Anti-Science

Global Warming, Johnny Ball, Randi, and Other Giant Messes

As Sam alluded to in his Afternoon Inquisition yesterday, Randi recently posted an essay expressing his approval of the Petition Project, which is a bunch of people, mostly non-scientists and the rest non-climatologists, who think global climate change isn’t happening and even if it is it’s not man-made and even if it is it’s not that big a deal. Can you hear my eyes rolling? Yeah, it’s awfully reminiscent of the creationists’ and 9/11 conspiracy theorists’ attempts to disprove evolution by getting people who don’t know better to sign a piece of paper. So that was disappointing. Everyone in the intertubez wrote about it, and I particularly liked Massimo‘s take, which clearly exposes the fallacies and failure of critical thinking in Randi’s piece.

Last night Randi posted a follow-up in which he backtracks on a few points, including the Petition, and appears to change his mind and agree that AGW is “likely true.” So that was a bit better. Let’s hope that everyone who read the first article also reads the second. (EDIT: Today Orac describes why this new essay also fails.)

Right now, England is abuzz with news of Johnny Ball, a children’s TV performer who ranted against AGW on stage a few nights ago at Robin Ince’s 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People. Johnny is sort of like the equivalent of Mr. Wizard here, so it’s quite a big deal.

I wasn’t at that first show, but I was at the second night on Wednesday, and Neil Denny and I had the opportunity to interview Johnny about his views. Listen on iTunes*, subscribe to the RSS, or click below.

[audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/skepchick/JohnnyBall.mp3|titles=Johnny Ball at 9 Lessons|artists=Skepchick Podcast]

*And by the way, speaking of iTunes, have you noticed that the podcast has been fairly regular and packed with interesting interviews? If you’ve been enjoying it, why not give us a nice rating and review? Just a thought. No pressure.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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69 Comments

  1. Randi is essentially right on many points, possibly wrong on others. The Petition Project is likely crap, but the points he raises about the difficulty of predicting the effects of C02 on global climate are dead on.

    This is a pet peeve of mine, because it overlaps my area of study–computer simulation. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that all computer simulations of climate are lousy predictors of future events. This is historically true (no climate simulation predicted the current pace of ice loss or overall temperature trends) and theoretically true as well.

    Similarly, ice core data and so forth are great windows into the past, but since we don’t know what differences between the past and the present are significant, they don’t provide rock solid foundations for predicting the future. We’re missing variables. But even if we did know all the variables that go into the great climate equation, the equation itself is neither knowable nor computable.

    None of which means that human beings are not having serious effects on the climate. It doesn’t even mean that we don’t have good reasons to think that humans beings are having serious effects on the climate. We probably are and we certainly do.

    What it means is that we don’t know with any precision what those effects are or the rate at which those effects will occur.

    We also have no way of knowing whether we can actually do anything at this point to stop whatever changes we may already have set in motion.

    So when Randi says that “more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming”, he is precisely correct.

    Should we stop burning fossil fuels? Certainly. It’s a lousy, limited, dirty way to get energy. But based on the failure of current models to accurately predict anything, we should not base our future behavior on those models.

    What strikes me as tragic is that Randi got branded, immediately and inaccurately, as a AGW denier. Likely, someone will so brand me after reading this, just as inaccurately. PG and others did not act skeptically or reasonably in attacking him and this skepchick post portrays the same irrational bias. It is possible to be critical of the current hysteria and it’s attendant poor policy decisions without “denying the science.”

    The 2007 IPCC report is actually, verifiably, demonstrably wrong on crucial points. So to say that that conference of climate scientists failed to demonstrate an understanding of the climate is not “denying” the science, it’s pointing out a gaping discrepancy between what they said was going to happen and what actually is happening.

  2. @sethmanapio:

    PG and others did not act skeptically or reasonably in attacking him and this skepchick post portrays the same irrational bias. It is possible to be critical of the current hysteria and it’s attendant poor policy decisions without “denying the science.”

    Who is PG? What “irrational bias” did this post portray? Please be precise. Point to where I even included the phrase “denying the science.” Your comment is completely irrelevant and appears to be in response to another post entirely.

  3. I was at the 9 Lessons with Johnny Ball; it was embarrassing. Many of the audience could demolish his arguments in a debate (I have tried to do this on my blog at http://lordmauve.mauveweb.co.uk/2009/12/johnny-ballsup/) perhaps even because of an interest in science that his TV programmes sowed the seeds of, but he was the one standing on stage lecturing us.

    The issue with Randi’s comments was that he claimed a lack of consensus in the face of his personal failure to appreciate the facts – couched in some woolly language. I’m of the opinion his follow-up was also couched in some very woolly language. When I’m wrong I stand up and say, “Ok, ok, I’m the idiot.” and I’m not satisfied that Randi has done anything like that. Certainly his crazy discussion of excess heat demonstrated he hasn’t absorbed any facts about AGW. His barb re PZ didn’t help; PZ’s blogging is insightful and meticulous in my opinion, and I certainly don’t think he’s been wrong on this.

    I’m all for putting both Randi and Ball out to pasture. It may seem sad but this is not a movement build on personal authority.

  4. I think we have to be very clear in distinguishing between the approaches of Johnny Ball and James Randi on this topic. James Randi wrote a post where he specified throughout the amateur nature of his own opinions, and how he really is no expert. When shown the folly of the piece of proof central to his point (the Petition Project), he backed down on that point and admitted where he was in error. While I may not be perfectly convinced the stand-down came due to a new-found appreciation of the evidence, rather than the need to fight a PR fire, his follow-up post did strike me as having a genuine sense of having dropped the ball. He’s also on some pretty heavy medications and treatments at the moment, which he even acknowledged the potential influence of himself. (Get well soon Randi, sincerely).

    Johnny Ball, however, not only stood by his views in this interview, but went further and made yet more outlandish statements (from what I heard reported, I mean – I wasn’t at the 9LaCfGP gig). Here there was no sense of ‘well I don’t know everything’ or ‘I could be wrong’ – instead he put himself as a (former) engineer on par with those who’d spent their lives in climate research, and even made accusations of underhand deals on grant money to back up his anti-science. Bewildering.

    With Randi’s post, I can shrug and accept that even men as great as Randi can be wrong – we’re all human. But the Johnny Ball ache has been particularly disappointing – he was a legend when I was a kid, he packed so much interest and wonder into maths and science, and it’s wildly disillusioning to see him having stood still as the science moved on around him.

  5. Actually, first we had David Nutt, and now Johnny Ball – are all scientific controversies in the UK going to be genitalia-based from now on? Really makes me worry about what Brian Cox is going to do next…

  6. @Rebecca:

    Last night Randi posted a follow-up in which he backtracks on a few points, including the Petition, and appears to change his mind and agree that AGW is “likely true.”

    Randi doesn’t backtrack, and he didn’t, at any point, say that AGW was not likely to be true. So why did you think that he was changing his mind?

    And PG is PZ, obviously enough.

  7. I mean, jesus H. Christ on a pony… you reference Massimo’s piece as a great breakdown… but Massimo sets up a deliberate strawman here:

    Yes, the history of science has documented many blunders made by scientists, which usually are redressed by the built-in self-correcting mechanisms of science itself. But to imply that therefore the idea of human-caused global warming is another of these mistakes

    Which of course, Randi doesn’t say. Let’s add to that that climate models do, in fact, rely on an equation (actually on several, but what the heck), and the ridiculing of the idea that we can solve practical and tractable problems more easily than intractable theoretical ones and you get the chief skepchick cheering for what basically amounts to a cheap character assassination.

    Which to me, is a sign of irrational bias. But I could be wrong. It could be a sign of sloppy analysis for some other reason.

  8. @sethmanapio:

    Randi doesn’t backtrack, and he didn’t, at any point, say that AGW was not likely to be true. So why did you think that he was changing his mind?

    And PG is PZ, obviously enough.

    First of all, how is that obvious? I didn’t even mention PZ in my post. Did you even bother to read it before writing your comment/dissertation? I understand that it must be embarrassing to realize that it’s clear you didn’t read it, but please, at least admit it.

    Randi’s first essay reads in part:

    “Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous. . . . I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid.”

    I could nearly reprint the entire article to support that. If you read that article and DIDN’T think Randi supported The Petition Project and seriously doubted AGW, you read a different article.

    And Randi does backtrack on the Petition, writing in the second post that after researching it he has changed his mind. If you read his second essay, that is patently obvious and I don’t know why you’re asking that I waste my time to point it out to you.

  9. I can’t say I’m surprised by the resistance to accepting AGW. It reminiscent of past instances of beating an industry over the head with the facts until they finally say “oh, that“.

    Medical studies in the 1930s showed that lead-based paints were poisoning children but the paint industry fought tooth and nail to avoid changing their formulations. It took decades before they finally, grudgingly, admitted culpability.

    The same sort of thing is true with leaded gasoline, asbestos insulation, tobacco, CFCs…

    I know it’s hard to look back and believe that anyone would’ve said these things were safe. It sounds crazy in retrospect but at the time, a lot of people resisted. They used similar rhetoric: “alarmist”, “controversy”, “unproven”. They trotted out their own, hand-picked experts to refute the data. And a lot of people believed it, or at least had enough doubt in their minds that corrective action was delayed. In the end, though, the science won out and the affected industry finally said “oh that lead poisoning”, “oh that lung cancer”, “oh that ozone hole”.

    The stakes are much higher this time. The oil, coal and mining industries will have to make major changes if we’re ever going to make a difference in greenhouse gas emissions. This isn’t just a matter of reformulating Winter Blossom or slapping a warning label on a pack of Marlboros. There’s a lot of money at stake and it’s understandable that the stakeholders are resistant to make any concessions. It’s likely to take a lot of beating over the head with data before we hear “oh that global warming”.

    Sure, it’s possible that all of these scientists, whose job it is to study the climate, have got it wrong. Possible but increasingly unlikely.

  10. @Rebecca: Did you even bother to read it before writing your comment/dissertation?

    ————

    Yes, I did. And then I read the articles you referenced. In the second Randi article, PZ’s comments feature prominently. Since you referenced that article, and that’s what we’re discussing, I didn’t think it was that much of a stretch to make.

  11. @Rebecca: And Randi does backtrack on the Petition, writing in the second post that after researching it he has changed his mind.
    —————

    True. But he also references C02 as a greenhouse gas and acknowledges it’s affect. It seems to me that Randi’s position is the same in both articles: he isn’t sure.

    Becoming more sure or altering your opinion based on more data isn’t “backtracking”. It’s intellectual honesty.

  12. @Rebecca: If you want to talk about PZ’s comments in response to Randi, or Randi’s in response to PZ’s, it would make a lot more sense to discuss that on one of the blogs in question where it is already being discussed.

    —————

    So, if you reference an article, I shouldn’t discuss its contents? Why reference the article, then?

  13. I think the most frustrating aspect for me of the Randi post is that it doesn’t leave you anywhere to go. He isn’t presenting anything new, just a “well it seems implausible to me” and a lousy petition. Typically I’d want to follow something like this up by reviewing the evidence presented.

    With regard to why he would do this (again more the lack if cogent supporting argument that the position itself), who knows. I don’t think blaming the meds at the point is warranted. We don’t know that and it’s condescending.

    The respectful, practical, and skeptical response it to treat Randi like anyone else and take his position on the merits of the evidence behind it, which is happily how the community has responded.

  14. @Steve: Sure, it’s possible that all of these scientists, whose job it is to study the climate, have got it wrong. Possible but increasingly unlikely.

    ————

    Actually, as I point out it’s more than possible. When it comes to specifics, it’s certain.

    Climate science is lousy at making predictions about climate change. That’s no more controversial, scientifically, than saying that macroeconomists are lousy at making predictions about economic change.

  15. @namidim: “The respectful, practical, and skeptical response it to treat Randi like anyone else and take his position on the merits of the evidence behind it, which is happily how the community has responded.”

    I agree completely. For the most part, the response from fellow skeptics has been entirely appropriate in highlighting Randi’s sloppy thinking.

  16. @Rebecca: Now you’re just being purposely dense. I’m bored with this pointless discussion.

    ———–

    No, I’m trying to make sense of your complaint. You referenced an article. I referenced its contents. This is somehow inappropriate. This makes no sense to me.

    It’s not like I went two links deep or something like that, and it’s not like you didn’t express an opinion on the second Randi article (or at least, linked to an opinion you support). It seemed to me that the contents of that article should be fair game for discussion and that you would be familiar with them. My bad.

  17. @Rebecca: For the most part, the response from fellow skeptics has been entirely appropriate in highlighting Randi’s sloppy thinking.

    ————

    Except for Massimo, who constructs a strawman of sloppy thinking to highlight, and PZ Myers, who went crazy. And you, of course.

    It would be nice if there could be an actual discussion on this topic. Randi made some bloomers, and some good points. But of course, it’s easier to ridicule the bloomers than it is to acknowledge the good points.

  18. @sethmanapio: If you want to criticize the methods of the climatological community for determining the impact of carbon on warming, I’d suggest demonstrating some understanding of the argument being made for AGW and critique it in terms of actual science being done rather than opinionating on the fidelity of unspecified “simulators” based on your experience with similarly unspecified “simulators”. I have experience with “simulators” as well. So there:P

    With regard to the skeptical response, when Randi opinionates about a controversial scientific topic, references a blatantly bogus petition, and fails to provide any new information or analysis of any weight I fail to see how calling him out on that is hysterical and irrational. If he has solid evidence that demonstrates real problems with actual claims being made by the scientific community, I will be happy to read them.

    Furthermore, when an anonymous online individual speculates about topics they have no expertise on in an authoritative tone, that is just the internet. When a leading authority in the skeptical movement does it on their official blog, particularly on an issue of such great importance and political sensitivity, they should not expect the “I just have an opinion” defense to be well received.

  19. I think one of the issues here is that there is a reasonably large overlap between skeptical people and libertarians (I count myself amongst both groups). While this is often not a huge issue because the two fields don’t seem to intersect much, and if they do, they tend to “agree” with each other, it does become a bit of a problem when they do intersect, but don’t agree. Some libertarians seem to forget their skepticism when the evidence contradicts their libertarian ideals. In this particular case, the thinking seems to go along the lines of “government intervention is bad, global warming can probably only be solved by government intervention, therefore global warming must be false.”

    Penn & Teller have shown similar lines of thinking.

    Not sure how to deal with this problem, though.

    Just one additional note about simulations.

    sethmanapio wrote: “I feel pretty comfortable in saying that all computer simulations of climate are lousy predictors of future events.”

    This is at the same time absolutely true and absolutely misleading. Climate simulations contain many parameters that can’t be predicted reliably, such as the activity of the sun. However, that doesn’t mean that they are worthless, because those parts of the predictions are not pertinent to the predictions concerning global warming. Or, put another way, while we don’t know for example how the sun will behave, we can still get reliable results for best-case and worst-case sun activities. So while the simulations will not reliably predict the temperature in five years, they do reliably predict the possible high and low values for the temperature in five years.

    And the values don’t look particularly great, regardless of the parameters.

  20. @namidim: I’d suggest demonstrating some understanding of the argument being made for AGW and critique it in terms of actual science being done

    ———-

    I did, actually. I pointed out that the 2007 IPCC report was wrong on specific points, because their climate models do not predict the future well. I linked to an article from national geographic as a source.

    See what I mean about the knee jerk reactions on this topic? Did you just assume that I must not know what I’m talking about because I disagree with your concept of climate science?

  21. @Lukas: However, that doesn’t mean that they are worthless, because those parts of the predictions are not pertinent to the predictions concerning global warming.

    ———-

    This is false. The models don’t handle enormously pertinent information well at all. For example, they don’t model the effect of the ocean very well, which is why the IPCC is off by about a factor of three in predicting arctic ice melt.

    In case you are wondering, that means that it is melting much faster than projected.

    We cannot, in fact, get reliable results from climate models. The reason we can’t is because of the nature of the climate. This is not controversial, weird, or misleading. It’s just math.

  22. @Steve:

    Very good points all through.

    The oil, coal and mining industries will have to make major changes if we’re ever going to make a difference in greenhouse gas emissions.

    There will just have to be some losers in the short run. No way around it. I heard a report on NPR last week where coal companies and miners said that anything that caused us to use less coal was a “threat to their way of life.” Even if AGW was true, solar was cheap and widely available their position is and will always be “drill, baby, drill.” I don’t think they want to negotiate.

  23. @davew: I don’t think they want to negotiate.

    ————-

    For once I agree with davew.

    Where I suspect we’ll part ways is that I think that the fossil fuel people are largely supportive of the current plans, in that they know they’ll fail. “Limiting” coal burning is an obvious fail with the American people, because it’s frequently couched in terms of a lower standard of living.

    Take the $100B fund that’s being proposed right now. Clearly a loser, clearly a waste of money. Giving China cash to “limit” their carbon output is probably going to result in the giving of cash but not in the lowering of emissions.

    That same money spent on research and development of fossil fuel alternatives would be much more likely to destroy the oil and coal industries, hugely improve the worldwide standard of living, and have a much greater effect on emissions, without the attendant scary rhetoric about giving up our cars or whatever.

    So probably, the fossil fuel guys love the emissions-centric policy push. It keeps them in business because it’s an easy enemy to fight.

  24. @sethmanapio: We cannot, in fact, get reliable results from climate models. The reason we can’t is because of the nature of the climate. This is not controversial, weird, or misleading. It’s just math.

    Chaotic behaviour doesn’t mean something can’t be modelled, just that the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions make it impossible to predict indefinitely far into the future. Meteorologists routinely predict tomorrow’s weather accurately, and climate can be predicted similarly.

    That ice is melting faster than expected points to positive feedback that isn’t modelled. This means the climate models will need refinement. What it does not mean is that we have zero ability to predict what will happen and thus “we should not base our future behavior on those models.” It quite obviously does not mean the earth is cooling.

  25. @sethmanapio: Take the $100B fund that’s being proposed right now. Clearly a loser, clearly a waste of money. Giving China cash to “limit” their carbon output is probably going to result in the giving of cash but not in the lowering of emissions.

    Where are you getting that this money would be going to China? What I understood is that this money was for poor countries, and indeed China was challenged to pony up some of their $2+trillion in cash reserves to do the same.

  26. Having met Randi on a few occasions, I was struck by how insistent he was on using precise language. An offhand quip like “Oh, they’re ALL crazy” would stop him. No, not ALL of them – maybe a few. And not ‘crazy’ but ill informed. So, I learned enough to be careful with exaggerated eye-rolling comments about the woo crowd.

    With Randi’s original post and the most recent defense of that post, he looks to have departed from that rigorous precision. And honestly, Randi doesn’t need to weigh in on AGW at all. He’s got enough on his plate as it is.

  27. @sethmanapio:
    I come into this discussion assuming it pertains to the arguments and associated rebuttals made in and in response to Randi’s post. Perhaps I am missing your angle as a result. You do reference a simulation result, but I fail to see which major claim it pertains to.

    For clarification, the claim of AGW (what we are presumably talking about) is that
    1)The globe is warming and
    2) that it is anthropogenic (or man made)

    More specifically we are talking about Randi’s post which takes exception to the consensus claim by the IPCC:

    “… (the IPCC) has issued several comprehensive reports in which they indicate that they have become convinced that “global warming” is and will be seriously destructive to life as we know it, and that Man is the chief cause of it….”

    so to that I will add
    3)This is, in the long run, a very bad thing

    Randi’s original post appears to focus on #2 and #3 and most of the disagreement is that he makes that argument in a particularly sloppy way (the argument against #2 being particularly bad).

    With regard to the simulation in question, which of those three points do you think is undermined by the inability to effectively simulate exactly how quickly the ice will melt? Is that the only, or even primary, evidence for any of the three points? Do you think that in some way makes Randi’s specific arguments less fallacious?

  28. @Mauve: Meteorologists routinely predict tomorrow’s weather accurately, and climate can be predicted similarly.

    ———-

    This is not true. Climate is fundamentally more complex than weather, and short term predictions of chaotic systems (which the climate is not, it’s a complex adaptive system, which is much worse) are fundamentally different than long term.

    And yes, if a model is off by a factor of three, that does in fact mean that it is useless as a policy guide… especially when that policy concerns making subtle changes to our output that we can’t predict the usefullness of.

  29. @namidim: For clarification, the claim of AGW (what we are presumably talking about) is that

    ———-

    A theory makes predictions. If the theory fails to make predictions, that does not confirm the theory, regardless of how the errors fall.

    It isn’t that we can’t predict “exactly” how quickly the polar ice will melt, it is that we cannot predict approximately the rate of ice melt. The IPCCs predictions are decades off. And that is a very bad thing, because the theory that climate change will be steady and not involve sudden change is reliant on a particular rate of ice loss.

    Furthermore, being vastly wrong about a crucial result doesn’t engender any confidence in the rest of the results, which are going to be effected by the one they are wrong about.

    And this isn’t one simulation, it is the 14 best models presented by the IPCC.

    All of which verifies what Randi said, which is that our ability to predict the system is poor, and reinforces his last point, which is that we need to invest in infrastructure to handle humanitarian issues before worrying about tweaking the climate. We may not have time to tweak the climate, even if we knew how.

  30. @Mauve: Simulations are (typically) iterative processes where the results of one simulation step are used to feed the next step. As a result if the system you are modeling is highly unstable (i.e. a small change in step N results in a significant divergence in step N + 1) your error accumulates exponentially.
    This is not true of all simulations since it depends on what you are modeling, how you are modeling it, what your starting data is, etc.

  31. @namidim: I am a computer scientist, I don’t chaos spelled out.

    If your model is increasingly underestimating when compared to measured results, I agree that this rather decreases what you can say about its validity in the longer term. What it does not allow you to do is act as if the model is overestimating.

  32. @sethmanapio:
    I have to assume we’re talking about the long term effects being bad, because the predictions made by AGW about the Earth warming and it being caused by Human development are not based purely on simulations, do make predictions, and as new data comes in the results are pointing very strongly in a very particular direction.

    The evidence that global warming would have profound consequences is not based singularly on climate simulations. I would suggest reading through the IPCC reports http://www.ipcc.ch/ and critiquing the actual case being made by the IPCC in terms of the actual evidence and assumptions behind that case.

    Also, just to tie this back to the original point, none of this excuses the particular arguments that Randi made. Even assuming for a moment that the scientific community is completely wrong about all three assertions, Randi’s post adds nothing to the discussion because it isn’t critiquing those claims in a meaningful way (as pointed out in detail by a number of people referenced in the original post).

  33. There was a really good post and discussion of this over at Quackometer (http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2009/12/james-randi-global-warming-and-nature.html) and I heartily agree with one of the main points. Since individual skeptics can’t be knowledgeable on all subjects at once, we need to defer to the experts on these big issues. That is not to say that we shouldn’t do our best to educate ourselves as much as possible before speaking out, but figuring out the credible sources and using them as resources are far more important than personal experiences, feelings, and biases.

    Science is a damn dirty, messy, sometimes chaotic process. I’m still learning how it works from the inside, and much of that is shielded from public reporting and debate. (Mostly, cuz it can bore the shit out of you if you really don’t care.) But if I want to learn about climate change, it’s going to be from the people who are in the trenches everyday, working with data and models, getting through the peer review process and arguing about results at conferences.

    So, I’m not going to get overly upset that Randi doesn’t understand the intricacies of climate change, as I would never expect him to be an expert on the subject anyway. But climate change is an issue for skeptics, as a peek at the JREF boards during Climategate seemed to show, some who were calling on skeptics to “investigate these AGW claims.” So I can see why Randi wanted to comment on it, but Swift would have been much better served had they asked a climate scientist, someone in the trenches, to write a guest post about it. Maybe those scientists are becoming wary of anyone with the name “skeptic” since that world has been co-opted by so many climate change “contrarians” (stealing John Rennie’s phrase.) This can only make that situation worse.

    Finally, because I’m rambling and should really get back to work… from a science outreach perspective, it’s never a good idea when faced with dissenting questions about AGW or vaccines or anything to say to the person, “oh that’s stupid, everyone knows that.” If I said that to my students every time one of them asked why Pluto wasn’t a planet, I’d be the jerk. Sometimes you just have to explain it again, and listen to their concerns. And I don’t think I see enough of that in the public arena. (Or maybe just the internet where people are jerkier by nature.) And I think Phil Plait did just that in response to Randi’s post, so kudos to him for that.

  34. @Mauve: What it does not allow you to do is act as if the model is overestimating.

    ———–

    If your model is consistently wrong in any direction at all, and the system is complex, you can’t actually draw any conclusions besides “my model doesn’t predict this system at all.”

    The problem I have is that the policy drivers are acting as if we can predict the system, and therefore the responses that we are looking at are narrow and possibly drastically wrong. Heck, the response that they’re contemplating is wrong even if the models are correct, but since the models aren’t…

  35. @sethmanapio
    With regard to your response to Mauve, while I agree that is generally the case:
    1) making the assertion that the model has no long term validity without understanding the model is silly. I may not be able to predict the exact melt on an ice cube in boiling water in .2 seconds, but I’m pretty sure I could very accurately predict it in 10 minutes.
    2)As mentioned previously, your assertion that any and all recommendations made by the IPCC are based purely (or even mostly) on this model (or any model for that matter) has not been made. So help me out, which IPCC policy position do you think is based on a prediction of too much ice melt and why?

  36. @namidim: The evidence that global warming would have profound consequences is not based singularly on climate simulations.

    ————

    No kidding. I never claimed otherwise. What I said was that the specific predictions about what will happen and when are based largely on climate models. The climate models are bad.

    “This will have bad consequences at some unspecified point” is not a scientific prediction. A prediction about, say, sea level rise in a specific time frame IS a scientific prediction.

    One that they are wrong about. I don’t care what the basis of a theory that makes lousy predictions is. I care about whether the theory makes good predictions. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

    Randi’s essay may not have contributed much to the discussion, but that’s not a reason to drag him over the coals and ridicule him (which is what Massimo did). He made a couple of good points (which I’ve mentioned) and a bunch of bad points (which everyone else has mentioned).

    My problem is that the response to Randi has been exclusively to act as if climate science has a strong record of verified predictions. Because without that record, we don’t have any reason to trust the predictions of climate scientists.

    I don’t disagree with their premise. The idea that we are having a serious effect on the global climate is well founded. My problem is with the insistence that we know with any precision what the effect is, that we can approximate what it is going to be, and that we know how to steer the climate in some desired direction.

  37. @sethmanapio: If your model is consistently wrong in any direction at all, and the system is complex, you can’t actually draw any conclusions besides “my model doesn’t predict this system at all.”

    Any computation model of the climate can be tested by how well its predictions match up with observational data in the past. No model that has been used to predict climate change can be consistently wrong or it would not pass the most basic requirements of such a model. If it’s diverging now, and I have no idea of the specifics of the divergence you claim, then it has not lost all its predictive power. It decreases the confidence at longer timescales, perhaps a lot, but it’s not useless.

    Even “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight” has not lost all its predictive power.

  38. @namidim: making the assertion that the model has no long term validity without understanding the model is silly.

    ———-

    This is not ‘a’ model, it’s 14 models. All of them are wrong about a crucial matter. The problem is that the rate of ice melt is important, it creates feedback in the rest of the system and that feedback changes depending on the rate of melt. So, yes, if I know that your model doesn’t predict a key dependency with any accuracy, I know that it is not an accurate model overall.

    There’s no verification that the climate models predict even the basic shape of the overall function. If they’re wrong in the short term, there’s no reason to anticipate that they are correct in the long term.

    A major problem with many climate models is that we can’t understand them, because the algorithms are unpublished and the source is closed. Add to that for any given paper, there’s no way to ever discover what version of the model was used or to recover that version even if the code was available, and you have a serious methodological problem.

    The IPCC does not predict too much ice melt, they predict far too little. Any policy having anything to do with curbing emissions over decades (the current policies) is based on a gradual warming scenario and discounts sudden climate shifts. But we know that such shifts have happened in the past, and arctic ice melt is widely considered (in the climate science community) to be a possible driver of sudden climate shifts.

    Further, again, the entire model is flawed if this key driver is not predicted accurately. So any policy that focuses on reducing emissions to some level makes assumptions about what effect that will have. But there isn’t much evidence to support the assumptions.

    Which is why I disagree with an emissions, carbon driven solution mindset. The better solution would focus on a long term strategy to develop alternate energy and a short term strategy to handle humanitarian needs, concurrent with open source/open data standards in the field.

  39. @Mauve: No model that has been used to predict climate change can be consistently wrong or it would not pass the most basic requirements of such a model.

    ———–

    Read up. They are in fact ALL wrong. That’s the point I’m making. Consistently. Wrong.

    And I’ve linked to an article on this twice. That should help you to have an idea about what I’m talking about.

  40. @sethmanapio:
    I disagree on three points
    1)Again I think your attributing way more policy to simulator results than is actually being done by the IPCC, but I’m not going to beat that dead horse.

    2)Based on the personalities involved I am not generally surprised by the kind of response Randi’s article got. If anything I think the major skeptical figures made a point of behaving the same way they usually do to someone making such a statement from a position of authority.

    3)We do know one way to get the climate to respond in a given direction: produce more or less carbon. Unsurprisingly this is the focus of climate legislation. As far as specificity, just because I can’t tell you what bones you’ll break in a car crash doesn’t mean we should be arguing about putting breaks in the car. If you want to criticize the policy, why not refer to an actual policy position from the IPCC’s website and attack the evidence it’s actually based on.

  41. I’d just like to say that I feel anyone who is less than 100% certain that there is current AGW gets labeled a denier.

    As I said before, I think its too late. AGW is happening, and I think there’s nothing we can do to stop it. All we can do is find ways of lessening future detriment. I’m not talking about 5-10 years down the road, but 50-100 years down the road. We didn’t get ourselves in to this overnight, and we won’t get ourselves out of this overnight either.

    Now, if you feel that as of right now, you can’t tell whether its AGW or not, that’s fine. Climitology is very complex, possibly one of the most complex sciences out there. You’re going to need more than just a slide rule.

  42. @namidim: We do know one way to get the climate to respond in a given direction: produce more or less carbon.

    ————

    Actually, this is not true. It could be that if we produce less carbon now, we’ll have desired effects in 10 years, or it could be that we’ve already created a situation will slow down the Gulf Stream enough to turn Northern Europe into a glacier. That’s the point.

    The IPCC is basing their policy recommendations on their understanding of climate science. That understanding is turned into models and predictions, which is the only way we have of verifying their understanding.

    The models and predictions do not support the hypothesis that climate science is well understood. Given that, there is no reason to suppose that pushing hard for drastic emissions changes now, even if that were feasible, is the optimal response.

    I have mentioned several times that I disagree with a policy centered on carbon and reducing emissions. I have explained why. If you do not see that as specific enough, that’s fine. But don’t pretend that I’m not addressing an actual policy.

  43. @OneHandClapping: I nominate sethmanapio as President of the World. I cannot imagine a better candidate than someone who is always right.

    ————–

    If I didn’t think I was right, I wouldn’t have said anything, and I wouldn’t be arguing. If someone added something to my understanding by pointing out a fact or a theory that I was previously unaware of, I would alter my position.

    For example, I’m willing to grant you that China is not receiving any assistance in the current plan from Copenhagen. If that were substantive to my comments, I would have changed my position without worrying about being accused of backtracking. As it isn’t, I did not.

    But you are right, and I was wrong.

    Feel better?

  44. @sethmanapio
    1)I didn’t say what timeline and regardless of timeline the way you can be SURE the earth will continue to heat up is to do nothing. The way to be sure the effects will be worse is to do nothing. So you are essentially arguing that surety of a worst case scenario is better than a possibility of fixing the problem simply because the crappy result is the easier to prove?
    2)You misunderstand me. When I say “policy position,” I mean read the actual policy papers (here: http://www.ipcc.ch/ online, for free, and with pretty in depth detailed justifications, evidence, analysis of the reliability of simulators, etc). Then you could argue against the actual argument they are making and the actual reasoning behind that argument, rather than guessing at how they came to their conclusion and then writing long posts about how wrong your guess about their policy you haven’t actually read is. This would provide value. What you are doing now is sub-par watercooler opinionating. That has no value.

  45. Having gotten sidetracked on Randi, I’d just like to say, in response to Mr Ball: wow.

    There was a lot in that interview, but I really liked the idea that engineers are basically scientists. I am continuously surprised in my daily work how little engineers understand or even appreciate science. In fact, if anything, I’d say there is a strong, 1980’s cinema slobs vs. snobs vibe in my line of work between the engineers (who regard themselves as practical and sensible) and scientists (who they regard as snooty, cloud living, intellectual pantywaysters who make everything to complicated).

  46. @namidim: I am continuously surprised in my daily work how little engineers understand or even appreciate science.

    My favorite comment on engineers versus scientists comes from Cowbirds in Love:

    http://cowbirdsinlove.com/46

    I am an engineer. I don’t kid myself that I have more than a layman’s understanding of science.

    Doing real science is like cleaning your driveway with a toothbrush. It’s tedious, unrewarding, and when you get through nobody else even notices the accomplishment. Engineering is much flashier, but doesn’t lead to new knowledge.

  47. @Lukas:
    I don’t think its just libertarians that have trouble with letting their politics cloud their factual beliefs, but I agree that is an issue in the case of libertarians (a group I count myself amongst, at least in general terms) and climate change (for the record I am not a climate change sceptic, though I don’t like the current policy approach to dealing with it).

    I think part of the problem is that the loudest groups in the public sphere are environmental groups, government officials and the UN. None of these groups have a lot of credibility in libertarian circles and all of them are seen as reflexively in favour of expanding state powers (and with some reason).

    The best thing to show libertarian climate sceptics is this article by Ron Bailey, the science editor of Reason magazine. This is a publication that gets respect in libertarians circles and Bailey was a climate sceptic. And since he has no ideological reason to support climate change and every ideological reason to oppose it his word carries some weight. More than one libertarian has changed their mind based on this article.

  48. I guess what Randi has established is that Skeptics can be arrogant jerks who can’t accept that an intelligent person could disagree with them and you all won’t be happy until you have all skeptics marching in lock step even when you are wrong. :sigh:

    And you are wrong. What you think will STOP CHANGE will have no impact on what is happening and you will have wasted valuable time trying to browbeat folks who agree that we need to take action but just don’t agree as to why. So, when millions of people die of starvation because the resources that could have created sustainable communities was piddled away at climate conferences that spewed more CO2 into the air than 30 small countries put together, you will have to live with that.

    :sighs again:

  49. @namidim: rather than guessing at how they came to their conclusion

    ————-

    You miss the point, dude. Regardless of how they came to their conclusions, their conclusions about what is going to happen do not match what is actually happening.

    I keep saying “They fail to predict important things” and you keep saying “Ah, but you don’t understand the basis of those predictions”.

    The I say, “I don’t like carbon centric policies like emissions reductions” and you keep asking me what particular policy recommendation I don’t like. I don’t agree that we should set a goal of reducing carbon emissions to X year levels by Y date. The IPCC suggests that we do so. It’s not a specific, properly cited policy recommendation, but is it not true that the IPCC recommends that and suggests tools such as vehicle taxes to accomplish that?

    In the fullness of time, the climate is going to shift around. So saying that we can have effect X by doing Y is pointless unless there is some sort of timeframe in which X will occur. That’s what a prediction involves.

    Again, I don’t actually disagree with the basic premise that Co2 is a greenhouse gas and that we produce enough of it to matter a lot to the global climate. I just think that we should be focused on mitigation and carbon replacement to the exclusion of carbon reduction.

  50. @sethmanapio:

    Again, I don’t actually disagree with the basic premise that Co2 is a greenhouse gas and that we produce enough of it to matter a lot to the global climate. I just think that we should be focused on mitigation and carbon replacement to the exclusion of carbon reduction.

    I’m in a similar place, but in my case the objection to the current policy approach is based on the fact that international agreements on a form of pollution as global as greenhouse gasses will be crippled by a collective action problem so vast it is unsolvable. International treaties on emissions reduction cannot work and we are wasting valuable political resources trying to make them work.

    My preferred solution is an international prize fund for technologies to replace carbon-intensive activity (particularly energy and agriculture) with lower-carbon substitutes. Once we have the technology, de-carboning our economy will be low cost enough to be politically viable.

    As a backup plan we need to start researching geoengineering. Its a stopgap measure at best, but if things start getting hairy it might buy us some much needed time.

  51. @infinitemonkey: I’d just like to say that I feel anyone who is less than 100% certain that there is current AGW gets labeled a denier.

    Hmmm. Isn’t that like saying anyone who is less than 100% certain that there is no god gets labeled a believer? That’s a bit drastic. Neutrinos could be microwaving the Earth’s core. Has anyone checked into that?

  52. Dear Rebecca,

    With reference to Johnny Ball, I’m quite surprised that you’ve chosen to contribute to the growing “Judean People’s Front / People’s Front of Judea” schism in groups concerned about climate change. Surely if the ultimate aim of the various groups (i.e. getting humans to tidy up after themselves and to be parsimonious for the sake of prudence), then doesn’t this render any bickering about how those aims are achieved little more than a trivial side-show?

    Not everyone is bothered about the anthropogenic aspect of climate change and it’s religious focus on carbon dioxide. Many prefer to focus on pragmatic actions available now to help us reduce over-all levels of pollution rather than taking part, or even just having forced on us, the incredibly unhelpful bickering over who’s ideas are the most righteous.

    I wouldn’t consider Johnny Ball’s interview to be particularly inflammatory — misguided in parts maybe — but I certainly wouldn’t have used it as a puff-piece to basically say “ha ha! listen to this eccentric 71 year old! He’s silly!” which is how the interview appeared to me.

    It would have been so easy to use Johnny Ball’s interview in a positive way — at around 6’55” he brings up the burdens that humans place on the planet — but it seems (to me at least) that a low attempt to discredit Johnny Ball has been passed along to us the reader / listener. Many people will take notice of Johnny Ball, and getting his views on the bigger picture could have been a boon to the general task of reducing pollution.

    To be pompous for a moment Rebecca, I have come to expect much more from you than this incredibly poor and sloppy Daily Mail style of tacky reporting.

    You have a duty to elicit the fundamental views of your interview subject, not to wallow in any middle ground that may seem at odds with your own viewpoint, and I have to say that you failed to do this this time.

    I write this not as a personal attack against you, but rather as an attack against what I see as a slip in an otherwise excellent writer’s critical skills.

    Thank you for your time,

    David Paste.

  53. @pastedavid: It’s okay, I think you make a fair point. There is something to be said for reaching common ground to clean up the planet, and during the interview I really did keep trying to establish the points where we agreed. Johnny kept talking over me and forcing my mic back toward him, so I’m afraid I wasn’t able to explore that.

    But yes, if the main thrust of this site was to save the planet/human race, then I agree that would have/should have been the main point of the interview.

  54. @pastedavid: Not everyone is bothered about the anthropogenic aspect of climate change and it’s religious focus on carbon dioxide. Many prefer to focus on pragmatic actions available now to help us reduce over-all levels of pollution rather than taking part, or even just having forced on us, the incredibly unhelpful bickering over who’s ideas are the most righteous.

    Whether carbon dioxide contributes to AGW or not is not a small point. If carbon dioxide is a problem then it is likely our biggest pollution problem and should be the primary target of proposed solutions. This is not a religious debate it is a serious and scientific one and getting the correct answers is important.

    If your problem is smoke in your attic then you might try opening the windows or you might check the house to see if there’s a fire.

  55. @davew: I think you are missing my point. I am arguing for action against all pollution. I would consider carbon dioxide to be an indicator only. For climate scientists, it IS a very important indicator, but for botanists, it’s not so important. Botanists may say that the greatest threat is deforestation.

    Whatever. The key thing that we must not let go of is that pollution that damages the environment stretches much further than the narrow focus of climate scientists and carbon dioxide, and it is action on all pollution that must be taken.

    Climate science. Science. Science deals with one variable at a time. So that many climate scientists DO focus on carbon dioxide is fine – that is what they are supposed to be doing. BUT! For the rest of us — those of us who want to do something but aren’t engaged in scientific research of the effect of carbon dioxide on the environment — we need to consider the rest of the emissions generated by human endeavours. It is this mismatch between scientific endeavour & those who understand it’s goals and results; those zealots who take the science and turn it into a religion; and the media who thrive on sensationalistic reporting that manages to churn up a lot of unhelpful ‘contributions’, ultimately hindering the debate.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that it is also a factor in why the Copenhagen meeting won’t do anything of any practical use.

    I’d end with an irrelevant catchphrase too, but I can’t think of one off-hand.

  56. @pastedavid: I think you are missing my point. I am arguing for action against all pollution.

    I don’t disagree with this, but governments like to prioritize.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that it is also a factor in why the Copenhagen meeting won’t do anything of any practical use.

    Copenhagen won’t do anything of practical use because when given a choice of screwing themselves or screwing the next generation governments will always choose the latter.

    I’d end with an irrelevant catchphrase too, but I can’t think of one off-hand.

    History will judge my metaphors as apt and poetic. You just wait.

  57. @davew: Apologies for missing the poetry, I am a bit of a philistine in that respect.

    Hmm, I’m not sure that governments DO like to prioritise at all. I think (at least from the nonsense merchants we have here in the UK) that what they really like to do is react with a twitchy knee to populist demand and mismanage tax money. Actually, it’s likely that it’s ALL they know how to do.

    I can’t really say much more without launching into a rant about education, government meddling, and the politicisation of science, but I am sure you have similar views or have at least heard similar arguments before. ([email protected] if anyone wants to exchange ideas via email & not clog up this comments section)

  58. @Sethmanapio:

    I did, actually. I pointed out that the 2007 IPCC report was wrong on specific points, because their climate models do not predict the future well. I linked to an article from national geographic as a source.

    Sethmanapio,

    I am curious, the NATGEO article wasn’t too specific. It mentioned that the models overpredicted ice loss by a factor 3, but it didn’t discuss the range uncertainty of the models or the measurements. Have you looked into this further? I can’t say that I have, but that is the first point where I would want to sharpen my understanding.

    BTW, I attended a Freeman Dyson lecture 8 or 9 years ago where there was a large contigent of climate scientists in attendence. Dyson’s main point of criticism at that lecture was the over-reliance of computer models that relied on what he called “fudge factors” (model parameters that are tweaked to get agreement with measured data). He also argued that we needed more ground-based measurements. Of late, I think Dyson has taken heat for comments that were skeptical of the scientific consensus on AGW.

    FWIW, Sethmanapio, I think it would be great to see you take your criticisms to the big league over at RealClimate (www.realclimate.org) to see what real climate scientists have to say about your criticisms.

    /BCT

  59. @Billy Clyde Tuggle: FWIW, Sethmanapio, I think it would be great to see you take your criticisms to the big league over at RealClimate (www.realclimate.org) to see what real climate scientists have to say about your criticisms.

    ————-

    If you read the NATGEO article more closely, you’ll note that the models do not overpredict ice loss. They underpredict ice loss. The situation is significantly worse than predicted.

    I’ve read some critique at real climate and some response to these sorts of criticism. Usually, they say it doesn’t much matter for some reason or another. But they do acknowledge that they can’t predict the future of climate with any precision pretty openly.

    But what’s interesting is this discussion on artic sea ice. First, they note the surprising numbers… but they don’t mention why they are surprised.

    In the comments, there’s a lot of citing and discussion of things like sudden climate shift and the ocean conveyor.

    The thing is, I’m not a minority or weird opinion here, just an underexposed one. Over at Weather Underground, Jeff Masters has this to say "Would the glaciers keep accelerating, bringing about an increasing disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet? Nobody knew, since computer models of glacial dynamics were (and still are) in a primitive state.

    Later in the same post, he says this “This positive feedback loop was a bad news surprise that our climate models did not predict. Now we have evidence of a good news surprise that no model predicted–a negative feedback loop that acts to keep the southeast portion of Greenland’s Ice Sheet from runaway glacial acceleration. ”

    The point being that climate scientists know that their models are not predictive. I could bring this up at Real Climate (and people do) and no one would argue that the models are particularly predictive.

    Except that they look at the fact that the didn’t anticipate this ice loss at all, and then they turn around and say that the models are reassuring when predicting the effect of that ice loss on the Ocean Conveyors. I am not sanguine about this reassurance that primitive, demonstrably inaccurate models of a poorly understood system are predictive. Nor should you be.

    I disagree with Dyson. The problem with climate models isn’t fudge factors or a lack of data, the problem with climate models is that they are trying to model the climate. This is simply not a computationally tractable problem. We need much better techniques in simulation to handle that sort of thing, and a much better understanding of climate to inform those techniques.

    This is extremely important when looking at policy responses, such as at the Copenhagen summit, because we have to assume worst case scenarios and we aren’t. In the worst case, we need to look to kill our carbon fuel industry completely as quickly as possible, but we also need to be prepared for radical and extreme shifts in weather patterns, massive flooding in the midwest, year long winters in norther Europe, year long summers in other places… Heavy Weather.

    For those looking to me to suggest a particular policy (and why in FSM’s name you would, I don’t know), I would take the money that is currently being put on the table for bribing developing nations and put about 100 billion of it directly into alternate fuel, climate, disaster relief, and computer science research–both to solve the modeling problem (assuming we can) and to solve the carbon fuel problem, which has to be solved for global security reasons as well as for environmental ones, and finally to come up with the thousands of contigency plans that we need to be on tap for the thousands of disasters that could occur. If we assume 10 billion a year, with 2 billion going to a standard research unit (1 faculty or 2 post docs or 4 grad students), that’s enough to fund 20,000 researchers with 400,000 yearly budgets each for stuff.

    That’s a lot of supercomputers, travel, measuring stations, and analysis, especially in an age where 4 grad students can whip up a massive distributed supercomputer out of PS3s for 20 grand, leaving them 380,000 for Fritos, Tab, and Mountain Dew.

    I’m pretty sure that if I float that concept in any academic gathering, I’ll get a “Hell Yes, my brother, hell yes!” Either that or I’ve found the rare group of academics who don’t like mass quantities of grant money.

    The other advantage of that sort of spending is that you get science out the other side even if this whole “global warming” thing isn’t really happening, so it’s money well spent even if pigs can fly.

  60. If you read the NATGEO article more closely, you’ll note that the models do not overpredict ice loss. They underpredict ice loss. The situation is significantly worse than predicted.

    Actually I needed to re-reade my comment more closely, I meant to say “underpredict” and wrote “overpredict” :-)

    I licked too much lead paint as a baby, so I can’t really offer anything too terribly constructive in response to what you have said. Whether or not modeling the climate effectively is a tractable problem or not, I can’t say. Certainly the system is damn complex, which is why I think the political debates tend to degenerate into binary “global warming is a complete hoax” vs “we must act now or else we are all doomed” extremisms. The counterintutive subtleties (e.g. year long winters in northern Europe) are just too much for the average jane or joe to wrap their head around. This is why talking heads like Limbaugh and their ilk actually get traction from stupid jokes about the snow in Copenhagen.

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