who are incompetent in a field are the least able to judge their own level of expertise.  Moreover, their very incompetence is an obstacle to them realizing how little they know.  (Ignoramuses are famously confident.)

Having a dispute over a complex scientific question?  Your opponent refuses to accept your argument, claiming that your evidence is weak and your logic is full of holes?  DKE to the rescue!  Obviously, your gadfly is one of those who just doesn’t get what science is all about (The argument for AGW is basic physics, duh!) and it’s useless to engage because he hasn’t the mental  tools to  understand how ignorant he is!!  The simplicity, neatness, and unassailable logic of this riposte is simply beautiful!

What do Mssrs. Dunning & Kruger really say?  From the abstract of the article available at the link above (italics mine):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the meta-cognitive ability to realize it…Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

The article is a careful academic exercise in experimental social psychology.  I would be very surprised if the authors would endorse the free-wheeling use of their names to silence opponents in scientific disputes.  They are also careful to point out that self-overestimation of competence can have other sources as well.  Finally, their work was concerned with a rather narrow range of phenomena, for which they were able to develop fairly uncontroversial measures of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Even their measure of competence in humor, yes!, was based on a survey of professional comedians’ assessment of a fixed sample of jokes – surely they have a good idea of what’s funny!

The interesting thing about the misuse of this academic article is that it takes a study that assesses peoples’ self-awareness of competence in uncontroversial areas – logical deduction, grammar, etc. – and applies it to a…controversy!  The whole point of scientific controversy is to arrive at the truth, which will then be, perhaps, uncontroversial.

I did have another reaction to this paper, however.  It struck me as similar to saying, “The problem with poor people is they have no money.”  Sort of obvious.  Incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.  Well, sometimes they do.  And why in heck is it paradoxical that giving people training and tutoring will improve their self-assessment of skill?  I would venture that the notion of competence includes the idea of self-awareness of skill level.  We used to call this wisdom or judgment.

The authors begin their article with the sadly comic story of a man who robbed a bank, thinking he was invisible because he smeared his face with lemon juice.  Obviously, not competent to judge  a lot of things.  They conclude with a cutesy remark:

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.

Ha, ha.  So funny.  Maybe they suffer from the DKE…Boy, good thing they don’t do stand-up comedy.  These are professors at Cornell University by the way.  What do we learn about anything from this article?  Stuff like this is what makes academic a pejorative term.


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