Those climate models…

November 22, 2009

Finding out what's in the black box!

I often wonder why the global warming doom-gloom-soothsayers have so much traction in the world.  Like right wing conservatives, they like to claim that they are victimized by a hostile establishment press, but the NYTimes, a pillar of the establishment, is certainly with them.  Check out the 230 comments on Andy Revkins DotEarth blog regarding the recent email disclosures from the CRU.  The Editors’ Selections, with the purpose of

…highlighting the most interesting and thoughtful comments representing a range of views.

includes 4 posts, all firmly in the camp of “How dare they publish this!  This is just normal science. Face it, global warming is a fact!!” So much for a range of views…but no matter.

But why do intelligent and scientifically literate people, including some who are quite reasonable, e.g., Andy Revkin, feel so confident that the AGW hypothesis has been established beyond doubt?  Frequently – check out those Selections – references are made to mountains, avalanches, piles…etc. of data that prove the point.  I think something is missing here:  I think it is the global circulation models (GCM) run on super computers that clinch it.  But there is very little peeking into those models – they are essentially a black box for most people:  numbers go in, Apocalypse comes out!

Without the models, there would be no terrifying scenarios, disturbing graphs showing steeply rising temperatures over decades to come, no tipping point doomsday model runs.  There would be some hard data (CO2 rising), a mountain of ice core, satellite, and surface data from which some would infer a clear trend, correlation, and causal mechanism;  there would be an interesting hypothesis about positive feedback amplifying the otherwise manageable temperature rise that might be caused by CO2 increases and that might or might not happen; there would be the same endless scientific haggling and argument over the way the numbers are handled by statistical routines and whether this or that presentation of the data is appropriate and meaningful; there would be no consensus.  The advocates of AGW would be a determined and inventive bunch, but they would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the rest of the world should abandon the null-hypothesis, i.e., climate and CO2 have always fluctuated- what’s so different now? –  and adopt their hypothesis.  Computer models change all that.

The GCMs give the AGW crowd the cover to say that they can predict (not with certainty, of course…) the future trend of the climate.  It gives them the supposed justification for stating that they have uncovered the “forcing function” that precisely quantifies the impact of CO2 concentrations on the climate.  It provides them with a rationale for assserting that their understanding of feedback mechanisms is corrrect and that their predictions are reliable.  This role of computer models is not often examined, rarely questioned, certainly not in the popular press.

It’s worth taking a look at the writing of Daniel Botkin, a scientist who was present at the creation of computer modeling in ecology, and who has a lot to say on the role of models in scientific investigations.  His basic point is that models are valuable tools for understanding a natural system, for trying out ideas of how changes in one thing may affect another, but they are not very good for making predictions.  His essay, Science and Soothsaying, is a good starting point.

Another critical view of computer modeling is the Pilkeys’ book Useless Arithmetic.  Orin Pilkey (not to be confused with the climate scientists father and son, Pielke Sr. and Pielke Jr., also with a jaundiced view of modelers’ work) is most known for his controversy with the US Army Corps over its penchant for pouring millions of dollars into pouring sand on eroding beaches.  These wasteful projects are often supported by very impressive computer modeling.

In thinking about this topic, I keep returning to a book published almost twenty years ago, Ice Time.  In its chapter, The Machine’s Eye, the author makes the point that the study of climate had become, in large part, the study of climate models.   He traces the rise of supercomputing in the investigation of climate, and notes that it has become “big business.”   The author is relatively uncritical of the use of the models, but he focuses more on their use to understand the mechanics of the climate system rather than to predict the future.  The chapter is the only extended discussion in layman terms that I have ever seen of just what computer models of the climate do, and how they are put together.  For that, it remains a very useful discussion.

Late Note on Revkin’s Blog:
Here’s some interesting comments following the controversy-click the number for link to full text

From a physicist who values scientific culture:   265. Frederick  UK

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm

… I cannot say whether AGW is a valid theory…What I can say is that Mann & co. have so undermined the scientific process that their results lack credibility. This has been a dark period for science. It seems that politics and science do not mix.

We need to put this behind us and get serious scientists who are not afraid to have their methods and results questioned. At the end of the day, there is nothing more convincing than facts and proper results. We need transparency but what we have here is a travesty!

From a true believer distressed at Andy Revkin’s lack of faith:  269. Wayne Hamilton Springdale, UT

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm
Your Dot Earth blog has changed since I started reading and contributing several years ago … I thought it functioned very effectively in describing the threat of anthropogenic climate change.But in recent months… you’ve become increasingly even-handed in balancing the opinions of AGW skeptics and proponents… You now seem to give equal time and credence to the knowledgeable and to the ignorant.
I’m sorry to report that your latest article on the CRU hacking gave me the impression that you no longer believe in the consensus of international science and the importance of that fact. It makes me sad to say this, but I’m no longer interested in following your Dot Earth blog. Good bye.

Also this one, with a potent warning for Revkin that goes to the heart of “he said, she said” journalism (emphasis added)261 John M.   San Francisco

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm

Hi Andy,

Comparing your NYT article on the controversy to the raw data, I find you are slanting the story, minimizing it, acting more like a press agent than an independent, hard-driving reporter. For example, you write:

“Some skeptics asserted Friday that the correspondence revealed an effort to withhold scientific information.”

The emails themselves clearly reveal an effort to withhold information, but you are describing this only as an assertion by skeptics.

Your article makes no mention at all of the obvious, and possibly illegal, effort to evade requests made under UK Freedom of Information laws.

A far better analysis can be found here:…

Andy, you are risking your credibility here.

John M.


November 21, 2009


[Note 11/23/11:  Another cache of hacked emails from this source was just released prior to a big meeting of climate scientists advocating for the AGW hypothesis.]

It was only a matter of time before the controversy over global warming, political and ideological as it is, should generate a scandal of its very own.  Can we say that day has arrived with the recent release of private emails from the Climate Research Unit in the UK?  Andy Revkin, has a story about it on the front page of the NY Times.

Beyond the dueling news-bytes (“will backfire on the skeptics…shows the integrity of the scientists” vs. “not a smoking gun – it’s a mushroom cloud!”) is the real story, in the details that will no doubt be publicized as people go through the tremendous cache of documents.  As one pro-AGW scientist rightly said, it “will be great material for historians.”

Note:  Thanks to one commenter on Revkin’s blog who pointed to this blog that traces one controversy through the emails – very illuminating.  Too bad we have to get this stuff from right-wing fans of George Bush, but facts are facts.  Certainly, Revkin is not tracing the threads in this stuff.

The advocates of the AGW point of view often like to associate themselves with the greats of scientific history – Newton, Darwin, Einstein – and to claim that their critics are destined for history’s dustbin along with the foolish people who refused to accept the validity of these scientists’ greatest work.  Along these lines, Gavin Schmidt, at defends the tone of the email exchanges – often rude and quite impolite about critics – by saying

Gravity isn’t a useful theory because Newton was a nice person. QED isn’t powerful because Feynman was respectful of other people around him.

Well, Feynman was quite a character, and could be quite short with others, but as far as I know, he had a deep understanding of and commitment to the scientific process, and the free-wheeling openess and criticism it requires.  Newton, on the other hand, towering genius that he was, had a sense of self-worth approaching the delusional, and he was an absolutely arrogant S.O.B.  His efforts to scuttle the reputations of competitors, to suppress their work, his endless litigations to quash recognition for others, and his generally secretive behavior did nothing to advance the cause of science, and may have hindered it temporarily in some areas.  Great scientist, but not quite a role model for today.

My guess is that nothing much regarding the science will be found in these files that hasn’t been pointed out already by detail-oriented critics of the AGW position.  Focusing on the “gotcha lines,” such as one writer’s use of the word “trick” to describe another scientist’s success at smoothing out a discrepancy in the data is fun for bloggers, but is irrelevant.  Practitioners of all kinds have  informal ways of talking about what they do to save time and keystrokes.  Outright fraud is not likely to be discovered, I think.

What is clear, however, is that the scientists working to support the AGW point of view don’t seem to care about openess and transparency, they comprise a rather closed community of researchers with contempt for those who disagree, and they are willing to do what they can to cook the peer review process in their favor (check out this email at the searchable online database of the emails), not the least by withholding information, because, after all, they know they’re right and the fate of the world depends on it.  This undermines their credibility and it should be publicized as such.  The first commenter on Revkin’s blog sums it up nicely, see below.

The Editor’s Selections, highlighted comments that the Times considers especially thoughtful and valuable, and supposedly representing a range of views, so far includes only one from an academic specializing in the  sociology of science who pooh-poohs the whole thing.  Notably, he concludes his dismissal with the familiar claim that the theory of AGW is beyond dispute.

Raven – no. 1 comment on A. Revkin’s blog, DotEarth
November 20th, 2009
8:22 pm

The ‘privacy/illegal activity’ argument is ultimately a partisan one and therefore irrelevant. If someone believes such disclosures help whatever political position they have then they will argue the public good trumps the wrong. If the disclosures hurt their position they will argue for privacy to be respected.

Most of the people protesting privacy violations today would be gladly ignore such concerns if the email exchanges were between executives at oil companies.

I think the media needs to focus on the bits that do undermine the integrity of the scientific establishment. Specifically the attempts to manipulate the peer review process and the willingness to delete data in order to prevent it from be analyzed by ‘unfriendies’.

Frankly, I do not see anyone can seriously argue that the peer reviewed scientific literature is an unbiased source of information on climate change at this time and that revelation has huge implications for public policy.