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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Fool That Was Mentioned

Gus McPherson posted

Here's Revkin's piece.

I'm softening on Nye, whom I didn't like a long time ago when I saw Lindzen chewing him up for lunch in an ill-considered debate. He seems to have upped his climate game considerably.

Anyway, I'm gratified to see that Revkin saw fit to mention my takedown of McPherson.

Also I'm bemused that I came up in McPherson's thread.


Didactic Malpractice Defended

I object to this article on Medium, which alleges that 5 x 3 is correctly understood as 3 + 3  + 3 + 3 + 3, but NOT as 5 + 5 + 5. Seriously.

I don’t think the parents “jumped the gun” by posting this. If this is didactic theory in mathematics it is insane.
It’s not a new insanity — they tried to teach me set theory in sixth grade or so. It was called “the new math”. Everybody hated it, even kids like me who loved math.
The point is that we don’t learn axiomatically, we learn by experience. Trying to replicate the basis of formal analysis in teaching concepts is completely foreign to the way learning actually happens. It seems to me that anyone who actually remembers learning anything ought to know this.
A kid who fully grasped the equivalence of 5 sets of 3x1 blocks with 3 sets of 5x1 blocks would be well ahead of the class, and would be duly punished.
The lesson here is that math is not about knowledge but about pleasing the bureaucracy. I can imagine nothing more toxic to the idea of “converting YOU to a math person” as the author's bio smugly claims to do. You’re taking a budding math person and convincing him that teachers are not interested in math so much as in bureaucratic BS, and that the whole process is to be resented.
My career was set back years by an off-putting teacher in first year calculus. Make no mistake that this sort of discouragement happens.
I am not just in disagreement with this article. I am angry about it.

The article concludes:

I know it’s frustrating but 
Respect the Teachers 
They are qualified experts on child education. They have the best intentions for the students in mind. If you are confused, ask them why they did something before you slam and discredit them on the internet.

This is the wrong reason to trust any profession, be it elementary education, economics, or climate science for that matter. Trust must be deserved to be earned. It's a hard problem, but "we all think this and we're the experts" is a shortcut that can lead to very serious problems.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Some Miscast Pearls: On Climate Sensitivity

I wrote this on Tom Fuller's. I hope you appreciate it more than his crowd did:

Others may be accused of shifting goalposts, but I am innocent of the charge.
The ECS is probably between 2.5 and 3, where it has always been. The TCR is ill-defined, as it has always been. Global warming is not the key socially relevant metric of climate disruption, as I said before anyone was talking about the hiatus and as I still say now that the hiatus is apparently ending.
Changing the radiative properties of the atmosphere to a larger extent than the Milankovic forcing will cause substantial climate change.
The changed climate will almost certainly be substantially warmer, whence all the obsession on global mean surface temperature, which is after all relatively easy to measure. But the warmed global climate is not the cause of climate change – it is a consequence of climate change.
The main issue that people will have to deal with is not this global measure, but that this measure is the result of climate changing locally everywhere in ways that are hard to predict and hard to manage. The extent of change can already be expected to be comparable in magnitude to the Milakovic cycle changes but much faster, leaving local adaptations, both artificial and natural, stressed and at risk of decline. The longer we delay in reaching carbon neutrality, the larger the disruption we have committed to.
Nothing in the recent observational data calls any of this into question in the least.
The process is slow on political time scales. Talk about what will happen to GMST in 2017 is a fine example of missing the point. People may be silly enough that this will affect politics. But the climate system won’t care a bit.
The response of the climate system is dominated by how much fossil carbon gets emitted from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the day we reach carbon neutrality. The rest is secondary.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My Representative

Not content with his sponsorship of the notorious pernicious anti-free-internet SOPA legislation, the representative for Downtown and near South Austin, Lamar Smith, is now doing a full Cuccinelli paranoid attack on Thomas Karl, a very apolitical and diligent curator of America's meteorological data.

Why? Well, there's been a new correction to the National Climate Data Center's observational record, which had already been somewhat corrected in the early years. The older correction actually reduced the estimated overall global warming over the observational record, and the new correction did, um, nothing much worth noting, but you wouldn't know it to hear people like Smith talk.

The corrections look like this.

Smith's response to this obvious bit of subversive chicanery looks like this:
NOAA needs to come clean about why they altered the data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda,” Smith said. “The Committee intends to use all tools at its disposal to undertake its Constitutionally-mandated oversight responsibilities.”
I am losing my mind - I'm really upset that such a person even exists, never mind that he supposedly represents me.


For Rob, from the letter to Smith written by ranking committee minority member Eddie Bernice Johnson:

Morning Memes

The internet has been cussedly interesting this morning:

I'm finding myself thinking about Stoat vs McKibben (and not The Book) but I'm not sure I have anything interesting to say about it. As I see it they are both right. Is that even possible?

Also: probably few reading will have missed this, but for what it's worth, the high-tech NYTimes story clarifying the Greenland ice situation, so different from what we expected 15 years ago. It's interesting also in that it's exemplary and likely a milestone in what digital media can do that books and magazines cannot.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The fever is not the disease

Our problem is uncontrolled anthropogenic climate change.

The global temperature is a measure of the change, but it is not the change we care about. We care about what happens on the ground at one place and another as the temperature changes.

"Global warming" is like the fever; climate disruption is the disease.

You can eliminate a fever with an ice bath, but you'll just stress the patient. While someone with an abnormal body temperature is probably sick, having a normal body temperature does not prove that someone is well.

A lot of analogies are easily strained but this one is pretty good. We're obsessing over a number, sometimes even to the exclusion of the patient's health.

Shifting goalposts? Maybe for you. I said this before the hiatus and I am saying it now that the hiatus is disappearing into the puff of smoke that it was.

"Global warming" is just a symptom.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

IAMs Cannot Be Fixed

Also in re IAMs from David Roberts's Vox article, and rather a separate point:
There are tons of other interesting results buried in this monster paper — for instance, out of various parameters, uncertainty about future productivity growth has by far the largest implications for outcomes, "which suggests that uncertainty in GDP growth dominates the uncertainty in emissions"
Please note - GDP growth is a parameter of IAMs; it's not an output, it's an input. This alone makes them unfit for purpose, as I determined independently, but David wrote up before I got around to it.
Right now, the most frequently used climate IAMs treat economic growth as mostly or entirely exogenous. Here’s a very brief explanation of endogenous vs. exogenous variables in economic models:

Some economic variables are determined by our models, while others are usually assumed to be determined by factors outside of our models. We call the former endogenous variables and the latter exogenous variables.

For econometric applications, the crucial difference between an endogenous and an exogenous variable is that we must assume that exogenous variables are not systematically affected by changes in the other variables of the model, especially by changes in the endogenous variables.

In other words, an exogenous variable is something you plug into the model, not an outcome of the dynamics within the model.

So what does it mean for GDP growth to be treated as exogenous in economic models? It means that growth cannot be systematically affected by endogenous variables like, say, temperature — by definition, in these models, climate impacts cannot affect the rate of GDP growth. Climate impacts might subtract something from total economic output, but they do not alter the rate or trajectory of growth.
This doesn't mean that complacent economic models are better than disturbing economic models nor the other way around. It means that this approach is of no value whatsoever in assessing long term climate risk. At all. Period.

Now people have finally got around to realizing this and are plugging in a fveedback from climate to the growth parameter. If course, they aren't going to publish the results. It's not hard to imagine the rosy models turning collapsitarian with this minor tweak. That doesn't make them right, of course. Presumably an approach with such a fundamental flaw as to tread GDP as a parameter is pretty flawed in other ways.

It's funny how people who criticize climate scientists tend to be such empiricists, obsessing over every bump and wiggle in every chart and using each little excursion as an excuse to dismiss a fairly mature body of physical theory. But when it comes to economics, they are utterly happy with the economists utter indifference to data collection and their silly handwaving predictions.

If our circumstances weren't so dire it would be funny.

Roberts on IAMs

David Roberts has an interesting article in Vox today which discusses the very severe limitations of the sorts of models economists typically use to study climate change (Integrated Assessment Models or IAMs). His conclusion is quoted from Ackerman et al 2009:
Policy decisions should be based on a judgment concerning the maximum tolerable increase in temperature and/or carbon dioxide levels given the state of scientific understanding. The appropriate role for economists would then be to determine the least-cost global strategy to achieve that target. While this remains a demanding and complex problem, it is far more tractable and epistemically defensible than the cost-benefit comparisons attempted by most IAMs.
I agree wholeheartedly.

Indeed, that is why we have a 2 C target. It’s not just that the economics of the problem is hopelessly intractable, though it is.

We have delayed long enough that economics does not meaningfully enter into target-setting. See this article by me and a more detailed analysis by Dana Nuccitelli at Skeptical Science.

The strategy may have been an interesting economic question once, but it is not so any longer. We have delayed so much that the optimum rate of decarbonization is simply "as quickly as is feasible", that is, we need to achieve the absolute minimum cumulative net CO2 emissions that we can without the decarbonization kicking off destabilizing damage to society in itself.

So the question we can put to economists - how fast can we put the brakes on without spinning out of control economically or politically - may actually fall within the range of the sorts of analysis that, at least purportedly, they can do. Since it’s on a short time scale and by assumption avoids tipping points, maybe their methodologies will help.

Of course, as with any policy/expertise interface, distinguishing the real experts from the charlatans is also a crucial issue.

I am not entirely happy with David's opening for the article, though, and it raises a cluster of ideas that I have been meaning to write about for a while. I hope to explain shortly.

Renaming this Blog

Once while utterly disgruntled about my academic staff job at U Texas, I briefly renamed this blog to "Only In It for the Health Insurance". While that was up, someone found an article of mine he liked and linked to it, as "Michael Tobis, over at Only In It for the Health Insurance, says..." So that was a bit embarassing.

A blog's name should reflect its contents, though, and clearly the focus of this blog has shifted some. So I'd like to porpose some alternative names.

Based on the conversations here of late several alternatives present themselves.

"Tom Fuller Strawmans mt"

"Tom Fuller Misses the Point"

"Tom Fuller's False Balance Only Goes One Way"

Or I could just turn moderation back on.

I'd rather have no conversation at all than spend my time in a futile effort at getting Tom to read what I actually write rather than what he expects me to have written, so he can have his fun resenting me.

Moderation is on. Sorry for delays. There's no guarantee of service but I will usually respond within a day or so.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

"I'm a (insert politically correct category) and I don't believe in Al Gore"

I came across this Twitter account.

Currently self described as

"Pros: labor unions, free expression, secular humanism. Antis: war, corporate rule, climate hysteria"

the account mostly retweets things; although purportedly based in Japan the retweets seem to be about American politics, and indeed lean center-left, although not really lefty enough to use a tendentious phrase like "corporate rule".  Mixed in with these are retweets of classic denier stuff - Tol, Watts, and Tom Nelson. Which is to say not just wrong, but also unkind, illiberal and stunningly inconsiderate.

Now, in my opinion, anyone who retweets "Tom Nelson" is quite likely to actually be, you know, "Tom Nelson".

The suspicion that this is a sock puppet is reinforced by the phrase "climate hysteria" in the account description. Well, you know, the word "hysteria" has a very nasty history and just isn't used "on the left" (that is, by people with any sort of sensitivity to others) anymore.

So, with that and the sort of caricature of a moderate leftist in "anti-corporate rule" I have some doubt that this is a real left-leaning person.

(I could be wrong. For all I know @scottinfukie is a real person whose isolation in Japan makes for some very odd word choices in his self-description. But bear with me.)

BNotice, if it is a sock puppet, how it essentially adopts the sane bit of Kahan's advice. In order to convince someone of something, you have to look like a member of their tribe.

Kahan would advise that, to induce doubt in leftists, you should claim some lefty urban hipster cred.

You know, just as Kathy Hayhoe has credibility (as a climate concerned person) among evangelical Christians since she is so obviously nice, sincere and authentically part of their community.

Note, though, that it's much easier to make this play, at least at a superficial level, if you don't have the burden of sincerity, which carries a whole lot of extra baggage about consistency, responsibility, decency and so on. There are advantages in dispensing with that. Mostly, you don;t have to actually convert a real person.

So even if @scottinfukie is not one of "Tom Nelson"'s sock puppets, it's probably not because "Tom Nelson" is above that sort of thing. If @scottinfukie did not exist, "Tom Nelson" would have been happy to invent him.

I've seen this pattern before - frank denial from someone who otherwise (to a liberal mentality) "seems nice". When first encountered it is very disconcerting.


A recent example of the strategy has come up, and for some reason has garnered some attention. It's an article, supposedly a retraction of prior climate concern, called

As the dog-whistle title would indicate, it's the usual baffled nonsense. For instance:
"Most of what people call “global warming” is natural, not man-made."
"CO2 has very little to do with it."

"Additional man-made CO2 will not likely harm oceans, reef systems, or marine life."

"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others are pursuing a political agenda and a PR campaign, not scientific inquiry. "
etc. etc. In short, baseless, shallow, wrong, and irresponsible. Alas, nothing unusual.

For some reason people are a bit taken aback by this particular article. The main thing appears to be the identity politics play at the beginning. The opening paragraphs really are the payload; the rest of the piece is just the vehicle.
If the answer is It would take a ton of evidence to change my mind, because my understanding is that the science is settled, and we need to get going on this important issue, that’s what I thought, too. This is my story.

More than thirty years ago, I became vegan because I believed it was healthier (it’s not), and I’ve stayed vegan because I believe it’s better for the environment (it is). I haven’t owned a car in ten years. I love animals; I’ll gladly fly halfway around the world to take photos of them in their natural habitats. I’m a Democrat: I think governments play a key role in helping preserve our environment for the future in the most cost-effective way possible. Over the years, I built a set of assumptions: that Al Gore was right about global warming, that he was the David going up against the industrial Goliath. In 1993, I even wrote a book about it.
Got that? Even an environmentally motivated vegan can disbelieve in "Al Gore is right"!

That's the interesting part; the science is the usual Wattsian handwaving nonsense.

But is it for real? "This is my story," he claims. So what's the story, really?

A disconcerting clue: People who believe or once believed that Al Gore is right to the point of writing a book about it summarize their opinions about global climate disruption in other, more complex ways than "Al Gore is right". No?

Now if this is just play acting, it is right out of Dan Kahan's playbook.

Now, I don't think the good guys can benefit from Kahan's advice; our job is to tell the truth. That's where I disagree with him. But Kahan is right about the strategy for the bad guys.

The way I put it is "when deep information is unavailable, we default to shallow information"; we look to people we trust, and with whom we have affinity. That's totally reasonable.

And most people can't really follow the debate. Not because the main points of the science are that difficult, but because of the professional bullshit-slinging and consequent Benghazification of the climate issue.

So did this person really undergo a conversion experience from reasonably sensible understanding to abject confusion? We know it's not inconceivable; Judith Curry seems to have managed it for one. But it would be nice to hear a personal account.

My curiosity was piqued enough to follow the links in his first paragraph.

So I followed the links in his opening paragraph, quoted above,seeking more information about himself and his journey.


First link "I became vegan"
- presumably about Mr Siegel becoming vegan? Nope!

It's a more or less random vegan activist site. Nothing related to Mr Siegel except insofar as it proves that vegans exist.


Second link "I believed it was healthier (it's not)"
- presumably rebutting health benefits of a vegan diet? Nope!

It's a decent piece of skeptical analysis, which criticizes some over-the-top vegan propaganda. It shows some equivocal evidence, but it also is clear that substituting plants for animals is generally good and concludes "The most important take-home message with diet and health is that anyone who ever expresses anything with certainty is basically wrong, because the evidence for cause and effect in this area is almost always weak and circumstantial"


Third link: " I believe it’s better for the environment (it is):
Well, presumably since he is a climate denier, this will point to a site which points to environmental damage other than through greenhouse gases? Nope!

He links to "Cowspiracy" (which I don't endorse at all by the way) which is ALL ABOUT the greenhouse impact of livestock. So he is vegan out of environmental responsibility to a cause he doesn't believe in? ?? ???

Oh, and I have a bridge for sale, in case you are interested.


Fourth link: " I even wrote a book about it."

A climate book about whether Al Gore was right in 1993? Well, to be fair, Earth in the Balance came out in 1992. So it's conceivable. But Google this book. How a book could have so little evidence of having been written is completely baffling. The link goes to an Amazon link to an out-of-print book with two used copies in existence; the author isn't even listed. The sole reviewer admits he hasn't read the book (and obviously followed the link from Medium).

The book is called "What is worth doing? A Conversation on Conservation" The only hits all seem to go back to one or two used copies for sale somewhere, except for one rather spammy thing that pretends to be a PDF. (It isn't.)

Amazon lists no author, but lists David Siegel as publisher!

What is this thing, a term paper?

(Anyway, what the heck, I ordered one of the two copies left in the universe. I'll let you know.)


So, was that a compelling tale of tortured environmental reconsideration or what?

OK, what else can I tell you about this guy? He has a bunch of pointy-hared-boss type articles on his Medium page and on his consulting business site.

I would like to leave you with an example of the sort of clarity of thinking we can expect from this new player on the field. (webcite) Here, Siegel explains Bayesian reasoning:

The essence of Bayesian reasoning is that we should take into account what we already know about something before we analyze a particular situation. Thus, if someone says she's going skydiving and you're concerned about her safety, you should ask questions about how she will get there, how long the trip will take, who's driving, what shape the car is in, traffic, etc. If you hear of another tragic school shooting, and the shooter's name, life, and photos are all over the press and the shooter is an instant celebrity, you can assume there will be another shooting some months later, no matter what people in law-enforcement or government do. If you go to a casino, sit at a $5 blackjack table, and play the optimum strategy, you can expect to lose $3 per hour. If you invest in a hedge fund or mutual fund that has outperformed its peers in the past five years, you can expect it to underperform in the next five. If God has ever answered one of your prayers, you now know how datamining works. A Bayesian outlook requires us to use evidence to see what is most likely to be true and what isn't, so we can be less wrong in our assumptions. And, studies show that only 15% of doctors can answer Bayesian problems properly. We have a long way to go.

I am especially impressed by "If you invest in a hedge fund or mutual fund that has outperformed its peers in the past five years, you can expect it to underperform in the next five." What a subtle and elegant application of Bayes theorem that is!


UPDATE: I participated in a thorough fisking of Siegel's ten points here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

More More Than All

The confusion about IPCC's attribution statement that I discussed at some length recently in an article called "More Than All" continues.

A fine example is here, in Sorry Bernie, Science Doesn't #FeeltheBern in the apparently misnamed RealClearScience blog:
Additionally, it should be noted that while human activity is largely responsible for climate change, the IPCC AR5, which is seen as the global consensus on climate change, is more measured in its conclusion. It writes (PDF, page 5): "More than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature (GMST) from 1951 to 2010 is very likely due to the observed anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations." (By "very likely," the IPCC means 90+% confident.) More than half is certainly a lot, but it also implies that a substantial proportion of climate change is due to other factors.
But see, no it doesn't. The best estimate of the anthropogenic component is over 100%.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Contra Kahan

The way we form opinions is not purely rational, as we’d like to suppose. That’s sadly obvious. Nor is it purely social and affinity-driven, as Kahan and his sort seem to imply. If it were, we would not collectively have come as far as we have.

The facts of climate change once accepted call into question a great deal about how whether how we have organized ourselves in the past can be successfully continued in the future. Some find these implications more threatening than others do. This maps somewhat onto ideology, personality, and culture.

Steve Marshall’s welcome assertion that “the vast majority of us are only likely to be convinced by good science well communicated and can accept that firm attribution may be impossible to find” may be overoptimistic, but surely there is some truth to it.

Under the (in my opinion pernicious) influence of political professionals and academics like Kahan who formalize their approach, many academics are being dissuaded from communicating good science well.

Communicating good science well is surely not sufficient to achieve a good policy result. But that is not to say it isn’t necessary. Unfortunately, that’s not far from the conclusion that some have reached, and that’s part of why so much scientific public outreach has been boiled down to rather gross oversimplifications and even outright sensationalism.

The short term political consequences of this neglect are small; they don’t register on polling data or in quick social science experimental setups. But the long term consequence of neglecting science communication at **every** level of sophistication other than journal articles on one hand and sound bites on the other seems to me likely to be profoundly disastrous.

Unfortunately, again somewhat under the influence of the Kahanites, the resources for such communication are limited. We ought to have more people communicating science than doing research, they need to approach a wide variety and range of prior knowledge and values in various audiences, and they need to be good at it. That is nowhere near the case.

(See here for more details on how this confused point of view emerged.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Seven Mississippi Rivers Over South Carolina

I calculated the water falling on South Carolina, ballparking it as an average depth of 0.25 meters falling over 2 days. 

It works out to 0.11 Sverdrups, which is a bit over half the discharge of the Amazon, but greater than any other river, about seven times the discharge of the Mississippi or St. Lawrence.

The atmospheric flux must have been much higher.

SC area 83e3 km2 = 8.3 e10 m^2
depth of flood = 0.25 m  
total water = 2e10 m3 
time = 2 days 
1e10 m3 /day at 86400 sec / day
= 115000 m3 / s = 0.115 Sv