William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Links (page 37 of 78)

The statistics of both climatology and meteorology.

Ivy League Climate Skeptics

I received this email from Rob Fishman at the Huffington Post. My answer follows.

I’m the social media editor here at HuffPost (and a Cornell alum). I came across your blog online. I’m thinking of writing a piece about climate skeptics who hold positions at Ivy League (or comparable) institutions. Richard Lindzen came to mind after the recent Times article. I’m wondering if you have — or would know how to go about getting — a thorough list of professors at prominent universities who are also climate skeptics.

I’ve been thinking about how to best answer your question, which is not an easy one. First, I haven’t any firm idea what a “climate skeptic” is and I bet you don’t, either. You can’t possibly mean a person who is skeptical that the climate changes—for it always has changed, and presumably always will. I know of no scientist who doubts this. Beyond that, every scientist is skeptical, in varying degrees, about theories and predictions of change. The amount of skepticism is roughly proportional to the complexity of the forecast, how far out into the future it is for, and the strength of the forecast mechanisms (theory, data, computational schemes, etc.).

Nobody doubts that humans influence the climate, but there is a wide range of beliefs about how much. It is important to keep separate three things, which in this politically charged atmosphere even climatologists sometimes forget to do We have uncertainty in:

(1) the magnitude, timing, and location of changes;

(2) the changes to systems caused by climate change;

(3) and our ability to mitigate unwanted systems changes and to exploit desirable systems changes.

A system might be glaciers, or the range and number of a species, banana production, or land-use patterns, etc. Really, anything that isn’t temperature or precipitation. To show you how nutty things have become, most civilians and even many climatologists confuse (1) and (2). For example, if a climatologist measures a temperature increase (1) at, say, the north pole, then of course more ice will melt (2). But seeing ice melt is not evidence of (1).

I mean, a climatologist might have a theory why temperatures increased at the north pole (1). Seeing that temperatures have increased is evidence that his theory is correct. But noticing that more ice melted is not additional evidence that his theory is correct. It only means that ice melts when it gets hot.

Most times climatologists don’t measure a change, they predict one. A prediction, until it is verified, is not evidence that the climatologist’s theory is true. I want to repeat that because I have a difficult time convincing civilians this is so: a prediction, no matter how dire, does not mean the climatologist’s theory is true. It is zero evidence for his theory.

Suppose a prediction says that, say, temperature will increase in a region by a certain date. If temperature does increase, then this is some evidence that the theory that led to the prediction is true. But it is not complete evidence: other mechanisms unknown to, or not liked by, the climatologist might have caused the increase.

But if the temperature does not increase, and even has the audacity to fall, then this observation is evidence that the climatologist’s theory is false, or at least badly broken. This is where we stand today, at least with climate forecasts.

The situation is actually far worse. Many people take the predictions of climatologists and use them as input to their own forecasts of various systems changes. When these forecasts are in the direction of the undesirable, people—even climatologists—use this as evidence that the climatologist’s theory is right. This is crazy. The two things are unrelated logically. They have nothing to do with one another.

Most of these systems forecasts are statistical, incidentally. I have seen many, and all are awful. There is a strong element of sloppy bandwagon research here. In a way, it’s hard to fault the researchers: they are rushing to where the money is. But they are often outrunning their brains.

In any case, I will repeat: a dire systems forecast (that uses as input a changed climate) is not evidence of climate change. It just isn’t. To claim a plague of frogs will befoul us unless “something is done” is not evidence that the climate will change untowardly.

What about point (3)? It is usually assumed, without proof, and against all evidence to the contrary, that there will be no way we can mitigate against unwanted systems changes without, naturally, spending of lots of our money. It’s not that having to spend money isn’t a possibility. It is. But to argue that it be spent while we are still so uncertain of what will happen without mitigation is crazy. Finally, no matter what we know about (3), it is not evidence that a climatologist’s theory is true or false.

Once more, it’s worse. There have been hundreds of “studies” purporting some evil if temperature increases. There have been hardly any or none arguing for benefits. It is logically possible that climate change will only be harmful (to humans and other picturesque species), but it is infinitely unlikely. To argue otherwise is to ignore selectively massive amounts of information.

Our uncertainty is (2) is large, as is our uncertainty in climate predictions (1). I hope I have made myself plain here. We first need to have better certainty that climate models can make skillful predictions (which they so far have not demonstrated an ability to do), before we can consider scenarios in (2) or (3). It’s true climate models (somewhat reasonably, and only in a statistical sense) can represent past climates. But the proof of the model is always in its ability to predict new data (i.e., the future). We still await this proof.

What’s a citizen to do? Well, it takes years (and years) to become an expert in any of these areas. Very few civilians thus have the ability to independently assess the evidence, so all you can do is to poll scientists and ask them what they think. But civilians are too readily trusting scientists here (by making the kinds of errors I outlined above). Why is that? You can probably answer that better than I can. All I can offer is that many like to think the worst.

I don’t think there is any use in appealing to authority by saying, “This many Ivy League scientists have an average skepticism of X%” Besides being unable to define this average skepticism, you have to keep in mind that those who edit the journals, award the grants, and chair the academic departments are mostly convinced that their theories are true. All the believers in a theory naturally club together and support each other. This is human nature. It only becomes absurd when that group of folks point to critics and say, “They can’t be trusted because they are not one of us.” I’ll leave you to name to logical fallacy in that argument. Hint: it’s a common one.

My advice is to forget citing numbers for and against, and try instead to find the best arguments for and against. Put these arguments to leading proponents and ask them to honestly answer this question, “How can you be wrong?” Scientists are, of course, always supposed to do this, but there are plenty of examples in the history of thought which prove that this simple question has been forgotten.

Please feel free to ask for clarification. I have caught a nasty cold and my head is not clear, so I have probably explained some things badly.

W.M. Briggs

Ecoheroes For the Climate Join Global Warming Superheroes!

Remember Global Warming Superheroes? A site where I—cough, cough—made villain of the day? While glancing through my logs, I was led to Timberati: Reasonably green thoughts. The folks there were kind enough to have a chat about my elevation under the title “You cannot be serious.”

Timberati’s incredulity was directed at the GW Superheroes of course. Anyway, one of the commenters to that piece was by “Alicia” who said,

OMG! There must be a virus spreading! We have a similar website in Spain (cyclo-idiots?): http://www.ecoheroes.es/index.php . BUT, while yours look like a “harmless” kid indoctrination tool, the spanish site joined 10,000 (10,000!!) college students to “pedal against CO2″. All Andalusian Universities involved. They had to pedal on STATIC BICYCLES to fight CO2 emissions, of course, without moving from their location: http://www.ecoheroes.es/pedalea.php

I don’t know if I should worry about California or Spain. Both maybe. When are “they” going to wake up? This is too sad.

The green-clad Ecoheroes apparently battle under the motto “O Cambiamos Todos, O Cambia El Clima”! Rousing, no? Eco Heroes

Now, I searched diligently both the Ecoheroes and GW Superheroes sites, but I was unable to discover what super powers any of these badly dressed people had that would be useful for battling climate change. None has, say, super lungs with which to inhale and absorb CO2 (and eventually excrete coal). Nor do any have supermega laser vision powerful enough to convert that gas into its constituent parts (carbon and oxygen).

None can spread out his body into a molecular shield that, when placed in orbit, blocks incoming solar radiation, thus lowering temperatures. And not one has super frigid breath that can be used to create clouds (at the appropriate height) which would also block evil solar rays.

The only thing that any of them are able to do is to whine, carp, and insult. Not in a super way, either, but in the mode of an overweight, angry, confused teen dressing up for a comic book convention, and using language that would not even be considered elevated on a middle school playground.

The only point of bringing this up is to offer one more (minor) piece of evidence that the fight about “climate chance” is an ideological and not a scientific one. Evidence has little to do with it, belief is everything.

Regular posts to return to normal soon.

Predictions For 2011: Submit Yours Today!

Calvin wonders about predictions


Since everybody remembers what Yogi Berra said about this hoary subject, we can skip it. Still, we can’t help but wonder with Calvin, where are all the rocket ships we were promised! Predicting the future is hard, but its inherent difficulty, nor poor ability of those engaging in the hobby, ever stopped anybody. We certainly won’t let it stop us.

This is our time to make guesses of what will happen over the next year. Be careful not to mix desire into your prognostications, for doing so will surely make you look foolish.

Examples of what I mean are provided by Fox News reporter Maxim Lott (a name which sounds suspiciously fictional), who gleaned the best of busted environmental forecasts, and then gave the opportunity to the predictive personages to explain themselves (thanks to Marc Morano for the link). Here’s a portion of the first:

1. Within a few years “children just aren’t going to know what snow is.” Snowfall will be “a very rare and exciting event.” Dr. David Viner, senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, interviewed by the UK Independent, March 20, 2000.

“Over the past decade, climate science has moved on considerably and there is now more understanding about the impact climate change will have on weather patterns in the coming years,” British Council spokesman Mark Herbert said [on Viner's behalf]. “However, Dr Viner believes that his general predictions are still relevant.”

Wrong but “relevant.” How very nice. Lott also lists a few of the juiciest from fearless forecaster Paul “It’s The End Of The World And This Time I Mean It” Ehrlich, in which that gentleman was able to say of each—without lightning striking him dead—“See! I was right!”

In a way, Erlich’s, Viner’s, and the other gentlemen’s bald assertions of faultlessness in the face of adverse actuality is charming. You have to love a guy who is never right but sticks to his guns. He does so because his core beliefs—the theories and hypotheses that drive his predictions—are just too pretty to give up. He cherishes his theories, he pets them and speaks softly to them, he lavishes gifts on them and upon others who can appreciate the same beauty he sees—and he savages those who would call them ugly.

Now, if a theory is a true theory, predictions based upon it will be accurate, or nearly so. The problem is that true theories are not always beautiful; they are often mutts, and they are often unloved because of this. Thus, we often have a choice: embrace beauty or truth. We know what most opt for.

We shall aim for truth. Be as facetious as you like, but affix genuine predictions (if any) with the letter RP, for “real prediction.” No real predictions about personal status, please! No “forecasts” along the lines of, “After 2011, I will be one year older. Har har.”

To maintain as wide an interest as possible, let’s try to keep national or international in scope (this includes surmises about specific technology). If it is not otherwise obvious, provide directions for unambiguous verification of your predictions. We don’t want anybody hiding behind the excuses of the type, “That’s what I really meant.”

Once 2012 rolls around, and if I still draw breath and am able to edit this site (covering all bases, here), we’ll see how well we did. There will be no evading the ignominy of a failed prediction by calling it a “scenario” here. Limit yourself to events falling withing the calendar year of 2011. No official entries past one week (7 January).

I expect full participation, gang. Fire up those engines of infallibility and get forecasting! I’ll post my own predictions in the comments section with everybody else’s.

Scientists Too Sure Of Themselves: Except, Of Course, Climatologists And Neuroscientists

Since most of us are ill inclined to labor until Monday next, I don’t want to post anything of momentous importance until then—accepting, as we must, that all that appears in this space is, at a bare minimum, monumentally important and routinely Earth-shattering. Here, then, are some things upon which to stew while we await the new year. Expanded articles on each topic will appear once we are all re-ensconced in our cubicles.

The Decline Effect of the Scientific Method

Drop everything and click over to Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker piece on The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method? This eminently quotable article well summarizes what I have been raving about for years: that scientists are too damn certain of themselves. (Not me, natch’.)

Except for climatology, whose worst-case predictions are too good to be false, the grim situation in other fields is best described by biologist Richard Palmer, “We cannot escape the troubling conclusion that some—perhaps many—cherished generalities are at best exaggerated in their biological significance and at worst a collective illusion nurtured by strong a-priori beliefs often repeated.”

Amen, brother Palmer!

Our man John Ioannidis is there with words of eternal truth:

[T]he main problem is that too many researchers engage in what he calls “significance chasing,” or finding ways to interpret the data so that it passes the statistical test of significance—the ninety-five-per-cent boundary invented by Ronald Fisher. “The scientists are so eager to pass this magical test that they start playing around with the numbers, trying to find anything that seems worthy.”

Preach it!

I’ll have much more to say on this next week. Thanks to longtime reader Nate Winchester for the link.

Conservatives’ Brains Are More Primitive

Ronald Reagan was fond of telling this joke about that former paradise on Earth, the Enforced Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (E-USSR).

A guy walks into a police station and asks if they have found a parrot. The desk sergeant says, “No, comrade. Why?” The guy says he lost one, but that if the police found one, “I want you to know that I don’t agree with a word that bird says.”

The obvious hilarity is that any loyal socialist citizen caught disagreeing with the wisdom of his masters was thought to have contracted a disease, which (of course) meant undergoing a harsh treatment to remove the cause of the disease. Big Brother must be loved!

The E-USSR failed, mainly because they ran short of bullets with which to cure diseased dissidents. But imagine if Stalin had access to modern science! Then he could have ferreted out the mentally afflicted before they became problematic.

What joy Stalin would have felt where he to read of a new study conducted by neuroscientists at University College London, which reports that, “Self-proclaimed right-wingers had a more pronounced amygdala – a primitive part of the brain associated with emotion while their political opponents from the opposite end of the spectrum had thicker anterior cingulates.”

[Geraint Rees director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said,] “The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old and very ancient and thought to be very primitive and to do with the detection of emotions. The right amygdala was larger in those people who described themselves as conservative.

“It is very significant because it does suggest there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes.”

Yes, dear readers, “right-wingers” are both more primitive and more apt to rely on emotions (read: they are less reasonable) than those of the enlightened left. Thus, the poor souls who argue against, say, socialism as a cure-all, can’t help themselves. Their brains are just different; they are to be pitied! Or cured?

The neuroscientists who discovered these, what were already obvious, facts used a magnetic magneto-phrenology imaging (MRI-P) device. These miracles tools can look inside any brain and can confirm any hypothesis a researcher might have. Marry them with the kind of statistical methods outlined in the previous article, and there is nothing they cannot prove.

As Rees said, his findings must be true because he found “a strong correlation that reaches all our scientific tests of significance”. It’s science!

Global Warming Superheroes


“Holy CO2, Gaia Girl! It’s the evil Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley! We have to stop him before he goes all Lordly on us!”

“Gosh, you’re right Flash Carbon! But what weapons can we use against him!”

“Never fear, men!”


“I mean people. Never fear people.”

“Just so we’re straight.”

“Never fear, I say, for I, Lieutenant Monsoon, have a plan!”

“What kind of plan could you possibly have to defeat such raw evilness? I’m Gaia, goddess of the whole Earth! While you only represent a localized seasonal change in precipitation patterns!”

“Gaia Girl is right, Lieutenant. Which is why I, Major Terra, outrank you.”

“What can you mean! Just look at my uniform! I obviously am superior to you!”

“Majors outrank Lieutenants. Everybody knows that.”

“If you were any good, you’d be a general!”

“Boys, boys! That’s enough!”

“Don’t you start, too, Weatherman!”

“Boys and female creature! It’s so simple! I shall defeat him by forecasting his doom!”

“But that would mean that forecasts become more important than actual events! Nobody would ever fall for that, even evil Viscount Monckton! I’m Flash Carbon, so I’ll just increase his local CO2 and he’ll retain so much infrared energy that his blood will boil!”

“OK, boys, it sounds like a plan! Everybody all together!”



Such is the dialog we might imagine the characters of the new site Global Warming Superheroes to have (though I’ve cleaned it up and made it into intelligible English, something with which the sites’ authors are unfamiliar).

Those who imagine themselves superheroes—the future of humanity depends on them!—really do have an enemies list, and of all the evil “deniers” in the world, Viscount Monckton was one of the first who made the cut. Alas, I did not. I fancy I can dish out intellectual infamy with the best denier, and that I am just as crooked as any climate criminal.

But Flash Carbon and his dispirited band of environmental protectors have not noticed me and I am hurt. The truth is that I want to be drawn as a comic character. I’d do this myself but my talents do not lie in that direction: even my stick figures are unrecognizable So could I beg my loyal readers to click over to Global Warming Superheroes and tell them of my iniquities?

What’s always been strange to me is the unquestioning devotion folks like Major Terra, Gaia Girl (not woman!) and their pals have. Just think: none of these personages are climatologists, presumably none has spent the years necessary to learn the material background to offer cogent criticisms. I beg their pardon if I am mistaken in this. But I will suppose I am correct, and then ask, why are they so certain, even to the point of religious conviction? It must be True Belief.

They, and their brethern the Activists, have chosen to heed a small but vocal of group of scientists who have foreseen that mankind will be responsible for a tumult to come. For it is written, though it is not here yet, but ever on the horizon. We are always just at the point where something can be done. But we can brook no delay! Always, we must not tarry, for the moment is ever now. Tomorrow is too late!

Despite their calls, pleas, and demonstrations for action, environmentalists are really modern-day Antinomians. Faith alone is what is needed for salvation. And faith is what is demanded! What you do is inconsequential, as long as you believe. Profess your faith and all shall be forgiven you. Claim to believe and you can hop out of your chauffeured car and onto your private jet and go anywhere, consume anything, use any resource you like. Just like Al Gore.

But express the slightest doubt and you shall be cast outside the gate where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth! Denier! Thy name is anathema! This is why the enemies list is always made of those who preach doubt. It is a very strict religion.

Update We made villain! Briggs the disgruntled troll! http://globalwarmingsuperheroes.com/climate-change-deniers/briggs-the-disgruntled-troll/

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