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January 27, 2008 | 18 Comments

Best statistical, scientific talk on global warming

Some careful readers to this blog have pointed out the work of Australian geologist Bob Carter. If you have not yet seen his work, you should. So I want you to drop whatever you are doing and watch his talk below. It is the best statistical and scientific public talk I have yet seen. I’ll write more about this later, after you’ve seen his talk.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

January 26, 2008 | 5 Comments

New York Times debate on AGU statement

The American Geophysical Union, of which I am a member, has, like many other organizations, e.g. the ASA, issued a statement concurring with the IPCC report. The text of that statement is here.

So far, nothing unusual, except that this statement was noticed by the New York Times and written about here. But Marc Morano, a staffer to Senator Inhofe of the now infamous “Inhofe 400” posted a comment saying “this new AGU statement appears to in no way represent the views of the AGU rank-and-file members.”

Nobody can know whether or not that is true; that is, the entire rank and file are never polled. What happens, and I am on committees to write just these kind of statements, is that a small group writes a statement, which is put out for public comment. All comments must be answered, but, however, not all comments need be incorporated in the statement. After a period of time has passed, the statement is reworked and sent to some executive body which approves it. Most regular members do not notice these statements, nor do they take the time to be involved in their creation and editing. Most would not care, for example, about words changes one way or the other. And not all members would concur with the final wording the statement.

This the main point: just because an organization issues a report it does not follow that all who belong to the organization support that report. You would think any experience with any politics whatsoever would be proof enough of that. But, no. Andrew Revkin, who wrote the Times’ piece, offered to post, in bold, comments from AGU members who disagreed with the AGU statement. Quite a debate is unfolding at that site.

Here is the opening sentence of the AGU statement: “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming.” And here is what I wrote:

I am a member of the AGU and the AMS and I do not support the language used in the AGU statement. Here is why.

I find the AGU statement, while accurate and useful in places, to be needlessly sensational and overconfident in others. To start the document with the statement that the Earth is “clearly out of balance” is silly and purposely provocative. It is a feeling among certain scientists that a little exaggeration in “the cause” is justified to “raise awareness”, but I disagree: it always does more harm than good. This statement will raise as many hackles as it does “awarenesses.”

There are some matters of observation and theory of which AGU members and scientists are competent to comment upon, but there are other topics in the statement that they are not, and I find the language used to express the certainty of these forecasts—and they are forecasts, for example, the “loss of biodiveristy” plug—to be far too strong. Or to say it another way, the statement is too sure of itself.

My last complaint will seem out of the blue, but I hope you will consider it: there is not one word about the possible benefits of warming. To say that there would be none or that they would be trivial is surely too strong.

Now, if you argue that no words of possible benefit should be in a statement like this, I would agree. But then I would also say that no words of possible harm should, either. Instead, the statement should be strictly limited to the science, couched in the language of probability: the warming will be this and such; a certain area will see X% more, another Y% less; there is a X% chance that if CO2 is reduced to a certain level, the warming will be reduced by Y%; and so on. Plain, simple, non-sensational, quantitative, verifiable predictions.

Obviously, there is much more to be said, particularly about the manic desire, most strongly felt in civilians, that it be true that mankind is causing warming. For example, here is the first comment to the Revkin story:

Right on! Andy. Yes! Yes! Yes! I?m sure I?ll be shaking my head in horror upon the first post that challenges ALL these institutions from SCIENCE AND SPACE but Jesus, what more do non believer?s, denialists need to get the point we need to act NOW? All of us!
This article is great!

There are others like that, equally breathless. Most of the running commentary is on peripheral questions, little of it answers comments made by people like me and Perry Clark (comment #3). Clearly, there is more to be said about the desire question, but I’ll have to pick that up later.

January 25, 2008 | 5 Comments

Italian political tactics no different than Italian soccer tactics

As pointed out by my number one son,

“during the debate [in the Italian senate] one senator rushed in fury to the desk of a colleague, Stefano Cusumano, and taunted and apparently tried to attack him. Mr. Cusumano, 60, reportedly cried, then collapsed.”

To those of us who have seen this secret video tape of the Italian soccer training camp, Seantor Cusumano’s parliamentary tactics come as no surprise.

January 24, 2008 | 2 Comments

AMS conference report: day 4

The AMS is re-issuing its statement on the necessity of using probability in forecasts. I am on the committee that is re-drafting, or, as they to say, “wordsmithing”, it. If you know anything about how committees write “statements” you’ll know exactly what to expect. I wrote, using material people had generated before, a just-over-one-page document months ago and gave it to the committee. The thing then bloomed into a ten-page monster and reads a lot like a news report. Did you ever notice how people switch to a sort of newsspeak, or stilted, vocabulary when talking to the press? Well, the statement reads like that.

But the gist is still important: all forecasts need to include a statement of their uncertainty, that is, they need to be probabilistic. For example, you shouldn’t just say that tomorrow’s max temperature will be “50 degrees”, but “there’s a 90% chance it will be between 47 and 52 degrees.” The same thing goes for climate forecasts, too. You cannot just say, “Mankind is surely causing all ills” but that “Mankind is surely causing all ills unless you vote for me to solve the crisis.”
My friend Tom Hamill lead a Town Hall meeting of a new group that wants to lead the way to insert uncertainty into forecasts in a programmatic way. Tom’s with NOAA and has a lot of experience with ensemble forecasting, which I’ll explain later. Point is: people are just starting to come to the idea that predictions are not certain. Yes, even the ones you hear about in the newspaper.

I spent the rest of the day chairing a session of statisticians and “artificial” intelligence computer guys. Lovely people, all. But rather too inclined to believe their own press results of neural nets being “universal approximators”, meaning, to them, that you don’t need any other kind of probability model except neural nets. I’ll explain these things later, too, except I’ll note that when they, NNs, first gained notoriety, there was a consensus among computer scientists that all modeling problems were solved, intelligent machines able to think were just about to happen, and etc. etc. Yes, a consensus. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, it didn’t happen.

The conference does go for one more day, but I’m out this morning. Besides, it’s an unwritten, but well known fact, that they don’t always schedule the best talks on the last day. Because of this, they even resort to bribery and are awarding door prizes to people who show up to the exhibit hall today.