Quotulatiousness

November 30, 2017

QotD: Nuclear winter

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences reported on “Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear Weapons Detonations” but the report estimated the effect of dust from nuclear blasts to be relatively minor. In 1979, the Office of Technology Assessment issued a report on “The Effects of Nuclear War” and stated that nuclear war could perhaps produce irreversible adverse consequences on the environment. However, because the scientific processes involved were poorly understood, the report stated it was not possible to estimate the probable magnitude of such damage.

Three years later, in 1982, the Swedish Academy of Sciences commissioned a report entitled “The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon,” which attempted to quantify the effect of smoke from burning forests and cities. The authors speculated that there would be so much smoke that a large cloud over the northern hemisphere would reduce incoming sunlight below the level required for photosynthesis, and that this would last for weeks or even longer.

The following year, five scientists including Richard Turco and Carl Sagan published a paper in Science called “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.” This was the so-called TTAPS report, which attempted to quantify more rigorously the atmospheric effects, with the added credibility to be gained from an actual computer model of climate. At the heart of the TTAPS undertaking was another equation, never specifically expressed, but one that could be paraphrased as follows:

Ds = Wn Ws Wh Tf Tb Pt Pr Pe etc

(The amount of tropospheric dust = # warheads × size warheads × warhead detonation height × flammability of targets × Target burn duration × Particles entering the Troposphere × Particle reflectivity × Particle endurance, and so on.)

The similarity to the Drake equation is striking. As with the Drake equation, none of the variables can be determined. None at all. The TTAPS study addressed this problem in part by mapping out different wartime scenarios and assigning numbers to some of the variables, but even so, the remaining variables were — and are — simply unknowable. Nobody knows how much smoke will be generated when cities burn, creating particles of what kind, and for how long. No one knows the effect of local weather conditions on the amount of particles that will be injected into the troposphere. No one knows how long the particles will remain in the troposphere. And so on.

And remember, this is only four years after the OTA study concluded that the underlying scientific processes were so poorly known that no estimates could be reliably made. Nevertheless, the TTAPS study not only made those estimates, but concluded they were catastrophic.

According to Sagan and his coworkers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. The greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between 0.5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age. One might expect it to be the subject of some dispute.

But Sagan and his coworkers were prepared, for nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign. The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later.

This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold.

Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming”: the Caltech Michelin Lecture, 2003-01-17.

November 5, 2017

The decline of the (western) Roman empire

Filed under: Economics, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Richard Blake considers some of the popular explanations for the slow decline of the Roman empire in the west:

The Empire was an agglomeration of communities which were illiterate to an extent unknown in Western Europe since about 1450. Even most officers in the bureaucracy were at best semi-literate. There was no printing press. Writing materials were very expensive – one sheet of papyrus cost about £100 in today’s money. Cheaper materials were still expensive and were of little use for other than ephemeral use. Central control was usually notional, and the more effective Emperors – Hadrian, Diocletian, et al – were those who spent much of their time touring the Empire to supervise in person.

The economic legislation of the Emperors was largely unenforceable. Some effort was made to enforce the Edict of Maximum Prices. But this appears to have been sporadic, and it lasted only between 301 and 305, when Diocletian abdicated. The Edict’s main effect was to leave a listing of relative prices for economic historians to study 1,500 years later.

As for inflation, it can be doubted how far outside the cities a monetary economy existed. This is not to doubt whether the laws of supply and demand operated, only whether most transactions were not by barter at more or less customary ratios of exchange. This being so, the debasement of the silver coinage would have had less disruptive effect than the silver inflation in Europe of the sixteenth century. Also, the gold coinage was stabilised over a hundred years before the Western military collapse of the fifth century. And the military crisis of the late third century was overcome while the inflation continued.

Nor is there any evidence that people left the cities in large numbers for the countryside. The truth seems to be that the Roman Empire was afflicted, from the middle of the second century, by a series of epidemic plagues, possibly brought on by global cooling, that sent populations into a decline that continued until about the eighth century. The cities shrank not because their inhabitants left them, but because they died. So far as they were enforced, the Imperial responses to population decline made things worse, but were not the ultimate cause of decline. Where population decline was less severe, there was no economic decline. Whenever the decline went into temporary reverse – as it may have in the fifth century in the East – economic activity recovered.

Von Mises is right that the barbarian invasions were not catastrophic floods that destroyed everything in their path. They were incursions by small bands. What made them irreversible was that they took place in the West into a demographic vacuum that would have existed regardless of what laws the Emperors made.

September 20, 2017

QotD: Government meddling stifles innovation in energy

Filed under: Government, Quotations, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It is unfortunately the case that government meddling on a global scale has massively distorted energy markets through pervasive subsidies, mandates, and price controls. The result is retarded innovation in the technologies of energy generation. A big first step toward renovating our energy supply systems would be to eliminate those impediments to understanding the real comparative benefits and costs of the production and use of energy. Ultimately, the better and far more effective way to ameliorate and avert future climate change is to mobilize human ingenuity through market processes to drive down the costs of no-carbon energy sources. Despite the constraints on innovation caused by government interference, notable advances in no-carbon energy generation technologies have already been made, ranging from innovative nuclear reactor designs to more efficient and cheaper solar panels. New technologies and wealth produced by human creativity will spark a vast environmental renewal in this century.

Ronald Bailey, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century, 2015.

September 5, 2017

“So, let’s consider the concept of a ‘500-year flood'”

Filed under: Environment, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Charlie Martin explains how it’s possible to have two “500-year floods” in less than 500 years:

There have been a lot of people suggesting that Harvey the Hurricane shows that “really and truly climate change is happening, see, in-your-face deniers!”

Of course, it’s possible, even though the actual evidence — including the 12-year drought in major hurricanes — is against it. But hurricanes are a perfect opportunity for stupid math tricks. Hurricanes also provide great opportunities to explain concepts that are unclear to people. So, let’s consider the concept of a “500-year flood.”

Most people hear this and think it means “one flood this size in 500 years.” The real definition is subtly different: saying “a 500-year flood” actually means “there is one chance in 500 of a flood this size happening in any year.”

It’s called a “500-year flood” because statistically, over a long enough time, we would expect to have roughly one such flood on average every 500 years. So, if we had 100,000 years of weather data (and things stayed the same otherwise, which is an unrealistic assumption) then we’d expect to have seen 100,000/500- or 200 500-year floods [Ed. typo fixed] at that level.

The trouble is, we’ve only got about 100 years of good weather data for the Houston area.

July 30, 2017

QotD: Orwell on climate change since Shakespeare’s day

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To the lovers of useless knowledge (and I know there are a lot of them, from the number of letters I always get when I raise any question of this kind) I present a curious little problem arising out of the recent Pelican, Shakespeare’s England. A writer named Fynes Morrison, touring England in 1607, describes melons as growing freely. Andrew Marvell, in a very well-known poem written about fifty years later, also refers to melons. Both references make it appear that the melons grew in the open, and indeed they must have done so if they grew at all. The hot-bed was a recent invention in 1600, and glass-houses, if they existed, must have been a very great rarity. I imagine it would be quite impossible to grow a melon in the open in England nowadays. They are hard enough to grow under glass, whence their price. Fynes Morrison also speaks of grapes growing in large enough quantities to make wine. Is it possible that our climate has changed radically in the last three hundred years? Or was the so-called melon actually a pumpkin?

George Orwell, “As I Please”, Tribune, 1944-11-03.

July 20, 2017

Latest warnings about climate change to mean higher wine prices … maybe

Filed under: Environment, Europe, France, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

London’s local Metro newspaper recently published a scary article about rising temperatures in wine regions across the world and the likelihood of driving wine prices much higher. Colour me skeptical, frankly. Also of a doubting disposition, Paul Austin Murphy indulges in a good, old-fashioned fisking of the alarmist article:

Now here, in all its glory, is a supremely tangential link (found in a Metro article called ‘Global warming is now messing with wine, so can you PLEASE STOP WRECKING THE WORLD‘):

    Global warming is “going to up the price of wine across the board”.

Readers may want to know the details about this fatal connection between man-created global warming and the high price of wine. Though — it must be said straight away — this can’t always the case at present. It must surely depend on which wines you like and where you buy your wine from.

Anyway, this is the hard science bit; so pay attention and put your white coats on. Here goes:

    “Researchers have suggested that rising temperatures in Europe are likely to increase the cost of labour in vineyards, noting that as heat rises in August, a month when a significant amount of the harvest is brought in, there’s a 15% drop in the amount of time labourers are able to work.

    “There’s also a drop in productivity, slowing down the wine production process.”

That’s odd. On average heat always rises in August in most European countries. Metro doesn’t really make it clear if these natural — as well as annual — increases have themselves increased. It also says that “[r]esearchers have suggested”. Yes, they’ve suggested. That’s a very loose word. Though it’s obviously a very precise and important word if you like your wine and you’re also against man-caused global warming.

It’s also the case that in several European wine-producing countries, cold weather is much more of a problem for the wine industry than hot weather (France, in particular). A “hot” vintage in France is very often associated with extremely high quality wine from that vintage.

Another study has admitted that this catastrophic effect on wine production hasn’t been replicated elsewhere. Metro says:

    “Andreas Flouris of the School of Exercise Science at the University of Thessaly reckons that the results of the small-scale study could easily repeat in California, across Europe, and in Australia — so all our wine could be set to hike up in price.”

Now if this wine catastrophe hasn’t yet happened in “California, across Europe, and in Australia” — then where, exactly, has it happened? The initial study mentioned that “most European countries” have been effected by it. (Which ones?) This other study says that it hasn’t yet occurred “across Europe.” How do we make sense of these two seemingly contradictory phrases?

It’s not just about cost. (Though, for Metro, it’s mainly about the cost!) This is also about taste. Metro tells us that

    “[i]ncreased heat is also affecting the taste of wine, damaging the quality of grapes across Europe and shortening the growing season”.

All this — if true — will also affect prices. Shorter growing seasons will certainly affect the price of wine — or at least certain wines from certain countries. This is strange. One main reason why the United Kingdom doesn’t produce much wine is its shortage of warm weather. (British wine makes up 1% of the domestic market.) Yet if temperatures keep on increasing, then surely more wine will be produced in England. That will also have a positive effect on the price of wine! Why doesn’t Metro mention that?

Now what’s all this going to do to London’s dinner-party circuit? I mean Metropolitans are already suffering from severe “austerity”. Add 50 pence (or less) to a bottle of wine and then what have you got? Massive poverty among London’s professional political Pharisees (who also like wine).

It’s fascinating that the Metro author tries to imply that hot weather in (parts of) Europe will somehow have a knock-on effect in California and Australia, isn’t it? The two latter wine-producers are known for their consistency between vintages, because they are warm-weather regions where the grapes are generally able to mature to full ripeness every year almost without fail. Cool climate regions (like Ontario, for example) have much greater variation from vintage to vintage because the local weather varies significantly and the grapes are not always able to fully ripen before they have to be picked (this is more true of red than white grapes, which tend to ripen sooner and can be picked earlier than the red grapes).

June 16, 2017

Canada’s oldest wind farm shutting down but “if there is an incentive, we’d jump all over that”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The owner of the oldest operating wind farm in Alberta is desperately hoping for a big government subsidy to replace the old wind turbines at their Cowley Ridge facility:

The oldest commercial wind power facility in Canada has been shut down and faces demolition after 23 years of transforming brisk southern Alberta breezes into electricity — and its owner says building a replacement depends on the next moves of the provincial NDP government.

TransAlta Corp. said Tuesday the blades on 57 turbines at its Cowley Ridge facility near Pincher Creek have already been halted and the towers are to be toppled and recycled for scrap metal this spring. The company inherited the now-obsolete facility, built between 1993 and 1994, as part of its $1.6-billion hostile takeover of Calgary-based Canadian Hydro Developers Inc. in 2009.

“TransAlta is very interested in repowering this site. Unfortunately, right now, it’s not economically feasible,” Wayne Oliver, operations supervisor for TransAlta’s wind operations in Pincher Creek and Fort Macleod, said in an interview.

“We’re anxiously waiting to see what incentives might come from our new government. . . . Alberta is an open market and the wholesale price when it’s windy is quite low, so there’s just not the return on investment in today’s situation. So, if there is an incentive, we’d jump all over that.”

In February, TransAlta president and chief executive Dawn Farrell said the company’s plans to invest in hydroelectric, wind, solar and natural gas cogeneration facilities in Alberta were on hold until the details of the province’s climate-change plans are known.

June 2, 2017

Schrödinger’s Paris Accords

Filed under: Environment, Humour, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

As Ace points out, the Paris Accords apparently have the same kind of precarious state of existance as Schrödinger’s cat:

This is a common signal from Progressive Messaging Central. The claim being made is that the Paris Accords are simultaneously an ineffectual nothingburger of meaningless symbolism, so why even bother withdrawing?, but also are The Only Thing That Will Keep the Earth from Literally Dying.

Obviously, these can’t both be true at once: Either the Accords do something, or they do not do something. They cannot exist in a state of quantum indeterminacy where they remain in a mixed probabilistic waveform of both “doing something” and “doing nothing” until a Progressive Political Physicist takes a measurement of which state is most helpful for his Religious Fervor at this moment.

This one isn’t over the top, so much as stupid.

Update: Brendan O’Neill posted this to Facebook:

The demented response to Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement — the world is doomed, our children will die, people will drown, locusts will swarm, fires will burn, and any criticism whatsoever of climate-charge alarmism is a species of heresy that must be destroyed — has reminded me why environmentalism is my least favourite ideology. Fearful, shrill, anti-progress, censorious and shamelessly marshalling sad-eyed children to the political end of stymying economic growth despite the fact that half of humankind still lives in poverty: greens are the worst. Trump is a rank amateur in the politics of fear in comparison with these bourgeois moaners and misanthropes.

May 1, 2017

“100% certainty is almost always an indication of a cult rather than any sort of actual truth”

Jay Currie looks at the reaction to a Bret Stephens climate article in the New York Times:

On the science side the greatest threats were the inadequacy of the climate models and the advent of the “hiatus”. The models entirely failed to project any circumstances in which temperature ceased to rise when CO2 continued to rise. However the hiatus created exactly that set of conditions for what is now looking like twenty years. (Right this instant, last year’s El Nino, broke the hiatus. However, rapidly cooling post El Nino temperatures look set to bring the hiatus back into play in the next six months to a year.)

The economic side is even worse. It turns out that renewable energy – windmills and solar – costs a fortune and is profoundly unreliable. Governments which went all in for renewables (see Ontario) found their energy prices hockey sticking and the popularity plummeting without, as it turns out, making even a slight impression on the rise of CO2 concentrations.

The economics of climate change and its “mitigation” are a shambles. And it is beginning to dawn on assorted politicians that they might have been railroaded with science which was not quite ready for prime time.

Which makes it all the more imperative for the Nuccitelli and DeSmog blogs of this world to redouble their attacks on even mildly sceptical positions. Had the alarmists been less certain their edifice could have easily withstood a recalibration of the science and a recalculation of the cost/benefits. But they weren’t. They went all in for a position which claimed to know for certain that CO2 was driving world temperature and that there was no other possible cause for an increase or decrease in that temperature.

The problem with that position is that it was premature and very brittle. As lower sensitivity estimates emerge, as other, non-CO2 driven, temperature controls are discovered, consensus climate science becomes more and more embattled. What had looked like a monopoly on political discourse and media comment begins to fray. The advent of Trump and a merry band of climate change skeptics in the regulatory agencies and in Congress, has pretty much killed any forward motion for the climate alarmists in the US. And the US is where this battle will be won or lost. However, the sheer cost of so called “carbon reduction” schemes in the UK, Germany and the rest of Europe has been staggering and has shown next to no actual benefit so scepticism is rising there too. China has both embarked on an embrace of climate change abatement and the construction of dozens of coal fired electrical generation plants every year.

January 2, 2017

“Honest scientific discourse and debate is often rendered impossible in the face of the ‘new catastrophism'”

Filed under: Cancon, Environment, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

It’s not your imagination — we really do seem to be careening from one ecological disaster to another, all caused by thoughtless human action … well, that’s what the activists are constantly saying:

What is patently obvious from reviewing Canada’s ancient history is that scientists still do not have an adequate understanding of Earth’s complex systems on which to base sound economic and environmental policy. From the upper reaches of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans onwards to the deep interior of the planet our knowledge of complex earth systems is still rather rudimentary. Huge areas of our planet are inaccessible and are little known scientifically. There is still also much to learn from reading the rock record of how our planet functioned in the past.

In so many areas, we simply don’t know enough of how our planet functions.

And yet……

Scarcely a day goes past without some group declaring the next global environmental crisis; we seemingly stagger from one widely proclaimed crisis to another each one (so we are told) with the potential to severely curtail or extinguish civilization as we know it. It’s an all too familiar story often told by scientists who cross over into advocacy and often with the scarcely-hidden sub-text that they are the only ones with the messianic foresight to see the problem and create a solution. Much of our science is what we would call ‘crisis-driven’ where funding, politics and the media are all intertwined and inseparable generating a corrupting and highly corrosive influence on the scientific method and its students. If it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead is the new yardstick with which to measure the overall significance of research.

Charles Darwin ushered in a new era of thinking where change was expected and necessary. Our species as are all others, is the product of ongoing environmental change and adaption to varying conditions; the constancy of change. In the last 15 years or so however, we have seemingly reverted to a pre-Darwinian mode of a fixed ‘immutable Earth’ where any change beyond some sort of ‘norm’ is seen in some quarters as unnatural, threatening and due to our activities, usually with the proviso of needing ‘to act now to save the planet.’ Honest scientific discourse and debate is often rendered impossible in the face of the ‘new catastrophism.’

Trained as geologists in the knowledge of Earth’s immensely long and complex history we appreciate that environmental change is normal. For example, rivers and coastlines are not static. Those coasts, in particular, that consist of sandy strand-plains and barrier-lagoon systems are continually evolving as sand is moved by the waves and tides. Cyclonic storms (hurricanes), a normal component of the weather in many parts of the world, are particularly likely to cause severe erosion. When recent events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy cause catastrophic damage, and spring storms cause massive flooding in Calgary or down the Mississippi valley, and droughts and wildfires affect large areas of the American SW these events are blamed on a supposed increase in the severity of extreme weather events brought about by climate change. In fact, they just reflect the working of statistical probability and long term climate cyclicity. Such events have happened in the past as part of ongoing changes in climate but affected fewer people. That the costs of weather and climate-related damage today are far greater is not because of an increased frequency of severe weather but the result of humans insisting on congregating and living in places that, while attractive, such as floodplains, mountain sides and beautiful coastlines, are especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Promises of a more ‘stable future’ if we can only prevent climate change are hopelessly misguided and raise unnatural expectations by being willfully ignorant of the natural workings of the planet. Climate change is the major issue for which more geological input dealing with the history of past climates would contribute to a deeper understanding of the nature of change and what we might expect in the future. The past climate record suggests in fact that for much of the Earth’s surface future cooling is the norm. Without natural climate change Canada would be buried under ice 3 km thick; that is it normal state for most of the last 2.5 million years with 100,000 years-long ice ages alternating with brief, short-lived interglacials such as the present which is close to its end.

H/T to Kate at SDA for the link.

November 28, 2016

QotD: Science vs media “science”

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I had someone tell me the other day that I was inconsistent. I was on the side of science (being pro-vaccination) but against science (being pro-fossil fuel use). I have heard this or something like it come up in the vaccination debate a number of times, so a few thoughts:

  1. The commenter is assuming their conclusion. Most people don’t actually look at the science, so saying you are for or against science is their way of saying you are right or wrong.
  2. The Luddites are indeed taking a consistent position here, and both “Food babe” and RFK Jr. represent that position — they ascribe large, unproveable risks to mundane manmade items and totally discount the benefits of these items. This includes vaccines, fossil fuels, GMO foods, cell phones, etc.
  3. I am actually with the science on global warming, it is just what the science says is not well-portrayed in the media. The famous 97% of scientists actually agreed with two propositions: That the world has warmed over the last century and that man has contributed to that warming. The science is pretty clear on these propositions and I agree with them. What I disagree with is that temperature sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 concentrations is catastrophic, on the order of 4 or 5C or higher, as many alarmist believe, driven by absurdly high assumptions of positive feedback in the climate system. But the science is very much in dispute about these feedback assumptions and thus on the amount of warming we should expect in the future — in fact the estimates in scientific papers and the IPCC keep declining each year heading steadily for my position of 1.5C. Also, I dispute that things like recent hurricanes and the California drought can be tied to manmade CO2, and in fact the NOAA and many others have denied that these can be linked. In being skeptical of all these crazy links to global warming (e.g. Obama claims global warming caused his daughter’s asthma attack), I am totally with science. Scientists are not linking these things, talking heads in the media are.

Warren Meyer, “Inability to Evaluate Risk in A Mature and Reasoned Fashion”, Coyote Blog, 2015-04-10.

November 22, 2016

Science, technology, and Il Donalduce

John Tierney on the President-elect’s stated views on science:

What will a Trump administration mean for scientific research and technology?

The good news is that the next president doesn’t seem all that interested in science, judging from the little he said about it during the campaign. That makes a welcome contrast with Barack Obama, who cared far too much — in the wrong way. He politicized science to advance his agenda. His scientific appointees in the White House, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Food and Drug Administration were distinguished by their progressive ideology, not the quality of their research. They used junk science — or no science — to justify misbegotten crusades against dietary salt, trans fats, and electronic cigarettes. They cited phony statistics to spread myths about a gender pay gap and a rape crisis on college campuses. Ignoring mainstream climate scientists, they blamed droughts and storms on global warming and then tried to silence critics who pointed out their mistakes.

Trump has vaguely expressed support for federal funding of R&D in science, medicine, and energy, but he has stressed encouraging innovation in the private sector. His election has left the science establishment aghast. Its members were mostly behind Hillary Clinton, both because they share her politics and because she would continue the programs funded by Obama. Their fears of losing funding are probably overblown — there’s strong support in Congress for R&D — but some of the priorities could change.

Trump has vowed to ignore the Paris international climate agreement that committed the U.S. to reduce greenhouse emissions. That prospect appalls environmentalists but cheers those of us who consider the agreement an enormously expensive way to achieve very little. Trump’s position poses a financial threat to wind-power producers and other green-energy companies that rely on federal subsidies to survive.

November 17, 2016

QotD: Scientific credibility

Filed under: Environment, Media, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?

If a person doesn’t believe climate change is real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is that a case of a dumb human or a science that has not earned credibility? We humans operate on pattern recognition. The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.

Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.

Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?

You can’t tell. And if any scientist says you should be able to tell when science is “done” on a topic, please show me the data indicating that people have psychic powers.

So maybe we should stop scoffing at people who don’t trust science and ask ourselves why. Ignorance might be part of the problem. But I think the bigger issue is that science is a “mostly wrong” situation by design that is intended to become more right over time. How do you make people trust a system that is designed to get wrong answers more often than right answers? And should we?

[…]

Science is an amazing thing. But it has a credibility issue that it earned. Should we fix the credibility situation by brainwashing skeptical citizens to believe in science despite its spotty track record, or is society’s current level of skepticism healthier than it looks? Maybe science is what needs to improve, not the citizens.

I’m on the side that says climate change, for example, is pretty much what science says it is because the scientific consensus is high. But I realize half of my fellow-citizens disagree, based on pattern recognition. On one hand, the views of my fellow citizens might lead humanity to inaction on climate change and result in the extinction of humans. On the other hand, would I want to live in a world in which people stopped using pattern recognition to make decisions?

Those are two bad choices.

Scott Adams, “Science’s Biggest Fail”, Scott Adams Blog, 2015-02-02.

July 10, 2016

QotD: Science isn’t something you “believe in”

Filed under: Environment, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The arguments about global warming too often sound more like theology than science. Oh, the word “science” gets thrown around a great deal, but it’s cited as a sacred authority, not a fallible process that staggers only awkwardly and unevenly toward the truth, with frequent lurches in the wrong direction. I cannot count the number of times someone has told me that they believe in “the science,” as if that were the name of some omniscient god who had delivered us final answers written in stone. For those people, there can be only two categories in the debate: believers and unbelievers. Apostles and heretics.

This is, of course, not how science works, and people who treat it this way are not showing their scientific bona fides; they are violating the very thing in which they profess such deep belief. One does not believe in “science” as an answer; science is a way of asking questions. At any given time, that method produces a lot of ideas, some of which are correct, and many of which are false, in part or in whole.

Megan McArdle, “Global-Warming Alarmists, You’re Doing It Wrong”, Bloomberg View, 2016-06-01.

January 15, 2016

QotD: The temptation to “shade” the truth toward the consensus

Filed under: Environment, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

As I am fond of saying, it works like a stock market bubble. There is no need to posit a conspiracy. David Friedman’s view that this is a matter of a build up of many little lies rather than a few big ones is a more realistic as well as a more charitable picture of the mechanism at work.

I am yet more charitable than Professor Friedman. Though I completely agree with him that there are almost certainly many scientists shading their conclusions, it might well be the case that they are not doing so consciously at all. All it would take is for a lot of people with jobs to keep and mortgages to pay each to see which side their bread is buttered when the time comes round to apply for grants. As the American socialist author Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” On the unbuttered side of the bread, when a scientist observes that colleagues who raise doubts suffer for it, she would be acting much like the rest of humanity if she, while never aware of feeling fear, somehow finds herself more comfortable out of the intellectual proximity of these pariahs.

In a way the Rosetta scientists had it easy. All they had to do was hit a moving target half a billion kilometres away. Succeed or fail, there is no kidding yourself and no kidding others. Twenty-eight minutes later you and the world will know.

Natalie Solent, “Bubbles, lies, and buttered toast”, Samizdata, 2014-11-13.

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