Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Climategate at Tierneylab

Be sure to look at the hundreds of comments!

Tierneylab: ... I’m not trying to suggest that climate change isn’t a real threat, or that scientists are deliberately hyping it. But when they look at evidence of the threat, they may be subject to the confirmation bias — seeing trends that accord with their preconceptions and desires. Given the huge stakes in this debate — the trillions of dollars that might be spent to reduce greenhouse emissions — it’s important to keep taking skeptical looks at the data. How open do you think climate scientists are to skeptical views, and to letting outsiders double-check their data and calculations?

People keep asking me about climate change, and I tell them I just don't have enough time to do the homework necessary to justify my having a strong opinion on the issue. Note, by simply making that statement I am being politically incorrect -- I think I am supposed to accept that the "experts" know what they are doing. (Just as the bond rating agencies and financiers knew what they were doing a few years ago :-)

Very few of the people with strong opinions on climate change have done the homework I refer to -- read the literature (including arguments on both sides), look at the data, etc. In the case of the housing and credit bubble I did do the homework and as a result I thought we were in a bubble back in 2004, that credit derivatives were dangerous, and that it might end badly.

I can say something with very high confidence: scientists are not immune to groupthink!

[A reader asks: what if you don't have the technical background to actually "do your homework" -- i.e., read the scientific literature? (Perhaps because your liberal arts education left you unable to use important tools necessary for understanding how the world works ;-) In that case, you are limited to an examination of the process by which the science is done -- are the incentives right? Could researchers be victims of groupthink? Can critics be heard, and do they have access to resources (such as the original data)? This is a sociological question -- is science working properly in this particular subfield? A final factor that should influence your confidence level is that the track record of experts studying complex systems is quite poor. ]


Dog of Justice said...

I can say something with very high confidence: scientists are not immune to groupthink!


My own position is that the basic AGW hypothesis is probably though not certainly true; what's far less probable is that redirecting trillions of dollars of resources towards emissions reduction is an appropriate course of action. Emissions reduction, after all, is quite similar to code optimization in character; there's some low-hanging fruit to grab, but it doesn't take long before you have to pay a very high price for incremental gains. (Especially when there's still so much reluctance to follow the successful French nuclear power model! I like solar's long-term prospects, but it'll take a few more decades for the tech to get there; in contrast, we essentially already know how to scale up nuclear.) Then add China and India's necessarily unclean industrialization into the picture, and the residual volatility of climate due to factors outside our control (e.g. solar activity), and it becomes clear that if we really are approaching a crisis, emissions reduction is most likely too weak of a tool, by itself, to save us!

This logic has been clear for many years, and I've found that one could easily sort the wheat from the chaff in the field by voicing it and observing the reaction. The real problem-solvers considered geoengineering and similar approaches. In contrast, Gaianist-types put up an obviously irrational (from the standpoint of saving the planet) amount of resistance to alternative ideas -- "We must pay for our sin of industrialization!" I was very happy to see Levitt and Dubner press the issue (even if, it seems, they were a bit sloppy in the details?)... and disappointed but unsurprised by the reaction to them. After that, Climategate really didn't give me much additional information; I was already able to infer that level of corruption.

What I would like to see, but I realize is probably too much to ask for :(, is popular understanding of what motivated CRU's shenanigans -- that the major reason for misrepresenting data and silencing opposition wasn't that AGW was probably false, but because anthropogenic carbon emissions were not clearly the most significant input into the system even over many decades. Without establishing the latter (as well as other results coupling carbon emissions more tightly with climate than one would currently expect), spending trillions on an all-out emissions reduction strategy, as opposed to a cheaper and probably more powerful mixed strategy involving other approaches, is utterly inexcusable.

Ian Smith said...

It is not mentioned often that the earth is now in an ice age, that for most of its history glaciers existed only on top of the highest mountains.

Carson C. Chow said...

Does that mean a biologist shouldn't necessarily believe in the standard model unless he takes the time to understand field theory? At some point there must be division of labour. I'm not saying you must buy what any expert says but where do you draw the line?

Ian Smith said...

that's a very deep question carson.

Steve Hsu said...

CC: I don't think a biologist should have the same level of confidence in the standard model as someone who actually thinks about it every day and knows all the experiments. It's appropriate that the biologist always retains a small "but what if those guys are out to lunch?" doubt. I added something to the original post related to this (see above).

DOJ: One of the reasons I *haven't* invested the time to sort through all of this is that I'm a bit cynical that much is going to be done about it, for reasons similar to the ones you mentioned.

Seth said...

The smartest people I know generally take a stance similar to yours, Steve. "Yeah, the science is probably roughly correct, not super confident about that, but little chance we'll really do something major in response. We'll just figure out how to adapt."

I'm tempted generally to adopt that same "shrug" response. But I'm less sanguine about it. These folks are mostly just busy and their priorities are set by economic opportunity. They are highly adapted to life as homo economicus with a minimum of distractions from quasi-metaphysical issues like "what happens after a 2 meter rise in sea level?" Until that actually shows up in prices, it's as if the possibility is too abstract to be worth worrying about.

The VC crowd seem to have taken up alt energy and green tech with gusto (modulo the financial crisis and associated softening in LP interest). Isn't there a sort of price signal in that? Or are the VC's just easily gulled into the latest fad? What's their "sociology" telling you?

Steve Hsu said...

"Or are the VC's just easily gulled into the latest fad?"

Yes -- but it's "rational" because if you get in early on any bubble you can make money. Discussion about the alt. energy bubble started already a couple of years ago :-)

John Mashey said...

The AGW position held by the various science societies and academies can be summarized:
1) It's getting warmer.
2) We're doing it.
3) It will cause serious trouble.

Biologists are among the strongest supporters of this, because the biological evidence is massive. A tiny sample:
(-)Why are bark beetles spreading North,already devastating trees in British Columbia and spreading into Alberta.

(-)Why is kudzu moving North up the East Coast?

(-)Why are California pikas moving uphill?

(-)Why are sugar maples decreasing in US?

(+)Why are they now growing some decent grapes around Lake Okanagan in British Columbia?

A: These are signatures of GHG-induced warming, which specifically raises lower temperatures, like at night and winter. Cold spells kill beetles and kudzu. sugar maples need cold temperatures, vineyards do *not* need cold spells. Pikas need a certain temperature range, they're too small to migrate, so they move uphill as it it warms.

It really doesn't take much work to understand the basics. Try:

1) (general audience) David Archer, "The Long Thaw" 2009.

2) (book for undergrad course for non-science majors):
David Archer, Global Warming - Understanding the Forecast, 2007. He has also posted videos of his lectures for that course.

3) Spencer Weart The DIscovery of Global Warming, also online @ AIP.

4) IPCC AR4 WG I Technical Summary (TS), for a summary of the scientists' views before the political folks water it down. Since that's a few years old, a good update is Copenhagen Diagnosis, or just start with that. All this stuff talks about real science: varying degrees of certainty/uncertainty., with many core elements well-understood, and scientists arguing fiercely around the edges.

5) For the biological evidence, see Assessment of observed changes and responses
in natural and managed systems

As for impacts, these are very regional, and at this point, our only choice is between Bad and Really Bad, I'm afraid.

Bad = 2 degrees C, and if we work hard, we can maybe do that.

A good summary of impacts can be found in Mark Lynas' SixDegrees. I.e., he if the US SouthWest will be very inhabitable under Really Bad. New Orleans is probably not going to make it, even under Bad.

For background, see How to Learn About Science, which has a framework for thinking about this kind of science, more references, and descriptions of some of the people *I* talk to/listen to on this.

That's the science side. If you want to learn the anti-science side, that's a whole separate topic, although there are some references in the last URL above, or to see how anti-science works, read:

Climate Cover-Up, or for a specific recent case (a few physicists and the APS): Science Bypass.

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