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Author: Briggs

February 1, 2008 | 2 Comments


“The most vehement attack on the wartime press came not from Richard Nixon, but from William Tecumseh Sherman. ‘If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world,’ he sighed, ‘but I am sure we would be getting reports from hell before breakfast.'”

Outstanding article (originally linked at the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily) by who else but Victor David Hanson. This article essential reading for all those who expect wars to proceed with Hollywood timing and flawless precision.

January 31, 2008 | 54 Comments

Zombie attacks might increase due to global warming, study shows

A new study by scientists has suggested that zombie attacks might increase if the current projections of global warming are realized. “If the earth gets warmer, it means longer springs, summers, and falls, and shorter winters,” said John Carpenter-Romero, Ph.D., a zombie-ologist who co-authored the study. “And shorter winters means more time for the undead to prey on the populace.”

Dr. Harrister, the other co-author, and head of Zombie Robotics at Wayward Robot, Inc., explained that cold winters typically stalled the walking dead. “It is well known that zombies can’t operate in cold weather. It freezes their brains.”

The pair calculated a 32.782412% increase in zombie attacks if CO2 increased to twice its pre-industrial rate. “Clearly, this is a very troubling result,” said Dr. Harrister, “If we don’t do something soon, the streets will be filled with blood.”

Update: be sure to read the follow-up post: Zombies no joke, global warming can cause anything.


You’re no climatologist! Or, who is allowed to criticize?

There is a distressing commonality when discussing climate science lately: many people skip past the data and arguments offered by a skeptic and ask the question, “Are you a climatologist?” The implication, sometimes flatly stated, is that, if you are not, then you have no business offering a negative opinion on the state of “the” science.

It is distressing because I repeatedly have to point out that it is a logical fallacy that because a person is not a climatologist their skeptical argument is therefore false. If you like labels, this fallacious retort is called the Appeal to Authority. Each argument must be assessed on its merits and cannot be dismissed because the person offered it does not meet a certain credentialing standard. Climate theory arguments from non-experts cannot be banned or forbidden tout court.

Being open to arguments from non-specialists in other fields has meant that honest scientists have had to deal with the ravings of cranks and bizarre, pointless, and irrelevant theories. But tough luck. Every physicist gets a steady stream of letters and emails from people claiming to have finally solved zero point energy, every mathematician has to read missives that have uncovered the secret proof for squaring the circle. The progress of physics and math have not been appreciably slowed by this nonsense. And every now and then, rarely, comes a paper from a nobody in a patent office or a hand-written theorem from some unknown Indian kid whose hobby is playing with numbers, and entirely new avenues of thought are opened.

But climate science is in a different state than much of theoretical physics and mathematics: it is demarcated because much of its theories about future changes have not been verified. They are, at some level, speculation. Climatology borrows heavily from other branches of science: chemists are needed to analyze temperature proxy samples, computer programmers code and validate the enormous models. Its borders are fuzzy: where does climatology end and glaciology begin?

But if critics are going to insist that, in order to offer evidence for or against significant man-made warming, that the person giving evidence must have a Ph.D. in climatology (not meteorology, or atmospheric physics, or any other field) granted from a restricted list of superior universities, then so be it. We cannot just compile the list of people working on the IPCC, however, because that august body contains people who are no better than mathematicians, statisticians, meteorologists, computer programmers, engineers, glaciologists, and, God help us, even economists and politicians. The final approved list must actually be very small. However, I invite critics to create and publish such a list so that we can all know who our betters are.

Understand, though, that the public-comment restriction must, by logic, go both ways. If you are not allowed to offer negative commentary because you are not a climatologist, then you are not allowed to offer positive reviews either.

This is the odd thing: you never hear or read of somebody asking a mere journalist who has just breathlessly reported on a paper that purports to show how birds will suffer under global warming, why he, the journalist, should have written his article because he is obviously not a climatologist or ornithologist. You will not hear cries of “What temerity!” or “How dare he!”

Anybody, apparently, is allowed to offer positive thoughts, or glowing, unrestrained praise, on the theory that mankind significantly alters global temperatures, and they never have their credentials questioned. Even more, scores of internet commentors will read the journalist’s article and add their insights (“When will people realize that the problems we are facing are real!”), and nobody will ask them what gives them the right or ability to do so.

The current state of debate says much about the desires of those who praise positive comments but denigrate the people who offer negative comments.

Since this is the case, I propose a cessation of all internet commentary, one way or the other, until the Approved List of true climatologists has been compiled.

January 28, 2008 | 38 Comments

Is climatology a pseudoscience?

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:

  1. Abandon the model and seek a new career
  2. Discover where the model went wrong; publish results admitting why and how you were wrong
  3. Sit and wait: after all, the temperature is bound to increase sooner or later, hence validating your model
  4. 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 [3], “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 [1] pitch their “claim directly to the media” and say [2] “that a powerful establishment [big oil] is trying to suppress his or her work.” They will [6] work “in isolation”, and offer [4] “anecdotal evidence” in the form of temperature anomalies from select locations. They will claim that it was [5] always known that mankind has a harmful effect on the environment and they will propose [7] 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