Saturday, July 26, 2008

the process of science

A few years back, Michael Crichton published State of Fear, which was far less a novel than an inept position paper. Possessed of a tortured and unbelievable plot, wooden characters, and many pages of highly selective scientific data (replete with charts and footnotes) and pseudo-scientific exposition, the book was only worth reading for insight into the minds of climate contrarians (or deniers depending on your preferred terminology). The book had two essential premises: 1) those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming do so for reasons of personal, professional and organizational economic gain and aggrandizement, and that these people are therefore willing to go to any lengths, including the wholesale murder of entire populations through manufactured environmental catastrophes, to protect their interests and promote acceptance of anthropogenic global warming by the public and politicians; and 2) governments (that is the "state" in the title) require the maintenance of fear in order to exert control in the population, and in the absence of old enemies (communism), government has turned to an environmental bogeyman to exert control.

Let's deal with premise number two first. Governments have used fear as a mechanism of control, especially when bent on limiting civil liberties and political opposition, and expanding the power of office holders. This describes the Bush administration. However, the Bush administration spent seven of its eight years denying global warming, and doing its best to silence scientists in NASA, NOAA, the EPA and CDC and stifle data supportive of the anthropogenic global warming. The Bush administration favorite bogeyman is "Islamic terrorism" not global warming. Which leads us to premise number one. Certainly millions of dollars of research money, from both government and industry is at stake for scientists, their departments and their institutions. But under the Bush administration, large-scale government monies were not flowing to scientists studying climate change, and the industries (coal, electricity generation, oil, etc.) with the most money to spend on climate research are largely those whose stake is in undermining the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Why spend so much time talking about a bad novel? Because those two key premises are widely believed by many people. Over and over, in blogs, in on-line discussions, on talk shows, cable news, and many other media outlets, the belief is expressed that those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming are motivated by the exact same things -- greed and power -- that motivate those who oppose the idea.

Americans have become disenchanted with politics (many sociologists would call it alienation). Quite accurately, Americans are aware of the role of money in politics. They know that the pharmaceutical corporations spend millions in lobbying money and campaign contributions and public relations ads to insure that they will continue to make billions and billions in profits on drugs. They know that corporations like Halliburton and its subsidiaries have made millions in profits on no-bid contracts in Iraq while American soldiers and Iraqi civilians die -- sometimes as a direct result of the shoddy work done on those contracts, like the soldiers electrocuted by poor wiring jobs done by a Halliburton subsidiary. Americans also know that things that their government identifies as threats often turn out not to be supported by fact. Many Americans believe that Bush and Cheney knowingly lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whipping-up fear to support a war that had far more to do with shoring up the dollar and protecting access to oil supplies, than it ever had to do with terrorism and military threat. So it is not surprising that many Americans also look at claims about the dangers of global warming with distrust.

They have come to expect people to act politically only out of self-interest in amassing wealth and power, and to expect that fear-mongering will play a major role in promoting that self-interest. The idea that scientists might operate on different, more disinterested principles, requiring rigorous testing, verification and review is beyond the comprehension of most people. This is not to say that scientists are not human and that they care nothing at all for career advancement, salaries, or grants; of course they are and they do.

Individual scientists fake data and lie about their results. However, they are usually caught at it and disgraced, because the scientific endeavor as a whole has built into it many mechanisms for feedback, review, oversight, and correction based on empirical evidence.

Most Americans do not understand that science is a process and a social process at that. Our educational system is at fault in this. The only exposure of most people to science is reading a few dry textbooks that present a list of terms, facts and numbers to be memorized and accepted by fiat. The social process of science in which the results of each individual scientists study are reviewed by many others, and tested repeatedly by others in other settings, has built into it corrections that tend to weed out that which is cannot be replicated and supported.

Science is not infallible. Scientists do sometimes go down the wrong alley, but this is always corrected by other scientists. Climate change science has been around a lot longer than the general public has been aware of it - and contrary to some media claims has been focused on global warming not cooling. Long before it became climate change became a political issue, the scientific process of review pruned away most of the false leads and blind alleys. There is still a great deal of uncertainty on specific mechanisms, specific consequences, and the specific patterns and timetables through which the general trend of anthropogenic global warming will play out.

Politicians and the political process may "squelch dissent," but science uses a process of peer review to sort between that which has the greatest empirical support and that which fails the tests of reviews and replication. This means that some people don't get their papers and their research published. This is not sinister, its how the scientific process works. Sometimes this means that good ideas and groundbreaking research doesn't get published. But if there's validity in it, other people will pick it up and work on it, providing more data, more corroboration, until ultimately it will get recognized.


Anonymous said...

Come on, surely you're not going to pretend that everyone who is politically promoting the idea that we should fight global warming is a scientist or has pure scientific motives.

Sue said...

lain, I think you really have to make a distinction between the science of global warming and the politics of global warming.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

"lain, I think you really have to make a distinction between the science of global warming and the politics of global warming."

Therein is the real problem. Now, my next question: What qualifies a Social Scientist, or an Economist, or a Business person, or a Librarian, or a Physicist, or anyone outside the climate field to judge whether or not a particular published paper in the field of climate change is legitimate? But, we must each make value judgments based on what we do know. I know that someone funds research. I know that researchers work within highly politicized organizations -- whether academia or private. I know that researchers begin with a premise that arises from their predisposed position on a subject. All of these things cause me to immediately question results that are not verifiable by a 3rd party. When you deal with a massive system such as climate, there is no realistic way to project the future. There are too many variables. We can only guess. Yes, that goes both ways. I don't deny that global temperatures appear to be rising. I question whether that rise is significant. I question whether it will have disastrous consequences. I question whether human behavior can influence it -- either up or down. I question the intentions of those that belabor it either way -- they usually have something to gain from their position.

As to the need to care for the environment -- I absolutely believe that we must be good stewards of it. We should reduce pollution. We should seek "gentler" ways to extract mineral resources. We should seek alternative energy sources -- for economic reasons if not for health reasons. If we drill for oil it should be in an environmentally resposible manner. If we build a windmill for electrical generation it should be in an area that will not disrupt threatened wildlife species. If we build nuclear power plants we need to have all the safety measures possible in place. And on and on....

These things should be done because they are the right things to do. They estimate there is enough oil beneath the Arctic to meet the world's needs for 3 years. How did it get there? It must have been a much warmer place once upon a time. The planet warms, it cools, it continues the natural cyclical patterns of climate. Is mankind the problem? Possibly. I think the jury is still out. Should we be environmentally conscious and good stewards of natural resources? Absolutely.

Climate Change is too politicized. If you don't believe me, just ask Al Gore. Oh, wait, he's not qualified to judge -- he's not a climate scientist, he invented the Internet. ;)

Sue said...

Chris M. You said: "All of these things cause me to immediately question results that are not verifiable by a 3rd party." I think the whole point of my piece is that everything that is published in science journals is verified by a third, and a forth, and a fifth and a sixth party, etc. The verification is by other scientists who do research in the same general field, but are not at the same institution or working on the same funded project. It's called "peer review" and its extremely rigourous. Only about 3 to 5 percent of all submissions to the top journals are accepted for publication.

Or are you saying that you have to personally know the person who verifies each and every piece of research in order for you to be able to trust any of it?

Anonymous said...

If you talk only about what gets published in the science journals, sue, then maybe you can talk about distinguishing between science and politics, but the scientist who steps out of the journal and into the political arena to advocate political and social changes isn't doing science.

However, its not the scientists (and I'm willing to accept the definition of their employing institution -- if a top flight research university says the guy deserves tenure and lab space then who am I to quibble about whether or not he's a scientist -- and the publishing journals in the field) that you have to be concerned about Chris. You are quite right, there are people who have social and political agenda's to transform society to some of those folks it doesn't matter whether or not global warming is real, what matters is changing society. Thing is Chris, I really think (having actually read hundreds of those scientific journal articles) that the earth really is warming and that the consequences will be disasterous in the long run for large, scale, global capitalism. That if we do nothing at all about climate or changing society, it will change any way, through a whole series of environmental catastrophe's, wars over water and other resources, hunger and other problems. So the society that you are so anxious to hold onto isn't going to survive much longer (maybe you'll die first, but your kids won't). So my thought is, let's start changing now to something more localized, more decentralized, more tied to the local ecology and avoid some of the war and death and hunger. On the other hand, if I'm wrong about global warming, I think those changes in society would be a hell of a lot better for humans any way. So yeah, I have a social change agenda, and I'm quite sure there are others like me.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: You missed my point. In climate science there are no verifiable results -- only conjecture. Peer review does not necessarily involve repeating results in climate science. What results are there to repeat? They can plug numbers into a formula and do the math. That's about it. Climate science is much like economics. It is much like sociology. It is in many ways, a soft science. Chemistry is a hard science. You mix things together a particular way and you get a result. In the soft sciences we attempt to extrapolate a "best predictive guess" from historical data. We can't mix things together and get results. We can only guess. We take data sets and mathematically fit a curve to them. This curve should provide a general approximation of future results given a specific combination of circumstances. It can "predict" future outcomes. If you hold yourself to a very small number of variables you can usually achieve a reasonably accurate predictive curve for combinations of those inputs. When you deal with a super-complex system like the economy of the U.S. -- you cannot account for all of the variables and all of the potential combinations of those variables. So, you limit yourself to what you believe to be the most relevant. Hopefully, based on what you know, you can make a well-informed guess. It is still a guess. Climate science is the same. If it wasn't, a weather forecast would read with certainty -- not as a "percent chance." The meteorologists actually do quite well with their predictions over a 1 - 3 day span. They frequently miss it significantly over longer periods. So, how can there be any credibility in a forecast of dire consequences due to global warming that they can't predict with any certainty?

A quick question for you Sue: What is the optimum average global temperature?

Sue said...

Chris if you think there's no "hard" science in climatology, then you haven't actually read much climatological science. Is astronomy a hard science -- there's no "mixing" involved in that. Can we predict exactly where Alpha Centuri will be in 100 years. Of course we can. Folks 100 years ago could do that. Did Whatson and Crick do any experiements to "discover" the structure of the human gene. No they did not. They speculated, and discussed and played with numbers, and looked at other people's experiements to see if those observations fit their model, rejected the models that didn't fit the numbers until they imagined the right model.
Is what Einstein did not "hard science"? He didn't mix any thing together. He didn't do any experiements except "thought experiements." His work was all mathematics and calculations. Yet without what he did there would be no atomic energy. Your notions of what is and is not a science are probably not all that unusual, but they are pretty "unscientific."

there is no "optimum" temperature for earth, the planet has existed and will continue to exist for billions of years under a thousand different temperature regimes. There is also no "optimum" temperature for the human race. Humans exist quite handily on all the continents, given the right tools and technology. However, there IS most decidedly optimum temperatures for each of the modern food crops like corn, wheat and rice, and for all the fruits and vegetables and for the bees, etc, that modern high yield agriculture depends upon. Humans won't go extinct. But the food sources that we depend upon for our mass, global industrial society have narrow temperature (and moisture) tolerances. Tolerances vary across varieties within a species, but each variety tolerance range is limited. Yes, there's room for genetic engineering and cross breeding, but that takes time and is always uncertain in its outcome. You might want to peruse one of the many research papers on the topic: BREEDING POTENTIAL FOR HIGH TEMPERATURE TOLERANCE IN CORN by Tassawar Hussain. The production of grain crops world wide while still growing in absolute terms, stopped growing in per capita terms nearly a decade ago. Temperature shifts are likely to cut into crop yields, at a time when world population continues to grow, and standards of living that increase percapita consumption of crops rise in countries like China and India. It's not that one day all the food will die on the vine, its that over time, the ability to feed the billions of humanity will get harder and harder, and more and more expensive, and people will start rioting, and then taking up arms in a systematic fashion.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: A little sensitive there, huh?

You might be surprised at what I've read and what I read. I read scientific articles almost daily. Most of them have to do with cellular level biology. Scientific articles on climate science are not part of my daily fare but I have read a number of them. I think that if you read them you would see that most of them, if you ignore the "introductory paragraphs" and the so-called "conclusions" are inconclusive. I don't claim to be an expert in climatology. It's not my field. And what was your field again?

Certainly there is hard science involved in climatology. There are measurements taken. Observations made. That is how the data is gathered that goes into the wonderfully predictive models that are used. Again my question. If we can't predict the weather a week or a month in advance with certainty, how can we predict macro-climate shifts with certainty? It seems a simple question to me. How about answers, not more rhetoric.

By-the-way: Corn is a minor staple food crop. Rice and wheat feed a lot more people.

What makes you think that we can do anything about so-called Global Warming? Your mind seems to be set and closed. I'm just needing a little more evidence. I think that 6/10 degree warming over the last 100 years leaves the question unanswered. And still the big question: Did humans cause it and can we do anything about it?

Sue said...

Chris, I never said you didn't read science, just that you don't appear to have read much climate science. No, I'm not a climatologist, which is why I depend upon the referred journals in the field to filter the wheat from the chaff. I do have the mathematical/statistical background to follow just about argument made in a scientific paper, except the most advanced theoretical physics. Yes, wheat and rice are more important crops, and they have just as sensitive, if not more sensitive temperature (and moisture) ranges for each of their varieties. Yes, I do think that the basic premise of a world warming to some extent (the extent is very much open to debate), caused to some extent by anthropogenic forcings (again the extent open to scientific debate). That seems to be the consensus among the scientists who do research and publish in the field, whether their origin is in chemistry (the heat absorbing properties of CO2, methane, etc.), paleoclimateology, fluid mechanics, etc. I accept these general premises in the same way I accept the general premises of evolutionary theory, the theory of relativity, quantum theory and genetic theory. As for why it is that we can't predict weather more than 3 days out, but can predict climate, you might want to read some thing about Chaos theory for laymen, I recommend James Gleick. But really you know the answer to that question if you really thought about it. Do farmers, today, know what month in 2009 (or 2010) they will begin planting their wheat or their corn or their strawberries or their tomatoes? Of course they do, that's climate. Are we able to measure changes over time in when planting seasons (or the mating seasons of animals) begin? Of course scientists can, and they have done so, showing, in northern latitudes a two week shift to early spring. From this reasonable projections can be made as to long term changes. Always of course, in science subject to observation and correction from the data. Of course there's a lot of uncertainty, a lot still to research. Will the Artic become ice free in summer? Maybe, maybe not. If it does, when will it happen? Ten years, 100 years? Will there be less ice in the Artic, enough to open up the possibility of safe summer shipping lanes and access to undersea oil -- that's a much safer bet one that the Russians are already counting upon.
No actually, I'm not at all sure that we can do anything to reverse the damage that humans have already done to the global atmospheric chemistry. However, given what's at stake I'd rather err on the side of caution. Just like I hope I never have a house fire, but I've made sure I have the maximum fire insurance just in case -- especially given that three other double wides in my immediate neighborhood have burned to the ground in the past 8 years. Even if we can't stop global warming shifting to a more fuel efficient, renewable resource based, lower consumption lifestyle could forestall the worst of the human consequences of global warming, to forestall the social disruption, potential for riots and war and famine. Global warming of not, I'm for finding ways to make global societies less unequal, and distribute resources more equitably, and most of the changes for affecting greenhouse emissions would have beneficial impacts on those things as well. If you look at the writings of people like Lester Brown of Earth Watch, you find that they are as focused on ending global poverty as they are on global warming -- perhaps even more so. The basic thesis -- sustainable societies aren't just about the total amount of resources, but about how those resources are distributed. The solutions to "global warming" are the same as the solutions to global terrorism and global hunger.

Anonymous said...

sue, are you sure you're not rooting for global warming here?

Sue said...

not at all, lian. I'm don't want global warming any more than I want my house to burn down. I'd be ecstatic if it turned out that the scientific consensus was wrong; that it turns out that temperatures are not going to rise any more than they already have, that seasons and growing zones will stay exactly as they are now, that droughts are not going to be come more common, and precipitation events become heavier (the two things not being incompatible), that ice sheets are not going to melt and that oceans are not going to rise. But just like with my home insurance I think better safe than sorry. Besides I thought shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources was a good idea in May 1970 on the first Earth day, long before I ever heard of global warming.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

"The solutions to "global warming" are the same as the solutions to global terrorism and global hunger."

Sue: On this statement I think I totally and unequivocably disagree.

1) You assume "global warming" as a given.
2) You assume that there is a human solution.
3) You imply, based on previous things you have posted, that rampant capitalism is the source of both "global warming" and poverty.

I must say that I believe you to be in error on the last 2 counts and the 1st is yet to be determined. I in fact believe that:

1) The currently proposed solutions to "global warming" will increase poverty -- not end it.
2) Re-distribution of wealth will only squander what has been accumulated and will slow the advance of society in many areas such as curing disease, alleviating poverty, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hansen has already been caught blatantly fabricating data and Manns alorithm makes a hockey stick from a phone book. Is it time for that disgrace?

Sue said...

There are very able scientists within the discipline who do discuss the failings and problems with various data sets. I highly recommend Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit who is currently working on some very interesting analysis of calculations of maximum density chronologies with tree ring data - frequently used as a proxy for temperature data before the modern period.

Chris Crawford said...

There's a load of misunderstanding in these comments. First, let me clear up something about how scientists work. They do not work for money; there are damn few rich scientists and there's little correlation between success in science and personal wealth. In fact, there are some indications that there's an inverse correlation: the scientists who drop out of research and go into industry get rich, while the ones who stay behind in research don't get rich.

Research scientists are highly motivated, but not by money. Their index of success is very straightforward: the number of times your papers are cited by others. Indeed, this criterion is often used in tenure decisions. So, if you want to be a successful research scientist, you need to get your paper cited lots of times by other scientists.

So, how do you accomplish that? Let's consider two strategies: a) sheep (follow the herd) b) troublemaker (buck the trends).

If you follow the sheep strategy, just doing research that confirms what everybody else already knows, who's going to cite your work in their papers? You haven't produced anything that interests other people. Your work is ignored, and you don't get tenure.

If you follow the troublemaker strategy, looking for ways to upset the apple cart, then you're always on the prowl, looking for weak points, places where everybody believes X and you can prove NOT-X. When you find one of those weak points, you pounce! You do your research, show that X is wrong. Suddenly everybody's upset. People are double-checking your work, publishing their results (in which they cite your paper). People are incorporating your new results into their work -- again, citing your paper. You get fame, tenure, and success.

So forget this crap about scientists being motivated by money. It's bull.

I'll take up the next issue in my next post.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris McClure offers the claim that climatology is not a hard science because it can't make predictions. This is way, way wrong.

In the first place, Chris M. confuses meteorology with climatology. Meteorology seeks to understand weather, and as part of that it makes specific predictions about temperature, cloud cover, and precipitation at specific times and locations. Chris M. notes that meteorological predictions are seldom good beyond two weeks. How then can we predict anything 50 years in the future, he asks.

The answer is that meteorology is not climatology; weather is not climate. Weather predictions are specific to a time and location; climate predictions represent large-scale averages over long time periods and large areas. They're completely different problems. It's rather like claiming that, because we can't reliably predict whether Mr. Albert Jones of Peoria, Illinois, will be spending money on a new couch next week, we can't determine whether the GDP will go up or down next year. Macroeconomics is not the same as microeconomics, and climate is not the same as weather.

So Chris M. next argues that our climate models aren't accurate. Of course they're not accurate -- they're models! All of science is based on models, and models are theoretical constructs that represent approximations of reality. Even something as simple as motion is still not fully understood. Whenever they send any satellite into space, they have to make course corrections. Why? You'd think that, with modern computers, we could predict the motion of a satellite with absolute precision. After all, Newton's Laws are pretty straightforward, right? Well, no. There are a lot of other complicating factors: solar wind, mass accretion, small-scale meteoroid impacts, magnetic fields, etc. These things just can't be predicted accurately. So do we throw our hands up in the air and declare "There's no point in space exploration because we can't predict it accurately!" Of course not! We use the models we have and we take into account the uncertainties in those models.

Chris M. says that we can only guess the future climate. That's simply not true. We can make predictions, but those predictions have uncertainties in them. How large are the uncertainties? Right now, they're still pretty large; I believe that the latest IPCC results have a temperature rise of only about 2ºC at the low end and 8ºC at the high end for the end of this century. So we work within that error band -- and we continue to refine our research so that we can narrow that band.

This nihilistic claim that Chris M. offers us that "we can't really know anything" is a denial of science. History is full of people flatly declaring certain things beyond the reach of science and technology -- and being confuted in remarkably short times. I think we'd do better to look at the research than rely on Chris M.s gut feelings.

Chris Crawford said...

Lastly, I'd like to address the belief that you can't verify climatology because the predictions are too far in the future. I won't ascribe it to Chris M., but I want to make sure that this misunderstanding doesn't raise its ugly head.

Let's consider the construction of the first atomic bomb. Now THERE'S a complex system for you. A lot of things have to take place in a very precise sequence in order for it to work. Yet you can't test it a tiny step at a time. So how were physicists able to assure the government that a billion dollars (1944 dollars at that!) would yield a big bang as opposed to a little poof?

They broke the problem down into lots of smaller parts and carried out lots of tests and measurements of the little parts. This is the classic scientific strategy of "analysis and synthesis". They never tested the whole system until the very end, at Alamagordo, and it worked the first time. It wasn't magic; it was careful analysis of many tiny components and synthesis of all those parts into a complete whole. And that's exactly what they're doing with climatology right now. They're testing their ideas in countless small ways. What's the temperature gradient in the oceans at various points? Climatology makes some predictions based on its models; are those predictions borne out by measurement? Exactly how does cloud formation correlate with specific variables? This requires a huge amount of data, but they're assembling it right now using satellite data, ground data, and lots of computing power -- and they're working out the details, bit by bit.

People who say "We can't predict the future" don't know what they're talking about. We can shoot a satellite into space and predict where it will go with great (but not perfect) accuracy. We can predict whether an atomic bomb will go boom or poof. We can predict where the continents will be 50 million years from now. Yes, we can make predictions. Some have more accuracy, some have less accuracy. The question to ask about any prediction is, "What are the error bars?"

Chris Crawford said...

And here's yet ANOTHER comment, this time on this statement from Chris M.:

The currently proposed solutions to "global warming" will increase poverty -- not end it.

Taken in isolation, this is true. But we're not in isolation. Our choice is something like this:

1. Do nothing about AGW. Temperatures increase. Sea levels rise. Areas like Bangladesh suffer much higher casualties when storms bring flooding. Many Third World farmers face drier conditions and are unable to grow enough food; millions starve.

2. Apply a carbon tax to reduce emissions of CO2. That tax reduces economic output, reducing the availability of capital, health care, and food to poor people. Millions die.

The question is, which scenario generates fewer corpses?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C. -- a few of your points...

1) "This nihilistic claim that Chris M. offers us that "we can't really know anything" is a denial of science."

Nihilism: a philosophical position which argues that existence is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following:

Objective morality does not exist.
No action is logically preferable to any other in regard to the moral value of one action over another.
In the absence of morality, existence has no intrinsic higher meaning or goal.
There is no reasonable proof or argument for the existence of a higher ruler or creator.
Even if a higher ruler or creator exists, mankind has no moral obligation to worship them.

Where in my comments is any nihilism and if there was any, how does it have anything to do with "a denial of science?"

2) "Chris McClure offers the claim that climatology is not a hard science because it can't make predictions."

I never said it couldn't make predictions. I merely question the "certainty" espoused by the predictors. You state yourself that they are subject to a margin of error. Yet, your previous rhetoric makes no reference to the uncertainty.

3) "The answer is that meteorology is not climatology; weather is not climate...Macroeconomics is not the same as microeconomics, and climate is not the same as weather."

No argument with this. Microeconomics deals with specific problems that all fit within the broader realm of macroeconomics. Economists do amazingly well at analyzing such micro-problems and providing highly accurate solutions.

Is weather a part of climate? It seems fairly obvious that it is. If micro-problems within climatology cannot accurately be answered, it makes the entirety of climatology suspect.

Certainly we can project the location of an object sent along a specific tragectory. It is an application of mathematics to a fairly limited problem governed by known rules. (Sue, those rules were first surmised by astute minds making educated guesses and then experimenting to determine if their guesses were accurate -- basic science -- and yes, many of them were "mind" problems such as commonly used by Einstein to prove or disprove particular mathematical models and their predictive capacity.) When you deal with a subject as complex as climate on a planetary scale, the problem is dealing with far more "rules" than we currently know. At some point in the future I think that we will likely know enough to predict with some degree of accuracy, macro-climate shifts. The state of the science (I never said climatology was not science.)is not there yet.

4) "This requires a huge amount of data, but they're assembling it right now using satellite data, ground data, and lots of computing power -- and they're working out the details, bit by bit."

Therin lies my contention with the predictions. We are still far from having enough data to know what is going on in our climate with any reasonable degree of certainty.

5) I almost left out the money issue.

I never said that scientists seek to become wealthy. They do need grants to pay for projects. Someone provides those grants. Usually it is private industry or special interest groups. Scientists, particularly in academia, work within a highly politicized environment in which tenure is important. Tenure often is acquired only by "following the rules" set by those who have already achieved it. There is often a lot of pressure to follow the party line -- a lot like our elected officials.

The money issue isn't about getting wealthy -- it's about having funding for projects. He who provides the money often influences (perhaps very subtly) the outcome -- or at least the "published" outcome.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M., I bow in humility to your vastly superior knowledge of philosophy and shamefacedly withdraw my use of the term 'nihilistic'.

Now, getting back to the subject at hand, in your second point you complain about my failing to bring up the subject of uncertainty frequently enough to satisfy your requirements. I offer the following correction: All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties. All science has uncertainties.


In your third point, you make this statement:

Is weather a part of climate? It seems fairly obvious that it is. If micro-problems within climatology cannot accurately be answered, it makes the entirety of climatology suspect.

You first declare that it is 'fairly obvious' to you that weather is part of climate. Well, it may be fairly obvious to you, but I deny it. Weather is no more a part of climate than the motions of individual molecules are part of the gas law pV=nRT. Yes, the individual molecules are in there. But we don't know anything about their individual motions. The gas law covers the large-scale behavior of zillions of molecules, and that behavior follows a large-scale law that requires no knowledge of their individual behavior.

When you deal with a subject as complex as climate on a planetary scale, the problem is dealing with far more "rules" than we currently know.

Here you're onto something -- but you misunderstand the situation. Every model in science is an approximation. For example, let's take the simple case of a satellite in orbit around the earth. We start off with Newton's three laws applied to the earth-satellite system. That gets us a long ways -- but there are still errors in the approximation. So next we take into account the influence of the moon. That gives us a closer approximation. At the third level, we throw in the gravitational effects of the sun. At the fourth level, we take into account the solar wind. At the fifth level, we add in factors for atmospheric drag. And so on and on and on. This can go on forever. For example, there's an extremely subtle effect called the Poynting-Robertson effect. A rotating object in orbit will absorb energy from one direction (the sun) and emit it in somewhat different directions due to its rotation. This provides a tiny thrust that can speed it up or slow it down. I very much doubt that NASA takes the Poynting-Robertson effect into account in its calculations. That does not mean that you should duck for cover in anticipation of satellites plummeting out of the sky.

So it is with climatology. As it happens, we already know the most important three or four factors with extremely high confidence. The next few factors we know fairly well. There remain other factors that we are still exploring, and our predictions with respect to these factors have higher levels of uncertainty. But to jump from this acknowledgement of uncertainty to the claim that "we just don't know enough" is nothing more than playing Chicken Little in the above scenario. We know enough to make predictions within the cited uncertainty band. We're narrowing that uncertainty band. That's the most honest and truthful statement of our level of knowledge.

We are still far from having enough data to know what is going on in our climate with any reasonable degree of certainty.

Do you contest the uncertainty band presently cited in the IPCC report? If so, on what basis do you contest that uncertainty band?

Scientists, particularly in academia, work within a highly politicized environment in which tenure is important. Tenure often is acquired only by "following the rules" set by those who have already achieved it. There is often a lot of pressure to follow the party line -- a lot like our elected officials.

Have you ANY evidence to support these wild claims, or are you just making them up? Let me remind you that most climatology funding comes ultimately from the government. For the last seven years, that government has loudly declared that AGW is a hoax. If research funding is so politicized, then why has the Bush Administration -- the most politicizing administration in history -- failed to politicize it?

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
I’ll (mostly) skip the redux of points others have made, but will weigh- in on the money issue. I agree that most scientists are not primarily motivated by money. However, in the federal government, professional scientists can make 6-figure salaries, and tenured professors at well-funded schools can also do quite well. Politics drive research dollars, and altruists have mortgages too.
Also, to build a little on something Chris M. said, there are financial motivators that have little to do with personal gain. The federal government makes hundreds of millions of dollars worth of discretionary grants every year. While the lion’s share of that is from NIH (which has little to do with climate), NSF, NASA, NOAA, and other agencies disburse lots of money for research in (among other things) sciences related to climate. Many projects and positions continue to exist only as long as funding continues. And, it’s not pretty, but a researcher’s ability to secure grant funds can also play significantly into tenure decisions. There’s no way to get away from bias when money is involved. Humans, as a group, just aren’t that enlightened.
That said, I think climate policy reads more like engineering than science-proper. In engineering, there’s significant use of the natural sciences. Engineers use knowledge of basic and applied sciences, and they use models that assemble this understanding to make predictions. Then they apply judgment. I’ve sat at the table enough times to know that at some point, you really don’t know what’s going to happen in a new situation, but you look at the facts and models, you focus on what you’ve known about the sciences throughout study and practice, you look at the costs and benefits of the decision (including the outcomes if you’re wrong), and you make a business decision. Sometimes the stress of uncertainty gets to you, and you play with army men and Barrels of Monkeys.
Like so many other issues, like big engineering problems, climate change is not black and white. It’s not a matter of “humans have with absolute certainty enacted global climate change”, or “no they haven’t”. People seem to have created two sides to an inordinately complicated issue.
There is uncertainty in climate change. There is a cost in forestalling or mitigating it. There have been some high-profile mistakes in research. And, just like when designing a complex engineering project, there’s no single variable or model that has “the answer”. However, there is also a decades-old, growing body of research in a variety of natural sciences that has been making incremental hard-science connections, as well as pioneering new methods of scientific inquiry, that have increasingly come to similar conclusions about climate. There are also serious potential consequences to climate change if these studies are valid.
Neither consensus among scientists nor science policy are “real science” at the nuts-and-bolts, reproducible-results level. Rather, they comprise that engineer’s judgment that moves science from classroom and lab into peoples’ daily lives. We can and should scrutinize research, but ultimately this boils down to whether or not we trust someone else’s judgment enough to act on it. For my own part, I find the evidence and the potential consequences compelling enough that I’m not willing to gamble with other peoples’ futures.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Nicely said, ER.

Chris Crawford said...

ERD, perhaps you have not participated in funding applications. I myself have never directly participated in any such applications, but I have been closely involved with people on both sides of the divide. You and Chris M. seem to think that the reasoning process behind funding works something like this:

"Hmm, Professor A wants $2 million to gather data that might well confute an important component of our climate modeling. Professor B wants to $2 million to carry out research that will confirm what we already know. We don't want to discover anything new, so we'll give the money to the guy who'll do boring research that confirms what we already know."

That's bull! It NEVER works that way. The truth is more like this:

"Gee Professor A, if he's right, could well produce a major discovery that would dramatically change our understanding of climatology. Professor B's research would only serve to flesh out ideas that we're already pretty sure of. There's no question here: Professor A's research has a greater potential of yielding useful results. Let's go with him."

Indeed, the great physicist Fermi once wrote something like this: "If you perform an experiment and the results confirm what you already know, then you have a measurement. But if the results contradict what you already know, THEN you have a discovery!"

You guys just don't get what makes scientists tick. The big rewards don't go to the kiss-asses. They don't go to the play-it-safe guys. The big wins go to the people who challenge the establishment and turn out to be right. Nobody ever got a Nobel Prize for confirming the existing wisdom. This is just basic to the way science works -- and yet few non-scientists get it.

Yes, ultimately the decisions on climatology boil down to judgement calls; that's the way ALL science works. Nothing is ever proven in science; instead, the community of scientists slowly converges on the same overall judgement call. That convergence is now well advanced and most scientists believe that AGW is real and that the threat of harm is real. There's still plenty of room for debate; after all, how much do we really owe future generations? That's a purely subjective decision -- if Chris M wants to argue "Screw 'em!", well, I can't offer anything to show that he's wrong. But when we talk about the science itself, there seems to be a strong enough level of agreement among scientists to justify our taking the matter very seriously.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
I don't need grants explained to me. I administer grants for a living.
I don't need professional science explained to me. It paid my mortgage for five years.
I deal with scientists who work as grant officers on a regular basis. Money is a motivator for scientists, just like it's a motivator for a great many people. For many, perhaps most, it's not the primary motivator, but grants are central to research and, yes, even scientists like to pay-off 10 years worth of student loans, go to Europe on vacation, and send their kids to private universities.
I stand by my statement that science creates a framework for policy decisions, but the actual policy decisions are a matter of judgment. The best science in the world has been increasingly telling us for decades that humans are impacting the climate. But whether or not we decide to heed these warning or how we choose to proceed is a matter of judgment.

Sue said...

as I read over all the posts, it strikes me that in our society, even among highly educated, intelligent and concerned individuals there is a deep and abiding distrust of "science" and scientists.

Chris Crawford said...

ERD, I apologize for underestimating you. It appears that we disagree on fine points while agreeing on the central point: that the claims of AGW deniers that the grant process is being used to squelch scientific dissent are preposterous. Are we in agreement on this main point?

E. R. Dunhill said...

I think there is distrust of science and scientists in the US. As someone who's been interested in conflicts between science and religion since I was a young child, I wonder how much of this may be lingering cultural hold-overs from earlier conflicts. I also think there's an increasing perception of class distinctions in this country that impact this problem. I think these perceptions are overblown and stoked by political interests.
We also can't discount the primacy of convenience in the US. We will trust, virtually without question, that science will keep finding and delivering absurd quantities of food and fuel, build bridges so that we can drive to the beach, find the bad guys, make pills that do something the doctor says we need, and put stripes in our toothpaste. But when science says something that challenges the way we live or the way we think, when science suggests that we might need to change, we suddenly begin to scrutinize and challenge its central beliefs, its methods, its people, its politics. That's human nature, I suppose.
We need better education, we need to educate ourselves throughout our lives, and we need to collectively settle-the-hell-down and talk to each other like reasonable people.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
I'm not sure I know who you mean when you describe "AGW deniers". I think that's probably a great many people with different ideas and levels of understanding.
While I think bias, financial constraints, and peer pressure exist in science (after all, science is something people do), I think the breadth and duration of research on climate and the institution of peer review mitigate these factors to some extent. While scientists should continue to pick things apart (that's what they do) and non-scientists should absolutely engage in this as much as they can and care to, I think the broad conclusion of so much of this research is compelling enough to warrant action.
When it comes to politics interfering with science, at the moment, I'm more concerned about the Bush White House's use of political appointees (non-scientists) to edit the work of professional scientists. If a leader wants to ignore his or her advisors, he or she should have the courage to do it openly and address why.

Chris Crawford said...

Fair enough, ERD. I am in agreement with your points.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

The article at the following link:

Bangladesh gaining land, not losing: scientists

is illustrative of the fact that the impact of "global warming" is not really known. It is a guess based on incomplete knowledge. An educated guess; a guess surmised from the known data; still a guess.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris, as the article points out, there are two forces at work: landmass gain due to sediment deposition by rivers; and rise in sea level that will inundate land. The article is very clear that the landmass gain has occurred over the last 30 years, while the predictions of land inundations apply to the future. Sea level increases over the last 30 years have been very low; most of that problem lies in the future. This is definitely an "Aye, Caesar, but not gone" situation.

Moreover, the real problem for Bangladesh is not so much permanent inundation as the higher casualty rates in monsoons. The article asserts that the IPCC claims inundation of Bangladesh, but I was unable to find any reference to Bangladesh in the IPCC chapter addressing rise in sea level. I think that the article has bungled the facts here.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C. -- Going back to Sue's post -- she said,

"So it is not surprising that many Americans also look at claims about the dangers of global warming with distrust."

This statement was made in reference to people's general distrust of government. I would contend that much of that distrust comes from the media.

The only reference that I find in the IPCC Report that is possibly the source of the loss of land-mass referred to in the article is indeed misrepresented if indeed it is the reference. It is found on page 41 of the report under the sub-heading about flooding. It indicates a 23-29% increase in flooded area. The articles author, in a quick skim of the report may have assumed that was due to coastal flooding. It was indeed a reference to seasonal flooding due to monsoonal events.

My point for bringing up the article was as much for pointing out that the public is for the most part at the whim of the massive PR campaign that we call the mainstream media. They appear to have a tendency to jump on whatever "dire event" is current. Usually without getting their facts straight. Occasionally you run across a contrarian view which again, typically doesn't check all of the facts. They can't. They don't understand them. They become bogged down in the complexities and at some point just accept whatever fits their box.

I confess. I'm guilty of doing that. I always search for things that support my view of an issue and tend to discount those things that don't. All of us do that. Scientists included.

My real concern is that most people seem to have lost the ability to keep an open mind. I don't mean bouncing back and forth between various views based on the whim of the moment. I am referring to the ability to constantly question one's own, and other's, statements of "fact" or opinion.

I think that if you will look back through my comments on this post you will find that nowhere did I deny "global warming." I also did not state that I agree with it. I merely questioned the "certainty" of the positions being espoused.

I believe the preponderance of evidence points toward global warming. I also suspect that man's activities have had some influence on that warming yet I am unconvinced that it would not have occurred without them. Such events have occurred periodically throughout the history of the earth. They will continue to occur as long as the earth exists -- with or without mankind.

As to the consequences of global warming. Again, I question what they will be. We truly don't know enough to be able to accurately determine them. We can make guesses -- but, for all the modeling, etc. they are still just guesses. Solar events -- which we are still not particularly accurate in predicting -- could trump every projection made. So could geologic events.

Do I think we should reduce dependence on fossil fuels? Yes. Do I think we should implement a cap-and-trade scheme for carbon? No. Do I think that we should raise the price of fuels through policy initiatives in order to reduce quantity demanded? No. I believe that it would cripple our economy and the economies of most of the world. We need to take action, but we need to be cautious of possible unintended consequences.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris, I appreciate the distinction you make between skepticism and denial, and I confess I have been too strident in responding to you. My knee-jerk reaction arises from the fact that most deniers like to call themselves skeptics. True skepticism is catholic in its application, and I recognize that you are taking a position much closer to honest skepticism than denial.

So let me chime in with my own reservations. Although my reading of the evidence leads me to the firm conclusion that AGW is real, I am also cognizant of the error band. The low end of the error band will not cause major disruptions, and there's a chance we'll luck out and end up at the low end. On the other hand, the high end of the error band is really scary -- we could face huge costs at the high end, and I think it necessary for a reasonable skeptic to take that risk into serious consideration.

I retreat from certainty when we consider policy responses to the problem, because all such policy responses ultimately boil down to a trade-off between present value and future value -- and there's no objective way to establish the proper relationship between present value and future value, especially over time spans approaching or exceeding the human life span. What's the value of my sacrificing $1 today to save somebody else $100 50 years from today? I'll be dead, so why should I even care? I myself am willing to make that kind of sacrifice, but if somebody else claims that it's too great a sacrifice, I have no basis for arguing with them.

This is, in my opinion, the true question we must answer, and the answer to that question is not informed by science & engineering, but by arts & humanities. What are our values? What duties do we have to the future? This may well be the doom of our species: that our ability to affect our environment has outpaced the development of our cultural wisdom. We have plenty of models for future climate -- but what moral systems do we have for considering the ethics of our impact on future generations?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Ah, the moral dilemma. Our society has become one of self-interest and instant gratification. ERD has indicated his desire to care for humanity through a ministry of environmental education (if I understood him correctly). I believe that is highly laudable and if truly what God has called him to do, a high calling indeed.

At the root of virtually every human problem lies morality. That is the real can-of-worms.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
The project I'm working on with my church does include an educational component, but much of the effort will fall under the auspices of a social ministry to directly address people's basic needs. Along the same lines of belief and practice that lead congregants to stock a local food pantry and build homes, we will work for clean water, clean air, &c.