New Age Prophet

January 4, 2015

28CONV-superJumbo

I rouse myself from my leisured sloth to comment on the latest pronouncement by the prophet of doom, Naomi Oreskes.  Today the New York Times, that newspaper “of record,” has seen fit to give her a lot of space to continue her attack on the scientific method:  Playing Dumb on Climate Change.

Ms. Oreskes has a Ph.D., and is a professor at Harvard, so she is instantly given credence as a reliable expert, but her work, on which I have commented extensively, is pretty much at the level of hack polemic as far as I am concerned.  From her sylvan altars – doesn’t she just look the part of the serious, concerned, and not to be trifled with Mother Nature? – she makes some of the most outrageous pronouncements to be heard from the academic realm on the topic of global warming.  Okay…let’s see what she said this time.

Her gripe is that scientists are too conservative about the risks of global warming – they should be ringing alarm bells, as she does, warning us of the horrors to come and pushing for the solutions that she supports.  Note that there is significant scientific controversy about many of the claims that Ms. Oreske makes, e.g. that recent extreme weather events are clear evidence of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels, and that her argument is, therefore, neatly circular.  It amounts to this:  scientists who are not screaming about the coming End of Days are too conservative, period!

She goes on to discuss a central notion of the scientific method:

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence.

This is typical of her method.  She doesn’t say that correlations always indicate a clear causal chain, but she doesn’t want to rule it out, either. Who would?  But she wants to make it seem that scientists that won’t jump on the bandwagon of this or that theory simply because they are not more than 95% sure that the correlation is not chance are missing essential risks.  But how do you decide when to jump on, and when not to?  When she thinks you should?  When you’re scared enough to ignore evidence and jump to conclusions?

She’s very worried about Type 2 errors:   being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there.  I would ask, too conservative for whom or what?  Here we are moving from the realm of science to that of policy and politics.  It is certainly true that when one creates policy, the scientific standard is too strict – policy makers cannot always wait for better information.  But then, one must make a case for the preponderance of risk warranting action now, rather than later.  Ms. Oreskes won’t do that:  she simply avoids having to make the case by attacking the scientific method.  Circularity again.

The dilemma that this opinion piece presents us with is obliquely indicated by Ms. Oreskes here:

When applied to evaluating environmental hazards, the fear of gullibility can lead us to understate threats.

Clearly, we can make the converse argument that lack of caution can lead to overestimating threats, wasting money, disrupting lives, ordering medical tests with high likelihood of false-positives…all sorts of bad stuff.  She doesn’t consider this.  When we face this obvious fact, we are back at Square One:  Ms. Oreskes, prove your case with facts!  This is exactly the discussion she seeks to short-circuit.  Because she knows she’s right.  She sees.  She is a Prophet.


The 97% Solution

July 18, 2014

roi_97_percent_4c

I often read that 97% of climate scientists agree with “the consensus” on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), so I decided to finally buckle down and read the article that has given the latest currency to this claim.  You can read it too, right here.  The heart of it is contained in Table No.3:

click to enlarge

You can see the 97.1% figure there, right in the first row.  Done deal!  But what does this really mean?  Read for yourself, but here’s a summary:

  • About 12,000 abstracts of papers on “climate” were culled from the Web, and distributed without names to twelve “citizen-science” researchers for rating.
  • About 9,000 expressed no position on AGW.
  • Of those that expressed a position, 97% “endorsed” the “consensus” view.  What does that mean?  Actually, the “endorsed” label was applied to any of three expressed positions to make the analysis simpler.  To receive that rating, the abstract had to take one of the following positions:
    • Explicitly state that humans are the primary cause of recent global warming
    • Explicitly state humans are causing global warming, or refer to anthropogenic global warming/climate change as a known fact
    • Imply humans are causing global warming. e.g., the research assumes greenhouse gas emissions cause warming without explicitly stating humans are the cause

Pretty broad array of opinion there all rolled up into that 97%, which is actually only 97% of the 1/3 that expressed a position.  Could it be that those that did not express a position, 63%, just think it’s a trivial affair, not worth discussing?    And of those that did express “affirmation,” it seems that just mentioning that CO2 does cause the earth to warm – no mention of how much, or over what period, or whether or not it is worrisome – puts you down with the “consensus” position.

So, we can state pretty definitively that those writers of published scientific papers who chose to express a view of AGW, do overwhelmingly agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that human activity – not just burning fossil fuels – is contributing to changes in the climate.  That’s a pretty safe set of propositions, but then, it is the nature of consensus to state the non-controversial.

NB:  There is absolutely no mention of the real crux of the controversy, i.e., what to make of the projections for the next fifty and one hundred years that are contained in the IPCC Assessment Reports and other publications.


Men of Green

June 24, 2014

Image

Mssrs. Rubin, Bloomberg, and Paulson have sponsored a new report on the economic impact of climate change:  These are all guys you can trust, right? Hmm… well, being green doesn’t mean just thinking about money, does it?

Actually, I have to hand it to them – they’re going to make lots of money no matter what happens, so I don’t believe that they have some nefarious financial scheme up their sleeves:  they really believe it!  Well, good for you, boys!

Rubin was heard pontificating about how climate change poses an “existential threat” to…us?  civilization?  the USA?  The nuclear standoff during The Cold War, now that was an existential threat!  Poverty, lack of sanitation, malaria, AIDS, those are existential threats to people in a lot of the world.  I’m not so convinced about climate change.

Paulson is certain that we are at a tipping point for the planet, something that has been heard repeatedly from different quarters for the last fifty years.   And then, there’s the money:  valuable assets may go south once the warming starts and people realize they don’t want to burn coal anymore, or so he thinks.  Seems also that millions of beachfront lots will be flooded and eventually destroyed.  Isn’t that going on now?  And farming will be disrupted, something that has happened before.  Anybody recall The Dustbowl?  We recovered.

Justin Gillis is the writer of the Times’ article, and this bit of his is so over the top, I’m wondering where his editor was:

Heat and humidity will probably grow so intense that spending time outside will become physically dangerous, throwing industries like construction and tourism into turmoil.

I don’t get that…if the climate of, say, NY, is going to shift south, i.e., become more like that of Georgia, are we to believe that the American South is currently a place where it is physically dangerous to go outside?  Even if you’re white?  C’mon, I mean Jim Crow is over, so even black people sit outside.

I could go on…


Designing Savants: Paley, Volta, and Galvani

May 29, 2014

watch

A few days ago, there was a good piece in the Science Times on the influence of William Paley on Charles Darwin that got me reading Paley’s refutation of the “blind watchmaker” idea.  Paley wrote the best-selling book,  Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) in which he supported his arguments for what is now called “Intelligent Design” by using the analogy of a walker stumbling upon a watch in an open field: Would he not assume that the watch had an “artificer?”  The marvelous forms of the natural world are similarly ‘designed’ by the divine artificer.  The argument was not original with Paley, but he made it more eloquently than ever before.  It even impressed the young Darwin, who was initially destined for a career as a parson.

The author of the column, George Johnson, also has a book out called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments which is a nice read.  I was very pleased with the chapter on Galvani’s experiments with electricity and frog’s legs, and his subsequent disputes with Volta.  Volta was wrong in his objections, but he was also right.  Galvani was mostly right, but a little bit wrong.  After the dust settled, science was advanced, but they got a bit nasty about it.  It’s a great example to explode the crude myth that science advances with regular and logical steps all in the “right” direction.

Here are two shots of Volta’s residence in Belaggio – I can’t imagine any other reason to go there! 🙂 – and an illustration from Galvani’s published experiment.

8749763673_2cf9d6c095_z8749764387_45f05a0cb4_zgalvani2

Here are some excerpts from the beginning of Paley’s work in which he almost seems to state Darwin’s thesis.  (My emphasis and comments added.)

There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance which answer would persuade us to believe that the eye the animal to which it belongs every other animal every plant indeed every organized body which we see are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence that the present world is the relict of that variety millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished being by the defect of their constitution incapable ot preservation or of continuance by generation. Now there is no foundation whatever for this conjecture in any thing which we observe in the works of nature no such experiments are going on at present no such energy operates as that which is here supposed and which should be constantly pushing into existence new varieties of beings Nor are there any appearances to support an opinion that every possible combination of vegetable or animal structure has formerly been tried. [Not a bad argument here.  It isn’t easy to catch natural selection at work!] Multitudes of conformations both of vegetables and animals may be conceived capable of existence and succession which yet do not exist. Perhaps almost as many forms of plants might have been found in the fields as figures of plants can be delineated upon paper A countless variety of animals might have existed which do not exist. Upon the supposition here stated we should see unicorns and mermaids sylphs and centaurs the fancies of painters and the fables of poets realized by examples Or if it be alleged that these may transgress the limits of possible life and propagation we might at least have nations of human beings without nails upon their fingers with more or fewer fingers and toes than ten some with one eye others with one ear with one nostril or without the sense of smelling at all.  All these and a thousand other imaginable varieties might live and propagate We may modify any one species many different ways all consistent with life and with the actions necessary to preservation although affording different degrees of conveniency and enjoyment to the animal And if we carry these modifications through the different species which are known to subsist their number would be incalculable No reason can be given why if these deperdits ever existed they have now disappeared Vet if all possible existences have been tried they must have formed part of the catalogue

 …

But moreover the division of organized substances into animals and vegetables and the distribution and sub distribution of each into genera and species which distribution is not an arbitrary act of the mind but founded in the order which prevails in external nature appear to me to contradict the supposition of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of existences of a variety which rejects all plan. The hypothesis teaches that every possible variety of being hath at one time or other found its way into existence by what cause or in what manner is not said and that those which were badly formed perished but how or why those which survived should be cast as we see that plants and animals are cast into regular classes the hypothesis does not explain or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this phenomenon.  [Here he makes the argument that monkeys typing in a room for eons and producing Shakespeare is absurd, but he adds the part that is usually left out of the jibe.  He acknowledges that an “editor” exists, i.e. the ones that are badly formed die.]

Furthermore a principle of order acting and without choice is negatived by observation that order is not universal it would be if it issued from a constant and necessary principle nor indiscriminate which it would be if it issued from unintelligent principle. Where order is there we find it where order is not i e where if it prevailed it would useless there we do not find it. In the of the eye for we adhere to our in the figure and position of its parts the most exact order is maintained. In the forms of rocks and mountains the lines which bound the coasts of continents and islands in the shape of bays and no order whatever is perceived it would have been superfluous. [At that time, geology was quite popular, so I wonder if this argument went over well.] No purpose would have arisen from rocks and mountains into regular bounding the channel of the ocean by curves or from the map of the resembling a table of diagrams in Euclid’s Elements or Simpson’s Conic Sections.


Alas, woolly mammoths are no more!

May 21, 2014

muir

I don’t quite recall where that phrase comes from:  perhaps a tag line from my surrealist days in school.  But speaking of the Ice Age, there was an article in the NYTimes Science Section headlined The Big Melt Accelerates.  It provides more grist for my mill on the topic of the Times’ incredible bias and sloppiness in its supposedly “for the record” coverage of climate science.

The article covers the topic of glacial recession worldwide, i.e., the shrinking of glaciers.  Not the “melting” of glaciers:  glaciers are always melting.  Whether they grow or shrink depends on how much ice and snow are being dumped on their upland regions.  Mass-balance, that sort of thing.

Of course, the point of the article is that glaciers are shrinking everywhere (although they do note that some are not, and some are even growing.)  The two images shown above are featured prominently at the headline, and the message is clear.  In 1941, plenty of glacial ice; 2004, the glacier is visible only in the distance. Global warming, dumbbell!  Clear evidence to confound those anti-science deniers!

The images show the Muir Glacier in Alaska, and it has indeed been receding for many years.  In fact, it has been receding since it reached its maximum extent in…1780.  It’s quite well documented.  In the map below, you can see that in the late 18th century, long before the industrial revolution got going bigtime, it reached the end Glacier Bay (see the red circle at the bottom of the map.)  After 160 years, it retreated to where the red circle near the top of the map is.  And in the intervening sixty years, it has continued its retreat.  Clearly, the bulk of the recession was not caused by the industrial revolution and its discharge of C02 into the atmosphere – it was hardly a major force then.  It doesn’t seem to have accelerated its backward movement in the 20th century either.

Why did this glacier retreat?  The Little Ice Age, which saw glaciers growing all over the northern hemisphere – to the point that there are engravings showing European villages being engulfed and destroyed by ice! – ended in the very late 18th century.  Things started to get warmer after that…

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This bit of scientific context doesn’t prove or disprove anything much other than that the NYTimes is extremely sloppy in its reporting.  The governing attitude seems to be, “We know the issue is settled.  Let’s get the message out.”  Fellow bloggers, e.g. Troutsky, who otherwise are sympathetic to my views expressed in this blog, seem to think my doubts are the result of clever indoctrination by the radical right-wing. But this sort of graphic legerdemain and purposeful misdirection is, to me, reminiscent of the GWB years, and the WMD buildup to the Iraq invasion, which the NYTimes swallowed whole.  Not nearly so serious and destructive, but structurally, the same sort of trash.

I wrote to the author of this piece, asking him if it wasn’t “a tad bit misleading” to use those photos.  His reply was, “Short unsatisfying answer:  I don’t choose the photos.”  I guess that’s life as a journalist.  But then he went on, “That being said…,” it’s part of a widespread and well documented trend over the “last several decades.”  Last several decades?  I know he understood my point, so is he just evading the entire question?


Apocalypse Redux

May 13, 2014

ameri

Ho hum, another headline story in the NYTimes about the coming End of Days…  I think that the paper’s elevation of Justin Gillis to a front-pager is a low point in their journalism not seen since they swallowed the WMD line of the Bush years, hook, line, and sinker.

So, what do we have?  Some scientists feel that the ice sheet covering the Antarctic land mass is moving towards irreversible “collapse” into the sea, and that this could raise the oceans by several feet.  When will it happen?  Maybe in a few centuries, and maybe in 1,000 years.  And why is it happening?  Not clear, but it has something to do with wind patterns in the Antarctic, and nothing to do with global warming…which isn’t happening at the south pole anyway.  BTW, the amount of ice at the south pole has been steadily increasing each year and is at an all-time high right now.

Reading the article in the Times, you might think if we all stopped burning oil and coal right now, today, everywhere! this could be avoided, but of course, the two issues have nothing to do with one another.  [Of course, if AGW comes about, it will make the situation at the south pole worse.  So let’s be worried!]

I like this comment on the article from a scientist-reader:

Mary Portland, Or 20 hours ago

We could use a little ice melt. Antarctica ice mass is at an all time high…at least since we’ve been able to measure it via satellite.

So, this ice “could” break off and it “could” take centuries and there is no clear link to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and right now, Antarctica is very near record ice mass (actual real data.)

So, relax. Climate change is real but just not nearly as scary as these headlines make it out to be. Amazing how there is no mention in the article about the complete lack of warming in Antarctica and the record ice levels.

But what do I know. I’m just an atmospheric scientist.

And this one too:

Paul Greensboro, NC 23 hours ago

As usual, the article identifies that the warming is coming from multiple sources, but fails to break down how much is from man-made causes. This is probably because they really don’t know. They are, at best, guesses. Remember that these models have been wildly inaccurate in the past. (I’m not being critical. This climate modeling stuff is extremely difficult, and some inputs into the models cannot be empirically determined.) So, given that we don’t know whether stopping all CO2 emissions 100% will make a difference, how much industry would you like to export to China and India?

At least some people have some sense.  Even Andy Revkin has had to weigh in and try to cool down the climate vigilantes:

Some headlines are completely overwrought — as with this NBC offering: “West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s Collapse Triggers Sea Level Warning.” This kind of coverage could be interpreted to mean there’s an imminent crisis. It’s hard to justify that conclusion given the core findings in the studies. (Am I trying to maintain a hold on reality or am I a “scold”?)

But stuff like this is more typical:

James Jordan  Falls Church 32 minutes ago

The evidence mounts. The planet Earth is warming. The consequences can seriously disrupt the human food supply and perhaps affect the ability of our species to reproduce. Can the plants and animals adapt with sufficient speed to survive? Can the wise ones (homo sapiens) adapt its complex carbon combustion lifestyle in time to save our own, or shall we go the way of the Dodo bird?

The End Times have taken a deep hold on the imagination of the most secular among us…or are they secularists after all?  Let’s just sign off with this from one NYTimes reader:

Bill Appledorf  British Columbia 16 hours ago

Chaos and war will sweep the planet when famine, disease, and economic collapse result from global warming.

apokalypse


Done Deal?

August 27, 2013

I have not been posting to this blog lately, and I am not sure why. Part of it is that I am taking to heart Nietzsche’s line:

And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

That is, much of the time my comments are critical attacks on things I notice day-to-day.  As for the positive stuff, appreciations of literature and movies, etc, I dunno:  who reads it anyway?

But I just have to set all this aside and comment on a story that has been featured in the NYTimes several times in the past few days, always with the picture shown above.

Environment: Climate Warming Confirmed

A new United Nations climate report — the fifth since 1988 — has concluded that the basic facts about global warming are beyond question: it is caused by human activity and if it continues it will lead to melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty in growing food, and dramatic changes in plant and animal life, including large numbers of extinctions. The new document is not final, but experts expect the essential findings will survive review.

(Empahsis added)

It’s all in, science is settled, and the heat is on!  The picture is clear…or is it?  I suspect that that ominous plume is actually steam, that is, water vapor, and not smoke or other effluent filled with heat-trapping gas.  Except that water vapor is, after all, the most efficient and common greenhouse gas that you never hear about.

The thing about this news snippet is that it is so great a distortion of what the IPCC 5th Assessment actually says (or will say, when it’s released).   Aside from the fact that the report is not much different in its statement of alarm from the previous, fourth, report, it does not make the statement that is highlighted in bold.  It does say that most of the warming that has been observed over the last fifty years has been caused by human activity.  What is the significance of this, and what does the statement leave out?

  • “Most” means more than half, 51% or more.  Not all.  Therefore, we can say that the warming has other causes as well.  (It does not say that the human causes are all the result of burning fossil fuels either.)
  • It speaks only of the warming that has been observed.  (It does not mention that there is much controversy over precisely how much warming has actually been observed.  Nor does it mention that the observed warming that is claimed by the IPCC is on the order of one degree C, and is, in itself, not alarming to anyone.)
  • The statement does not note the fact that there has been no observed atmospheric warming for the last fifteen years or so, an observation that the IPCC accepts.
  • The statement refers to dire consequences if the warming continues, but actually those consequences will come about only if certain extreme projections of the warming trend continue.  The IPCC documents a wide variety of possible outcomes for the climate, even at current levels of fuel consumption.
  • This statement implies a direct cause and effect relationship between conditions rife with uncertainty and projected conditions, when in fact, the confidence that scientists have in any single one of these projections is very limited.

Basically, the statement, as with all statements from the IPCC, is an interpretation of current scientific work – a policy statement based on negotiation, that reflects the dominant forces at work within the organization.  (The IPCC is not and does not claim to be a scientific organization.  It is a policy guidance group, a think-tank if you will, that reviews current scientific work.)  There is no more reason to accept the conclusions of the IPCC regarding the future of the climate than there is to accept the pronouncements of the Brookings Institution (liberal) or the Cato Institute (conservative) on questions of social or economic policy.  Those organizations both look a the data, or the parts they care to notice, and make their interpretation.  The IPCC is no different.

Finally, must one point out that much of the world has “difficulty growing food” now, and that human settlement and land-use patterns over the last century or so have introduced dramatic changes to plant and animal life, including an increased rate of extinctions, without benefit of global warming?  This is not a good thing, but how much worse will the anticipated warming make this situation?  If it only makes it worse than we have made it already, might we not ask if it is the most important element in these problems?