January 28, 2008 | 38 Comments
The short answer, I will disappoint many of you by saying, is no. Like I wrote before, climatologists are generally nice people genuinely struggling with understanding the immense complexities of the oceanic-atmospheric (and space!) system. It might be that many of them are misleading themselves by custom tailoring models to show them what they expect (or desire?) to see, but this has not reached a level where it is done with intent. Most mistakes that are made are honest ones. And it is also true that much has been learned while examining climate models. Still, while scientists are in general noble creatures, there does exists the possibility of them sliding into the abyss.
So suppose, if you are able, that significant man-made climate change is false; further, that it cannot happen, and that all changes to the climate system are due to external forcings, such as those caused by changes in solar output. Just suppose all this is true for the sake of argument.
Now put yourself in the place of a climatologist, one of the many hundreds, in fact, who was involved with the IPCC and so shared in that great validator, the Nobel Peace Prize*. You have spent a career devoted to showing that mankind, through various forms of naughtiness, has significantly influenced the climate, and has caused temperatures to grow out of control. Your team, at a major university, has built and contributed to various global climate models. Graduate students have worked on these models. Team members have traveled the world and lectured on their results. Many, many papers were written about their output, and so forth.
But something has gone wrong. The actual temperature, predicted to go up and up, has not cooperated and has instead stayed the same and even has gone down. What do to? Let’s take a “What would a scientist do” quiz and find out.
Your model has predicted that temperatures will go up because CO2 has, but unfortunately temperatures have gone down. Do you:
- Abandon the model and seek a new career
- Discover where the model went wrong; publish results admitting why and how you were wrong
- Sit and wait: after all, the temperature is bound to increase sooner or later, hence validating your model
- Believe that the model cannot be wrong, else so many people wouldn’t believe it, and so posit some new source that is “holding back” warming, and only if that new source weren’t there, your model would be perfect.
The correct answer, it should go without saying, is (2), though (1) is not a horrible option for the shy, but it is really only open to beginning graduate students or professors reaching emeritus status. And if you do go for (2), as you should, option (1) naturally follows from it. (I must remind you here that significant man-made global influence is an impossibility by assumption.)
Would anybody opt for (3)? Certainly, because it’s the easiest thing to do, though not as many as you would think will go this route mostly because it would be too difficult to answer critics with a “Just wait and see!”
The slide begins with choosing (4). Nobody would, or should, abandon a well-developed model because an observation or two is not consonant with that model. Some time has to pass for enough failed predictions to mount up. How much time? That’s always difficult to tell. If the best climate models over-predict global temperature for a year, this is not cause for concern. For two years, no big deal. Even three to five years would not cause undue suspicion. But more than that, then something has gone wrong.
That is the state of the art today: climate models regularly over-predict temperatures; certainly the IPCC “scenarios” are too high, and they have been for more than five years. No climate scientist yet has gone to the quiz and opted for answers (1) or (2); several, of course, have opted for (3), saying five to ten years isn’t enough and that “more time” is needed. Nobody, that I know of, has said how much more time.
Has anybody gone for answer (4)? Yes. Already we are seeing papers—peer-reviewed, to be sure—that posit sources that are “masking” the true warming. So far, these papers are concentrate on aerosols, which are particles, caused by mankind naturally, that can, through various mechanisms, block incoming solar radiation and lead to cooling. Aerosol cooling only gets you so far, however, because aerosols are heavy, short-lived particles whose effects are actually easy to measure. So if models continue to over-predict, even after accounting for aerosols, some other source that “masks true warming” will have to be found.
Bob Park, physicist and resident curmudgeon at the American Physical Society, writes regularly on pseudo-science, and has identified “The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.” Not all of these signs now apply to climatology, but number , “The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection” is most relevant.
Since we haven’t detected the predicted warming, it must be masked or otherwise held up by something. Aerosols are one source, but an inadequate one, so another is needed. What will this source be? Of course, we cannot know for certain, but I can guess, though I blush when I do so: I predict it will be statistics.
Yes, it will not be long before we begin to hear arguments like the following: “The predicted warming cannot, of course, be detected with the naked eye. You have to use our extra-special statistical model which accounts for various factors and which shows a statistically significant warming has indeed taken place, thus our models are accurate. Oh, yes, we have a low p-value, too.” These models will, in the course of things, be criticized, then modified to become more complex and opaque, but they will always lead to the same conclusion: the models, though they appear wrong, are actually right.
Not all climatologists will fall prey to these temptations; many or most will modify their models, will see that mankind is not in as much trouble as originally thought, and move on to do work on, for example, the Indian monsoon. But others, because they cannot admit to being wrong or because they want it to be true, will stay the course and claim that only they and their models can detect the true warming. Here is where Park’s six other signs will be found. These scientists will  pitch their “claim directly to the media” and say  “that a powerful establishment [big oil] is trying to suppress his or her work.” They will  work “in isolation”, and offer  “anecdotal evidence” in the form of temperature anomalies from select locations. They will claim that it was  always known that mankind has a harmful effect on the environment and they will propose  ever more complicated “new laws of nature to explain” the apparent lack of warming. And it will be at that point that climatology becomes a pseudo-science.
Don’t laugh, because this sort of thing happens all the time. Some readers will be old enough to remember when paranormal research was the rage in the early 1970s. Peer-reviewed papers appeared on the subject, even in prestigious journals like Science. Just around the corner, mankind would be able harness untold power by just using his mind. Goats, for example, could be killed just by staring at them (yes, really). It was an exciting time. Early on in the work, it was obvious that man only used 10% of his brain, and that psychic events were real. Experiments were run, but most failed. New experiments, toning down the original claims were run, but these failed too. Various physical and biological mechanisms to explain psychic abilities were proposed, but none could be validated.
Test after test failed, until the number of failures was so huge that, by the mid-1980s, most people wised up and left the field. But not all did. Some claimed, through the use of “sophisticated” statistics, to find the signal that nobody else could see. Most of these statistical methods were poorly or improperly executed, and to those of us who know something about these statistical models, it was obvious that paranormal researchers were just fooling themselves (I wrote a book on this topic).
So did the parapsychologists take the scientist quiz and opt for number (2), admit they were wrong, say so, and then move on? Do I even need to answer? The idea, the allure and promise of paranormal powers are just too powerful for some people to fight against, and so they seek patches to the theory instead of pitching it. Psychic abilities just have to be real, and it is this desire instead of empirical observations that drives current research (such as it is).
We are only just starting to see parallels with parapsychology and climatology, the most prominent now is model patching. Of course, it might turn out mankind really does significantly influence climate, so the fact the we now see model patching is not proof that mankind has no influence. But it should give us pause and should lead us to examine, in a systematic way, the deviation of model forecasts from actual observations. And remember the old saying, there’s nobody so easy to fool as yourself.
*No Arafat jokes, please