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Category: Statistics

The general theory, methods, and philosophy of the Science of Guessing What Is.

January 11, 2008 | 2 Comments

The Lancet’s poorly choosen statistics

The Wall Street Journal opinion page has an article about a “study” appearing in the prestigious journal Lancet that purports to estimate the number of deaths in the Iraqi war. It turns out that the statistics were “funded by anti-Bush partisans and conducted by antiwar activists posing as objective researchers” and that the paper’s estimated “death toll was more than 10 times what had been estimated by the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and even by human rights groups.”

The Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton, rushed the paper into print, and was quoted as saying, “This axis of Anglo-American imperialism extends its influence through war and conflict, gathering power and wealth as it goes, so millions of people are left to die in poverty and disease.” The study’s authors have also “failed to follow the customary scientific practice of making [their] data available for inspection by other researchers.”

Peer-reviewed research that is subservient to political ideology? Is it even possible?

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Greenpeace is shocked–shocked–to discover lobbying going on

There is a belief among certain paranormal researchers—these are the guys who study mind reading, clairvoyance, etc.—that is used to explain why psychic experiments haven’t seen positive results. It is called the sheep-goat theory.

Those gifted with psychic powers, such as the ability to bend kitchen cutlery without using muscles, are sheep. Those who disbelieve in these powers are goats. It seems that, via a mysterious mechanism, the goats are able to emit evil, anti-psychic rays that interfere with the sheep’s positive-psychic vibrations, and so cause negative results, i.e. findings of no effect (more about this here). The goats do this both intentionally and unconsciously. If it weren’t for the goats, the belief goes, psychics would be manifesting multiple miracles and the world would be a better, more enlightened place.

Greenpeace, and other “activist” groups, believe something like the same thing is happening among Washington lobbyists. Activists are, of course, the sheep. Oil company-funded lobbyists are the goats, and it is these goats who have thus far prevented politicians from implementing a host of laws to modify our behavior, have stopped a large segment of the world’s population from deeply caring, and, worst of all, have corrupted and forced some scientists to publish research contradictory to the consensus.

The editors at Climate Resistance have written an interesting article about the “Well funded ‘Well-funded-Denial-Machine’ Denial Machine”, which details Greenpeace’s chagrin on finding that other organizations are lobbying as vigorously as they are, and that these counter-lobbyists actually have funding! For example, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank “advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government”, got, Greenpeace claims, about 2 million dollars from Exxon Mobil from 1998 to 2005. The CEI has used some of this money to argue that punitive greenhouse laws aren’t needed. Greenpeace sees this oil money as ill-gotten and say that it taints all that touch it. But Greenpeace fails to point out that, over the same period, they got about 2 billion dollars! (Was any of that from Exxon, Greenpeace?)

So even though Greenpeace got 1000 times more than the CEI got, it helped CEI to effectively stop enlightenment and “was enough to stall worldwide action on climate change.” These “goats” have power!

Greenpeace’s caterwauling is just silly, of course. What is pernicious, and what gets my goat, are comments like those of James Wang of Environmental Defense, who says that scientists who publish results against the consensus are “mostly in the pocket of oil companies”; and those of the, yes, United Kingdom’s Royal Society that say that there “are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC” (bottom of p. 3).

Forget that it is often pointed out that it is a logical fallacy that, just because a group funds a study, it follows that the results from that study are false; forget, too, the implication that oil companies are evil because they are oil companies, and instead concentrate on the psychology behind these statements. There is a desire that lies beneath them to believe that the results from non-consensus studies must be false, and so must have been produced by nefarious means. Therefore, these studies can be ignored and dispersions can be heaped upon their authors.

My friends, academic science cannot be conducted toward a pre-defined conclusion. We have already lost many of our humanities departments to this philosophy. Do not let it also happen to the quantitative sciences, and try to keep an open mind. The best test for an open mind is this question, which I always ask of my acquaintances who follow the paranormal, “What evidence would convince you that what you believe is false?” If you find you have no answer, your mind is closed.
Continue reading “Greenpeace is shocked–shocked–to discover lobbying going on”

January 10, 2008 | 16 Comments

U.S. Senate Report: Over 400 Skeptical Climate Scientists

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works has released an addendum to its list of 400-plus scientists who express some level of skepticism about man-made global warming. I highlight this because, well, it turns out that my name has made its way onto the list, so I now have to explain why and what it means to be a “skeptic.”

I should first explain that I am on this list reluctantly, because, as I have been quoted as saying, “Most scientists just don’t want the publicity [associated with speaking out on climate matters] one way or another. Generally, publicity is not good for one’s academic career.” I do not think, then, that my being on that list, and starting this blog, will bring a tremendous boost in my own professional life. Scientists like to see discussions about uncertainty in their methods and results kept inside peer-reviewed journals and not dragged through the press. They have strong opinions on this. Witness the scorn heaped up the physicists Fleishman and Pons when they first released their “cold fusion” theory to the press and not to other scientists; for example, see this article which says that what the pair did was a “‘classic’ example of what not to do as” scientists. Actually, this is an odd statement because the incident ended well—because it was the initial public announcement that spurred the flurry of research that showed that cold fusion was false.

The only reason that I have been able to think of about why research should be confined to journals is that it is in these places that scientists expect to find new results. Scientists are not in the habit of scanning the newspaper or trolling the internet looking for press releases. There just isn’t the time to do so.

But climatology has, unfortunately, become a different sort of creature. Far too much speculation shows up in the headlines. Prominent scientists have taken to using the press as a bludgeon to discourage reasonable dissent. An example: R K Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, and now co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has compared anybody that dared question mad-made climate change to those who believe in a flat earth.

“Well, there will always be some skeptics,” Pachauri said. “As you know, there is still in existence something called the Flat Earth Society. There are people — a very limited number, thank God — who believe the Earth is flat.” Source: Washington Post

These excruciating comments are asinine and irresponsible, and they must be answered publicly.

I am not skeptical that man causes changes in his environment; in fact, I argue man must cause changes (see this post). I am only skeptical about the extent of these changes and about our ability to understand them. I am skeptical of the results from climate models that are used to posit large and harmful shifts in the earth’s temperature.

The vast majority of pronouncements about climate change are based on forecasts, guesses made about the future which are conditional on the multitude of assumptions underlying the models being true and on the forecasts having only small error. My specialty is in forecast evaluation (not just climate models, but any kind), and I do not feel that climate models have shown their ability to make accurate predictions thus far. This is why I said that the “error associated with climate predictions is also much larger than that usually ascribed to them; meaning, of course, that people are far too sure of themselves and their models.”

Overconfidence is a common human trait, and it holds in scientists just as much as it does with civilians. Typically, however, the excessive surety of scientists is tempered by the peer-criticism process, which has the effect of reducing, but never eliminating, prediction error. But this service won’t work well if experts are made to feel squeamish about making their critiques because of a public browbeating by autocratic scientists, politicians, and “activists.”

There is also a shade of “groupthink”—bandwagon research—not so much with climatologists, but with the mass of secondary and tertiary investigators who use climate model output as input to their own models of economics, public health, sociology, and so on. These models invariably show what they were programmed to show: that climate change of any kind is bad. This is, of course, physically impossible; but these are not physicists who are making these remarks—which of course quickly find their way into the press—and thus they are not held accountable in that sense.

Of course, if global climate models eventually show skill, then I will believe what they have to say.

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Hurricane paper featured on AIR-Worldwide

Roger Pielke, Jr., who’s at the University of Colorado Center for Science Technology Policy Research, has written a year-end summary of the 2007 hurricane season. The summary appears in two places: AIR-Worldwide, a fairly large and subsidiary of a well known insurance and risk modeling company; and Pielke’s own Prometheus blog.

The best thing is that he reviews two of the papers that I’ve written that show (through 2006), that hurricanes (including tropical storms) have not increased in number or intensity in the North Atlantic nor worldwide. My papers are linked under my Global Warming category under various posts and can be downloaded there, but I warn you that they are fairly technical and use advanced statistical methods. They are, however, perfect reading for insomniacs.

If I get enough requests, I’ll work on putting up a simplified summary of the methods.