Friday, February 12, 2010

Climate Science and Junk Science

For some reason, the climate has been on my mind. So let's talk about climate change. In particular, I want to focus on hypothesis testing.

Science is about creating hypotheses and testing those hypotheses in as controlled a setting as possible. If reality is at odds with a hypothesis, the hypothesis has to be modified or rejected outright. As a friend of mine noted, "Science is a harsh mistress."

It pains me, then, to see claims that unusually warm winters and unusually cold winters are both signs of climate change. Perhaps it's true, but it's not scientific evidence of a theory if both A and not A are supposed to support the same theory.

A number of news stories have come out recently that cast doubt on the accuracy of the science behind man-made climate change, starting with the release of the emails from East Anglia University and continuing with articles on how bits and pieces of evidence (shrinking rainforests, disappearing ice cover) were not measured scientifically, but were instead anecdotes from self-interested individuals. The cry from the warming alarmists is that these revelations change nothing. Really? Can't we agree that, while some bad science doesn't necessarily rebut the entire theory, evidence of bad science at least reduces our confidence in the theory?

I recently read that NBC, which is broadcasting the Vancouver Olympics in the U.S., is planning to make a big deal of the lack of snow in Vancouver and how this is also somehow related to global warming, er, climate change. (Interesting how the name changed!) But NBC is owned by GE, which has obtained billions in federal funds for "green" projects and stands to gain billions more if the U.S. passes a carbon tax. Again, this doesn't mean that what NBC says is wrong, but one ought to consider the source...follow the money. Global warming alarmist Grand Poobah Al Gore has also made millions from such dubious activities as peddling carbon offsets, all the while preaching the gospel of climate change. Certainly making a profit off one's beliefs isn't bad in and of itself, but the connection - urging governments to spend billions and then raking off a share of those billions - ought to give one pause.


Andy said...

I enter this debate at my peril, as a graduate of the University of East Anglia - though in the arts not the sciences.

It seems to me that when several thousands of emails are stolen, presumably by someone with an eye to the science since all the routine discussions of holidays etc are filtered out, and when perhaps two out of the thousands can be interpreted in way that discredits the sender, then that is absolute and irrefutable proof that there is no conspiracy regarding climate change.

To put it bluntly, if it was a complete racket then the UEA would be chin-deep in it and there would be hundreds of emails demonstrating this. There aren't. It's not.

I hate - really, truly loathe - debates like these because it is impossible it should ever be concluded to the participants' mutual satisfaction. No final answer can ever be achieved that will leave both sides content to lay the matter to rest.

All that can come of them is glowering looks, bruised sensibilities and resentful muttering after the event.

To me, the science - while not entirely perfect - is proven so completely that to argue against it is akin to arguing against evolution or the facts of 9/11 or the location of the current President's birth.

One hole in an argument does not prove the counter-argument is true. It merely proves there's one hole in the original argument.

It is thus so with climate change.

Yours, in (I hope) a spirit of friendly and respectful disagreement,

Rhianon Jameson said...

As you know, Mr. Merryman, I enjoy the back-and-forth and am delighted to have friendly disagreement on any subject.

I hope you didn't take my comments as an indictment of UEA, which I certainly did not intend. (Indeed, one of the other key players in that little drama is a climate professor at Penn State University, a place dear to my own heart.)

I think you're right that the email kerfuffle doesn't support the idea of a wide conspiracy to commit scientific fraud. As a social scientist myself, I'm aware of the games everyone plays to make that important variable statistically significant (also known as the "can we make the t-statistic at least 2?"), and that it's not necessarily a sign of underhanded behavior. That said, those emails did suggest that the evidence of warming, much less man-made warming, wasn't obvious. Indeed, others have come up with alternative periods of measurement to demonstrate the opposite.

What bothers me, however, is not that any individual piece of evidence is shaky, because that's the way science is. It's that new information doesn't move most people's beliefs at all. When the news reports that ice caps are shrinking, maybe that's right, maybe that's wrong, but it should make most people think, "Hmm, if I thought that climate change was real with a probability of 60%, now, after that news story, it might be 65%." But conversely, if a news story says, "Oh wait, remember that last thing we told you? It turned out to be wrong." then the same logic suggests you'd reduce the likelihood climate change is real.

Instead, some who preach that particular gospel process bad news and report it back as yet more evidence to support their point of view! I respect a great number of people who believe in climate change, even if I'm more of an agnostic who thinks we should be studying the issue more before spending wads of cash on it. And my guess is that most believers do, in fact, take news that cuts in the other direction as a signal that their belief is just a little less likely.

But what gets me jumping up and down mad is the idea that one can "prove" anything by saying that A and the opposite of A are both part of the theory.

You put it most eloquently when you said that a "hole in an argument does not prove the counter-argument is true." We would be making progress if only we could get all sides to agree upon this point.

Fogwoman Gray said...

I live at an extreme end of the livable zone on this planet. The native people of Alaska do not have any doubt about climate change. They have been observing it for the past 80 years and quite a few have documented the change. Western scientists are finally sitting down with the elders and discovering a wealth of knowledge about how, and what and when. How much these changes have been a result of human intervention is the only debate. The fact that the climate is changing, and quite rapidly now is a fact in the Arctic. Here, a ten degree difference causes very dramatic change that people in more temperate zones will not see.
Emails at universities and academics debating theories really does not interest me. Entire villages being washed away, hunting drying up, and Brown (Grizzly) bears hybridizing with Polar Bears as their previously separate ranges converge - that interests me immensely.

Rhianon Jameson said...

Ah, you're one of the beneficiaries of any warming, Mrs. Volare!

Seriously, you raise a good issue about whether climate change is related to human activity. If one thinks that the climate has been changing continuously throughout the history of the planet, with periods of vastly warmer and vastly colder temperatures than we now enjoy, it's far from clear that human activity is the cause of any current climate activity.

Mako Magellan said...

Longitudinal data from locations all over the world show that temperatures have been rising for decades. Most of the extra heat is contained in the surface layers of the seas. High surface temperatures lead to violent weather patterns, but they may be the least of our problems. Even one year of unstable weather is sufficient to cause famine in some parts of the world.

It hardly matters how much we are to blame for this; the issue is what we are doing to mitigate it. The answer seems to be about as little as possible.

Rhianon Jameson said...

Gah! I'm outnumbered! :)

Edward Pearse, Duke of Argylle said...

At my place of work I refer to one of my customers (behind his back) as my favourite conspiracy theorist. He is convinced that there is a scientific cover up and that Climate Change is a scam to try and get governments to try and hand over billions of dollars to the World Bank (who are secretly trying to form a world government). Or at least that's what I think he's saying.

As a result of some of our "discussions" I did look into the apparent email scandal. As with Andy I can't find anything beyond an occasional statistical fudge and some poorly chosen wording. Certainly no world-wide scientific conspiracy.

I don't have a science background so I can't give you proper arguments. I do disagree with your categorising that extreme weather conditions are both A and Not A. Both are weather *extremes*. When these extremes start becoming more frequent then it's evidence to support climate change.

The main problem with the campaign is perception. Interviews with people in India have shown that even knowing that they are contributing to the "carbon footprint" that people low income earners are now buying up air-conditioning units in their thousands. Perhaps it was the soundbite cut for radio but several interviewees said they did not care because they would not be alive to see the results and preferred to have AC now.

It's possible that humanity's contribution is being over stated. It's incredibly hard to filter out the difference made to the atmosphere between methane given off by cows to that given off by chemical plants. And some people would consider the cattle to be a manmade contribution because they're being intentionally farmed for consumption.

Locally I know our train system dislikes hot weather. Days of +45C were rare so the track steel was not made to cope with prolonged temperatures of that nature. Last November we had a week of it. Unsurprisingly commuters were not happy. If such events are to become more common then the entire rail network will need replacing. And we all know how government loath spending money on old stuff.

As Mr. Magellan has said, it really doesn't matter how much we're contributing to the change, the evidence suggests climate change is happening. We can complain that the trains are out or the flights have been cancelled or that the harvest failed again but that won't fix the problem. If it's something we can slow (or gods forbid actually stop) then we should stop moaning and start trying.

It's a long term thing. And very few people much less governments thing long term. Maybe it's time we started.

Rhianon Jameson said...

Golly, I'm going to have to start hiring people to help me out on this one!

I try not to engage with conspiracy theorists, and limit my discussion of the Trilateral Commission to alternate Thursdays. But whether climate change is real, it is undeniable that it is being used as an excuse to centralize decision-making and to at least recommend huge transfers of wealth to Less-Developed Nations. Maybe that's good policy, maybe it's not, but it's hard to refute. To quote President Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, "Never let a good crisis go to waste."

But yeah, I'm not suggesting a conspiracy to hide the "truth" about the climate, whatever objective truth might be. I do think that scientists are predisposed to finding certain results. In economics, it's an open secret that no one gets published if the paper just says yeah, markets tend to be competitive. So the literature is littered with papers that prove, yet again, that under some set of assumptions, markets aren't competitive.

The problem with saying that when extremes are more frequent, that's evidence of climate change is that the prediction is we're getting warmer, not just more variable in terms of climate. So looking at variance just doesn't tell us about the mean.

I'm not a climate scientist, so I can't directly assess the competing claims, but I haven't yet been persuaded that we have a crisis on our hands. Maybe I'm wrong. Smarter people than I have cogitated on this, and a majority disagree with me. So be it. But if we're going to spend billions on the issue, I'd like to be persuaded. I really resent being told (by politicians, not my friends here) patted on the head and told not to worry about it, just hand over the money and we'll take care of the spending.

Call me suspicious by nature, but I'd like the people who don't benefit from the Climate Change Industrial Complex to agree that we have a problem on our hands. :)