It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Sunday, August 31, 2008


Don't cash those chips in yet.

From the NSIDC:
"Sea ice extent has fallen below the 2005 minimum, previously the second-lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era. Will 2008 also break the standing record low, set in 2007? We will know in the next several weeks, when the melt season comes to a close. The bottom line, however, is that the strong negative trend in summertime ice extent characterizing the past decade continues."

Note, 2007 has pulled further into the lead in the last week of August. However the bet comes out, though, the serious story is that this year has essentially equalled in practical terms last year's unprecedented decline. Note in the chart above the comparison with the previous ice extent minimum in 2005.

Deltoid has some fun with the denialist camp on this one, starting with some recent unfortunate foolishness on the Register. Comments off, discussion referred to Deltoid please.

The Two Tailed Beast

Somebody with an interest in economics, one Tyler Cowen, a.k.a. "Marginal Revolution" gets this much right:
Make of climate models what you may, there is lots of evidence that a) biodiversity is being hammered, and b) climate change will bring desertification, drought, and possibly coastal flooding to many parts of the world, among other dilemmas. I don't have a lot of faith in the exact predictive powers of climate models, or for that matter economic models, but uncertainty about outcomes should make us worry more not less. Uncertainty usually has two tails, not just one.
Interesting comments, too. Comments off here; please comment on the referenced article.

With a tip o' the ol' fedora to John Fleck.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Hits Just Keep On Coming!

Here are Statcounter hits 99,997 through 100,003.

Alas, hit number 100,000 was just the kind I like the least. somebody looking for gold, Gold, GOLD! The hit was sort of ironic, though. They were googling for "Gold Frames"...

Here's the log, with IP's trimmed in case anybody doesn't want it published that they were on In It during work time. The winning hit came in over the noon hour central daylight time today.

Any of the above can have a researched article of their choice at any time, and a dinner any time we are within 50 miles of each other. The Montreal based user (my only reader in my hometown as far as I know) could collect very soon!

Pardon the self-indulgence. Back to our regularly scheduled programming soon!

Oh, I really do like to meet my readers. Had a great dinner in Pasadena last week with a reader (thanks Erik!). I would love to hear from anyone passing through Austin who wants to join me for coffee. Get the occasion in before I'm actually famous and start avoiding people!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

An Idea for Breaking the Carbon Logjam

Hans Gerbach has an article in Economists' Voice suggesting a viable way to entice global participation in a carbon reduction regime. It's an interesting example of economic thinking in some ways. While I fear it does a better job explaining why the outcome is likely to be self-destructive if not suicidal, than identifying a practical way to get around it, at this point I am for considering anything.

Here's the teaser:
The problems with the Kyoto accord are clear
to all. The developing world and the United
States did not agree to join in CO2 emissions
reductions and as to the signatories, what will
make them achieve their reduction targets?
It is easier either not to join or not to comply
and let others do all the work of emissions
reduction. That is the fundamental free-rider
problem. Greenhouse gases disperse around
the globe and burden everyone. One country’s
reductions burden it alone but benefit everyone.
That makes it quite a trick to get largely selfish
states to reduce emissions.

The long-term nature of addressing climate
change compounds the free-rider problem. Even
if a long-term reduction path is chosen at the
get-go, each year presents a new opportunity
for each nation to renounce its responsibilities
and free-ride on the reductions of others. It is
as if the monumental act of coordination (which
could not be fully achieved even once at Kyoto)
really needs to be reenacted each and every year
when countries come to actually implement
reductions. Without a way around this problem,
any agreement, even if entered with the best of
intentions, will soon become a hollow shell.
Alas, that makes the kind of sense that the modern world makes.

Here's the link. Gersbach proposes a kind of workaround that is interesting. You may have to jump through some hoops on the website. It wants you to identify a university with which you are affiliated but it doesn't really enforce it. Try your alma mater.

In short he proposes a global fund to collect carbon taxes and reward carbon reductions.In a way it reminds me of the McKitrick solution. It essentially requires an objective measurement mechanism of carbon emissions per nation that will not be easy to implement in practice. There are also some ethically dubious grandfathering effects here that won't fool the less developed countries for a second.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pielke, Part of the Problem

This question of "speaking up" can cut the other way, though.

I received a bit of denialist drivel in email, pointing among other things to the infamous bogus CO2 record, to give you an idea of the quality of the correspondence.

However, I while judging someone by the company they keep may have some value, it is a mistake to judge someone by the company that keeps them. So, in the same message, there is a pointer to a recent article in Prometheus linking to a recent summary in a libertarian blog of the hockey stick story. This item deserves some attention, if not especially on the basis of merit, as it seems that the Bishop Hill article (and its catchy appelation of a "Jesus Paper") will have some resonance among the opponents of timely action on global change issues.

A particularly intransigent comment to Pielke's above-referenced Prometheus article from William Eschenbach reads as follows:
The problem is not the behavior of the few. A few people will always do wrong. The problem is that the behavior of the community as a whole has been just what you said. They have not stood up to oppose the bad science done in their name. They have not clamored for an investigation into the bad science. They have, in large part, done absolutely nothing in response to this abysmal situation. Nothing. No public statements. No behind-the-scenes maneuvers. Nothing. Zip. Zero.

Instead, by and large, they have in your words “stayed out of the limelight” … and now you are claiming that they are the victims in this case?

In my opinion, they have no one but themselves to blame for the fact that they are being tarred with the same brush as the miscreants.
First of all this assumes the existence of "miscreants", which goes far further than even the excessive Wegman report (which in its own excesses raises some uncomfortable questions about the conduct of modern science) does. Second, it places an onus on a "community" to police itself in a way that provides an unrealistic model of the community. The IPCC, even constrained to WGI, provides summaries of the positions of a wide range of loosely connected communities, among whom dendrochronology forms but a tiny corner.

One wonders who is expected to "speak up" and when. And how, in the light of limited resources and competitive funding, one is expected to find the time to work out the details. The concept that some oceanographer or satellite engineer or icthyologist has some obligation to "get into the limelight" about something as narrow as tree rings doesn't ring true to anyone actually working in the field.

There are real issues with the conduct of science, but the question at hand is how important they are. It is absolutely crucial to note that no responsible party, neither Wegman nor McIntyre himself denies that the millenial temperature curve will likely turn out hockey-stick-like once enough data is collected and analyzed. In fact, a contrary result would be quite surprising!

They argue that the statistical methodology for obtaining these results is inadequate, and stake out a position of defending the integrity of science. It is hard for me not to sympathize with these claims. Few close to modern science will deny that the process has important flaws, but fewer still are in much of a position to address them.

The problem of the conduct of science pales in importance to the problem of bringing the human impact global environment into stability, though. The tragedy is that these quibbles are inflated onto accusations of such spectacular dishonesty specifically in order to color the policy debate.

Regarding the hockey stick, I have to line up with Pielke in shrugging and saying I haven't spent the effort to figure out how the science shakes out and I don't really plan to. It seems likely to me that the temperature really did follow a hockey stick pattern (as so many things do nowadays). The scientific question is only the extent to which the data confirms that expectation, not whether in fact the hypothesis has been shown invalid. And in the grand scheme of science this particular question has very modest importance, despite the political weight placed upon it.

The denialists are not especially interested in the question as to whether the hockey stick is real, it turns out. They are mostly interested in what it reveals about the IPCC process. And here, it is hard to say they don't have something.

The accusation, removed of acrimonious ranting, is 1) that IPCC knows in advance what result it is delivering, and 2) that the process for delivering its report is too informal and that papers are rushed into print in order to meet the IPCC deadlines. On the first point, this only amounts to an accusation in the event that there is no consensus. Since, in fact, Pat Michaels notwithstanding, there is one, there is little basis for worry on the first point. It's simply tautological. If you are asked to report on a matter on which you are convinced and your reader is not, obtaining the result you hold to be true is not itself evidence of bias.

On the second point, one can make a case that papers are rushed into print specifically in order to be referenced by IPCC. Since "getting the runs in time for IPCC" is the driving force of climate modeling these days, and this distorts the software engineering process, I can actually state confidently that there is some truth to the complaint.

As usual, the forces of truth and justice are caught between a rock and a hard place, though. In demanding a formal process to justify the nontrivial changes in social structure and international relations required by the state of things, people resisting such changes have a solid point. However, they proceed further by also resisting the massive changes in the scale and scope of earth end environmental sciences that would be required by such a process.

Does it matter, though? That depends on whether the "conspiracy" is drummed up or real. It is usually possible to reinforce ideas of conspiracy when there is a segment of the public inclined to believe in one. Whatever error may or may not be involved in selecting certain trees for inclusion in a dendrochronology may constitute malfeasance if one is in a particularly judgmental frame of mind. What, then, is the moral status of quibbling about tree rings when the radiative balance of the atmosphere is being forced at a rate without remote precedent in the entire history of mammals.

In the end, science is an imperfect instrument, and we must nevertheless make decisions based on what we know. By stressing the former and not the latter fact, by fertilizing the ground where others are happy to plant wild conspiracy theories, McIntyre and now Pielke do an enormous disservice.

As such, they are ironically part of the very problem they identify, placing more attention to the advancement of their own reputations and positions than on the advancement of knowledge and governance.

It's literally tragic that they are recycling this endless quibbling about bristlecone pines rather than stepping back and looking at the balance of evidence. There is simply no way to formalize the process entirely. Human judgment is easily derailed, but we will have to collectively judge this issue and come to difficult and necessarily imperfect decisions of major consequence, soon.

If somebody wants to talk about "malefactors", let's talk about the people who are working so hard to skew this matter away from the big picture. It's not about publication records and tenure cases. It's about survival. It's about whether or not to extract so much value from the world that the world itself becomes valueless.

Bristlecone pines or not, the carbon has to stay in the ground.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Climate Models - Is There a Better Way?

What is the simplest possible CGCM ('climate model' with 3D fluid dynamics)?

I don't want the best possible match to observed climate. Such a thing serves little purpose, as I explain briefly below. I would like to see the simplest useful climate model with full 3D primitive equation dynamics, moist physics and radiative transfer. Such a thing would be very informative.

At PyCon 2007 in Dallas, just as I was moving to Texas, I had the pleasure of being a party to a hallway conversation with one of the keynote speakers, Robert "r0ml" Lefkowitz, who had just given an amazing keynote about source code as communication medium.

Now I grew up exposed to several alphabets, (Roman in English, French, Czech and Hungarian variants, Hebrew in Hebrew and Yiddish variants, musical notation, numbers) and have always considered arrays of symbols and what each symbology could represent a point of deep fascination, so he was talking to me.

In the hallway, I ended up explaining how there would probably never be an Einstein of climate, the system being too messy and contingent to allow for blazing reorganizing insights. r0ml suggested that there might, nevertheless, be a Mozart of climate modeling. Appealing to my grandiosity is generally successful, and so I have been unable to entirely shake the idea since.

I doubt that I am Mozart, but I would like to pave the way for him or her. In short, I would like to create a climate model that you would like to read.

Climate models are not devices intended to explain the past trajectory of global mean temperature or predict its future. Climate models are efforts to unify all knowledge about the atmosphere/ocean/cryosphere system. The basic equations and boundary conditions are put in; elaborate circulations with many close resemblances to the actual circulation come out. While there are free parameters in the models, they are far fewer than the degrees of freedom in the resulting dynamics. The fidelity of the models thus represents a real and striking success.

However, the sensitivity of the models (the simple relationship between greenhouse forcing and temperature) has only a handful of degrees of freedom. The tuning of the models has been informal. It is conceivable that the models have been inadvertently tuned to cluster about the sensitivity that other arguments indicate, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The sensitivity is very likely in the neighborhood of 2.5 - 3 C / doubling. Perhaps in the absence of other evidence the spread would have been a bit larger, but it's difficult to see how it could have been dramatically different. Surely, no amount of further modeling is likely to say anything different, and any pretense that obtaining the global greenhouse sensitivity is the purpose of the effort has always been an oversimplification which should long ago have been abandoned.

Most effort at present is involved in making models more complex. This is in response to the intense desire for a closed climate/carbon system, as well as to addreess other geochemical and ecological questions. It is my opinion that these efforts are ill-advised in the extreme; they will have very limited intellectual or predictive value because they are vastly underconstrained. What's more, they will add a vast range of tunable parameters. The new Earth System Modles stand a good chance of becoming what current GCMs are accused of being, i.e., models which can be tuned to yield any desired result.

Models serve many purposes, in research, training and public communication. The lack of a model that is easily understood, modified and run is increasingly unnecessary and inappropriate. Such a model would be dramatically simpler than existing codes, and possibly somewhat lower in simulated days per floating point operation. Developing it would be diametrically opposite to contemporary trends. In addition to opening the field to investigation by amateurs, it would resolve some important questions in the course of its development. Specifically, in seeking the simplest coupled GCM, one identifies which phenomena are actually important under present day circumstances.

We should also seek to create in this context a model which is applicable to other observable and imaginable planets, thereby facilitating investigations into the theory of geophysical fluid dynamics, and allowing for the widest possible range of algorithms.

Efforts to increase model fidelity by increasing resolution are compatible with the approach of radical simplification. In fact, investigation of specific phenomenology is compatible as well. The objective should be a model that is not only actually readable and actually read, but reliably modifiable and actually modified, testable and tested, validatable and validated.

Efforts like PRISM and ESMF are well-intended but fail to move in the right direction. Contemporary software development techniques must be imported from the private sector.

The resource base for this could be as small as twenty person-years, say five developers, a manager and one support staff over three years. I doubt it could be a hobby, though the first step could be a hobbyist effort: I'd like to see a clean, readable implementation of the MIT "cubed sphere" grid to kick things off.

I'd be happy if someone else took this on. If you want me involved it requires some close variant of Python. It also requires some support, by which I mean money. I am not the sort of coder who can write scientific code all day and volunteer scientific code all night. That all grumbled, you actually really need this thing.

Yesterday's SciPy talk on Cython was very encouraging, by the way. Alternatively I understand there are Python bindings to PETSc, (the NSF proposal stresses that approach) but that might not serve the purpose of maximum accessibility.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Knocking on Your Golden Door

OK, so here I am in Pasadena for the SciPy meeting. The other time I managed to attend, I stayed at a marginal motel at the edge of town, probably not entirely safe. Now I am staying at one of those places where they practically charge you for even breathing. ($7 to park, $9/day for internet, $5.50 for a bowl of oatmeal, which somehow the plumpness of the raisins fails to justify...) I'm not sure which I dislike more. Readers who are fussy about their tax dollars will be relieved to know that it's private grant money (and not climate) that's funding this trip. But the presentations are wonderful.

Anyway, the scientific Python community continues to make amazing advances, and pretty soon there won't be a need for a conventional language in high performance codes at all. So when do I get around to pulling the Torvalds maneuver. "I am writing a climate model as an intellectual exercise, I invite participation." The trouble is I'm not energetic/nerdy enough to work on what other scientists tell me to do all day and on what I want all evening. The soul rebels. The clarinet gets rusty, the cookware gets dusty, the main rationale for living in Austin (honky tonks!) goes unattended. The long shot grant form NSF to pay me to do what I want is still pending but in retrospect I'm not sure I made the case all that convincingly.

Google is funding some of the work I saw presented today, but I can't blame them for not funding mine, on account of it's complete vapor so far. I almost have to make a living as a writer, if only so I can get some actual science done in my spare time! So keep them clicks coming in!

Anyway, a couple of articles on climate models showed up this week. Here's an official summary of climate modeling from the DOE's CCPP, lead author Dave "Darth" Bader, and here's Oak Ridge senior scientist John Drake's argument. I've met both, and they are very smart and decent fellows. That said they can both be relied upon to give a DOE-friendly report. (It's also reassuring to see Isaac Held on the author list of the CCPP report. I am confident that the report will not be stretching the truth too far on that account.) What do you think?

I think that past achievements are remarkable but I have my doubts about the current direction. Is there room for another approach? Does another useful approach exist? Well, I actually think so, but I'm damned if I can figure out how to get anyone who can afford to give it a try to do that, with me in the loop or otherwise. Maybe I'm just a little cracked. It's been known to happen, but I still think I have a shot at doing something important left in me. There are worse fates than just chugging away doing applications coding, I suppose, and having an interesting intellectual life in some disembodied community meanwhile.

That all said, those of you who criticize climate models without much basis in experience would do well to read the Drake article and the Bader report.

Meanwhile, is there any In It reader in LA who'd care to join me over beer this Friday evening? Let me know. Perhaps you can pry my trade secrets out of me.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

De Nile

Everybody's favorite river seems to flow in every corner of the world.

For instance, consider how quickly Floridians stop worrying about hurricanes.

Meanwhile, Dot Earth reports that US science agencies shy away from the question of how to deal with the fractured communications between science and the public. I have to say that when I first heard about this issue I had some doubts about Glantz's association with NCAR but he makes a very cogent case.


Water Volcanoes

Other planets have their own problems.

Friday, August 15, 2008


This peculiar figure is still up at a NASA site. The cooling rates are monstrously high (per annum!) and the boundary between land and sea is too sharp and there is altogether a misleading amount of detail. I seem to recall William Connolley warning me that this map was broken. But there it sits.

Meanwhile Robert Rohde's wonderful GlobalWarmingArt site finds the evidence equivocal:

Here the rates are per decade, and while still large, are not stunningly large. The time series are longer and hence perhaps less noisy, and the trends are far less uniform. (And as usual, Robert has made a visually beautiful image. Quite a few of those many hits to this site have been people coming by to admire my closeup of one of his sea level rise maps.)

Anyway, the NASA site with the peculiarly shaded map has a link to:
Comiso, J. C., Variability and trends in the Antarctic surface temperatures from in situ and satellite infrared measurements, J. Climate, 13(10), 1674-1696, 2000; Kwok, R, and J.C. Comiso, Spatial patterns of variability in Antarctic surface temperature: Connections to the Southern Hemisphere Annular Mode and the Southern Oscillation, Geophys. Res. Lett., 29(14), 10.1029/2002GL015415, 2002;
And therein we find this:

Although the NASA web page references the article, and while it has some obvious features in common, this figure doesn't perfectly match their fancy shaded map (check the area by the Ross Sea). That said it does show relatively steep gradients at the shore, and very high rates of change. Notice that the warming signal in the surrounding seas is far more pronounced than the cooling in the interior. Notice especially the intense warming near the Amundsen embayment, (a bit west of South America) which is spectacularly not where you want it.

So what's going on?

Wikipedia (and thereby, William, no doubt) refers us to
Thompson and Solomon 2002, Interpretation of Recent Southern Hemisphere Climate Change, Science, v 296 pp 895 ff.
They in turn make a strong case for a correlation of cold Antarctic interiors and a tightening of the "SAM", which is the anomalously strong phase of the Antarctic polar vortex, a mode which appears to be increasing, and which can be dynamically attributed to a sharp decline in ozone over the period record. Ozone, of course, heats the stratosphere, so its decline will lead to anomalously cold temperatures. Then you need to invoke the thermal wind law and (hmm skipping a few steps) voila! a tightened Antarctic vortex, and tightened temperature gradients around the Antarctic rim.

Of course for every person worried about the retreat of Arctic sea ice there is somebody willing to celebrate the advance of Antarctic ice. The map shows that ice is advancing through the relatively limited areas of cooler water, but that doesn't do much to separate cause and effect. Any ideas out there?

Anyway the short version of the story is at least plausibly argued to be like this. Antarctica seems to be special because of ANOTHER human impact on the global environment. As the ozone depletion subsides, this will be tested, as the anticipated forcings will both be towards warming in the Antarctic interior.

Update: I see Atmoz has taken this on in plenty of detail. The info I wanted from William is there too, along with many comments. And he says the shiny map is "probably the work of a PR droid" and points to this, via NASA, from Wikipedia:

Go figure.

I think there is actually something to complain about here in a McIntyrean way: how are these drastically different results from a single agency supposed to be reconciled? I note that the web publication of the later image refers to the earlier one without explaining the dramatic differences.

And while I haven;t heard a cogent explanation for the advancing Antarctic sea ice, I have heard a cogent explanation for interior cooling, along with, now, data that shows it isn't happening...

None of which changes the fact that so far all evidence seems to agree that warm water is being delivered to the structural weak point of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.


Blog traffic

Dot Earth seems like write-only media.

I put a link back to here in a recent comment on Dot Earth which has generated zero hits. On the other hand Deltoid mentioned this blog more or less in passing and I got dozens of referrals. Granted these aren't directly comparable, a self-serving comment being worth less than a link from the blog entry, but I would have thought, based on the huge comment streams, that Dot Earth had a huge readership and there would surely be some back-scatter. Weird.

Update: I note that the Deltoid thread in question turns out to be perhaps the most remarkable blog discussion I have seen. I'm lucky to get a mention in it, just based on my musings here on intellectual honesty. By all means go read it, and especially comments by John Mashey and Jeff Harvey. My impression of Lomborg is certainly influenced as a consequence.

Meanwhile, In It closes in on its 100,000th page served according to Statcounter's metric (see graph above. The figure shows pages served per week.) I am nerdishly holding my breath. Please help me get the suspense over with and recommend this blog to a friend.

CA folk are welcome to overinterpret every bump and wiggle, and/or to question SC's page counting algorithm. It's what I've got, and I'm going with it. Also, please feel free to argue that my traffic has declined since January; I will keep any counterarguments to myself. This will be a good occasion for you to get that sort of thing out of your system.

Download the 100,000th tracked page and win!

If I can track down the requester for the 100,000th page, they will get, hmmm, a free article on the topic of their choice, and, hmmm, a free decent but not spectacularly fancy restaurant dinner with me if we ever find ourselves in the same town. Looks like the winning hit will happen some time this month. Now is a great time to read all the fascinating back articles linked in the "best of" section.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

More from Holdren

Dot Earth has a follow-up to the John Holdren op-ed which I referenced a few days ago.

Especially salient in my opinion:
As my original reference to “the venerable tradition of skepticism” indicates, I am in fact well aware of its valuable and indeed fundamental role in the practice of science. Skeptical views, clearly stated and soundly based, tend to promote healthy re-examination of premises, additional ways to test hypotheses and theories, and refinement of explanations and arguments. And it does happen from time to time – although less often than most casual observers suppose – that views initially held only by skeptics end up overturning and replacing what had been the “mainstream” view.

Appreciation for this positive role of scientific skepticism, however, should not lead to uncritical embrace of the deplorable practices characterizing what much of has been masquerading as appropriate skepticism in the climate-science domain. These practices include refusal to acknowledge the existence of large bodies of relevant evidence (such as the proposition that there is no basis for implicating carbon dioxide in the global-average temperature increases observed over the past century); the relentless recycling of arguments in public forums that have long since been persuasively discredited in the scientific literature (such as the attribution of the observed global temperature trends to urban-heat island effects or artifacts of statistical method); the pernicious suggestion that not knowing everything about a phenomenon (such as the role of cloudiness in a warming world) is the same as knowing nothing about it; and the attribution of the views of thousands of members of the mainstream climate-science community to “mass hysteria” or deliberate propagation of a “hoax”.

The purveying of propositions like these by a few scientists who do or should know better –and their parroting by amateur skeptics who lack the scientific background or the motivation to figure out what’s wrong with them – are what I was inveighing against in the op-ed and will continue to inveigh against.
Emphasis added, in the typographical sense. (It seems, at last, that something sufficiently emphatic is at least making it into the orbit of a major newspaper.)

Comments are off for this posting. Please respond at Dot Earth.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tiltin at Windmills

Tom Friedman:
As Richard K. Lester, an energy-innovation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes, “The best chance we have — perhaps the only chance” of addressing the combined challenges of energy supply and demand, climate change and energy security “is to accelerate the introduction of new technologies for energy supply and use and deploy them on a very large scale.”

This, he argues, will take more than a Manhattan Project. It will require a fundamental reshaping by government of the prices and regulations and research-and-development budgets that shape the energy market. Without taxing fossil fuels so they become more expensive and giving subsidies to renewable fuels so they become more competitive — and changing regulations so more people and companies have an interest in energy efficiency — we will not get innovation in clean power at the scale we need.

That is what this election should be focusing on. Everything else is just bogus rhetoric designed by cynical candidates who think Americans are so stupid — so bloody stupid — that if you just show them wind turbines in your Olympics ad they’ll actually think you showed up and voted for such renewable power — when you didn’t.
More here.


Ludicrous Article on Slate

Andy Revkin is taking bait set by Ron Rosenbaum in a ludicrous article on Slate.

Here is my response.

Well, I've been advocating you cover dissent too, but from a sociological perspective. You should report on Naomi Oreskes' work uncovering the roots of the pseudoscientific footdragging that bypasses the scientific community entirely and goes directly to the press. It's an effective strategy; wearing white coats and looking authoritative takes so much less effort than actually participating in the scientific process. I'd be happy to give their silly argunents their due if the press were to also put a little investigation into who these people are, why they do what they do, and how much they participate in science as actual contributors.

I write, though, mostly to express my bemusement at this astonishing blurt from the Rosenbaum article:

It may be that believers in anthropogenic global warming are right. I have no strong position on the matter, aside from agreeing with the CJR editorial that there's a danger in narrowing the permissible borders of dissent.

But I take issue with the author's contention that the time for dissent has ended. "The era of 'equal time' for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over—except on talk radio, cable, and local television," she tells us.

And of course we all know that the Truth is to be found only on networks and major national print outlets. Their record has been nigh unto infallible.


I think the generous term for this is "obtuse". He refers to the bigger publications with a hint of jealousy, and to the scientific community not at all!

Truth, on matters of objective physical reality as opposed to social or political reality, is pretty much the specialty of science. The very fact that exists is a testament to the capacity of science to find truth.

On matters of scientific fact, the scientific arbiters of what is or is not beyond the pale have not a perfect record, but it is a solid one indeed. At some point, the press owes it to the public to have sufficiently solid communication channels to the scientific community as to stop troubling the public with empty crackpot posturing. That is your job. Your job is not to sell "papers".

The national science academies of all G8 nations along with most of the remaining scientifically active nations all have issued staments regarding the urgency of action to curtail carbon dioxide emissions. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorology Society and the American Geophysical Union have all issued statements concurring with the summaries of the scientific working group of the IPCC.

When exactly will the press give us the permission to treat this pernicious nonsense for what it is? I don't know about you, but my vote is for about eight years ago at the latest.

Update: Here's a related article by P Z "Pharyngula" Myers.

Update: Things Break, tackles Rosenbaum's article with great panache if perhaps in more detail than it really deserves. Many interesting points made along the way, though, and very much worth the read on that account.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Climate Communication Meeting in Colorado

I just got wind of this. It would be nice if someone in the neighborhood checked it out and reported to us. Dano?


Plauger's Law and Small Glacial Lakes

I rotate the quotation at the top of the blog sometimes. For the reference of future readers it currently reads:
"My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what's really going on to be scared."

-- P. J. Plauger
This Sunday's presentation at the Ethical Society of Austin presented a laundry list of environmental contaminants without really providing any sense of scale or stratgey for prioritization. I found it difficult to agree with the speaker's approach, which seemed rooted in a generalized fear of contamination. On discussion of the presentation with Irene, it occurred to me that perhaps we become most expert in the things that worry us most, which would provide an alternative and more sanguine view of Plauger's observation.

Here is one of my earliest and most vivid memories. As a small boy I had been trained not to pee in swimming pools. I was swimming in beautiful little Lac Paquin (pictured) with my father, and told him I needed to find a bathroom, fully aware that a difficult half mile walk was ahead of me. (Aside: Much of the movie "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" takes place by a fictitious instance of one of the many similar tiny lakes in this immediate vicinity. I spent literally hundreds of weekends of my childhood there. Note: plenty of nature. No farming in view. Perhaps an unusual experience.) My father told me not to worry, that Lac Paquin was much larger than a swimming pool, and that I ought to just go ahead. Which I did with much relief.

But I've always wanted a clear delineation between what is wrong and what is okay. This explanation of what was and wasn't appropriate as a matter of scale absolutely fascinated me. It didn't seem entirely satisfactory. I wondered what size of pool it was OK to pee in, and eventually about how many people could pee in a lake the size of Lac Paquin, and how it could be okay for one person and not for lots of people, and so on.

How could something be so clearly OK in some circumstances and so clearly not OK in others, even if the dividing line between them was so unclear? And how could we know where the line is? Here I am today essentially asking the same questions!

My concern for the environment then is rooted in a sort of rabbinical hairsplitting rather than in a contamination phobia or a resentment of power that dominates the motivation of most activists. Though religious orthodoxy holds no appeal for me, a desire for a consistent set of ethical constraints seems absolutely primal. I see the impossibility of altogether avoiding pissing, but just the same I don't want to damage the world. As far as I can tell, in an underpopulated and preindustrial world, such problems are trivial, but as the world becomes more populated and more technically potent, somehow at some point the problem crosses the fuzzy line from lake to swimming pool, and a whole new set of moral imperatives suddenly kicks in.

I think this way of looking at things may be more common among earth scientists than among biologists for whom biophilia may be a very intense experience, and a tragic one given its near-absence in most modern people. Such biologist-environmentalists simply see biodiversity as a dominating moral precept. I'm not really in that bunch, myself, though I have enough biophilia to sympathize.

Unfortunately a set of moral constraints for a small world that is adequate would seem to be complex and tightly coupled. To absorb such a morality into essentially all of our various cultures and social mechanisms would be hard enough even if we could agree on a mutually consistent set. Regardless, it seems to me this transition dominates what we should be thinking about. Is it just me and my own obsessions?


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mashey on Oreskes (Guest posting)

John Mashey sends along the following. (Note that I am not the farmboy in question. I never roped a steer 'cause I don't know how, and I sure ain't fixin' to start in now...) --mt

Synopsis of Naomi Oreskes:
( 40 minutes )

Naomi is an award-winning geoscientist/science historian, a Professor at
UCSD and as of July, promoted to Provost of of the Sixth College there. She
is also a meticulous researcher, as seen from past books, and from having
reviewed a few chapters of the book she mentions in the talk. She unearthed
some fascinating memos, although of course, impossible to replicate the
exhaustive database of tobacco documents.

If you haven't seen her earlier 58-minute video, The American
Denial of Global Warming"
, you might watch that first. It's first half
is a longer version of the development of climate science, and the second
half is about the George C. Marshall Institute.

This talk has about 10 minutes of background, and the rest is new material
on the Western Fuels Association.]

The video production isn't flashy, but it's good enough. The lecture room
was packed, I had to stand. Interesting people attended.

This, of course, is an informal seminar talk - for the thorough
documentation, you'll have to await the book.

00:00 Background [fairly familiar, some overlap with earlier talk]

10:30 1988, Hansen in Congress, IPCC starts

11:05 "Tobacco strategy" to challenge science

I.e., use of similar techniques, sometimes by same people

14:50 Western Fuels Association (Power River coal companies)

Sophisticated marketing campaign in test markets

17:20 1991 - WFA creates ICE - Information Council for Environment

ICE ~ Tobacco Industry Research Council (TIRC) -
See Allan M. Brandt, "The Cigarette Century"

21:00 WFA print campaign

23:00 Scientists are more believable than coal people, so use scientists,
create memes

25:30 WFA produces video "The Greening of Earth", provides many copies

The Greening Earth Society (astroturf); more CO2 is good for the whole
Earth Excerpts from video

30:00- Video shows the Sahara turning completetely green

32:20- "Plants have been eating CO2 and they're starved"
Discussion of circumstances under which CO2 does help and illustration of
marketing tactics, cherry-picking, etc. I.e., how does one use a few
tidbits of real science to create an impression very different form the
overview? Are there lessons for scientists?

40:00 end


[Speaking as an old farmboy, plants need sun, water, soil, nutrients, and
CO2, and sometimes right climate, i.e., sugar maples need cold. The Sahara
will not be a new cornbelt, no matter how high CO2 goes.]


Friday, August 8, 2008

Science, Impartial Honesty, Advocacy, Stridency, Idiocy, Dissembling, Lying Through Your Teeth

Once in a while, I suppose, even lies are necessary. If a person in your surroundings is insane and behaving dangerously it may occasionally make sense to play into their delusion. In my opinion, such cases are extremely rare, although it appears to me that lying to young children about Santa Claus is somehow considered charming. Sorry, Virgina...

In the public sphere, is it ever justifiable to lie? I would say no, never, (not that there aren't slippery slopes about).

Science, Impartial Honesty, Advocacy, Stridency,
Idiocy, Dissembling, Lying Through Your Teeth

I note in passing that if we accept the above spectrum, it is "idiocy", which is less malign in intent, that has no adaptive value in any situation. But detecting idiots is not so hard. Our problem is to detect who is lying, and especially who is lying well.

In the extensive discussions about Lomborg, the question is unavoidable. Indeed, it is hard to think of another person so difficult to place on the spectrum! Is he telling the truth as he understands it, or is he dissembling so vigorously that he is not above ignoring evidence, or is he even consciously willing to skew the evidence when it suits him?

This comes up because the latest skeptic to join our crew disagrees with me (surprise!) about the value of the new or at least new -to-me blog Things Break, which hosted a very interesting rebuttal to Lomborg, to which John Mashey chimed in with some very interesting thoughts as usual.

"Bernie" believes this article is off-puttingly "strident". (See comments here). So in Bernie's eyes, since Lomborg is (to him) among the most credible of the inactivists, this detracts from Things' credibility and puts them toward the bleaker end of the truth-lies spectrum.

For myself I am definitely a believer in immediate action to minimize the risk of "CAGW" and unsurprisingly I find Lomborg intrinsically implausible. On reflection, as I have tried to explain on this blog on occasion, this is for the same reason that I find Stern implausible, that is, its basis on a theoretical platform (conventional growth-oriented economics) whose axiomatic beliefs are not plausible. Therefore I have little interest in the details of his peculiar arguments.

It's not that I don't believe in prioritization. It's that I don't believe anything that begins by deprioritizing the stability of the biosphere is based on useful principles.

But does Lomborg believe his argument himself? Is he being impartial and honest? I think it's hard to say that he's being entirely scientific, in Feynman's sense, that is, I doubt he is treating his own opinions with the greatest doubt. But he may yet aspire to impartial honesty. Certainly he is trying very hard to present such an impression.

In other words, it is of legitimate interest to examine not only whether we think Lomborg's ideas are worthy of consideration, but ultimately when they come up wanting, to consider whether Lomborg himself believes them.

And that is where the question of stridency comes up in "Leebert"'s comments to Things' Lomborg article:
"Really, this is nothing but shrill polemics that can only serve to galvanize the faithful on either side of the debate."
Bernie sees things similarly.

It's a puzzle, knowing how much weight to give scientific balance in such an obviously ill-balanced debate. Science can't function without neutrality as well as self-doubt and openness to criticism. But most nonscientists nowadays are used to such crass self-promotion that any expression of even the slightest sliver of doubt is greeted with derision. The moral obligation to steer the planet in a sane direction now that we are driving certainly can compete with the scientific priority.

In the end, I think Eli is right. Different people will react in different ways, and it's inevitable that a gamut of responses will be displayed. You have to break through the fog however you can. One man's truth is another man's stridency.

Of course, we should not go beyond stridency into idiocy or lies. But I think a great deal of our problem comes from the difficulty in distinguishing between them. If you attack an opinion that is merely misguided as if it were malicious, you come off as arrogant, while if you try to cope with an opinion that is malicious as if it were misguided, you can fall prey to all sorts of polemical gamesmanship. These are rocky waters, but it would certainly help to know who is genuinely if misguidedly trying to be helpful and who is just pissing in the pool.

So as a puzzle, have a look at this, the denialist drivel of the month and decide for yourself: idiocy or lies? Let's play Idiocy Or Lies?

But what does it mean to lie as opposed to spin?

Knowingly using non-facts in support of your position is not mere stridency. Selecting facts that buttress your position and ignoring other facts is a very delicate ethical matter (unless you are an attorney, in which case it is apparently a matter of principle). You can't say everything you know unless you don't know very much. You have to choose what you talk about and what you avoid. That's spin, and for an ethical person spin is a marginal case, sometimes necessary but fraught with dilemmas.

On the other hand, there is brazen misrepresentation of the facts. What I'm trying to do here is call some attention to the difference between selecting facts (morally gray area) and deliberately misinterpreting them (lying). Here's a fine example.

I'm not an unalloyed Obama fan, but he pretty much nails it in this video. "They know it's not true." Look at what the tire guage ploy tried to accomplish. It tried to create a false public perception based on misrepresentation of the nature of a true incident. This went so far as to make it pretty clear that whoever promulgating it must have know it to be false.

People do these things. People are paid to do these things. They lie. They brazenly lie. They try to build their lies on actual facts but they deliberately are trying to present untruths. This is what lying looks like. They say things even though they know those things aren't true.

Fortunately they fell flat on their faces on this particular one, but don't forget that they will try again and again and again.

Which brings us back to how to react to lies. If it is stridency to call a lie a "they know it's not true", so be it. Perhaps that will put off some people already inclined to be put off. And while the spectrum of honesty and dishonesty has nothing to do with left or right, the really talented and well-paid liars are pretty much on one side of the climate story at present.

If you think someone is lying (or stupid, or some combination) in a way that has consequences for the safety of the world, it's hard to see what the problem is with stridency or what the alternative to that might be. Those who have bet so much on the wrong horse that they can't be reached will be angered, but maybe others will notice that there actually is a lot of misinformation about. You just have to say "if this isn't lying it's stupidity". What else could you say? I respectfully disagree? No. At some point the opposition leaves the bounds of the respectable. In such cases it's necessary to say so.

Perhaps we can make a sport of it. Again, try this site for the first round of "Idiocy or Lies?". Do you spot the obvious fallacy? If these are not lies, if the author does not understand that the reasoning is invalid, how did the author spend so much time on the article without noticing?

Is it reasonable to say that it is not just wrong, but either stupidly or maliciously wrong or both? It may be pretty strident, but this kind of wrongness calls for some pretty strong criticism.

I'm still not sure about Lomborg. I don't underestimate the human capacity for self-deception. However, I am not offended by the tone taken by Things Break in taking him down. Your mileage may vary.

Update: Edited somewhat for clarity. See also this prior posting.

Update: A related entry appears on Deltoid. It, with its associated comments, contains some of the best and most useful conversation I have ever seen on a blog. I'm honored to have gotten a link-back from it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Nice to see Climate Spin back in gear!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

John Holdren On the Climate "Skeptics"

John P. Holdren, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard and the director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, summarizes effectively in an op-ed that appears in the International Herald Tribune.
First, they have not come up with any plausible alternative culprit for the disruption of global climate that is being observed, for example, a culprit other than the greenhouse-gas buildups in the atmosphere that have been measured and tied beyond doubt to human activities. (The argument that variations in the sun's output might be responsible fails a number of elementary scientific tests.)

Second, having not succeeded in finding an alternative, they haven't even tried to do what would be logically necessary if they had one, which is to explain how it can be that everything modern science tells us about the interactions of greenhouse gases with energy flow in the atmosphere is wrong.


The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going. Those who still think this is all a mistake or a hoax need to think again.
It's an effective short opinion piece. But for copyright I'd paste the whole thing. There's more here; nothing surprising but very well put.

Update: In comments to this article, Richard Reiss sent along another excellent article by David Sington about the skeptics. An excellent point that I had about given up trying to make, made very well:
In fact, only three factors determine the planet's energy balance: the sun's output, the Earth's reflectivity, or albedo, and the thermal properties of the atmosphere, which are affected by the level of certain trace gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor. Reduced to its essentials, the greenhouse effect is a problem in 19th-century classical physics, and the basic theory was worked out with pencil and paper in the 1890s. To say that increasing CO2 levels leads to more heat trapped in the atmosphere is really no more scientifically controversial than saying you'll feel warmer if you put on a sweater.

The difficulty arises when you try to work out what this extra heat energy will do. Will it lead to increased rainfall, or more cloud, or higher winds? It will raise temperatures, but by how much? This is where the complex computer models and the (legitimate) scientific arguments come in—accompanied by the occasional science filmmaker!

Update: See also the follow-up at Dot Earth.


Monday, August 4, 2008

Prison Planet

Hottest day of my life yesterday, and we're in for a repeat today.
"The heat reminded 33-year-old Kevin Tarr of a scene in sci-fi movie "The Chronicles of Riddick." In it, the characters, trapped on a prison planet, must race to stay in the shadows ahead of rapidly approaching dawn, lest they be fried by the ultraintense sunlight. "Another 10 degrees here," Tarr said, "and we'd feel like that."
Probably a direct hit from a tropical storm tomorrow, which is described as "slight relief" with a "30% chance of rain".


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Angry Red Chart

From DoE carbon-intensive simulations via the Pew Trust courtesy of Nature blogs with H/T to The Way Things Break.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Tanquam ex ungue leonem?

There's a really first rate anonymous climate blog that has appeared as it were out of nowhere called The Way Things Break. But who on earth is it? Mr./Ms. Break seems to be careful to leave no clues.

Well, let's not waste too much time speculating, but let's link. Great stuff!