"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Relative Importance of CRU

Dr. Ken Green claims that "CRU, as I understand it, was the dominant source for information entering the IPCC reports". I found this assertion astonishing and implausible. I decided to come up with a quick test for this.

So I limit myself to chapter 3 of the AR4 WGI report, the one for which Jones is co-coordinating lead author, admittedly an important role. This is the atmospheric observations chapter, the one where CRU would be expected to be most influential.

Other than Jones, there is another co-ordinating author, (Trenberth, American), nine lead authors (one from the UK), by my count 66 coauthors, 10 of whom are from the UK, and three review editors (one from the UK). Of the dozen UK contributors out of the 80 participants from 16 countries, only Jones is currently at CRU.

The chapter cites about 825 papers. I checked the research staff of CRU against the bibliography looking only for first authorships to keep this project small. Of the 825 first authorships, four are P D Jones', one goes to Manola Brunet, four to Nathan Gillett, and two to Malcolm Haylock, for a total of 11 out of 825, a very respectable showing indeed, but hardly the be-all and end-all of climate science. Recall this is in the most CRU-favorable of 11 chapters, so we can conclude that CRU originates roughly between a tenth of a per cent to a per cent of the information in the WGI report.

For comparison here is Trenberth's group, the CAS at NCAR:

Dai seven, Deser six, Hurrell eleven, Madden one, D Schneider one, Trenberth 19, for a total of 45, or quadruple CRU's output just from the one section at NCAR.

While at it I scanned for authors with four or more first author publications in AR4 WGI chapter 3, and came up with:

R P Allan (5)
V R Barros
J R Christy
A Dai (7)
C Deser (6)
C K Folland (6)
N P Gillett
D Y Gong (5)
P Ya Groisman (6)
J W Hurrell (11)
P D Jones
R H Kripalini (5)
D E Parker
T C Peterson (6)
W J Randel (7)
J A Renwick (5)
I Simmonds
B J Soden
B M Sun
D W J Thompson (8)
K E Trenberth (19)
R S Vose
B Wang
X L Wang (5)
P J Webster
X Zhang (6)

of whom I had only heard of Christy, Jones, Parker, Soden, Trenberth and Webster. Chapter 3 is just not my thing.

I leave it to Dr Green or others to find a chapter where CRU is better represented but I doubt that there is one. Conclusion: evidently CRU is not "the dominant source for information entering the IPCC reports". It does appear that Trenberth's Climate Analysis Section group at NCAR carries a lot of weight in chapter 3, and if anyone is a candidate for dominance based on Chapter 3 it would be the NCAR/UCAR/Colorado bunch.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Knappenberger's Variation and Lippard's Test

Update: Here's what Paul Knappenberger at SPPI says about the EAU hacking:
"In his December 18, 2009 op-ed, Dr. Michael Mann largely misses to point about the most important aspect of the contents of the climate emails. It is not so much what has appeared in the scientific literature after “decades of work by thousands of scientists around the world” regarding human-caused climate change, but what has not appeared in the literature. The emails reveal signs of manipulation of the peer-review process, and what’s worse, intimidation of individual researchers, from a group of prominent scientists who seek to closely guard their view of the evidence and who are largely intolerant of countervailing hypothesis or interpretations. The degree to which the extant scientific literature can be judged a fair representation of what our scientific understanding may have been like absent these tactics is impossible to ascertain. The unfortunate, but undeniable side effect, is that the foundation of state, national, and international assessments of the potential impacts of climate change and considerations of what actions may be necessary to mitigate them has been shaken—not by what our knowledge is, but by what it should be. The latter of which, through the actions revealed in the emails, has been rendered largely unknowable.

Dr. Patrick Michaels, a close colleague of mine, expresses a similar sentiment (including some specific details) his recent op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal titled, “How to Manufacture a Climate Consensus.
So in other words, in the Knappenberger/Michaels view the climate community stands accused of not taking the contributions of the likes of Pat Michaels seriously. (See Ken Green's point number 4).

I for one am willing to stand up and be counted among those who are guilty of that shocking approach. My defense, shabby though it may be, is that Pat Michaels doesn't say anything worth taking seriously as science.

Starting from a blank slate, it looks like this. If a legitimate consensus has emerged, people like Michaels should be ignored in general because what they are saying is inconsistent with the state of knowledge. If it hasn't, maybe (just maybe) they shouldn't be. The fact that very little "skeptical" stuff (say, pointing to a sensitivity much below 2 C per CO2 doubling) is in the literature thus has two basically plausible explanations. One is that there is a conspiracy to keep them out, and the second is that the evidence is already in excluding the position so that very few serious papers are on offer.

There is nothing unusual about the second case. On the contrary, it happens almost every time science makes progress. If everyone who claims a conspiracy among peer reviewers in any science had a column in the Wall Street Journal, there would be very little room for financial news. The reasons the Journal picks Michaels over all the other probable cranks is left as an exercise for the reader.

So is there a test for the outsider to apply as to which condition is actually happening? Jim Lippard proposes one.
The creationists used to make similar claims about being locked out of the peer-reviewed literature, but when challenged, could never produce the rejection slips.

There seem to be a number of climate skeptics who have no problem getting published and cited--they happen to also be the ones with relevant credentials and expertise.

I think the burden of proof is on the conspiracy theorist. My cursory review of the CRU emails shows the main concern in discussions about peer review is bad work getting published (e.g., the 2003 Soon and Baliunas paper in _Climate Research_, which was admittedly, on the part of the editors, a failure of peer review to allow it to be published).


_Energy & Environment_ [a journal which is not highly regarded by mainstream scientists -mt] regularly publishes articles by climate skeptics. What work published there was rejected by a more reputable journal and is a game-changer on the scientific debate?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thin Kool-Ade

"We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."

The recent thread where I tried to explain how the CRU email kerfuffle partakes of the paranoid style in American politics got a lot of interest, thanks in large measure to an effort by Morano to Godwin the hell out of it. As usual, the bulk of the commentary from people from that quarter was predictably shallow, nasty and juvenile. What would you expect from a site that has mockery of science as its stock in trade?

Among all that was something a little different, a contact from Kenneth Green, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (not to be confused with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, apparently, an error which I for one have been making). Ken, as he insists on being called, is taking a reasonably collegial approach to me and I will return the favor for now.

Nevertheless, he is responsible for some typical, um, naysayerist fantasies. Anyway, he has taken an interest in this humble blog and is so far being reasonably polite, so as an exercise let's see if we can return the favor and maintain a collegial tone in conversations with Ken.

Ken is one of those people who think the CRU emails are a very big deal for climate science (and not worth mentioning as a matter for computer security all). Here is a recent article by him to that effect entitled "Who's in denial now?"

Let's enumerate his points:
  1. What's catastrophic about Climategate is that it reveals a science as broken as Michael Mann's hockey stick
  2. Mann's Hockey stick erases the MWP and the LIA and is broken
  3. When you cherry-pick, discard, nip, tuck, and tape disparate bits of data into the most alarming portrayal you can in the name of a "cause," you're not engaged in science, but in the production of propaganda.
  4. this clique tried to subvert the peer-review process as well. They attempted to prevent others from getting into peer reviewed journals -- thus letting them claim skeptic research wasn't peer-reviewed -- a convenient circular (and dishonest) way to discredit skeptics.
  5. Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was considered the top climate research community
  6. A Russian think-tank recently revealed the climate temperature record compiled by the Climatic Research Unit cherry-picked data from only 25 per cent of Russia's climate monitoring sites
These points take about half the article. There follow several paragraphs about indignation, injury, threat to scientific integrity, etc. that have essentially nothing whatsoever to do with what might have been revealed in the emails. Let's ignore them, because we are trying to determine what if anything the CRU hacking reveals.

Let me start with point 3, where there is at least a little meat to the story. It is apparent that the dendro guys have been plotting graphs in such a way as to distract the observer's attention from the obvious recent weakness of their paleothermometer. While you have to choose what to emphasize and what to de-emphasize in public presentations, one could make a case that these graphs go too far. On the other hand, as I understand it, this is not news. Far too much attention has been given to the dendro people both by IPCC and opportunistically by the delayer camp. This issue was already known. All the emails reveal is that there was some internal disagreement about it.

Hardly a grand conspiracy even among dendrochronologists. And in any case old news.

As for the rest of it?
  1. Well, that's a broad assertion. Let's see what you have to support it.
  2. Old news and in no way revealed by the emails. Mann et al, in good faith but I belive erroneously, underrepresented multidecadal variability as elaborated by von Storch; this left the plot somewhat misleading in character, though in fact most later reconstructions, though more variable on a multidecadal time scale, remain within Mann's confidence bounds. No scandal here, and nothing new.
  3. see above
  4. "Clique," " convenient circular (and dishonest) way to discredit skeptics": see every crackpot pseudoscientific theory ever proposed for versions of this argument. This CAN describe the behavior of a dysfunctional science, but it ALSO describes the behavior of every science at its best. In fact, the same von Storch who shot Mann down in point 2 above was fiercely critical of one of the papers the Jones crowd complains most vociferously about. Perhaps it's about quality, and not politics? Surely nothing new.
  5. The CRU does produce one of the main global observational time series. Is it the "leader of the pack" in any real sense? This is completely news to me. See, the observational time series is a relatively small part of the record. How else could the Charney report have gotten the future so right even before the observational record showed any warming at all? This is new, but it's a wild assertion and has nothing to do with the emails.
  6. Deltoid and Climate Progress have something on this; a minor subplot of a minor subplot in any case. And nothing to do with the emails.
So what is going on? Perhaps nothing, perhaps almost nothing. Does this cast doubt on an entire science?

The answer is, for some people, yes. It's little surprise if that is all people hear about climate science. But it shouldn't be all they hear, and if this article is any indicator, it's all innuendo and nothing much of substance.

The amazing part of this is, if you look at Ken's "Climategate reveals" article, anything of even a little substance (and there really isn't much there) was not revealed in the hacked information!

We need to start with what the outlines of that science are. No climate scientist would start telling the story with tree rings and millenial scale variability. The observational record itself is only important for public understanding. The whole core of the science lies elsewhere.

To support the naysayer camp's fantasies, you have to
  • A) throw away all theory
  • B) throw away all paleoclimatology
  • C) ignore all the past successes of model projections
  • D) crown Jones king of the world
  • E) make a very big deal out of a few comments of his, and finally
  • F) dethrone Jones.
This is at least a well-trodden path for the What-Me-Worry crowd, the role of king having been played by Mann and Santer in the past. (Oddly enough, Hansen really does play a relatively large role in the science for an individual, but they haven't had comparable success in going after him.) So far, the scapegoat-du-jour hasn't done much if anything actually culpable, but you know if you repeat something often enough people will start to believe it. But how do the people repeating it convince themselves as well?

So, Ken, is this all you've got? Are you really drinking this kool-ade you're peddling? Because so far you've mixed it mighty thin.

Update: Here's some more detailed stuff from Ken. Part I and Part II.

I can't say I'm happy with Wigley's '05 comment (see Part II), especially considering his use of the word "skeptic". RP Jr is already running with this one and there's useful followup at that link.

Ken also raises interesting questions about peer review.

That said, there's a lot he seems to get wrong.

NOTE: I will moderate this thread fiercely for ad homs and intemperate language, especially from the realistic side. I would like to see if ANYBODY can come up with ANYTHING that justifies the CRU email hacking. Let's try to be as congenial as possible to people who think there is something to this business, and see if they can explain to us what exactly we are supposed to be upset about. Be as sarcastic or argumentative as you want about people's points, but lay off their motivations and character please.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Science Budget Talking Point

REPOSTING: The following was originally posted April 8, 2007. (Note: the first dozen comments are also from 2007.)

I am hoping to see recent numbers. I imagine the 2010 budget will show some improvement but as far as I know the annual US budget for climate science research (as opposed to data collection or impacts studies) through 2009 remains comparable to the budget for a Pixar movie.

I believe that the sort of auditability people are asking for is 1) actually a good idea and 2) not supportable by tghe present small community with its tightly constrained budget. Given that the actual issue is four or five orders of magnitude larger than the science budget, it makes sense to expend considerably more on a more formal science. Meanwhile, people who are complaining about the informality and close-knit nature of the community should be advocating for budget increases, not cuts.

The auditability people are butting heads against the myth that the climate science community is wealthy.

April 8, 2007

The claim that scientists have been conspiratorially drumming up climate fears to increase our funding appears specious to most of us. How would such a conspiracy be organized? How would we prevent defections? Nevertheless this idea has currency with the public. Supporting this argument is the idea, apparently promoted by Lindzen that the climate science budget has ballooned enormously.

It is true that there are 2 billion under a "climate change" rubric, but in fact half of it is NASA's earth observation missions, a program which I would think any sane person would support. The massive "growth" of the program in its early days was not due to new projects but due to enfolding existing projects under the new name.

So what has happened to the science budget over the past sixteen years in fact? It has increased by 9% after inflation. Adjusted for inflation, actual US climate research (not data collection, not data dissemination, not technology or adaptation research, not impacts research, but the part that climate scientists stand to benefit from, has increased by 9% since 1993 according to the GAO.

More or less. The GAO adds the caveat "these data were difficult to compare over the entire time period because CCSP periodically introduced new categorization methods without explaining how the new methods were related to the ones they replaced". (page 4)

Can the climate research budget actually been in decline? Anecdotally, I have been hearing about "belt tightening" through my entire career.

The climate research budget of NSF, which funds most of what most of us think of as climate science, including most climate modeling, is inconsistent over the period. It has wild oscillations but shows no trend. (see p 35 of the GAO report; note these figures are not inflation-adjusted) and is about 10% of the total CCSP budget, about 200 million, enough to support maybe about 600 scientists and professional staff (consider infrastructure needs, travel and publication costs, and equipment).

What about the near future? Well, here I can only report the entire CCSP aggregate, which is [12/09: sorry, link is dead] in a period of rapid decline, of about 20% over 4 years.

Boy, this scaremongering isn't paying as well as you might think.

Admittedly, most of the cuts are out of NASA's earth observation budget, which is a bit beside the point, though it is really enormously unfortunate. However, Mars seems to be a bigger priority than the Earth these days, because, um, well because you don't need a rocketship to get to the Earth, now do you?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Appropriate Greetings

Merry Christmas to some, and to all a good night!

Bug Report

Bug Report (cartoon via xkcd)

Does "climategate" really have "legs"? The CRU hacking incident seems to be doing damage even though not all that large of an audience professes interest.

Two Alarming Observations

My friend and occasional critic Victor has recently been, from a standing start, taking an interest in climate science and climate change. Victor is a mathematician/programmer and a successful computational scientist. He has found a couple of things I have said convincing, found Alley's keynote compelling, and is reading Archer's textbook now.

He said a couple of things over coffee yesterday that fits in with my impressions, and it's something we very much need to think about, in the context of the remarkable and discouraging success of the swifthacking publicity push.

The first is that, in researching any climate-related question that has crossed his mind of late, Google (presumably Bing is no better) seems to come up with nine denialist sites for every actually informative site. This was Victor's estimate, not mine.

The second is that he has been entangled in a debate with a "climategate" afficionado on a mailing list for computational music.

Both of these facts attest to the political brilliance of the opposition.

The progressive left has been congratulating itself with its grasp of the internet as a marketing tool, starting with the Dean campaign and going through the Obama campaign, but is constrained by an ethical sense which doesn't burden the opposition. Marc Morano, to the extent he has orchestrated these events, and/or whoever else is behind it, is a political genius unfettered by decency.

Let's consider what has happened. (It is sort of the opposite of a "miracle".)

The Ludicrous Conspiracy Theory

A ludicrous theory exists that people have invented "global warming" from whole cloth in order to advance either our own personal interests (the idea mocked by the title of this blog) or, more recently, a subversive political agenda intended to
  • 1) weaken the west in favor of the less developed countries
  • 2) weaken the less developed countries in favor of the west
  • 3) reinstate a Stalinist totalitarian state or
  • 4) corner the energy market and drive small businesses into bankruptcy.
The various elaborations of the theory are strikingly mutually inconsistent, but details of the vast conspiracy are left to innuendo, stoking the particular paranoia of the listener.

The Violation of Privacy and Probably of Law

As everyone with the slightest interest in the matters of this blog already knows, some emails and other files were published on the internet under circumstances that reek of data theft and violation of law and decency, including an attempted illegal hijacking of the RealClimate site. Nevertheless, the act is being called "whistle blowing".

What Was Actually Revealed
  • a rehash of a well-known controversy about how to present tree-ring data
  • frustration about too much attention to substandard scientific papers slipped into the literature by marginally qualified people with nonscientific agendas, and discussions about how to handle that
  • frustration about opposition by filibuster via freedom of information requests
  • a single suggestion about "deleting emails", without any context, which plausibly does not refer to deleting emails from a server (scientists are probably aware that end users cannot really do this) but rather to deleting them from a response to one of many FOIA requests
  • some sloppy code and a pretty sad but perfectly typical lack of understanding of the advantages of dynamic programming languages
  • a couple of fudge factors explicitly labeled as such probably used in testing, commented out
  • some older data for which CRU is not the originator or primary repository is not in any known dataset at CRU
  • about 985 emails and 1995 other files of no apparent interest to anyone
In other words, (with the possible exception of the email deletion incident, which I imagine the lawyers are fretting about) the only things remotely unusual here are a direct consequence of the existence of a politically rather than scientifically motivated opposition.

How This is Spun

People who have been able to convince themselves of the existence of a conspiracy are able to convince themselves that the thousand emails are totally incriminating, and that anyone who is mentioned in any of the emails (including Revkin, Pielke Jr, Annan, etc.) and by extension even anyone who "believes in" something like the IPCC position is in fact part of this vast and monumentally evil conspiracy which obviously will assassinate anyone who gets the least bit out of line. After all, NOBODY (of the cast of thousands) has ever confessed, so the threats as well as the rewards must be vast; you'd think someone's conscience if not their desire to write a million-selling expose would get the better of them.

See for example this ludicrous attack on William Connolley's excellent efforts to keep politics out of climate science at Wikipedia, and the follow-up comment here
Doesn't the fact he is being paid by the Climate Research Unit to astroturf Wikipedia for the AGW POV pose a fiduciary conflict of interest with his role as editor here? I thought astroturfing was banned at Wikipedia?
What sort of world does this person live in where an academic research unit has money to pay people to subvert Wikipedia, I wonder. Anyway, the above fortunately was met with the appropriate rejoinder:
Since that hasn't happened no. Please don't abuse the word "fact" in future.
It's interesting to see the Wikipedia process in action. But it's amazing to see what sorts of things the conspiracy-tuned mind comes up with.

How This Spreads

We've all seen the overheated rhetoric in the press. The Wall Street Journal has been particularly egregious. The message received by the public is simply that "some climate scientists have fudged some data". Since there are plenty of examples of dishonest scientists in other fields, this isn't hard for people to believe.

Is Jones blameless? I am not sure. Is any of this important? Well, no.

It surely is no evidence of a conspiracy to see Jones or Mann being argumentative in emails against other scientists; surely it is the opposite of a sign of the massive big-bucks evil windmill conspiracy of the IPCC.

What's hard to understand is the pervasiveness of the whole thing on the internet: the fact that people flogging conspiracies far more extreme than appear in even the Wall Street Journal or the National Post appear everywhere, and the prevalence of their websites. Here is the secret weapon of the denial squad; and I would be surprised if it isn't operative around other extravagant right-wing conspiracy fantasies.

Am I Taking This All A Bit Too Seriously?

You'll forgive me. The fact that my paternal grandfather among other close relatives was in fact killed at a concentration camp on the basis of right-wing conspiracy theories makes it hard for me to take the matter all that lightly. I don't imagine that climate scientists are going to be rounded up and gassed anytime soon, but the reinvention of the techniques for stirring up mass paranoia would disturb me greatly even if they weren't directed, you know, at me and at some of the people I respect most in the world.

So What is Going On?

Somebody or something is motivating people to repeat conspiracy theories about science on the internet. This is what we need to understand.

Even the most extreme of them pretend to the purest of motivations, but they are inaccessible to reason. There is a small grain of truth in what they say, scientists being human and all. Honest people cannot claim to the sorts of certainty that dishonest people can claim, after all.

Meanwhile, legitimate and honest inquiry keeps bubbling up. Some people are legitimately skeptical, and people looking into it have varying degrees of capacity for examining technical evidence. The purpose of "climategate" it seems was not to disrupt Copenhagen. Copenhagen was going to flounder of its own accord, and very few people there were taking this matter seriously.

No, the purpose of "climategate" was explicitly a Googlebombing. It was to keep real science and real policy discussion out of sight of people taking the occasion to investigate climate science. As such, it was a shocking and discouraging success. Even defenses against these calumnies, necessary as they are, actually help the bombing process along.

In the end, we need to tell the truth, but we also have to motivate people to understand it and repeat it and rehash it, so the network isn't swamped with noise if for no other reason. It's not as if we can convince the most extreme people of anything of course. What we need is for valid information to be as easy to find and absorb as lies and paranoid pathologies. At least let's try to get to the point where people easily find a reasonable point of view to weigh against any paranoid theory.

Sympathy for the Devil

A couple of odd personalities are at the center of all this. In particular there is Steve McIntyre, and some genuine skeptics among his followers. Eli recommends we treat McIntyre with the same sort of contempt we justifiably aim at the likes of Singer and Michaels. I disagree. While he doesn't exactly play by the rules, McIntyre raises some real issues.

I think there is a real point that the stakes are higher than they have been, that the conduct of climate science needs to be formalized, and that data provenance and computational reproducibility are henceforth core issues for our field. I am deeply disappointed that we did not understand this ten years ago when the first controversies erupted regarding the Mann hockey stick.

What traditional practitioners of climate relevant sciences need to understand is that the practice of science must change as we transition from a curiosity-driven field to a necessity-driven one. We also need to grasp that our methods of bringing people into the fold do not scale, and do not meet the very real, substantial and important demand for outside review.

On the other hand, people casting themselves as our opposition need to understand that such changes do not come easily or cheaply. If we need to make a transition to an engineering-level discipline we need to be funded like one. Certainly advocates of geoengineering need to support a vastly invigorated climate modeling discipline.

The Bottom Line

Finally, and yet again, critics of our field (and to some extent I count myself among them) need to understand a crucial fact. Costs increase nonlinearly with the amount of climate change. Therefore, the less you trust the IPCC results, the more dangerous the risk profile you face, and the more severe the constraints on carbon emissions and other anthropogenic forcings need to be. Yet, almost everybody argues this crucial point backwards.

Update 12/25: Morano is featuring this story prominently. Apparently he works Christmas Day.

Update 12/26: Obviously I'm being Godwinned here. I am amazed that right wing people have so little grasp of what "right wing" means and what the dangers of that point of view are, but I suppose leftwingers probably disown Stalin in pretty much the same way.

Anyway, the point about the dangers of deliberately invoked public paranoia is the key to this whole piece, so it has to stand, Godwin or no.

That said, I don't want to spend time on the ridiculous argument about which flavor of totalitarian disaster Nazism is. It's not an especially relevant piece of historical, um, controversy. So "right-wing" is removed as a descriptor of paranoia. I think that improves the article anyway.

Update 12/26: A related article at the Christian Science Monitor.

Update 12/28: A related article at Media Matters and a related video by Potholer54.

Note: The discussion thread for this article is closed at 100 comments. Please feel free to continue comment on this related posting.

Question Authority, but Don't Stop There!

Questioning authority is something we boomers deserve both credit and blame for in ample quantities. It's embedded in American culture, amplified by the boomer-inspired culture industry, and a point of constant friction for some of us Americaphiles who are attracted to the country but not entirely of it.

The incredibly creative and yet isolated and xenophobic culture of rural America has a lack of confidence in authority at its very roots, roots which go back to Scots and Irish oppression in 18th and 19th century Britain, and which were fundamentally at the roots of the creation of Kentucky and Texas in particular, and much of the west and middle south as a consequence.

This resentment of government is coupled with a strangely contrary enthusiasm for local authority including the church and the military, and perhaps as a direct consequence, a very high tolerance for logical contradiction. It's hard to, you know, argue, in the positive sense of argument, with people who have no trouble holding contrary opinions, who've never learned the disadvantages of doing so.

Anyway, the point is that rock and roll, the ultimate expression of the genius of America, came from those very same Appalachian hills. As a consequence, via this attitude reflected through the powerful and emotive media of music and film, the whole world has been echoing the Appalachian mountain man's defiance and suspicion of authority and profound attachment to local interests.

The trouble with questioning authority, of course, doesn't come from the question; it comes from the complete indifference to the answer.

Nice piece on denialist organizations

I haven't come across this Lippard fellow's blog before but he has a very well-done article about climate change denial.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Big Picture

For the moment, no comment about Copenhagen from here.

I'd like, though, to remind you of the most salient facts, before you come to any judgment of your own.

This is from Earth Trends Delivered, a WRI project, with a hat tip to Bruce Sterling for finding the site.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Photo Essay: A Scientific Congress

For readers who haven't attended a large scientific meeting, this is an attempt to capture the scene.

You arrive in an attractive corner of an attractive city, which you will not find time to explore. In this case it is the "Fall AGU" meeting in San Francisco, with about 16,000 attendees from earth, planetary and solar sciences. The AGU is the American Geophysical Union. Some atmospheric scientists go to this meeting. Others prefer the American Meteorological Society's meetings which are almost as large but more thematic.

As you approach the conference center, you see an increasing concentration of nerdy looking people, some prominently wearing nametags with a blue ribbon denoting "MEMBER". In the following picture, the two grinning vaguely Euro guys with bad haircuts (one has red sneakers) are almost certainly scientists, for example.

As you enter the main building, the scale of the event begins to dawn upon you.

You encounter four enormous hallways, each lined with large meeting rooms.

For most of the day, brief 15 minute talks are being given in each room. Sessions are about two hours, and eight or so related talks are typically given.

The schedule for each room is posted outside the room

Choosing which sessions to attend can be challenging.

Much of the real activity takes place in the hallway, though, where tables are set up for impromptu meetings. Colleagues whose paths have diverged re-establish old acquaintances and thrash out new ideas, and new alliances are forged.

At AGU, the poster session is in a separate building, and there's much pedestrian traffic between the two.

Not every proposed talk is accepted, but almost everyone is welcome to put up a poster in a poster session.

Although the poster section is enormous, posters are only up for one day.

Each poster's author is available at a specified time to discuss his or her poster. (*)

There is also a trade show for books

for special purpose equipment

and for shiny rocks! (*)

At AGU the trade show and the poster session are in the same massive hallway. (*)

A few special invited 90-minute talks take place in especially huge rooms, and these are often the highlight of the formal events. I especially enjoyed Richard Alley's talk this year. It was standing room only in this enormous hall. (Fortunately the fire marshalls did not catch on so I caught the whole thing.)

In the evening, if you are so inclined, the oddity of San Francisco is at your disposal. (*)

Most attendees will group up in fours, fives and sixes and look for quiet hotel bars to talk shop, though.

Note, if you click on pictures marked with an asterisk (*) you can see a higher resolution version. Those of you who enjoy my photos are invited to peruse my photoblog at peculiarmo.blogspot.com .

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Richard Alley Talk

Back when I was in Chicago I got to hear many conversations about paleoclimate, a field that is phenomenally rich (literally, there are lots of phenomena to explain) and increasingly data rich, but for all the things to explain and all the data to bring to bear, it struck me that conversations that didn't involve CO2 greenhouse forcing as a crucial mechanism, on time scales from millenia to eons, were few and far between.

Faced with this every day, and faced with an internet burbling about "no such thing" or "trivial effect" every night was an ongoing frustration. At one point I recall asserting that CO2 is crucial in explaining the 100 Ka glacial cycle, but when challenged I had a hard time finding something in the literature that made the claim explicitly.

I've discussed this sort of thing recently with both Steve Easterbrook and Paul Baer. It's implicit knowledge. By the time you are sufficiently enmeshed in paleoclimate to publish a paper, you already know that CO2 is the dominant control on paleoclimatic variation. There is nothing to be gained from publishing a result that is common knowledge. But sometimes a result gets into the lore of a field without making it into the literature at all. In this case, it's a sort of generalization that every paleoclimatologist makes, that nobody else has any way of finding out, and that is important!

So I was thrilled to see that Richard Alley was going to make this important point in detail in an hour-long plenary talk at AGU this year, entitled "The Biggest Control Knob: Carbon Dioxide in Earth's Climate History".

Alley made a truly excellent presentation, in a huge room, standing room only. Since I was standing myself, and carrying some stuff, I couldn't really take good notes. Fortunately Dave Petley has an excellent summary (once you get past the rock talks at the beginning of his entry, anyway).

I hope the AGU follows through on making the video permanently available. It's time there was something for people to refer to on this matter. And it's another interesting case about the distinction between the literature and the knowledge of a field. Interestingly, Alley's time slot was up against another important event, which Dr Rabett has blogged, and he too has some things to say about the literature as a consequence, in his case about things that do get in that shouldn't.

Update via Anna Haynes: Richard Alley's talk is now viewable here (which you can get to from the "videos" page)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

30th Anniversary of "Global Warming"

An excellent session chaired by Tony Busalacchi and Ray Pierrehumbert (thanks to Rodrigo Caballero for tuning me in) on the 30th anniversary of the first NAS report on climate change, chaired by Jule Charney in 1979 with some of the all time great minds in meteorology (Charney, Bolin, Smagorinsky) and oceanography (Wunsch, Stommel) participating.

I'll have more to say about this session later. The most important point, though, is that despite all the press about "global cooling scares" in the 1970s, by 1979 the NAS was capable of getting the whole picture right, in the complete absence of any observable recent warming.

The relatively brief report, "Carbon Dioxide and Climate, A Scientific Assessment", is available online, and genuine skeptics are invited to compare the best scientific opinion of the 1970s not only with current consensus thinking but also with the observed climate trajectory.

My Nisbet Gripe, Cont'd

I have no objection to the idea of framing messages effectively. Until this week, I had no idea why some people were complaining so bitterly about Nisbet.

But Nisbet is in the strange headspace of politics, where science is just a piece of furniture on the landscape of politics. What's more, it's a black box which emits certain very simple results. And when he describes the box, he gets it hopelessly wrong, and uses the bizarre and broken frames of the worst elements of the press.

The problem isn't the concept of framing. The problem is that the guy who has done the best job of staking out "framing" as his personal territory has about the most toxic set of frames out there for our issues. There is no getting rid of writing to your audience, but the word "framing" itself isn't all that valuable. If it belongs to Nisbet I don't want it.

One thing I've learned recently is that while in many ways I behave like a journalist, I simply have almost no interest in "news" any more than I am interested in "sports". Events in sports fall clearly into the space of "don't matter". In fifty years nobody will remember who won the superbowl this season. In politics, they will remember Obama's name, but little of what he said or did.

As long as we play on the battlefield of week-to-week politics and don't actually look into the science box, we lose the war of words. Yes, the right is disposed against us and the left toward us, pretty much for arbitrary cultural reasons. But the opposition is free to twist the facts and we aren't. So they pick off people as they start to pay attention and the mythology of massive corruption in climate science gets further elaborated.

If we don't play the long game, if we don't try to revive critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, if we don't go beyond assertion and into explanation, we are playing on the opposition's turf.

Nisbet may have done a good job of describing the opposition's turf, but that is all he knows. He, specifically, is an example of a person lacking a scientific education remotely commensurate with his capacities and interests. His approach embodies the substitution of politics for knowledge.

The long game is our home turf, and we have to stop listening to people who miss that point completely. The absurdly short time scales and shallow symbolic allegiances and frantic half-crazed yuppie obsessions du jour of the beltway and the press are the problem, not the solution.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Carbon Sequestration Validation

So much for keeping a low profile at Fall AGU.

Oh well, as my putative scientific career finally evaporates altogether, I suppose it's good to have a mission. I'm going back to my self-defeating old habit of always being most interested in the things I know least about. This is pretty self-defeating scientifically, but maybe now that Revkin is semi-retired I can find a niche for myself as a science reporter. So consider me your man on the scene.

My favorite of the talks I attended today was by Sally Benson of Stanford, an invited talk on verifying carbon sequestration.

As another carbon sequestration speaker said, "it's all about the credits": energy interests aren't especially interested in carbon sequestration unless and until we put a price on carbon, but once we do so, they'll be very interested in it. Of course, this is a famously scrupulous and fastidious industrial sector, so we can presume they won't cut corners and just pump carbon randomly into pipes in the ground whether it will stay there or not. But just in case, perhaps it would be best if we could somehow discriminate actual sequestration from random pipes into the depths.

Sarcasm aside, there's little doubt that a significant amount of CO2 can be hidden underground. There's every evidence of serious people doing serious experiments to demonstrate all the pieces. And in the end, some form of sequestration is necessary to reverse carbon concentrations; whether it's what is now being called CCS or not, some way of taking carbon out of circulation in massive quantities is already the legacy of our generation, and likely of a generation or two to come.

It's the case that vast ancient deposits of methane remianed underground for millions of years. So gas can stay underground. It's also the case that we can pipe gas underground; the oil industry already does this to increase extraction. It makes sense, when you pull a resource fluid out, to pump its waste product into the same hole. (It's not really a hole. It's gaps in a granular medium. There never was an ocean of oil under that gusher.) But just because it's possible doesn't mean it's easy.

A leakage rate of 1% a year is as good as worthless. Even 0.1 % leaves only 37% of the gas underground after a millenium; you really have to get to 0.01% before the project starts doing substantial good (90% after a millenium) and a good goal is a leakage rate of 0.001% (99% after a millenium, 90% after 10,000 years).

And it's easy to get it wrong. Put too much gas underground (thereby avoiding building an expensive new facility) and you start inducing cracking in the cap rock (before I got to Texas, "cap rock" was not even in my vocabulary!) and your leakage rate starts to skyrocket.

Now in field tests, you can drill holes to check your theories, but in an actual deployment, I figure you can't be drilling too many holes to get samples. (I'm not actually sure about this, but my intuition rebels against making a swiss cheese out of your cap rock to make sure it is intact.) Anyway, Dr Benson's talk was about how to determine if you were getting the sequestration to work. The idea is that a regulator could refund you carbon points if you were successfully burying your carbon.

OK, so now there are two ways to proceed. You could try to measure the inventory, or you could try to measure the leakage. Both are problematic. You measure the inventory using seismic inversion; essentially sonar. The trouble with the sonar methods is twofold. First of all, it's messy: a lot of people make a career of having enough intuition to look at these things and find good places to explore or drill for this or that (usually that). Also, some CO2 dissolves or reacts. Even if your sonar were absolutely perfected you could easily lose 10 to 20% of your inventory. That is far too much uncertainty to be of use here.

The other approach is to look for leakage at the surface with arrays of sensitive CO2 detectors or isotopic measurements, to find sources of fossil carbon-based CO2 which is C-14 depleted. A source as "small" as 100 tons/year can be detected. Compare this to the rates of sequestration at a commercial site, on the order of 50 megatons of carbon inventory.

So that's sensitive enough. Are we done?

No, because the test is expensive and tightly focused in space, while the artificial reservoir is as large as 100 square kilometers. You have to kn ow eher to put the sensors. Here, though, is where seismic imaging does work. It can tell you something about the structure of the subsurface and give you good candidate locations to look for leaks.

Are we happy yet? Benson thinks so.

I have some doubts, myself. (The following is not part of Benson's talk but speculation of my own.)

The time scales are at issue. How long between springing a leak and detecting it? It seems like it could easily be decades before the leak erupts to the surface: very fast by geological standards but very slow by commercial ones.

Commercially, as a carbon combustion business, I want to be rewarded for my good deeds (really, non-penalized for my non-bad deeds) immediately. But as a government, I don;t want to credit you with the sequestered carbon until it doesn't leak. Most businesses will not take a thousand year lead time on their investments. So the problem, ultimately, isn't technical. It's the same old social problem. We don't know how to think on long enough time scales to make incentives for effective carbon sequestration work. Or so it looks to me. Did I miss something?

Data access & collaboration in weather/climate

First session at AGU:

Next generation distributed data access diagnostics and collaborations for climate and weather models

Sort of an ironic session, with everyone presenting the need for srandardization in the field but everyone proposing different and mutually incompatible standards. Everyone ignored ESMF, interesting in itself. By far the nicest and most convincing presentation from where I sat was Reagan Moore's irods (irods.diceresearch.org).

The irony: the collaboration groups all ignore each other! There's an essay here about how science has learned the wrong lesson from commerce. Competition itself is neither necessary nor sufficient...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Farewell to Framing

I came to AGU a day early for this?

Matt Nisbet, Max Boykoff and the euphoniously named Gwendolyn Blue formed a panel on public communication of science. I enjoyed it on the whole; Ms. Blue's presentation in particular was delightful, but the more I think about the whole thing the more convinced I am that it missed the mark altogether.

Now this blog came on the scene pretty much simultaneous with the famous Nisbet and Mooney Nature item which discussed the necessity for "framing" science in a way that would be palatable to the target audience. I'm a sort of cultural chameleon myself, so I'm perhaps more aware than other scientists of when scientific arrogance is more likely to piss people off than to attract them. I thought avoiding P Z Myers confrontationalism was all this framing business was about.

I remain a Chris Mooney fan, but having seen Nisbet in action, I now see that the person who has staked out "framing science" as his personal territory pretty much doesn't get science.

To be sure, I'm not sure there were any scientists in the audience. Simon Donner said he'd show up, but I didn't see him. And much as I appreciate Steve Easterbrook, not to mention yours truly, both of whom were evident in the audience, we really aren't your core AGU audience either. Melanie Fitzpatrick of the Union of Concerned Scientists was there, but you can't really call her a practicing scientist either. Other identified participants were mostly political or educational types, too.

I didn't really see any major league researchers there, so the whole episode was sort of ironically moot to begin with. That turned out to be a good thing. As you will see, I don't recommend real scientists expend many synapses on this gang.

Boykoff kicked it off, and managed to go 18 minutes before mentioning the CRU email hacking, which I appreciated, and he did encourage participation by scientists, but he pretty much fell right into the "global warming, yes or no" frame and followed polls.

He also bought into the idea that the blogosphere was totally obsessed with the CRU business. He dismissed my point that article counts don't tell you much on the web, and that Google search metrics didn't show a lot of interest in the business among the real world. He shrugged and said I should trust him to compare "apples to apples". Yeah, dude, but those are really teeny tiny apples on one side, you know?

Nisbett was also all about "global warming, yes or no", so much that he seemed to think "communicating science" was all about communicating "global warming, yes". He yammered about Al Gore incessantly. He mentioned the CRU business within seconds, and had called it "climategate". He kept referring to AGU as "environmental scientists"!

This is the guy who wants to tell us about "framing"?

The worst of it was all the spin he was advocating had nothing whatsoever to do with science. We should talk about energy. About security. We should take a tip from congress who renamed "Cap and Trade" to "America's Clean Energy and Security". We should talk about the birds and the fishes. Well fine. What you need a geophysicist for in that case escapes me entirely.

It emerged that the panelists were confident that the public does not care about science, and that you should feed them symbols instead because they will ignore rational argument. To those who object that this is exactly what Al Gore did in his movie, they amend their position to state that you should feed them symbols and not be Mr Gore, but that otherwise what Gore does is perfect.

People in the audience had trouble absorbing all of this. The advice to scientists, then, is to dress up like scientists and deliver PR just like the PR office tells them to.

Ms Blue softened the blow a little bit. She wrapped it up with an interesting story of consensus building among a nonexpert population, with consensus facilitators and scientific documents but no scientific authorities in the room. Most of the subgroups ended up supporting a fairly strong negotiating position in Copenhagen (30% reductions by 2020 or such) but they were playing by the rules, which meant to treat the science as true. Apparently one table had a convinced denialist who had brought his own briefing book; it wasn't stated but I imagine his table didn't have as good a time as they were playing more by real world rules. It was an interesting experiment but it completely begged the question of which briefing book people are using, didn't it?

In the end, the social scientists presented an audience of educators, reporters and activists with the message that physical scientists should give up any hope of influencing how people actually weigh evidence. People simply aren't interested in scientific process. Scientists are weird and should accept that; democracy works purely on superficial and symbolic processes.

This isn't what I read from serious skeptics, who are livid about getting symbolism when they ask substantive questions. The small group of relevant scientists are telling the truth when they say "we really don't have time to discuss everything in detail, even with people who aren't adamant about distrusting us; we have work to do". The vicious circle of hostility and suspicion feeds on the opacity of science, not the excess of "information".

The social scientists, big on frames, totally shared the frame of the denialists that climate science is about "global warming", and presumed that AGU is about climate science. Of course, if that were true, we wouldn't be very busy at all. We'd have answered the question "global warming, yes or no" in the affirmative already. So all we need to do now is to just sell our idea like soap. After all the other guys are doing that. If we don't come up with better branding and clever promotional programs, is it any wonder we're losing market share?

Well, if this is framing, you can keep it, thanks.

CO2 in Earth's History

I have never found a useful overview of how paleo people look at CO2 and not for lack of trying.

So I'm happy to see that Richard Alley is giving a plenary talk on this very subject at AGU Tuesday afternoon 1:40 PM Pacific time..

Title is "The Biggest Control Knob: Carbon Dioxide in Earth's Climate History".

It will be webcast. Google AGU webcast and you should find it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Email from Bolivia

Not someone in Bolivia. I got an email from Bolivia itself. Someone claiming to represent the "Plurinational State of Bolivia" sends the following:

Bolivia responds to US on climate debt: "If you break it, you buy it."

In response to the US chief negotiator Todd Stern's rejection of paying it's climate debt - the principle of polluter pays -- Pablo Solon, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations said the following:

"Admitting responsibility for the climate crisis without taking necessary actions to address it is like someone burning your house and then refusing to pay for it. Even if the fire was not started on purpose, the industrialised countries, through their inaction, have continued to add fuel to the fire. As a result they have used up two thirds of the atmospheric space, depriving us of the necessary space for our development and provoking a climate crisis of huge proportions.

"It is entirely unjustifiable that countries like Bolivia are now forced to pay for the crisis. This creates a huge draw on our limited resources to protect our people from a crisis created by the rich and their over-consumption.

"In Bolivia we are facing a crisis we had no role in causing. Our glaciers dwindle, droughts become ever more common, and water supplies are drying up. Who should address this? To us it seems only right that the polluter should pay, and not the poor."

"We are not assigning guilt, merely responsibility. As they say in the US, if you break it, you buy it."

Background: Todd Stern in a press conference on 10 December said: "We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now. But the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations - I just categorically reject that."
As usual, I violate journalistic protocol by failing to mangle the press release and then pass it along as my own work. If a press release is interesting, I think the press just ought to print it.

It certainly seems plausible that this is the position of Bolivia, though I have no way of determining whether I'm being spoofed.

This time I'm going to comment, though.

In this case I agree with neither the claimed position of Bolivia nor that of the US.

The US should not have to take responsibility for past emissions in the sense of reparations before the date it became clear that these were problematic. Nations should be held culpable only for those emissions which exceed those which reasonably might have been expected after the problem became internationally recognized. Fortunately, we have a date and an emissions scenario.

The fractional culpability of each nation could well be argued to be the ratio between the excess of their emissions over those negotiated at the Kyoto protocol to the total of historical emissions. In the case of the most "developed" nations this quantity will not be insignificant, but it will be much less than our total emissions.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Slashdot discussion

The WSJ via Slashdot:
The real fallout of climategate may have nothing to do with the credibility of climate change. Daniel Henninger thinks it's a bigger problem for the scientific community as a whole and he calls out the real problem as seen through the eyes of a lay person in an opinion piece for the WSJ. Henninger muses 'I don't think most scientists appreciate what has hit them,' and carries on that vein in saying, 'This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and "messy" as, say, gender studies.' While nothing interesting was found by most scientific journals, he explains that the attacks against scientists in these leaked e-mails for proposing opposite views will recall the reader to the persecution of Galileo. And in doing so will make the lay person unsure of the credibility of ALL sciences without fully seeing proof of it but assuming that infighting exists in them all. Is this a serious risk? Will people even begin to doubt the most rigorous sciences like Mathematics and Physics?"
The WSJ article is breathless and overstated. The claim that science itself is just politics by other means, often made in the past by the left, is no more true than ever when spewed from the right. Still, the fact that there is some fallout to the credibility of science is real. That political activists are happy to throw away the baby with the bathwater is not news to us, but their recent success in the matter isn;t something we can dismiss lightly.

A Slashdot response which I liked very much:
People concerned about the policy proposals currently being put forward have focused way too much energy on questioning the scientific findings of current and recent warming. It's so unnecessary because scientists understand, and will readily admit, that there is much greater uncertainty when the models are run forward to predict future decades.

The models can be tuned and validated against historical data, then different forcings backed out to assign relative significance. This is where you get statements like (paraphrasing) "70% of recent warming has been due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with 90% confidence." Some estimate of confidence is possible because of the validation against historical empirical data and climate reconstructions. Independent lines of inquiry can reinforce each others' findings. This is solid science, and where the "climategate" PR stunt falls down. The e-mails provide good fodder for insinuation, but no answer to the quantitative agreement seen in independent lines of study.

But when we run the models forward, there is not yet any empirical confirmation. Distinct models, using distinct data sets, can be seen to agree to some degree--but how much of that reflects reality, and how much reflects common assumptions? Every forward-looking run must assume some set of future values for human activity and natural processes, including ones that are parameterized (like cloud formation) that might advance beyond currently validated bounds. The uncertainty grows when the models are asked to bring their predictions down to local conditions--the distinction between predicting global average climate, and predicting long-term local weather. Will Kansas get hotter or colder, wetter or drier? There is quite a bit of uncertainty in such predictions--again, as working scientists clearly understand.

Layering on the biological response to these uncertain predictions creates even more uncertain predictions. One recent study at Woods Hole seemed to indicate that some animals might respond to ocean acidification by growing thicker shells. I'm not taking that one study as gospel, but it is worth considering that we do not fully understand biological systems and how they will respond to changing climate conditions.

Finally we get to the societal and economic layer, which sits, at least partially, atop uncertain biological predictions. Global warming may causes shifts in where certain crops can be grown--these changes will exact a cost on human society. Will they also confer a benefit? It's not scientific heresy to think that changes to climate can produce benefits as well as costs--although perhaps not to the same subset of the population. We may have to invest substantially in new areas and ways of farming, in new transportation routes. It's not inconceivable that the end result could be greater efficiencies and healthier produce. And of course there is also substantial error (to say the least) in multi-decade economic models.

The greatest threat is probably sea level rise. Wealthy nations might make the decision to invest in mitigation, rather than prevention. It is possible to raise or move cities, and to build barriers to keep out the sea. Such decisions are policy, but must be informed by the best scientific understanding we have--but that understanding must include understanding of uncertainty.

But instead what we see is a concentrated dose of PR and ignorance, attempting to raise doubts about scientifc conclusions about climate change that are well-supported (like whether human emissions can change the climate). You see people trying to simultaneously point out problematic sitings of temperature stations, and demonize working scientists for adjusting temperature data to minimize the error due to such siting. You see people repeatedly gesturing toward the sun, when numerous direct measurements indicate flat or declining insolation over the recent decades. They come off looking stupid, and smart people dismiss them.

It's a shame because lost in the battle over some of the science, is a full discussion of scientific uncertainty and policy options. There is no reason that full understanding of the current state of climate science must automatically lead to a certain bill or treaty. Somewhere in there is the difference between science and policy, between scientists and politicians. I think the politics will get the best result if the science is well understood. That means pushing back against ignorance like "climategate," but it also means pushing back against activists who oversell the certainty of future predictions, or hide certain policy options.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bunny Escapes Reader Feed

No matter how much I'd like to, I can't put any of Dr. Rabett's stuff in my reader feed.

The Google reader view invariably shows "title unknown", which is irritating enough. And poor Blogspot ends up with ugly-as-sin URLs. But those are minor irritations. The problem is with the Shared Items widget, that simply treats the title as "", which I suppose it duly underlines. This does not give my readers anything upon which to click, and hence does not drive any traffic bunnyward. And it reduces my quasi-daily recommendations to four from the usual five. Rather pointless you'll admit.

Still, the good doctor has been generous with links hither in the past, and so I take the occasion to point you to his particularly nice submission du jour, entitled (as usual) "", with the peculiar URL http://rabett.blogspot.com/2009/12/darth-data-destroyer-as-all-good.html:
As all good auditors know destroying data is a sin. They should go tell it to Harold Lewis, one of the Princeton Denial Club and Retirement Party. ...

Dr. Aaserud: Your papers — correspondence, notes, manuscripts, things of that sort — what's the status of those? That's another thing we're interested in.

Dr. Lewis: Yes. I really don't have them, you know. I've long since either lost in moving or discarded everything that I had. So I have no papers around from JASON, if that's what you mean.

Aaserud: No, generally — both JASON and generally speaking.

: There are lots of things, but they're scattered in a complicated way. Generally speaking, I throw things away after a few years, so the only things I have are the things that have accumulated over the last few years and are relevant to the things I'm actually doing these days.

: That's another thing that the Center is strongly involved in — just saving papers for historical purposes.

Lewis: Yes, I understand. But I have enough trouble keeping up with current papers.

Aaserud: But if for any reason you wanted help or advice on what to keep and how to keep it and where to go and all that, then we'd be happpy to help on that. But for JASON in particular, you don't have anything.

: No, I don't.

There is shredding going on in Santa Barbara. Data has been destroyed. Where are the auditors when you need them?

Much more worth of note at the link.

PS: Dr R., if you want people to recommend your work, it might be a good idea to use the actual "TITLE" affordance that the blogger interface so thoughtfully provides, rather than simply bolding your title as part of the main text. A hassle I'm sure, but nowhere near as onerous as fastlane or a typical journal submission. I am sure you can handle it.

Thanks in advance.

Warning: Politicization of Politics

I missed the boat for the first round of Someone-Claiming-to-be-Sarah-Palin vs COP15; so much for an easy traffic spike. Still, I was amused by how this random person titled the putative-Palin's article.

Apparently Vathek thinks Mrs. Palin is complaining that the COP process has been politicized!

Sorta like complainin' that your water's all damp and soggy, ain't it?

Update: My mistake. Palin actually said it! Her op-ed concludes:
Without trustworthy science and with so much at stake, Americans should be wary about what comes out of this politicized conference. The president should boycott Copenhagen.
So Mrs. Palin is complaining that the COP process has been politicized!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Missing Musser

I referred once to an interesting article in Scientific American by George Musser on the question of consensus. As if they knew nothing about the web, Scientific American has broken the link, and I can't find the article.

As evidence that it was interesting, here is what Greg Laden had to say about it.

Can anyone find this article in print or online? If you have it in print, what issue? I've made several attempts to contact Scientific American about this to no avail.

Update: OK, here it is, thanks to "ishtar". Text probably belongs either to George Musser or to Scientific American but in any case not to me. Please don't sue me. I'll take it down if you ask, but I'd much rather if this excellent piece didn't disappear altogether.
Please Stop Talking About the Global Warming Consensus
George Musser
(c) 2007 Scientific American

Last year, I started a thread on this blog to discuss doubts about global warming and humanity's role in it. I tried to catalog the misgivings in as evenhanded as way as possible and conducted a simple poll to see which broad category of doubts people found most persuasive. The top two results were:

  • II. The present warming could be a natural uptick.

  • VII. People who argue that human activity causes global warming cannot be trusted.

I offered a partial reply to the first of these last year. To summarize: different influences on the climate produce distinct patterns -- for example, of spatial variation in temperature -- and the observed patterns match what greenhouse gases should produce. They do not match what intrinsic climate variability or other natural causes would bring about.

But the climate debate
that my colleague Dave Biello and I went to last night reminded me that the second of these concerns is still very much alive. Most of the arguments raised by the debaters and by audience members seemed to stem from the feeling that climate scientists and activists are haughty, sanctimonious, and hypocritical.

Like the climate itself, this is a very complex issue, having to do with attitudes toward intellectuals in our society and the way scientific findings can enter a meatgrinder of politics and ideology. Let me bite off just one piece: what I see as overuse of the term "scientific consensus."

When scientists use this term, they mean it to say that certain scientific questions have been settled to most people's satisfaction and that it's time to move on to other questions. But when non-scientists see this term, it sounds like a case of groupthink.

There's no doubt that the term is useful. A consensus view in any field of science represents humanity's best guess as to what's going on. The guess might well be wrong, but what else is there to go on? It's not as though there are answers in the back of the book to look at. People often say that science isn't a democracy; scientific questions aren't decided by majority rule. Well, then, what are they decided by? Experiments and observations, surely. But who runs the experiments and makes the observations? Who interprets the outcome? Who double-checks them? It is a social process.

If as a scientist I disagree with the consensus, I have to be very sure of myself to put my own judgment up against the collective wisdom. And if there's one thing scientists learn very early in their careers, it is that such supreme self-confidence is usually misplaced. Nearly all scientists have painful memories of being pounced on in an oral exam for giving a sketchy answer, or presenting a paper before hundreds of people that turned out to be dead wrong. Most experts in a field realize that the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. They learn to doubt their own judgment. If I get one answer and everyone else gets a different one, my first inclination should be that I'm wrong, not that everyone else is.

Sometimes, the individual is right and the community is wrong. It happens in times of scientific revolution, which by definition involve the overturning of a consensus view. But such revolutions are rare. We remember Einstein because he was unusual. Climate science shows no signs of being in a revolutionary phase. Evidence for anthropogenic warming is getting stronger with time. Discrepancies are diminishing rather than increasing. Technically, scientists are correct to assert that their field has reached consensus.

So the invocations of consensus are seen, by scientists, as expressions of humility. Yet the general public sees them as expressions of arrogance. To the man in the street, all the talk about scientific consensus sounds like: "Trust us, folks. Don't worry your pretty little heads about it. Just think what we tell you to think."

That rubs Americans, in particular, the wrong way. America wouldn't be America without its suspicion of establishments of every kind. Hollywood valorizes the lone outsider fighting the powers than be. I think this romantic view is a healthy part of our country's culture -- it's a safeguard against tyranny and an incentive for individuals to get involved in public life. But scientists can find themselves on the wrong side of the stick. They may see themselves as lone outsiders, but much of the rest of the country sees them as part of the machine. The British, for their part, really get off on puncturing pretentiousness -- god help you if you walk into a pub and act full of yourself, as many climate scientists do.

The term "scientific consensus" is counterproductive in other ways, too. It sounds like asking people to take things on faith, which is contrary to the whole point of science. It also lets skeptical scientists claim they are being muzzled. They can argue that they are estranged from mainstream science for what they say, when in fact the problem is how they say it -- their incomplete arguments or their unwillingness to apply the same skepticism to their own results that they apply to others'. Talking about consensus shifts the responsibility for their estrangement from them to the faceless wall of the powers that be.

So while I think there's a role for mentioning scientific consensus, it should be used very sparingly. Telling people that there is a consensus cannot substitute for explaining why there is a consensus. As much as climate scientists may be wearying of debate, they need to press onward and treat each question as though it was the first time they had ever heard it.

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