Quotulatiousness

July 7, 2014

The BBC losing its balance over climate reporting

Filed under: Britain, Environment, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:16

Matt Ridley on the BBC’s loss of balance:

The BBC’s behaviour grows ever more bizarre. Committed by charter to balanced reporting, it has now decided formally that it was wrong to allow balance in a debate between rival guesses about the future. In rebuking itself for having had the gall to interview Nigel Lawson on the Today programme about climate change earlier this year, it issued a statement containing this gem: “Lord Lawson’s views are not supported by the evidence from computer modelling and scientific research.”

The evidence from computer modelling? The phrase is an oxymoron. A model cannot, by definition, provide evidence: it can provide a prediction to test against real evidence. In the debate in question, Lord Lawson said two things: it was not possible to attribute last winter’s heavy rain to climate change with any certainty, and the global surface temperature has not warmed in the past 15 to 17 years. He was right about both, as his debate opponent, Sir Brian Hoskins, confirmed.

As for the models, here is what Dr Vicky Pope of the Met Office said in 2007 about what their models predicted: “By 2014, we’re predicting that we’ll be 0.3 degrees warmer than 2004. Now just to put that into context, the warming over the past century and a half has only been 0.7 degrees, globally … So 0.3 degrees, over the next ten years, is pretty significant … These are very strong statements about what will happen over the next ten years.”

In fact, global surface temperature, far from accelerating upwards, has cooled slightly in the ten years since 2004 on most measures. The Met Office model was out by a country mile. But the BBC thinks that it was wrong even to allow somebody to challenge the models, even somebody who has written a bestselling book on climate policy, held one of the highest offices of state and founded a think-tank devoted to climate change policy. The BBC regrets even staging a live debate between him and somebody who disagrees with him, in which he was robustly challenged by the excellent Justin Webb (of these pages).

And why, pray, does the BBC think this? Because it had a complaint from a man it coyly describes as a “low-energy expert”, Mr Chit Chong, who accused Lord Lawson of saying on the programme that climate change was “all a conspiracy”.

Lawson said nothing of the kind, as a transcript shows. Mr Chong’s own curriculum vitae boasts that he “has been active in the Green party for 25 years and was the first Green councillor to be elected in London”, and that he “has a draught-proofing and insulation business in Dorset and also works as an environmental consultant”.

So let’s recap. On the inaccurate word of an activist politician with a vested financial and party interest, the BBC has decided that henceforth nobody must be allowed to criticise predictions of the future on which costly policies are based.

June 30, 2014

Emperor penguins at risk

Filed under: Environment, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:15

A somewhat confusing report from BBC News says that due to warming in the Antarctic, there is now record ice extent, which means Emperor penguins have to travel much further to find open water. The warming (which has created all the extra ice) is expected to get much worse and is predicted to cut the penguin population by up to a third by the end of the century.

The main threat to the penguins comes from changes to sea-ice cover in the Antarctic, which will affect their breeding and feeding.

Dynamics will differ between penguin colonies, but all are expected to be in decline by the end of the century.

Details are published in Nature Climate Change journal.

The US, British and Dutch researchers urge governments to list the birds as endangered. Such a listing could impose restrictions on tourism and fishing.

The team, led by Stephanie Jenouvrier of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the global population of emperor penguins would probably decline by between 19 and 33% from current levels.

[...]

“There is a goldilocks point for ice and emperor penguins,” Phil Trathan, an expert at the British Antarctic Survey (Bas), told Reuters.

Mr Trathan said it was unclear if the ungainly birds could adapt by climbing on to land or higher ice. Four emperor penguin colonies had recently been found on ice shelves, above sea level where glaciers spill off the land.

Satellite measurements of Antarctic sea-ice extent show winter coverage to be at record levels. However, climate computer modelling expects this trend to be reversed in the future, as conditions in the Antarctic warm.

Anyone else remember this French TV commercial?

Update, 2 July: Blinded by Beliefs: The Straight Poop on Emperor Penguins.

Two recent press releases concerning the Emperor Penguin’s fate illustrate contrasting forces that will either advance or suppress trustworthy conservation science. The first study reminds me of Mark Twain’s quip, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” Embodying that truism is a paper by lead author Dr. Michelle LaRue who reports new advances in reading the Emperor Penguin’s fecal stains on Antarctic sea ice that are visible in satellite pictures. Two years ago the fecal stain method identified several large, hitherto unknown colonies and nearly doubled our estimate of the world’s Emperor Penguins. That didn’t mean climate change had necessarily increased penguin numbers, but a larger more robust population meant Emperor Penguins were far more resilient to any form of change.

May 17, 2014

Even the Times thinks the latest climate scandal is damaging to the cause

Filed under: Britain, Environment, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:22

The Times article titled “Scientists in Cover Up of ‘Damaging’ Climate View” is behind the usual paywall, but Steven Hayward has a longer excerpt that gets the key element across:

Research which heaped doubt on the rate of global warming was deliberately suppressed by scientists because it was “less than helpful” to their cause, it was claimed last night.

In an echo of the infamous “Climategate” scandal at the University of East Anglia, one of the world’s top academic journals rejected the work of five experts after a reviewer privately denounced it as “harmful”.

Lennart Bengtsson, a research fellow at the University of Reading and one of the authors of the study, said he suspected that intolerance of dissenting views on climate science was preventing his paper from being published. “The problem we now have in the climate community is that some scientists are mixing up their scientific role with that of a climate activist,” he added.

Professor Bengtsson’s paper challenged the finding of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the global average temperature would rise by up to 4.5C if greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were allowed to double. It suggested that the climate might be much less sensitive to greenhouse gases than had been claimed by the IPCC in its report last September, and recommended that more work be carried out “to reduce the underlying uncertainty”.

[...]

Professor Bengtsson, the former director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, said he accepted that emissions would increase the global average temperature but the key question was how quickly.

He added that it was “utterly unacceptable” to advise against publishing a paper on the ground that the findings might be used by climate sceptics to advance their arguments. “It is an indication of how science is gradually being influenced by political views. The reality hasn’t been keeping up with the [computer] models. Therefore, if people are proposing to do major changes to the world’s economic system we must have much more solid information.”

May 15, 2014

Fanatical groups and their reaction to negative stimuli

Filed under: Politics, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:18

ESR linked to an older blog post by Eliezer Yudkowsky which seems to explain how fanatical cults survive the impact of events that on the surface should cause them to give up their faith:

Early studiers of cults were surprised to discover than when cults receive a major shock — a prophecy fails to come true, a moral flaw of the founder is revealed — they often come back stronger than before, with increased belief and fanaticism. The Jehovah’s Witnesses placed Armageddon in 1975, based on Biblical calculations; 1975 has come and passed. The Unarian cult, still going strong today, survived the nonappearance of an intergalactic spacefleet on September 27, 1975. (The Wikipedia article on Unarianism mentions a failed prophecy in 2001, but makes no mention of the earlier failure in 1975, interestingly enough.)

Why would a group belief become stronger after encountering crushing counterevidence?

The conventional interpretation of this phenomenon is based on cognitive dissonance. When people have taken “irrevocable” actions in the service of a belief — given away all their property in anticipation of the saucers landing — they cannot possibly admit they were mistaken. The challenge to their belief presents an immense cognitive dissonance; they must find reinforcing thoughts to counter the shock, and so become more fanatical. In this interpretation, the increased group fanaticism is the result of increased individual fanaticism.

I was looking at a Java applet which demonstrates the use of evaporative cooling to form a Bose-Einstein condensate, when it occurred to me that another force entirely might operate to increase fanaticism. Evaporative cooling sets up a potential energy barrier around a collection of hot atoms. Thermal energy is essentially statistical in nature — not all atoms are moving at the exact same speed. The kinetic energy of any given atom varies as the atoms collide with each other. If you set up a potential energy barrier that’s just a little higher than the average thermal energy, the workings of chance will give an occasional atom a kinetic energy high enough to escape the trap. When an unusually fast atom escapes, it takes with an unusually large amount of kinetic energy, and the average energy decreases. The group becomes substantially cooler than the potential energy barrier around it. Playing with the Java applet may make this clearer.

In Festinger’s classic “When Prophecy Fails”, one of the cult members walked out the door immediately after the flying saucer failed to land. Who gets fed up and leaves first? An average cult member? Or a relatively more skeptical member, who previously might have been acting as a voice of moderation, a brake on the more fanatic members?

After the members with the highest kinetic energy escape, the remaining discussions will be between the extreme fanatics on one end and the slightly less extreme fanatics on the other end, with the group consensus somewhere in the “middle”.

[...]

When Ayn Rand’s long-running affair with Nathaniel Branden was revealed to the Objectivist membership, a substantial fraction of the Objectivist membership broke off and followed Branden into espousing an “open system” of Objectivism not bound so tightly to Ayn Rand. Who stayed with Ayn Rand even after the scandal broke? The ones who really, really believed in her — and perhaps some of the undecideds, who, after the voices of moderation left, heard arguments from only one side. This may account for how the Ayn Rand Institute is (reportedly) more fanatic after the breakup, than the original core group of Objectivists under Branden and Rand.

ESR thinks the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) groups are starting to suffer this same phenomenon.

Here’s a major sign of evaporative cooling: the American Physical Society has since appointed a committee of working scientists (one of whom is Curry herself) to reexamine and possibly reverse its public commitment to AGW alarmism. As well it should; the alarmists’ predictions have failed so massively that they no longer have a scientific case – they’re going to have to rebuild one with a set of models that at least retrodicts the actual data.

Whatever findings the APS committee issues, the very fact that it has been convened at all is a sign that (in Yudkowsky’s analogy) the higher-energy molecules have become excited by the counterevidence and are exiting the cold trap. Or, in the metaphor of an earlier day, the rats are looking for a way off the sinking ship…

This is happening at the same time that the IPCC’s AR5 (Fifth Assessment Report) asserts its highest ever level of confidence that the (nonexistent for 15+ years) global warming is human-cased. What Yudkowsky tells us is that AR5′s apparently crazed assertion is a natural result of the mounting counterevidence. The voices of sanity and moderation, such as they are in the AGW crowd, are evaporating out; increasingly, even more than in the past, their game will be run by the fanatics and the evidence-blind.

May 13, 2014

Climate change policies – “a massive conservative blind spot … matched by liberals’ tunnel vision”

Filed under: Environment, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:35

Shikha Dalmia on the real reason the right fights against massive government action to fight climate change:

The decibel level in our national debate about global temperature went up several notches this week. The White House noisily released a report full of dire claims about the havoc manmade global warming is causing in America — and Republicans, equally noisily, denounced this as “liberal gloom and doom.”

The left has a deep ideological need to hype this issue, and the right to minimize it. And despite the deafening political noise on what ought to be a scientific matter, Americans must not be tempted to reach for their earplugs in disgust. After all, these ideological wars are how democracies sort out their differences.

[...]

The right’s chief commitment (which I share) is to free enterprise, property rights, and limited government that it sees as core to human progress. So when the market or other activities of individuals harm third parties or the environment, they look for solutions in these principles.

If overgrazing threatens a pasture, to use a classic example, the right’s answer is not top-down government diktats to ban or ration use. Rather, it is to divvy up the pasture, giving ownership to farmers — or privatizing the commons. The idea is that what individuals own, they protect; what they don’t, they abuse.

But there is no pure free market or property rights solution to global warming. There is no practical way to privatize the Earth’s atmosphere or divvy up pollution rights among the world’s seven billion inhabitants in 193 countries. This creates a planet-sized opening for the expansion of the regulatory state. Hence, right-wingers have an inherent need to resist the gloomy global warming narrative.

This is a massive conservative blind spot. But it is, in many ways, matched by liberals’ tunnel vision.

It is no secret that liberal commitment is less to promoting individual liberty and more to curbing capitalistic greed, which the left views as the great enemy of social justice and equality. At first blush, environmentalism and egalitarianism appear in conflict given that the environment is something of a luxury good that rich folks generally care about more than the poor.

Indeed, this conflict is why the 1960s New Left, driven primarily by humanistic concerns such as eradicating poverty and eliminating racism, shunned the emerging environmental movement for over a decade, according to University of Wisconsin’s Keith M. Woodhouse. Many in the New Left condemned the first Earth Day in 1970 as “the white liberal’s cop out” and believed that a preoccupation with overpopulation, for example, was “racist hysteria.”

May 7, 2014

David Harsanyi – The climate change debate is over

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:45

At The Federalist, David Harsanyi says the debate is over and the environmentalists have lost:

The truth is that even if Americans believed that scientists had seer-like abilities and the models were accurate, they would still be hesitant to embrace 19th century technology because they simply can’t afford it. Though I suspect most people instinctively understand that the environment has gotten better by almost every measure over the past 40 years, climate change activists ignore the massive benefits of carbon emitting fuels and technology that helps us become more productive and increasingly efficient.

Now, you can try and guilt trip everyone into compliance. You can batter them with distressing hypothetical scenarios. You can “educate” them on the issue from kindergarten onward, you can mainstream an array of Luddite ideas, you can browbeat society so they never utter a word of skepticism, but we still want to drive our cars everywhere. This is probably why over-the-top warnings and preposterous analogies have hit peak levels of absurdity.

And that’s saying something. Dr. John Holdren, Obama’s Science Czar, who was on media call for the National Climate Assessment release, once predicted global warming could cause the deaths of 1 billion people by 2020 and that sea levels would rise by 13 feet by the end of the century (not to mention, he co-authored a book with Paul Ehrlich in which he explained that “population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution…”). Malthusians never admit they’re wrong, they simply push the apocalypse out a couple of decades. I just don’t think people believe them anymore.

Yes, when asked, Americans perfunctorily tell pollsters that climate change matters to them. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe that climate change is a major threat. A Gallup poll survey found that around third of Americans personally worry about climate change. But when they’re not asked specifically about global warming, voters never bring the topic up. They’re most important concerns are the economy, jobs and debt. Though there is always strong support for the abstract idea of environmental regulation and “clean energy,” but when it comes some concrete policy it is nearly always unpopular. Few people want to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. Few people support new emissions regulations. And I doubt another scaremongery study will change that reality.

May 6, 2014

Climate change and positive effects

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:30

Matt Ridley explains that according to the experts, it’s believed that ongoing climate change actually provides net benefits for most of this century:

Climate change has done more good than harm so far and is likely to continue doing so for most of this century. This is not some barmy, right-wing fantasy; it is the consensus of expert opinion. Yet almost nobody seems to know this. Whenever I make the point in public, I am told by those who are paid to insult anybody who departs from climate alarm that I have got it embarrassingly wrong, don’t know what I am talking about, must be referring to Britain only, rather than the world as a whole, and so forth.

At first, I thought this was just their usual bluster. But then I realised that they are genuinely unaware. Good news is no news, which is why the mainstream media largely ignores all studies showing net benefits of climate change. And academics have not exactly been keen to push such analysis forward. So here follows, for possibly the first time in history, an entire article in the national press on the net benefits of climate change.

There are many likely effects of climate change: positive and negative, economic and ecological, humanitarian and financial. And if you aggregate them all, the overall effect is positive today — and likely to stay positive until around 2080. That was the conclusion of Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University after he reviewed 14 different studies [PDF] of the effects of future climate trends.

To be precise, Prof Tol calculated that climate change would be beneficial up to 2.2˚C of warming from 2009 (when he wrote his paper). This means approximately 3˚C from pre-industrial levels, since about 0.8˚C of warming has happened in the last 150 years. The latest estimates of climate sensitivity suggest that such temperatures may not be reached till the end of the century — if at all. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports define the consensis, is sticking to older assumptions, however, which would mean net benefits till about 2080. Either way, it’s a long way off.

[...]

You can choose not to believe the studies Prof Tol has collated. Or you can say the net benefit is small (which it is), you can argue that the benefits have accrued more to rich countries than poor countries (which is true) or you can emphasise that after 2080 climate change would probably do net harm to the world (which may also be true). You can even say you do not trust the models involved (though they have proved more reliable than the temperature models). But what you cannot do is deny that this is the current consensus. If you wish to accept the consensus on temperature models, then you should accept the consensus on economic benefit.

April 1, 2014

Losing a debate? Demand that your opponents be locked up!

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:57

Not, I’m afraid, an April Fool’s Day story:

Finally, someone has come up with a way to settle the debate over climate change: Put the people on the wrong side of the argument in cages.

A writer for the website Gawker recently penned a self-described “rant” on the pressing need to arrest, charge and imprison people who “deny” global warming. In fairness, Adam Weinstein doesn’t want mass arrests (besides, in a country where only 44% of Americans say there is “solid evidence” of global warming and it’s mostly due to human activity, you can’t round up every dissenter). Fact-checking scientists are spared. So is “the man on the street who thinks Rush Limbaugh is right. … You all know that man. That man is an idiot. He is too stupid to do anything other than choke the earth’s atmosphere a little more with his Mr. Pibb burps and his F-150’s gassy exhaust.”

But Weinstein’s magnanimity ends there. Someone must pay. Weinstein suggests the government simply try the troublemakers and spokespeople. You know, the usual suspects. People like Limbaugh himself as well as ringleaders of political organizations and businesses that refuse to toe the line. “Those malcontents must be punished and stopped.”

Weinstein says that this “is an argument that’s just being discussed seriously in some circles.” He credits Rochester Institute of Technology philosophy professor Lawrence Torcello for getting the ball rolling. Last month, Torcello argued that America should follow Italy’s lead. In 2009, six seismologists were convicted of poorly communicating the risks of a major earthquake. When one struck, the scientists were sentenced to six years in jail for downplaying the risks. Torcello and Weinstein want a similar approach for climate change.

This is a great standard for free speech in America. Let’s just agree that the First Amendment reads, “Nothing in this clause shall be considered binding if it contradicts legal practices in the Abruzzo region of Italy.”

The truth is this isn’t as new an outlook as Weinstein suggests. For instance, in 2009, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman insisted that “deniers” in Congress who opposed the Waxman-Markey climate change bill were committing “treason” while explaining their opposition on the House floor. (That same year, Krugman’s fellow Timesman Thomas Friedman wrote that China’s authoritarian system was preferable to ours, in part, because it lets “enlightened” leaders deal with climate change.)

March 29, 2014

Nate Silver … in the shark tank

Filed under: Environment, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:24

Statistician-to-the-stars Nate Silver can shrug off attacks from Republicans over his 2012 electoral forecast or from Democrats unhappy with his latest forecast for the 2014 mid-terms, but he’s finding himself under attack from an unexpected quarter right now:

Ever wondered how it would feel to be dropped from a helicopter into a swirling mass of crazed, genetically modified oceanic whitetip sharks in the middle of a USS-Indianapolis-style feeding frenzy?

Just ask Nate Silver. He’s been living the nightmare all week – ever since he had the temerity to appoint a half-way skeptical scientist as resident climate expert at his “data-driven” journalism site, FiveThirtyEight.

Silver has confessed to The Daily Show that he can handle the attacks from Paul Krugman (“frivolous”), from his ex-New York Times colleagues, and from Democrats disappointed with his Senate forecasts. But what has truly spooked this otherwise fearless seeker-after-truth, apparently, is the self-righteous rage from the True Believers in Al Gore’s Church of Climate Change.

“We don’t pay that much attention to what media critics say, but that was a piece where we had 80 percent of our commenters weigh in negatively, so we’re commissioning a rebuttal to that piece,” said Silver. “We listen to the people who actually give us legs.”

The piece in question was the debut by his resident climate expert, Roger Pielke, Jr., arguing that there was no evidence to support claims by alarmists that “extreme weather events” are on the increase and doing more damage than ever before. Pielke himself is a “luke-warmer” – that is, he believes that mankind is contributing to global warming but is not yet convinced that this contribution will be catastrophic. But neither his scientific bona fides (he was Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder) nor his measured, fact-based delivery were enough to satisfy the ravening green-lust of FiveThirtyEight’s mainly liberal readership.

March 16, 2014

David Friedman responds to William Nordhaus on global warming costs

Filed under: Economics, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:40

At his blog, David Friedman links to a recent New York Review of Books article by William Nordhaus (itself a response to a Wall Street Journal article) which argues for economic action to address the impact of global warming:

His final, and possibly most important point, is based on his own research, which he complains that the WSJ article is misrepresenting. He starts with a correct point—that it is the difference between benefit and cost, not the ratio, that matters. He goes on to summarize his conclusion:

    My research shows that there are indeed substantial net benefits from acting now rather than waiting fifty years. A look at Table 5-1 in my study A Question of Balance (2008) shows that the cost of waiting fifty years to begin reducing CO2 emissions is $2.3 trillion in 2005 prices. If we bring that number to today’s economy and prices, the loss from waiting is $4.1 trillion. Wars have been started over smaller sums.

What he does not mention is that his $4.1 trillion is a cost summed over the entire globe and the rest of the century. Put in annual terms, that come to about $48 billion a year, a less impressive number. Current world GNP is about $85 trillion/year. So the net cost of waiting, on Nordhaus’s own numbers, is about one twentieth of one percent of world GNP. Not precisely a catastrophe.

I suggest a simple experiment. Let Nordhaus write a piece explicitly arguing that the net cost of waiting is about .06% of world GNP and see whether it is more popular with the supporters or the critics of his position. I predict that at least one supporter will accuse him of having sold out to big oil.

[...]

The future is very much too uncertain to have confidence in estimates of what will be happening fifty years from now — for an extended demonstration, see my Future Imperfect. If we follow Nordhaus’s current advice and tax carbon now in order to slow warming, it may turn out that the costs were unnecessary or even counterproductive. We may be spending money in order to make ourselves poorer, not richer.

I conclude, on the basis of Nordhaus’s own figures and without taking account of my past criticism of his calculations, that he has his conclusion backwards. The sensible strategy is to take no actions whose justification depends on the belief that increased CO2 produces large net costs until we have considerably better reason than we now do to believe it.

February 26, 2014

Carl Sagan and when warnings about a new ice age switched to global warming instead

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:44

As a youngster, Robert Tracinski was a huge fan of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series. It was a formative experience for him, yet he found that Sagan’s concerns about global warming were not convincing … because those warnings were actually antithetical to his larger message:

It might seem strange to say it, but I am a global warming skeptic because of Carl Sagan.

This might seem strange because Sagan was an early promoter of the theory that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are going to fry the globe. But it’s not so strange when you consider the larger message that made Sagan famous.

As with many people my age, Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos, which aired on public television when I was eleven years old, was my introduction to science, and it changed my life. Cosmos shared the latest developments in the sciences of evolution, astronomy, and astrophysics, but its real heart was Sagan’s overview of the history of science and the distinctive ethos behind the scientific method. Sagan returned again and again to one central theme: that the first rule of science is to follow the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of one’s wishes or preconceptions. He spoke eloquently about the Ancient Greek Pythagoreans and their attempt to suppress the facts about “irrational numbers” that didn’t fit their theory. And he spoke admiringly about the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, who started out pursuing a theory in which the planets move in circular orbits reflecting the ratios of the perfect Pythagorean solids — and ended up being driven by the evidence to reject this theory and discover completely new laws of planetary motion.

I didn’t end up becoming a scientist, but I absorbed Sagan’s basic lesson and have tried my best to adhere to it in my own field: follow the evidence wherever it leads.

But this can be a difficult rule to follow. It is easy to spot the unexamined assumptions of others, but harder to root out your own prejudices. A few years ago, while watching Cosmos again for the first time in 25 years, I was reminded that Sagan did not always practice what he preached, and his error sheds light on the global warming theory’s original sin against science. It is a sin that has only gotten worse and which explains the scandalous state of today’s debate over global warming.

[...]

This is a bit of a cultural time capsule, preserving the precise moment at which scientific alarmists were switching from warning about a new ice age, in the 1970s, to warning about runaway warming.

January 4, 2014

Antarctic climate researchers still not home-free

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:59

AntarcticaRemember the story about the Australian climate researchers trapped in the Antarctic ice? The good news from a few days back — that all the passengers of the MS Akademik Shokalskiy (including researchers, tourists, and journalists, but not the crew) had been successfully transferred to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis is now overshadowed because the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long which also responded to the SOS call is now itself also trapped in the ice:

The saga just keeps going. The Chinese Icebreaker is now also stuck, and has asked for help so the Aurora Australis with 52 extra passengers rescued from the Russian Charter boat have to stay nearby to help. Twenty two Russian sailors are still trapped on board the Russian boat — the Akademik Sholaskiy. Plus other scientists in Antarctica still don’t have their equipment. Costs for everyone involved are continuing to rise.

In The Australian, Graham Lloyd‘s paywalled article begins with this:

TAXPAYERS will foot a $400,000 bill for the rescue of a group of climate scientists, tourists and journalists from a stranded Russian research vessel — an operation that has blown the contingency budget of Australia’s Antarctic program and disrupted its scientific work. The Antarctic Division in Hobart said it was revising plans and considering airlifting urgently needed scientific equipment that could not be unloaded from Aurora Australis before the ship was diverted from the Casey base to rescue the novice ice explorers just before Christmas.

The Sydney Morning Herald posted this short video earlier in the week, before the Aurora Australis had gotten close enough to take on the passengers from the Akademik Sholaskiy:

Update: The head of French antarctic research is unhappy with the tourists’ disruption to actual science work:

The head of France’s polar science institute voiced fury on Friday at the misadventures of a Russian ship trapped in Antarctic ice, deriding what he called a tourists’ trip that had diverted resources from real science.

In an interview with AFP, Yves Frenot, director of the French Polar Institute, said he had no issue at all with rescuing those aboard the stricken vessel.

But, he said, the trip itself was a “pseudo-scientific expedition” that, because it had run into difficulties, had drained resources from the French, Chinese and Australian scientific missions in Antarctica. “There’s no reason to place Antarctica off-limits and to keep it just for scientists, but this tourism has to be monitored and regulated so that operators can be sure of getting help if need be,” he said.

January 1, 2014

The hazards facing the Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:25

AntarcticaThe Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) has run into far harsher sea and ice conditions than they’d banked on, and it raises questions about the scientific validity of the expedition:

The purpose of the AAE expedition was to take a science team of 36 women and men south to discover just how much change has taken place at Mawson Station over 100 years. The expedition was also intended to replicate the original AAE led by explorer Sir Douglas Mawson a century ago, in 1913. The new expedition was to be led by Prof. Chris Turney, a publicity-hungry professor of climate change at Australia’s University of New South Wales.

Antarctic-AAE

Also the expedition was designed to generate lots of publicity. Along the scientists and ship’s crew were 4 journalists from leading media outlets who would feed news regularly, and later report extensively on the results and findings. All this in turn would bring loads of attention to a region that is said to be threatened by global warming. The AAE’s donation website even states that the expedition’s purpose is to collect data and that the findings are “to reach the public and policy makers as soon as possible“.

But expeditions of this type are expensive and funding is not always easy to come by. Costs can run in the millions as special equipment is needed to handle the extremely harsh conditions of the South Pole. Downplaying the conditions to justify cost-cutting by using lower grade equipment rapidly jeopardizes safety.

Inadequate, bargain-price research vessel

The first error expedition leaders made was under-estimating the prevailing sea ice conditions at Mawson Station, their destination. The scientists seemed to be convinced that Antarctica was a warmer place today than it had been 100 years earlier, and thus perhaps they could expect less sea ice there. This in turn would allow them to charter a lighter, cheaper vessel.

This seems to be the case judging by their choice of seafaring vessel. They chartered a Russian vessel MS Akademik Shokalskiy, an ice-strengthened ship built in Finland in 1982. According to Wikipedia the ship has two passenger decks, with dining rooms, a bar, a library, and a sauna, and accommodates 54 passengers and a crew of up to 30. Though it is ice-reinforced, it is not an ice-breaker. This is a rather surprising selection for an expedition to Antarctica, especially in view that the AAE website itself expected to travel through areas that even icebreakers at times are unable to penetrate, as we are now vividly witnessing. Perhaps the price for chartering the Russian vessel was too good to pass up.

Luring naïve tourists as a source of cash

What made the expedition even more dubious is that Turney and his team brought on paying tourists in what appears to have been an attempt to help defray the expedition’s costs and to be a source of cheap labor. According to the AAE website, the expedition was costed at US$1.5 million, which included the charter of the Akademik Shokalskiy to access the remote locations. “The site berths on board are available for purchase.” Prices start at $8000!

The expedition brought with it 4 journalists, 26 paying tourists.

Update, 2 January: An editorial in The Australian after news came out that all of the 52 passengers had been rescued from the ice-bound Akademik Shokalskiy:

YOU have to feel a touch of sympathy for the global warming scientists, journalists and other hangers-on aboard the Russian ship stuck in impenetrable ice in Antarctica, the mission they so confidently embarked on to establish solid evidence of melting ice caps resulting from climate change embarrassingly abandoned because the ice is, in fact, so impossibly thick.

[...]

Professor Turney’s expedition was supposed to repeat scientific investigations made by Douglas Mawson a century ago and to compare then and now. Not unreasonably, it has been pointed out Mawson’s ship was never icebound. Sea ice has been steadily increasing, despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s gloomy forecasts. Had the expedition found the slightest evidence to confirm its expectation of melting ice caps and thin ice, a major new scare about the plight of the planet would have followed. As they are transferred to sanctuary aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis, Professor Turney and his fellow evacuees must accept the embarrassing failure of their mission shows how uncertain the science of climate change really is. They cannot reasonably do otherwise.

The 22 crew members will stay on board the vessel until it can be released from the ice (or until another rescue effort needs to be mounted).

November 14, 2013

Scientific facts and theories

Filed under: Environment, Science, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

Christopher Taylor wants to help you avoid mis-using the word “fact” when you’re talking about “theories”:

These days, criticizing or questioning statements on science can get you called an idiot or even a heretic; science has become a matter of religious faith for some. If a scientist said it, they believe it, and that’s that. Yet the very nature about science is not to be an authoritative voice, but a method of inquiry; science is about asking questions and wondering if something is valid and factual, not a system of producing absolute statements of unquestioned truth.

It is true that people need that source of truth and it is true that we’re all inescapably religious creatures, so that will find an outlet somewhere. Science just isn’t the proper outlet for it.

[...]

The problem is that there’s no way to test or confirm this theory [plate tectonics]. You can make a model and see it work, you can check out types of rock and examine fault lines, and you can make measurements, but that’s only going to tell you small portions of information in very limited time frames. Because the earth is so huge, and because there are so very many different pressures and influences on everything on a planet, you can’t be sure without observation over time.

And since the theory posits that it would take millions of years to really demonstrate this to be true, humanity cannot test it enough to be certain. So all we’re left with is a scientific theory: a functional method of interpreting data. In other words, it cannot be properly or accurately describe as fact.

This is true about other areas. The word “fact” is thrown around so casually with science and is defended angrily by people who really ought to know better. Cosmology does this a lot. Its a fact that the universe is expanding from an unknown central explosive point (although there is a fair amount of data that’s throwing this into question). We can’t know because we can’t have enough data and there hasn’t been long enough to really test this.

Michael Crichton’s criticism of global warming was along these lines. He didn’t deny anything, he just said its too big and complex a system that we understand far too little about to even attempt to make any absolute or authoritative statements about it. Science has gotten us far beyond our ability to properly measure or interpret the data at hand, but some still keep trying to make absolute statements anyway.

[...]

And that’s the heart of a scientific theory. It isn’t like a geometric theorem (a statement or formula that can be deduced from the axioms of a formal system by means of its rules of inference), or a theory that Sherlock Holmes might develop (a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural). A scientific theory is a system of interpreting data (a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena). It’s a step beyond a hypothesis, which is simply speculation or a guess, but is not proven fact.

Confusing theory with fact is really not excusable for an educated person, but some theories are so wedded to worldviews and hopes that they become a matter of argument and even rage. Questioning that theory means you’re an idiot, uneducated, worthless. If you doubt this theory, you’re clearly someone who is wrong about everything and should be totally ignored in life, even showered with contempt.

For all its rich vocabulary, English fails to correctly differentiate among the various uses of the word “theory”, which allows propagandists and outright frauds to confuse the issues and obscure the difference between what science can say about an issue and what believers desperately want to be true.

October 5, 2013

Climate models, trust, and spin

Filed under: Environment, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:58

In Reason, Ronald Bailey asks whether we can trust the IPCC’s climate models:

On Monday, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final draft of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Sciences Basis. The report’s Summary for Policymakers flatly states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.” Pretty much everyone concerned with this issue agrees that those are the facts. But what is causing the planet to warm up? Here is where it gets interesting.

[...]

The IPCC report acknowledges that almost all of the “historical simulations do not reproduce the observed recent warming hiatus.” Not to worry, it assures us; 15-year pauses just happen, and you can’t really expect the models to simulate these kind of random natural fluctuations in the climate. Once this little slow-down passes, “It is more likely than not that internal climate variability in the near-term will enhance and not counteract the surface warming expected to arise from the increasing anthropogenic forcing.” In other words, when the warm-up resumes it will soar.

John Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, has come to a different conclusion. Christy compared the outputs of 73 climate models for the tropical troposphere used by the IPCC in its latest report with satellite and weather balloon temperature trends since 1979 until 2030. “The tropics is so important because that is where models show the clearest and most distinct signal of greenhouse warming — so that is where the comparison should be made (rather than say for temperatures in North Dakota),” Christy explains in an email. “Plus, the key cloud and water vapor feedback processes occur in the tropics.” When it comes to simulating the atmospheric temperature trends of the past 35 years, Christy found, all of the IPCC models are running hotter than the actual climate.

[...]

Average of model results compared with temperature trends

Average of model results compared with temperature trends

To defend himself against any accusations of cherry-picking his data, Christy notes that his “comparisons start in 1979, so these are 35-year time series comparisons” — rather longer than the 15-year periods whose importance the IPCC disputes.

Why the discrepancy between the IPCC and Christy results? As Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry notes, data don’t speak for themselves; researchers have to put them into a context. And your choice of context — say, the year you choose to begin with — can influence your conclusions considerably. While there may be nothing technically wrong with the way the IPCC chose to display the comparison between model data and observation data, “Curry observes, it will mislead the public to infer that climate models are better than we thought.” She adds, “What is wrong is the failure of the IPCC to note the failure of nearly all climate model simulations to reproduce a pause of 15+ years.”

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