"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, April 13, 2009

Excellent TED Talk Until the Climate Part

A really awe-inspiring TED talk by David Deutsch is also really discouraging and disappointing.

Of course at first I didn't see where he was going. Unfortunately he was leading up to some fundamentally cracked ideas about climate change. It's really sad, as the talk is inspiring and invigorating until it gets to the hopelessly wrong parts. But what is it about physicists that gives them license to get the climate problem so dramatically and publicly wrong while putting so little effort into investigating it?

Deutsch concludes that we should focus on fixing big problems, not on avoiding them. This is a commonly held opinion by smart people who don't understand the climate problem. It's fundamentally wrong on two grounds. First, as he in effect points out, there really isn't a strong distinction between avoiding a problem and solving a problem; avoiding a problem is a version of solving a problem, isn't it? Second, of course, the extent to which you have a problem isn't binary. You may have a big climate change problem, or a huge one, or an overwhelming one. And of course, all the exciting progress he goes on about, all this capacity to "create the relevant knowledge" suddenly goes away once problems become overwhelming. Perhaps people whose immediate family have never actually been in overwhelming situations are overly sanguine about this possibility.

Those are just the gross failures of his position. Now onto the deatils.

He only talks about climate change for three minutes, after leading up to it for fifteen, but look at the holwers he manages to come up with in those three minutes.

1) "It's already too late to prevent a catastrophe" is true in some weak sense, but again, the situation isn't binary. It is the scope of the catastrophe that is exactly what is at issue.

2) "The actions proposed don't solve the problem, but merely postpone it by a little". That was true of Kyoto, the advantage of which would have been that we would have international protocols in place now that the real cuts are needed. Having skipped that step, our job is more difficult. But 80% cuts in the advanced countries by 2050 are at least consistent with addressing the problem at scale, and that is what we are discussing nowadays. In fact, that is the only sane recourse.

3) "in the 1970's when the best science was warning about humans causing an ice age". Groan.

4) "When we know how to avoid a disaster at a cost that's much less than the disaster being avoided, there's not going to be much argument, really." You'd think. But, alas, no. I refer Dr. Deutsch to an interesting blog called Only In It for the Gold which is centrally focussed on why this fairly obvious "fact" just isn't true. (Hint: what is "known" to science greatly exceeds what is "known" to policy.)

5) "Instead of reducing gases we ought to be looking at plans to reduce the temperature". This is geoengineering idiocy. It is really necessary to get a couple of very fundamental facts across. First: the problem is not the temperature, it is the rearrangement of the fluid flow regimes in the new temperature regime. Temperature is only a crude gauge of climate change. We can have massive climate change with small changes in global mean temperature, though the case of small climate change with large temperature changes is excluded. This is where the actual scientific knowledge comes in. And though Deutsch claims to defer to the experts, it appears he has not bothered to talk to any of them.

6) He also briefly mentions an approach to carbon sequestration and then proceeds to a broad brush characterization that "nobody" is thinking seriously about these things. Of course that's a very sweeping generalization, and I think it's actually not true at all in the actual scientific sectors where the work is happening. Of course, the left and the right may not be paying any mind, so of course the press isn't either. But I'd hope a physicist talking informally about the subject would know better, and I'd insist that a physicist talking publicly about it take the time to actually meet and talk to people working in the field.

So six substantial objective errors of fact in three minutes in a public talk.

Finally, let me point out that his arguments are totally disjoint from economics or politics. I sympathize. I like to start from what's physically possible, proceeding thence to what is socially and economically possible. Deutsch ignores that problem altogether. I suppose that is better than the opposite position which ignores physics in favor of politics, but not by much.

Again, there's much that I very much enjoyed about the talk so I'm sorry to have to say it's irresponsible. Indeed it is irresponsible in a very Dysonesque way. Why do physicists with their perspective on the largest and smallest scales get the idea that they understand the planetary scale? I'm sure the folks at the Hadley Centre, for instance, would be happy to entertain this interesting fellow and give him a more nuanced view.

So, why didn't he bother?

Update: A much better TED talk on geoengineering by David Keith. He seemed more optimistic than I thought was warranted, mostly based on the AGU session in 07, though.


William M. Connolley said...

"It's already too late to prevent a catastrophe" is true in some weak sense... aren't you being too kind? This is far closer to being wrong that being true.

As to the why: physics-arrogance seems all to common. Of course, as an ex-mathematician I know what is right.

Iain said...

ah now, it's not all physicists! Some of us are a little better informed and more nuanced in our discussions with lesser people;-) sorry that was genuine self-irony. In practice the symptoms you describe are more possibly a reflection of Oxbridge types, theoreticians in particular than more proletarian physicists-of-the-people like us!

Alexander Schatten said...

Thanks for your posting.

Just some additions: One might mention the fact, that CO2 emission do not only contribute to climate change. Climate change researchers like Stefan Ramsdorf from Potsdam institute stress, that even if CO2 would not lead to climate change we would have a huge problem at hand, that is the acidification of our oceans.

Just to add one more issue.

And as far as I know (alas, I am only chemist and computer scientists) shields to reflect the sun and Sulfate in the atmosphere will not reduce the amount of CO2 in the ocean.

Just my two cents.

Hank Roberts said...

> Instead of reducing gases

What doesn't he understand about saying goodbye to the oceans?

"so long and thanks for all the fish!"

Anonymous said...

I don't know, all these brainy, top flight, prize-winning, mega-minds slowly coming out one by one to give AGW the finger. Shocking, of course, but it makes you think ... well, it makes *me* think. How about you? Take that as a 'no', shall I?
David Duff

guthrie said...

Actually, it just goes to show how being intelligent means you can make even more egregiously stupid mistakes than a stupid person.

Not that intelligent people are giving AGW the finger.

Michael Tobis said...

You didn't actually watch it, David, now did you?

David B. Benson said...

This is the David Deutsch? The ex-SecDoD?

If so, he already knowns everthing about everything.

Anonymous said...

No, Michael, I didn't. I remember attending a lecture by Dr. Deutsch about 20 years ago in Oxford in which he attempted to explain that because sub-atomic particles are able (apparently) to be in two places simultaneously, he was going to invent a quantum computer which would reduce calculating time to a minimum. I then read his book explaining his theory of 'parallel universes'. So, I think I have more than fulfilled my duties in regard to Dr. Deutsche.

As it happens, by coincidence last night, I posted a summary of the reasons why I treat the notion of AGW with such caution. It is nice, but not necessary, that increasing numbers of 'brainiacs' appear to be harbouring similar doubts. My advice - buy long Johns, we're in for some cooling!
David Duff

PS: I do wish you would open your identity links again!

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"No, Michael, I didn't."

Well, there we go. David Duff doesn't need to know what Deutsch actually said about global warming mitigation. Come on! He's a physicist! If he opposes it, no matter why, then he must be right! (Oh, and argumentum ad verecundiam is very very bad. But only if you are a Warmist Nannyist.)

Oh well. If Michael's quotes are any indication, it seems Deutsch is opposed to global warming mitigation because it doesn't involve humongous mega-gizmos. O-K...

-- bi

ac said...

So Deutsch is a tool, but inter-disciplinary trash talking is not exactly a new thing.

If I had a dollar for every:
electrician who having little experience in circuit design says electrical engineers can't be trusted with circuits;
mathematician who having little experience with medical research rejects medical science in favor of weird herbalism;
climatologist who despite a limited knowledge of economics rejects the whole field as nonsense(hehe);
... then I'd have more than a few dollars.

Coming for a physics background I can confirm that we are by far the worst discipline in this regard. Chemistry, biology, oceanography is all just applied physics, right?

Anna Haynes said...

David B. -
David Deutsch != John Deutsch of the DOD. I wonder if they're related though.

I also wonder -
If fossil fuel interests had hijacked the DOD and CIA to spread climate confusion in the press and elsewhere, what would happen to a journalist who reported this?
(given that the CIA part would involve details...)

Anna Haynes said...

an update re Deutsches -
John D. of DoD and David Deutsch turn out to have different surname speling. From Wikipedia: "John Mark Deutch...was the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1995 and Director of Central Intelligence (DCI)..."

The NASA PR guy (24-year-old Bush appointee) who falsely claimed to have graduated from TAMU was George Deutsch, aka George Carlton Deutsch III (from WP)

and then there are Desches...

Michael Tobis said...

Oh, now I get it.

That would have been a bizarre and totally unlikely coincidence. There is a long way between naive heartland fundamentalist and British uber-geek.

I personally don't think we need elaborate conspiracy theories.

People are mostly fooling themselves before they fool others. The number of people actually lying and the level of conspiracy among them may be very small.

Jay Alt said...

The training that physicists get gives them the tools to understand many problems. Unfortunately, some develop a kind of contempt for the 'lesser' sciences. That lack of respect helps them convince themselves that years of study aren't needed before they could make a meaningful contributions.

David B. Benson said...

Anna Haynes --- Thanks.

I'm all deutsched out...