Its Official: Climate is the First Post-Modern Physical Science

You can find a lot of different definitions of post-modernism.  Here is one from Wikipedia, which seems appropriate because in some sense at its very core Wikipedia adopts a post-modernist approach to truth.  Post-modernism rejects objective truth, or at least man’s ability ever to identify such truth.   As applied to science, post-modernists would say that what we call scientific “truth” in in fact the results of social, cultural, and political forces within and acting on the scientific community.

Some elements of post-modernism actually provide a useful critique of science.  Its focus on biases and resulting observational blindness to certain results that falsify ones pre-conceived notions are useful caveats in a scientific process.  But the belief that a rational scientific process is not just difficult but impossible leads to all kinds of crazy conclusions.  Many in hard core postmodern circles would argue that since objective truth is impossible anyway, scientific findings should be guided by what is most socially useful. As Steven Schneider of Stanford says vis a vis climate:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

And speaking of Steven Schneider, he is coauthor of a recent study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has really made it plain to me that climate is becoming the first post-modern physical science.  Just note the incredible approach to his study, and how much it mirrors the precepts of post-modernism:  To decide who is right and wrong in climate science between skeptics and alarmists, the study authors have … wait for it .. counted them and measured their relative influence in academic circles.  Since the authors count more alarmists than skeptics, and judge that the alarmists are more influential in academic circles, then they must be right!  After all, truth is determined by those with the most political and cultural influence, not by silly stuff like testing hypotheses against observational data.

Postscript: I think a lot of the skeptic backlash against this study is overwrought, examples here and here.  To paraphrase another climate publication, this study is “not evil, just silly.”

A Physical Scientist Looks at Dendroclimatology

I don’t want to make the mistake of over-interpreting fairly balanced remarks by Michael Kelly of Cambridge, nor of taking quotes out of context as daggers to throw at climatologists.  But I did find his reactions interesting as he read through some Briffa and Jones papers — they seem to match the reactions of many non-climate scientists who tend to have the same type reactions if they really read through some of the work, rather than just issuing statements of moral support without much investigations.

All that being said, here are some of his admittedly offhand reactions after reading through some of the papers.  The entire document is worthy of reading through, as linked by Bishop Hill.

There are however some more detailed qualifications:

(i) I take real exception to having simulation runs described as experiments (without at least the qualification of ‘computer’ experiments). It does a disservice to centuries of real experimentation and allows simulations output to be considered as real data. This last is a very serious matter, as it can lead to the idea that real ‘real data’ might be wrong simply because it disagrees with the models! That is turning centuries of science on its head.

(ii) The reading of the papers was made rather harder by the quality of the diagrams, and the description of the vertical axes on a number of graphs. When numbers on the vertical axis go from -2 to +2 without being explicitly labelled as percentage deviations, temperature excursions, or scaled correlation coefficients, there is potential for confusion.

(iii) I think it is easy to see how peer review within tight networks can allow new orthodoxies to appear and get established that would not happen if papers were written for and peer reviewed by a wider audience. I have seen it happen elsewhere. This finding may indeed be an important outcome of the present review….

(2) On a personal note, I chose to study the theory of condensed matter physics, as opposed to cosmology, precisely on the grounds that I could systematically control and vary the boundary conditions of my ob-ject of study as an integral part of making advances. An elegant theory which does not fit good experimental data is a bad theory. Here the starting data is patchy and noisy, and the choices made are in part aesthetic, or designed to help a conclusion. rather than neutral. This all colours my attitude to the limited value of complex simulations that cannot by exhaustively tested against ‘real’ data from independent experiments that control all but one of the variables.
(3) Up to and throughout this exercise, I have remained puzzled how the real humility of the scientists in this area, as evident in their papers, including all these here, and the talks I have heard them give, is morphed into statements of confidence at the 95% level for public consumption through the IPCC process. This does not happen in other subjects of equal importance to humanity, e.g. energy futures or environmental degradation or resource depletion. I can only think it is the ‘authority’ appropriated by the IPCC itself that is the root cause.

These questions to Briffa could have come from McIntyre:

(I) How can we be reassured about the choice of which raw data from which stations are to be selected, detrended and then included in the tree-ring data bases? Is there an algorithm that establishes the inclusion/exclusion? If I were setting out to establish the lowest possible net temperature rise over the last century is consistent with the available data, what fraction of tree-ring-data would then be included/excluded? Could I coerce the data to support a null hypothesis on global warming?

(2) In the range of papers we have reviewed, you have used a variety of statistical techniques in what is a heroic effort to get signals from noisy and patchy data. To what extent has this variety of techniques be reviewed and commented upon by the modern statistical community for their effectiveness, right use and possible weaknesses?

I’m Waiting, I’m Waiting, I’m Waiting…

I received this press release via email.  The title is:

Carbon Dioxide Has Played Leading Role in Dictating Global Climate Patterns

OK, so I read.

Increasingly, the Earth’s climate appears to be more connected than anyone would have imagined. El Niño, the weather pattern that originates in a patch of the equatorial Pacific, can spawn heat waves and droughts as far away as Africa.

Now, a research team led by Brown University has established that the climate in the tropics over at least the last 2.7 million years changed in lockstep with the cyclical spread and retreat of ice sheets thousands of miles away in the Northern Hemisphere. The findings appear to cement the link between the recent Ice Ages and temperature changes in tropical oceans.

Apparently, I must not understand something.  The study seems to trumpet as a huge finding that tropical ocean temperatures on Earth dropped at the same time that temperatures dropped in the upper latitudes and Earth experienced ice age glaciation.  Uh, OK.  Is it really surprising that when part of the Earth got much colder, other parts of the Earth got colder too.?  Isn’t the simplest explanation that whatever made it cold in the poles made it cold at the equator too?  Wouldn’t a solar change act this way?

The research team, including scientists from Luther College in Iowa, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and the University of Hong Kong, analyzed cores taken from the seabed at four locations in the tropical oceans: the Arabian Sea, the South China Sea, the eastern Pacific and the equatorial Atlantic Ocean.

The cores tell the story. Sedimentary cores taken from the ocean floor in four locations show that climate patterns in the tropics have mirrored Ice Age cycles for the last 2.7 million years and that carbon dioxide has played the leading role in determining global climate patterns. The researchers zeroed in on tropical ocean surface temperatures because these vast bodies, which make up roughly half of the world’s oceans, in large measure orchestrate the amount of water in the atmosphere and thus rainfall patterns worldwide, as well as the concentration of water vapor, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.

Looking at the chemical remains of tiny marine organisms that lived in the sunlit zone of the ocean, the scientists were able to extract the surface temperature for the oceans for the last 3.5 million years, well before the beginning of the Ice Ages. Beginning about 2.7 million years ago, the geologists found that tropical ocean surface temperatures dropped by 1 to 3 degrees C (1.8 to 5.4 F) during each Ice Age, when ice sheets spread in the Northern Hemisphere and significantly cooled oceans in the northern latitudes. Even more compelling, the tropics also changed when Ice Age cycles switched from roughly 41,000-year to 100,000-year intervals.

Again, so what?  What am I missing here guys? Why is this astonishing?  But the interesting part to me is that all the data is on developping a proxy for sea surface temperatures.  Don’t know if it is accurate, but it seems a good endeavor.  Fully worthwhile of the effort.

But remember the title.  What about CO2?  And through the article we keep getting teasers like this:

Based on that new link, the scientists conclude that carbon dioxide has played the lead role in dictating global climate patterns, beginning with the Ice Ages and continuing today.

And this

Candace Major of the National Science Foundation agrees: “This research certainly supports the idea of global sensitivity of climate to carbon dioxide as the first order of control on global temperature patterns,” she says. “It also points to a strong sensitivity of global temperature to the levels of greenhouse gases on very long timescales, and shows that resulting climatic impacts are felt from the tropics to the poles.”

All they did was develop a tropical temperature proxy and show the tropics got colder during ice ages.  Duh.  I mean, isn’t this really just a reality check — we developed a proxy and we think its pretty good because the temperatures drop right when we think they should.   I kept waiting for the evidence that CO2 had anything to do with this.  This is all I get, and comes not from their study but a link to data from a completely different data set having nothing to do with their study:

Climate scientists have a record of carbon dioxide levels for the last 800,000 years–spanning the last seven Ice Ages–from ice cores taken in Antarctica. They have deduced that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere fell by about 30 percent during each cycle, and that most of that carbon dioxide was absorbed by high-latitude oceans such as the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. According to the new findings, this pattern began 2.7 million years ago, and the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans has intensified with each successive Ice Age. Geologists know the Ice Ages have gotten progressively colder–leading to larger ice sheets–because they have found debris on the seabed of the North Atlantic and North Pacific left by icebergs that broke from the land-bound sheets.

“It seems likely that changes in carbon dioxide were the most important reason why tropical temperatures changed, along with the water vapor feedback,” Herbert said.

What?  How does he determine this?  My sense is that we are back to the old 800-year lag / ice core issue where scientists are confusing cause and effect between temperature and CO2 levels.  I am willing to credit dropping CO2 levels (through ocean absorption) as a positive feedback effect, though I would argue that it is small just as they seem to argue that it is large.   The key, though, is that nothing in their data supports a sensitivity number for CO2 at all, just a rough possible causal relationship where even the direction of the causation is unknown.

One fatal flaw of this argument is that while people can make an argument for CO2 as an amplifier (either weak or strong), no one can explain how it might trigger the beginning of an Ice Age or warming recovery, and without this there is no way to call CO2 the main driver of these changes.  Maybe these guys have found the evidence of the trigger?

Herbert acknowledges that the team’s findings leave important questions. One is why carbon dioxide began to play a major role when the Ice Ages began 2.7 million years ago. Also left unanswered is why carbon dioxide appears to have magnified the intensity of successive Ice Ages from the beginning of the cycles to the present. The researchers do not understand why the timing of the Ice Age cycles shifted from roughly 41,000-year to 100,000-year intervals.

Oops, maybe not.  But surely they understand the mechanism

“We think we have the simplest explanation for the link between the Ice Ages and the tropics over that time and the apparent role of carbon dioxide in the intensification of Ice Ages and corresponding changes in the tropics,” said Timothy Herbert of Brown University and the lead author of the paper in Science. Herbert added, “but we don’t know why. The answer lies in the ocean, we’re pretty sure.”

Oops, maybe not.

OK, as a public service, I will create a more truthful summary of the study:

Some clever scientists discovered a way to use the remains of marine organisms in core samples to develop a proxy for ocean surface temperatures over the last 2.7 million years.  These temperature proxies seem to reality check well, dropping during exactly the periods we believe to have been ice ages.  The reconstructed temperature record is not inconsistent with theories of high climate sensitivity to CO2, which, though the scientists did not actually study the problem, they felt the need to mention to get attention and funding.

But What About Positive Feedbacks?

Just what we need — in order to solve a problem greatly exaggerated by computer models that likely will prove to have little predictive ability — we are asked to adopt a “solution” whose costs are just forty cents a day per person.  That’s right — global warming averted for 40 cents a day.  And how do we know the costs will be low?  A computer model of course, from the EPA, which says the economic impact of substantially raising energy prices will be low.

Update: I found the trick.  Apparently the model gets a 50% reduction in greenhouse gasses in the US with a trivial (e.g. 25-cent per gallon of gas, 3-cent per kwh of electricity) affect on prices.  See updates to this post.  Wow, that must be a really high sensitivity of output to prices.  Where have we heard issues about overly high sensitivity assumptions in computer models before?

Scholarship at Mount Allison University

This came to me via email today from an email address at Mount Allison University:

Funny thing that you are going againts 99% of peer reviewed journal. It is why we do not give retards like you any place it the academic world.

I must confess to an error.  I am having a very stressful, busy time at work, and yes… though I usually ignore this stuff, I went and fed the troll.  I wrote back

Fortunately I slipped my way through Princeton and Harvard before the academic world realized I was a “retard.”  I suppose academia works differently in California — back in the day when I was back East, the correct academic response to something one did not agree with was to actually cite the offending passage as well as to muster proof of one’s position.  I suppose it does not surprise me that scholarship in California Canada is now defined as yelling “retard.”  Perhaps you could refer to a specific chart at this link so I get a better idea where my heresy is:  http://www.climate-skeptic.com/2010/01/catastrophe-denied-the-science-of-the-skeptics-position.html

Warren Meyer

Update:  Sorry, of course the University is in Canada, not California.  I love the name – one wonders if it is named for a local landmark or an annual event.

Computer Model Fail

From the New Scientist:

What’s special about this latest dip is that the sun is having trouble starting the next solar cycle. The sun began to calm down in late 2007, so no one expected many sunspots in 2008. But computer models predicted that when the spots did return, they would do so in force. Hathaway was reported as thinking the next solar cycle would be a “doozy”: more sunspots, more solar storms and more energy blasted into space. Others predicted that it would be the most active solar cycle on record. The trouble was, no one told the sun.

The first sign that the prediction was wrong came when 2008 turned out to be even calmer than expected. That year, the sun was spot-free 73 per cent of the time, an extreme dip even for a solar minimum. Only the minimum of 1913 was more pronounced, with 85 per cent of that year clear.

As 2009 arrived, solar physicists looked for some action. They didn’t get it. The sun continued to languish until mid-December, when the largest group of sunspots to emerge for several years appeared. Finally, a return to normal? Not really.

Even with the solar cycle finally under way again, the number of sunspots has so far been well below expectations. Something appears to have changed inside the sun, something the models did not predict. But what?

Of course, Anthony Watt has been pointing this out for over two years, even pointing to a discontinuity in the Geomagnetic Average Planetary Index as one sign.

The people who model the sun, and failed, are not bad people.  It is an excercise worth attempting.  It turns out we just don’t know enough about the sun to accurately model its behavior.  Models are only as good as our understanding of the natural processes.  Something to think about with climate models.

Defending Science, Not Global Warming Science Per Se

This quote from an upcoming paper by Mike Hulme has been making the blog rounds of late:

Claims such as ‘2,500 of the world’s leading scientists have reached a consensus that human activities are having a significant influence on the climate’ are disingenuous. That particular consensus judgement, as are many others in the IPCC reports, is reached by only a few dozen experts in the specific field of detection and attribution studies; other IPCC authors are experts in other fields.

I have not really written on this statement because its such old news.  This has been known for years, just not broadly reported.  So its good that this is getting more attention, but this is one reason I have not been blogging much on this site lately — while I am happy that things skeptics have known for years are finally reaching more popular media, I am not that interested in reporting on every such “revelation.”  “World is round, story at 11″ does not really get me that excited.

However, I did want to answer one question I get a lot from audiences when I speak about the whole consensus thing.  Because many climate scientists and scientists in other fields and other academics do pile on and sign letters and petitions in support of the catastrophic global warming hypothesis.  People ask me how I can be right when there are so many showing support for the opposite position.

What I tell them is that these folks are not really showing support for the catastrophic global warming position in the sense that they have studied and reviewed the science in depth and found it compelling.  What they are really doing when they make these statements or sign letters is showing support for science itself.  The irony is they are doing just the opposite, but let me explain.

I was not a big fan of George W. Bush.  But universities absolutely, almost to a person, hated him with a crazy-deep passion.  They became convinced (right or wrong) that he was the leader of a Christian fundamental effort to subvert all science in favor of religious orthodoxy.  The leaders of the catastrophic global warming movement have been very successful in feeding off this passion, and portraying opposition to catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory as part and parcel of this religious fundamentalist attack on all science.  They have successfully linked, in the minds of academics and many of the public, that disagreeing with James Hansen or critiquing the Hockey stick is the equivalent of being anti-science.

So when some biology professor at Berkely signs a statement in support of catastrophic global warming theory, it does not mean that she has looked at the strong positive feedback assumptions in climate models and found them reasonable.  It means she believes herself to be supporting science against the medieval barbarians at the gate.

The irony is that in fact they are doing the opposite.  In trying to oppose religious orthodoxy they have in fact supported scientists who treat their pet theory like a religious orthodoxy, and all opposition to it as heresy.   And in trying to support science, they have supported folks who have broken many of the most fundamental rules of modern science, including the avoidance of replication, the hiding of results and data, and corruption of the peer review process.

This may be why I underestimated the impact of the CRU email release.  In retrospect, I can imagine all those scientists that used to sign these petitions looking at what the CRU emails and thinking, “this is what I have defended as true science?”

A Lot of IPCC Authors Will Be Familiar With This Tactic

Claiming “scientific consensus” and “peer reveiw” for findings that have neither

The seven experts who advised President Obama on how to deal with offshore drilling safety after the Deepwater Horizon explosion are accusing his administration of misrepresenting their views to make it appear that they supported a six-month drilling moratorium — something they actually oppose.

The experts, recommended by the National Academy of Engineering, say Interior Secretary Ken Salazar modified their report last month, after they signed it, to include two paragraphs calling for the moratorium on existing drilling and new permits.

Salazar’s report to Obama said a panel of seven experts “peer reviewed” his recommendations, which included a six-month moratorium on permits for new wells being drilled using floating rigs and an immediate halt to drilling operations.

“None of us actually reviewed the memorandum as it is in the report,” oil expert Ken Arnold told Fox News. “What was in the report at the time it was reviewed was quite a bit different in its impact to what there is now. So we wanted to distance ourselves from that recommendation.”

Salazar apologized to those experts Thursday.