William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Natural Variations In Weather DO NOT Explain The ‘Pause’: Update, With Letter to Nature

Everything that can go wrong, statistically speaking, has gone wrong.

Everything that can go wrong, statistically speaking, has gone wrong.

You create a model which predicts the sun will rise in the west. The sun fails to cooperate and rises in the east. Do you:

  1. Admit failure and return your remaining unused grant monies,
  2. Call for the firing of the comedians who point out the discrepancy,
  3. Claim that your model was right and the observation naught but “natural variations”?

If you said (C), you should consider submitting your ploy to Nature; they’ll likely publish it. Just like they did the peer-reviewedForcing, feedback and internal variability in global temperature trends” by Jochem Marotzke and Piers M. Forster.

As summarized by Phys Org in the article “Global warming slowdown: No systematic errors in climate models“:

Sceptics who still doubt anthropogenic climate change have now been stripped of one of their last-ditch arguments: It is true that there has been a warming hiatus and that the surface of the earth has warmed up much less rapidly since the turn of the millennium than all the relevant climate models had predicted. However, the gap between the calculated and measured warming is not due to systematic errors of the models, as the sceptics had suspected, but because there are always random fluctuations in the Earth’s climate. [emphasis added]

I wept when I read that. Real tears. That sorry excuse is no different than you saying the sun’s departure from your prediction was due to “natural variability” and that any skeptics who point our your model is a bust were wrong.

No. No. No. It is as simple and no more difficult than this. A climate model consistently says the temperatures will be way up here, and reality just as consistently fails to cooperate and puts temperatures way down there. That model is therefore a failure. It is busted. It is broken. It is not right. It should not be trusted. It should not be used as a basis for any decision. It is wrong.

The job of a climate model is to predict the climate, no? And if the actual climate does X when the model says Y, the model is wrong. “Natural variability” is what the climate does. It was the model’s function to predict that “natural variability.”

If your model and reality don’t match you cannot claim that your model was right all along and the observation not the real observation. Such as action is preposterous!

The authors perform some dreary regression analysis, the details of which are too depressing to recount, and conclude “The claim that climate models systematically overestimate the response to radiative forcing from increasing greenhouse gas concentrations therefore seems to be unfounded.”

Oh Lord. The claim that climate models systematically overestimate the response to radiative forcing, or are busted in some other way, is entirely well founded. Founded on what? Founded on model failure. Years and years of model failure, too.

How is it that we have come to the point where such a basic scientific principle that models which make lousy predictions are wrong yet are still considered right? Not only that, but the authors are, in the modern parlance, doubling down. They tell the Daily Mail that not only are the models to be trusted, “The long-term trend points to severe warming of the climate”.

How could they not see that this is silly?

I don’t know the answer. I’m too depressed to continue, except to remind us we talked about this twice before.

Don’t Say “Hiatus.”

Look, sisters and brothers, if we (as in climate scientists) knew what the temperature was going to be, we would have been able to skillfully forecast it. We were not able to skillfully forecast it, so we did not know what the temperature was going to be.

To speak of a “hiatus” or “pause” logically implies we knew the “hiatus” or “pause” was going to be there, that it was expected, that we knew in advance its causes. We did not know. If we did know, we would have predicted it. Which we didn’t.

Don’t Say “Natural Variability”

Natural variability, sisters and brothers, is what the models said they could predict skillfully. The models did not skillfully predict natural variability. Natural variability just is, in this sense, what the temperature does.

There is another sense of the phrase, though, a kind of enviro-religious sense that people might be using, which is, “What the temperature would do in absence of humans”. Now that is a valid thing to study. Only trouble is, it’s counterfactual. We can produce answers by the grant-load, but we’ll never know, or that is, we can never verify, whether any of them are true.

Update Reader Gary (see below) suggested writing a letter to Nature. I submitted one. Here it is.

Models Which Make Bad Forecasts Are Wrong

You create a model which predicts the sun will rise in the west. The sun fails to cooperate and rises in the east. Do you admit failure or write a paper to Nature which explains your failure as a success because the sun was exhibiting “natural variability”, a phenomenon of which your model cannot be expected to capture fully?

This scenario is no different than attempts to explain away climate model failures, like that found in the paper “Forcing, feedback and internal variability in global temperature trends” by Jochem Marotzke1, Piers M. Forster, in Nature, 517, 565–570 (29 January 2015). Those authors write “The difference between GMST observations and simulations is caused in part by quasi-random internal climate variability, which arises because of chaotic processes in the climate system…”

This is false. A GMST model is built to predict GMST. Any departure of the model’s predictions from the GMST observations is due to a fault or faults in the model and nothing else. It might be that GMST is chaotic, or again it might not; either way, it is the duty of the model to capture the essence of GMST, whatever that essence is. If that essence cannot be captured, for whatever reason, the model has failed. Why the model failed is interesting to the model creators, but not necessarily to anybody else. Further, identifying the reasons for the failure belongs solely to the model creators. A person showing the model has failed has no responsibility whatsoever to offer reasons for the failure.

A fortiori, if the model has loudly and repeatedly make promises it has not kept, it is irrational to trust the model. Now this used to be a well known scientific principle. Once, it was known, believed, and acted upon that models which produced rotten forecasts were admitted to be wrong, and were fixed or abandoned. Never were the predictands—the things the model forecasted—blamed for error. Never were mistakes waved aside and statements about the model’s intrinsic goodness given out. Why this reversal from common sense to the state we are in now is a question I leave the reader to answer.

The bulk of the climate signal must be natural variability. This is so unless somebody has proof that man drives most of the (entire) climate. Any climate model worthy of respect thus must be able to explain and predict natural variability. If model cannot capture this natural variability, the model is in error. Global climate models promised good predictions of actual GMST. In this they have failed. Therefore they are in error. There is no escaping this logical necessity.

Update An editor at Nature kindly showed me that I clicked the wrong button (or whatever). The letter has been resubmitted as of 1:30 PM, 6 February.


Thanks to Al Perrella and others who pointed out this newest attempt to avoid responsibility.

The Vaccine Discussion: Update

Harvesting eggs for measles vaccine.

So. Vaccines. People are having trouble keeping separate matters scientific and ethical and moral. Let’s attempt a classification.

Scientific Vaccines protect against disease.

Disease The etiologies of diseases are understood at various levels. Measles is very well known, the human papillomavirus less so. The prognosis for any disease is variable and depends on patient characteristics. The same disease, say, flu, can range from annoying to deadly depending on the person. The exact course of a disease is usually difficult to predict for any individual.

Vaccines The efficacy of a vaccine depends on the drug itself, the disease, and the characteristics of the person receiving it. Allergies to components of vaccines are not uncommon. Not everybody receiving a vaccine is immunized, but by far most are. The efficacy rate varies by vaccine. Vaccines can cause side effects or allow entry of other diseases. For example, the flu vaccine depresses the immune system increasing the chance of contracting other diseases. The side effects also depend on patient characteristics: not every person will suffer the same side effects nor suffer to the same degree. For common vaccines such as MMR, the side effects are well studied and the risk for most is minimal. For other vaccines, such as Gardasil for HPV (an important case), less is known. There is always room for questioning, of course, but decisions should not be changed until any new evidence is solid.

Not every person should get every vaccine. The CDC maintains a useful list of the kind of people who should not receive various vaccines. For instance, pregnant women should not get the adenovirus vaccine.

Autism as side effect There is no substantial, reliable evidence showing how the components of any vaccine cause autism. There are many guesses, but all, so far as I can see, fall far short of plausible. This does not argue that biological causes should not be investigated. Perhaps they should. But the investigations must be “bench” style and not statistical. The possibility of false alarm, especially when using classical (frequentist or Bayesian) statistical methods is huge.

Tracking side effects The main problems are (1) an increase in “awareness”, leading more people to be examined for the side effects and other diseases, and (2) an expansion in the criteria for side effects and other diseases; more marginal cases are being diagnosed. Autism in particular is being checked more frequently and the criteria for its presence have expanded.

Herd immunity If everybody but you has been immunized for a disease, and the only potential carriers of the disease are humans, then you are very unlikely to develop the disease. The chance is not zero because not all vaccinated people will develop immunity. As more people around you are unvaccinated, the greater the chance you will contract the disease—even if you yourself have been vaccinated, because the vaccine might not have “took” or it “wore off” (think about “boosters”). Still, most common vaccines are known to be extremely effective. If the carrier of the disease is other than humans, and you yourself are vaccinated and it “took”, then it doesn’t matter whether those around you are vaccinated or not, you will not contract the disease.

Moral Science is not ethics nor can any scientific fact answer any moral question, though these facts might be helpful to any decision.

To vaccinate or not Every individual must balance the rewards of protection with the risk of side effects and changes to their immune system. Your risk-reward criteria will differ from another’s. There is no scientifically determined optimal; such a thing is impossible. You must decide for yourself and for those over whom you are responsible. Many misinformed people will base their decisions on incorrect information. But only puritans insist life should be perfect (and directed by experts). Every unvaccinated person must understand they have a very small chance of infecting others (for human-born diseases) who have been vaccinated but whose vaccines did not “take” or “wore off.” The unvaccinated person can also easily infect other unvaccinated persons (for human-born diseases only). There is a balance between watching out for yourself and caring for others.

Forced vaccinations That balance becomes important here. Should the government legally force parents to immunize their children? For every possible vaccine? This would set the precedent of allowing the government to dictate the healthcare of children. To some extent this already occurs, of course, but many vaccines are not life-and-death. And some are not necessary, and again, the risks of deleterious effect of some vaccines will outweigh any benefit (allergies, pregnant women, etc.). The government will soon begin the argument, weak as it is, that since they are paying for your healthcare they have a right to insist on vaccines. Saves money, you see. Money often trumps morals. But then the government will fell emboldened to also disallow you pop over a certain size for the same reason—and God knows what else. All experience proves the counter-argument is not a slippery slope.

Some people refuse vaccinations on religious grounds. The government, forbidden to encroach upon this area, will argue that the “greater good” demands it. The constant danger is a utilitarian (i.e. money) interpretation to that phrase.

The balance is between personal and religious freedom, the right for families, especially parents, to be superior to government, and the changes to society that comes with this freedom when some diseases might be particularly virulent.

Behavior There is no need for Gardasil if you (or your children) if they are going to be celibate or monogamous. The same would be true if there were a vaccine for HIV. Having protection from some sexually transmitted diseases would encourage promiscuity and open individuals to other dangers. This also changes society.

There. This isn’t everything, but I think most major items are covered. What have I missed? Each individual vaccine-disease-person requires its own discussion.

Update I had thought it obvious, but I see a lot of mistakes on the coercion argument. See this confusing (emotional) piece, for instance (from here). Here’s a clarification.

You and yours are vaccinated against disease X. Suppose that vaccine to be 100% effective. You and yours will then not develop X. Now another family may decide against not vaccinating for X. They are then susceptible; they might contract X. If X is transmitted by humans, it is from other non-vaccinated humans from whom they’ll get X. If X is transmitted by animals, it makes no difference whether any other person was vaccinated.

Now why would you insist that others are coerced into receiving a vaccination? It is true that as the proportion of non-vaccinated people increase, the greater the number of people who might contract X, and the easier X can spread if X can be spread via humans. But, still, you and yours will not contract X.

What you are doing in insisting on coercion is forcing people to do what they do not want “for their own good” (“What about the children!”), and not your direct good. There is an indirect benefit to you in that it is not good that more of your fellow citizens will fall ill. It is far from clear where to draw the line. That depends on how virulent X is and so forth, and it depends on how the vaccine was formulated as was pointed out in comments and in the linked autism article above. There is a difference between flu and smallpox.

Of course, we have to modify the argument assuming the vaccination is not 100% effective. See Katie’s comment below. This premise, ceteris paribus, is in the direction of favoring coercion, but it is not decisive.

“The Church Believes In Science.” And That Global Warming Is Akin To Slavery?

Picture from Der Spiegel

Picture from Der Spiegel

Der Spiegel conducted an interview with the President of the Pontifical Science Academy Bischop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo. It’s worth going over a few of the questions (I used Google translate).

His Excellency doesn’t think Pope Francis will attend the Paris climate conference, but claims the rumored environmental encyclical will arrive in June or July. Now to the meat.

Bishop S. says the Pope was “disappointed” by the last climate festival in Peru. Because, he says, or says the Pope says, “There was a lack of courage, the participants have stopped at the decisive point.” This is false. There was lots of courage, but no will; because, as is not surprising, not all countries wanted to be saddled by yet another bureaucracy or to pay enormous sums to be used in ways nobody was quite clear about.

The good Bishop went on to say these curious words:

[H]umanity, created in the image of God, should be the guardian of creation. But climate change has had to bear adverse effects on the poorest two thirds of humanity who have no access to fossil fuels, but the consequences of consumption. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, patriarch of Constantinople, Opel, compared to climate change at the conference of religious leaders in December with modern slavery.

Man should be the guardian of creation. But from that dictum very little follows. Does guardianship imply a mandatory global carbon tax? Or the empowering of a group of pests to oversee the daily activity of citizens? Obviously not.

It is false that man-caused climate change bore “adverse effects on the poorest two thirds of humanity”. It is true that a lot of folks still do not have ready access to fossil fuels. Solution? Provide the access, which consists mainly in removing the impediments to access. It’s fossil fuels, a.k.a. cheap energy, that also accounts for the availability of inexpensive sustenance. We can fix (real) poverty with oil. Given, of course, we first fix political will. Nobody has figured that out.

And so the mouthful Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople says climate change is equivalent to slavery. Ah, yes. I myself had my hat nearly blown off my head by a strong breeze the other day. I felt so degraded. And the government did nothing to stop it! What I most want to know is from whom do I demand reparations?

Is it helpful or harmful to hoist hyperbolic metaphors into service?

Anyway, Bishop Sorondo is sure that Paris will result in an increase in worldly government. I doubt it, but he might be right.

Der Spiegel asked, “Why the Church is committed at once so strong for the environment?” And the Bish answered, “Because they believe in the science” (“Weil sie an die Wissenschaft glaubt”). Note that this is the science and not just science as was summarized in the Der Spiegel headline. Naughty editor, there.

But it isn’t true. What is true is that Bishop Sorondo believes in some but not all of climatological science. The part he is apparently unaware of is the old-fashioned science rule that theories which make consistently rotten wrong unskillfull predictions must be wrong. As must be the theories that drive climate models. Because they stink.

If you say you believe in science, you cannot pick and choose just those parts most pleasing to you. It’s all or nothing.

Amusingly, Der Spiegel, shocked that the Church agrees with any kind of science, brought up the old Galileo fairy tale, which His Excellency modestly countered. But the reporter was confused and asked (the tortuous grammar is from the automatic translation), “Even with current scientific topics, the Church is often against the expertise of researchers, so really believes them to the results?” The interaction continued:

Sánchez Sorondo: To believe in the science does not mean so that the church could not make moral judgments.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: contradictions of scientific expertise, such as the subject of birth control, AIDS, cloning or the search for extraterrestrial life, are moral judgments?

Sánchez Sorondo: The Church is against birth control, because it believes it is a contradiction to the laws of nature. The Church is against the use of embryonic stem cells, because it also keeps the embryo in the earliest stage of human beings. To clone we do not have any official position. But in the search for extraterrestrials, the church is very open. The church has also always believed in angels, so it has no problems with it, to imagine another life, which has also been endowed with reason. But we need to find just now!

The reporter’s confusion is common, the result of a culture swimming in scientism. This is the fallacy that all questions eventually are answered, “Science!

But what’s this about the Church not having a position on cloning? That doesn’t seem to be the case.

We’ll have to talk more about the PAS soon.

Pew’s Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society Survey

Pew did a survey on the Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society that is of modest interest. Turns out civilians love whitecoats.

Science holds an esteemed place among citizens and professionals. Americans recognize the accomplishments of scientists in key fields and, despite considerable dispute about the role of government in other realms, there is broad public support for government investment in scientific research.

Love scientists they might, but civilians don’t always agree with them. The featured picture shows a set of questions and the percent agreement of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists and civilians, and the agreement “gap” or discrepancy.

Take the discrepancy between “Safe to eat genetically modified foods”: 88% of scientists say yes, 37% of the public say no. Scientists would, ceteris paribus, know more than civilians about genetics and should be trusted. So should they be believed when they say it’s “Safe to eat foods grown with pesticides”, which has a gap of 40%. Scientists also know more about (the non-stellarly worded) “Humans have evolved over time”, which has a gap of 33%.

In one way, scientists are one up on civilians about “Childhood vaccines such as MMR should be required”, an 18% gap. But now wholly. Scientists can say what would happen given such-and-such a percentage of kids were not vaccinated for disease X, but the consequences of the things that happen are not scientific but moral questions. Should all kids be forced by the government to be injected with Gardasil, a vaccination which does carry the risk of side effects, or should they rather be taught to keep their pants on? Not a scientific question.

Ordinarily, you’d expect scientists to have superior knowledge about whether “Climate change is mostly due to human activity”. Mostly?! But that field is ruled more by politics than physics, so the civilians have an edge. Civilians are right to say that we cannot make this claim with anything approaching confidence, but most civilians, except to emphasize the politics, can’t articulate why. This is not a good situation.

Another knowledge imbalance comes with “Favor building more nuclear power plants”, a 20% gap. Who better than a physicist to describe energy output? These same folks can also tell you what would happen in a meltdown—and how exceedingly unlikely such a thing is. But not all scientists are trustworthy. Remember when our Surgeon General advised Americans to take iodized salt after Fukushima? I was in San Francisco at the time and saw a run on containers of Morton’s. Many rolled gently down Stockton as crowds of worried mothers plunged into the huge stack of boxes.

“Growing world population will be a major problem”, a 23% gap, is trickier. Most of the growth will be in people not dying as soon as they used to. This will be a problem in societies like Japan where, we have read, the sale of adult diapers now exceeds baby nappies. What to do about this is only marginally a scientific question. (Eliminate porn, perhaps? The Japanese aren’t having sex.)

The statement itself is ambiguous. One interpretation is that people can increase without number. They cannot. If, in any area, food is scarce, people will not reproduce. Human reproduction is self-limiting. Localized famines can occur, of course, but there can’t be new people (in any area) when there is not enough food. It is because of the increase in cheap food and energy that population has increased.

The survey goes on about other things. The most curious is this. 84% of scientists think it’s a major problem that the “Public doesn’t know much about science”. And the reason for this, the majority of them say, is “Not enough K-12 STEM” and “Lack of public interest in science news.” One follows from the other. Who has interest in subjects which they don’t understand?

More education is always the call. At the risk of sounding elitist…the heck with the risk. Elitist is what we should be. Any body of advanced knowledge—and science is only one of these—is elitist by definition. Scientific truths are not easily won. It takes not only effort, which more attention to education can cure, but also ability, which it won’t. There’s a very good reason only a tiny fraction of people end up as scientists. It’s the same reason, in nature, why most people aren’t in the NBA. It isn’t easy and not everybody is capable.

Interestingly, 34% of civilians say “Private investment is enough” to fund science, an increase from 2009’s survey. Then 48% of scientists say this is a “Bad time” for scientist, also an increase; more than a doubling. Why? Because 83% say “Federal funding” is harder to find. Ah. So the expansion-team syndrome has struck. There are too many scientists, which necessarily drains more money and also produces a greater proportion of lousy work.

Why must scientists always go begging to government? What makes government beneficent and disinterested? Nothing.

Proof? Read the linked article and consider this survey finding. Some 58% of scientists say that science “Always/Most of time” best guides government regulation in “New drug and medical treatment.” They’re less sanguine about how science influences “Land us” and “Clean air and water” regulations. The secret is out. Science—good or bad—is increasingly relied on by government for the express purpose of regulating. As in The Science Has Spoken.

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