As if we didn’t have enough problems, it seems we will have to come up with some sort of ethical principle about what ought to be leaked and what not.

Information wants to be free, but bank account passwords very much want to be secret.

Is a person a hero for revealing information that was not intended as private? Are we all being delusional when we assume anything we say or do is private? What should we do when the walls all really, literally have ears, something we could afford to do already?

Dellingpole thinks wikileaks is a good idea. That certainly counts against it.

The senators who most vociferously repeat the “yes but climategate” line seem unwilling to cut Wikileaks any slack.

This is about more than just sharing entertainment media. What are the expectations for privacy, and what should be the penalty for violating those expectations. It seems to me that little enough was revealed by the CRU emails as to make their release unjustifiable, but those celebrating Wikileaks apparently believe that nothing should be private, ever, and that every invasion of privacy or legalistic intrusion attempting invasion of privacy is something to be celebrated.

Having seen how easily the CRU emails can be misconstrued, I have little confidence in the people combing through the leaked diplomatic emails on our collective behalf. If science journalism is too important to be left to journalists, who is to say that international relations journalism is any better?

I think that what I think is that bulk releases of stolen data are criminal, and that even in selective releases a greater crime must be revealed. Even there, there is some room for interpretation.

Apparently the US has been doing the anti-insurgency campaign on behalf of the Yemeni government, and nobody wanted the population to know it. Somehow I doubt this was an actual secret, but it was a handy fig leaf for all concerned.

People who do not support Al Qaeda (presumably this means everybody reading here) ought to be unhappy about this.

We also ought to be unhappy to live in a world where hypocrisy is part of the fabric of life. Still I doubt whether people uncovering such hypocrisy are inevitably doing a service.

The solution as individuals is to avoid such situations. But that is easier in theory than in practice.

What to say and what not to say is a challenge for practically everybody with any effectiveness. What is lying or covering-up, and what is protecting dear old granny from shocking ideas she couldn’t and needn’t cope with? What is courageous muckraking, and what is just mindless stirring up of dirt?

Lomborg Achieves Boring

So Climate Spin and I saw the Sunday matinee of the Bjorn Lomborg slef-congratulation movie Cool It in Chicago last Sunday, as far as the Reader knew at the time the only showing of Cool It in Chicago in its second week. Based on the eight tickets apparently sold, we can attest that no less than 25% of the Chicago audience for the week held doctorates in the climate sciences.

It’s a bit irritating in its self-congratulation; whoever was bankrolling this effort must have decided to put up with Bjorn’s efforts at self-promotion. We have to humanize Bjorn the same way AIT humanized Gore. If Bjorn has led a singularly charmed and practically event-free life, this puts him at something of a disadvantage, but he does still love his mother, at least when a film crew is present. But the self-promotion is clearly a failure, as on conventional terms, the movie is as well. It was boring enough that CS and I both struggled to stay awake through it. (I failed.)

Of the parts that I saw, there was indeed a fundamental dishonesty: the claim that a Kyoto implementation “would only cool the earth 0.01 degrees” (I forget the numebr, perhaps it was even smaller, but this is the idea. The movie claims that “conventionl approaches” to carbon emissions are not just cost ineffective, but are simply ineffective. This trick is a common one in denialist circles. The point is not reduction in CO2 concentration per dollar spent on Kyoto. The point is conversion to non-CO2 infrastructure per dollar spent.

More to the point, if you look at something Kyoto-like as a necessary first step in the right direction, you will see that it is a first step in the right direction. Something we haven’t really seen, and, you know, ought to see, because a first step is necessary. Any sensible analysis will agree that we would have a long way to go beyond there even if Kyoto had been enacted. The main difference would be not in the numbers, but in our capacity to credibly exert pressure on other countries (notably the Chinese as it turned out) about now. And our incapacity to do that will have huge impacts into the future.

So that is all, basically, lying. The rest of it, though, seems more like misdirection; a collection of reasonable research endeavors, and a pitch for money. A plea, in other words, to buy off the research community rather than trying to destroy it. I have to say that between those choices I am on Lomborg’s side.

Randy “such-a-nonscientist” Olson may have even more of a point than he thinks when he argues that we shouldn’t be reassured by the lack of interest in Lomborg’s movie. Lomborg offers no villains, nobody to blame. That is not how you make a documentary these days. That in itself is unfortunate. More charitably to the public, you might say that people are concluding that they get enough corporate greenwashing in a typical week without going out of their way to pay or it.


It didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen in a big way. It scored 46% on Rotten Tomatoes — less than the 60% threshold needed to earn a tomato — meaning the consensus is don’t waste your time seeing the movie. It’s not a disastrously bad movie, it’s just not that good. And worst of all, it leaves people in Hollywood, with their ultra-simple, short attention span, saying, “Climate movies don’t sell.” Which means the end of the line for reaching the general public through a movie. At least for a while.

But really, isn’t that a success from the point of view that Lomborg promotes? Go back to sleep, all, nothing to worry about here, the smart people have it under control. Wouldn’t you really rather spend your ten bucks on a romantic comedy or an action adventure? Seriously?

Pseudo-Empiricism and Denialism

While empiricism is an insufficient model for science, while not everything reduces to statistics, empiricism offers cover for a certain kind of pseudo-scientific denialism.

Andy Revkin features a comment regarding an excellent NYTimes article on sea level rise.

Here’s the comment:

What takes five long and laugable pages could’ve been distilled to an honest few sentences:

Since we have no clear way to measure the effect of land-ice melt on sea-level, and, indeed, no reliable way to measure “global” sea levels at all; and, further, only the most primitive models of how such melt might be occuring and what its consequences might be, we can only say that with regard to these phenomena we have no scientific understanding whatsoever and can therefore make no predictions of any kind.”

And indeed the “scientists” in the article are obliged to say such things, over and over. Except when they extra-scientifically announce that, despite their total and complete ignorance and admittedly utterly primitive grasp of these phenomena, they “feel” that things are “bad” and “getting worse all the time.”

There’s more; that’s just the polite part. Yes, I love being called a scare-quote scientist. Nothing better to start a conversation on an even keel. Of course, that isn’t the intent, is it?

But look at what’s being said. This is Watts Up technique asea; the measurements are uncertain; therefore they might as well not exist; therefore there is no cause for concern!

Does one have to answer this sort of reasoning? Dress anything in high enough dudgeon and it sound plausible at first reading.

But no, if sea levels go up two meters we won’t have any doubt about it, any more than if global mean temperature goes up 5 C. If there are inaccuracies in the precursor information, that does not mean there is no information available at all. And even if there were no empirical evidence whatsover, that doesn’t invalidate the concern, because there is already no empirical evidence whatsover that the concern is invalid.

So this is an example of how the perfectly ordinary scientific concept of uncertainty gets conflated with the nasty irrationalism of denialism.

So here’s a piece by Matt McCormick that examines this turf:

But the nature of this impulse is coming into focus with recent efforts in empirical psychology. Geoffrey Munro of Towson University recently showed that when we are confronted with scientific, empirical evidence that challenges a position we favor, we are more likely to reject science altogether and claim that it cannot be employed to address questions of that type at all. The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Munro took test subjects with views about stereotypes, such as homosexuality. Subjects were tested beforehand to determine what views they held. Then they were given fake abstracts of scientific studies that purported to either prove or disconfirm the stereotype. So some studies indicated that homosexuals had a higher rate of mental illness, for example, while others indicated that their rate of mental illness was lower. Not surprisingly, the subjects who read abstracts that supported their preconceived views concluded that their views had been vindicated. But something remarkable happened with the the subjects who had their prior views challenged. Rather than acknowledge that they were mistaken and change their minds, these subjects were much more likely to conclude that proving (or disproving) the thesis simply couldn’t be done by science. They rejected science itself, rather than give up their cherished idea.


Their charges are in need of protection; they need their faith strengthened against doubts that would undermine them. Sermons, prayers, devotionals, and cermonies serve to fortify beliefs and behaviors in them that would not be sustained otherwise. Doubt, criticisms, and objections are the point of the scientific method. Finding reasons to reject a hypothesis makes it possible for us to make some provisional claims about what is true. Without some methodological procedure for vetting hypotheses and separating the good from the bad, we can’t claim to have any justification for them. The method of doubting is what justifies and keeps the floodgates of failed views closed.

Insidiously, failing to doubt is the charge increasingly hurled at us.

As Oreskes points out, it’s very common for the opposition to hurl charges that describe themselves! It’s hard to answer. No, you’re stubborn and gullible, not me. Are too!

But the credulity is not ours. We actually know the difference between uncertainty and ignorance. And yet, people who might realistically have been expected to be allies are being convinced that all we are doing is being stubborn and closedminded. We are politically outclassed. We are a pickup street team playing on professional turf. Their job is too easy, and I don’t think recent developments change this much.

But they’re still wrongheaded and foolish. The fact that they have won the year and look to win the decade is nothing to celebrate.

Empiricism as a Job

If the climate system is in a fairly stable, if chaotic orbit, as it has been in the late Holocene (say the last 7000 years) then there is some room for climate heuristics. An anomalously warm North Atlantic indicates how far north the tropical convergence zone will migrate in Brazil that July, hence whether the north coast of South America will have a dry year.

Now I have to admit that I can’t recall which way it works!

I avoided chemistry and biology as a student because I have trouble committing facts to memory. I had a great work-around for exams, mind you. I would create a dense single page of notes for any closed book exam. I would copy and recopy it about eight times. If the exam was a morning exam, I’d stay up all night doing so; for an afternoon exam I’d just do this in the morning. I would not vary the format in any way. Thus, I would commit the materials to short term memory, secure in the knowledge that I would forget them the next day. I did well as an undergraduate.

In grad school, I tended to expect being tested on understanding, not on memorization, but I did have to resort to the page-recopying trick for Dr. Hastenrath’s class on Tropical Meteorology. His class and his book were a thick compendium of observations, rather light on principles. (There were a couple of very crude equations, concessions to basics like the thermal wind law, for instance). One of them was whether a warm north Atlantic was good news or bad for Northern Brazil. It was one or the other, and I’m sure I had the fact ready at hand during the exam.

This sort of heuristic has some modest value I suppose. If you can say this will be a dry year more likely than not, or a year with more tropical storms than usual, based on a collection of heuristics, then to the extent that is reliable, you can help people plan. And you can just comb through the data looking for correlations with some predictive value. It’s an activity which looks like science. It has enough value that you can get grants for it. NOAA regularly puts out seasonal outlooks for the US which have a couple of regions marked as ‘>60% chance of above normal temperatures’ or the like.

I’ve always had a couple of problems with this technique. First, I’m unconvinced it actually helps anybody do anything. 60% chance of above normal really isn’t a very strong statement. Are there really activities which are rationally conducted differently in the light of such information? Second, it confuses people about climate science; this is neither climate science nor weather prediction, both of which are based in physics. It’s pure heuristics. Yet it’s usually called a “short-term climate prediction”. Given the importance of climate change in the future, this is unfortunate and misleading nomenclature. Third, there is indeed accelerating climate change, so the value of heuristics will decline as the underlying conditions which supported the heuristics also change. The heuristic method is pretty much guaranteed to get worse.

(Now, if we ever get to predictive models of deep ocean circulation, maybe short term predictions of climate will be physically meaningful. At present this seems rather speculative, but people do seem to be working on it quite seriously.)

There’s a another issue, though. The empiricists have always, to some extent, treated the physicists as a threat. Somebody who is good at digging into history should look into this, but I have several points of corroboration. First, there is the (from where I sit) unexplained tension between the famed empiricist Reid Bryson and the groundbreaking climate physicist Vern Suomi that is at the heart of the meteorology program at Wisconsin splitting into two institutions. Second, there was my brief meeting way back in 1993 or so with Bill Gray, the famous hurricane prediction guy, the classic empiricist. I hadn’t even made a name for myself on sci.environment in those days; and it was really unlikely that he had heard of me. My advisor, John R. Anderson, was known more as a modeler than as a climate change guy. In those days there was little sense that the topics were tightly connected. John introduced me to Gray just as a grad student, period. It wasn’t a minute into the conversation before Gray was ranting and raving about how hurricanes were more important than global warming, and how his money was drying up, etc.

So it’s interesting to see that Gray is not alone among tropical storm researchers in this hostility. There are certainly signs of more than ordinary strife within the tropical storm science community. I can’t say I have an inside view of what’s going on but I note that Knappenberg and Curry both come out of the tropical storm community. I don’t know how close they come to the Bill Gray tradition but I suspect there is some connection.

See, empiricism lacks consilience. When the science moves in a particular direction, they have nothing to offer. They can only read their tea leaves. Empiricists live in a world which is all correlation, and no causation.

This is the third installment of the empiricism series.

1) Empiricism
2) The Empiricist Fallacy

Next: Empiricism and Denialism

Image: NOAA. Extra credit: why do Mexicans and Canadians find this map irritating?

The Empiricist Fallacy

The mid-20th century scientist H H Lamb seems above criticism. Defenders of the CRU avoid criticizing their founder, while their opponents refuse to let go of the “Medieval Warm Period” sketch that he made, that made it into the first IPCC report (without attribution) on the basis of authority. There’s little doubt that Lamb was one of the founders of climatology, but to put that in perspective, my wife assures me that serious psychologists don’t take Freud seriously anymore either. I actually read a fair chunk of Lamb’s magnum opus, and here’s some commentary I made on it in 1995 in a “scientists used to predict global cooling” thread on usenet.

It is important to note exactly who made those predictions, (or more
properly, who expressed those worries) about an imminent ice age, and
who is now predicting rapid global warming. By and large these are not
the same people. The first group was essentially the observational
paleoclimatologists. Bryson still claims that “the proper tool of the
climatologist is the shovel”. The compendium by Lamb which Tom Moore
takes as his primary reference was essentially the pinnacle of achievement
in that field.

With all due respect (I mean this quite seriously – the erudition and
breadth of knowledge of these people, Lamb in particular – is enormously
impressive) to that group, their grasp of mathematics and statistics
was weak, and of physics weaker still.

For instance, Lamb’s prediction in particular of imminent and rapid
cooling was based on, essentially, a crude Fourier analysis (best fits
of sinusoidal curves to his record). Since one of the dominant features
was a rapid rise over the last century, the *presumption* of a cyclical
nature of the record forced a prediction of a rapid cooling *precisely
because there had been a recent rapid warming*. And although the niceties
of periodograms had all been worked out by that time, Lamb seemed blissfully
ignorant of the need to take particular care when fitting sinusoids to
a record with significant information at its termination.

In the 1970s, a separate discipline of physical climatology was just
emerging from an infancy at the peripheries of mathematics and astrophysics.

Since the 1890s, physical climatologists or their precursors have always
asserted that the anthropogenic cooling of the human volcano was
counterbalanced and probably outweighed by anthropogenic warming of
the human greenhouse.

The groups making the assertions were essentially distinct, the group
asserting warming was making far more specific and testable predictions,
and the reasoning behind the assertions was far more clearly based in
established and demonstrated results in physical science.

While Bryson’s warnings about global cooling were intuitive (“the human volcano”), Lamb’s were dressed up in harmonic theory. Unfortunately, harmonic theory clearly doesn’t apply even were the system largely unforced. In a forced system where you look only at the system behavior and not at the inputs, and apply harmonic analysis blindly (I doubt Lamb was aware of Tukey) you’ll basically end up predicting that a rapid cooling is imminent for two reasons: first, the assumption that there is no trend, and second, the emphasis of the FFT on the edges of the record (hence “windowing”).

Note: in the linked usenet article I express doubts that Schneider ever expected cooling, but that is incorrect; he was coauthor of a paper with Rasool in the 70s that compared the forcings and expected aerosol cooling to dominate. He didn’t hold that position long. I have not seen a proper statement of what’s wrong with that paper.

The basic idea of empiricism, which I see implicit in everything Curry is saying, by the way, is that the data “speak for themselves” and no context is necessary. This is silly, since it amounts to a presumption that sightings of cousin Albrecht wearing a baseball cap and carrying a feather duster wading in a pond are as likely as a duck (regular readers need not follow the link; they know where it goes).

The empiricist view has never entirely faded from climatology, as, I think, we see from Curry. But it’s essentially useless in examining climate change. Under its precepts, the only thing that is predictable is stasis. Once things start changing, empirical science closes the books and goes home. At that point you need to bring some physics into your reasoning.

More to follow.


A very nice piece by Dr. M.H.P.Ambaum appears in Skeptical Science. It explains tersely why the whole approach to climate statistics (detection/attribution) of the naysayer squad is wrongheaded, but the reader needs a little familiarity with statistical thinking. (I wonder if J. Curry can make heads or tales of it).

This ties into my generic dislike of what I would call empiricism in climate science. Actually, of course, without empirical evidence you are not doing science, but rather pure math. (or else economics!) The trouble comes when the empiricism is combined with a hypothesis that climate is stationary, which is implicit in how many of their analyses work. It’s essentially begging the question. More to follow.

Explaining is Hard

h/t David Appel

An interesting comment on YouTube: “I bet Carl Sagan could have explained it without being a dick.”

But he couldn’t really. He could conceivably have evaded it more elegantly, perhaps. But the question is unanswerable at the level of sophistication of the questioner.

It started off on the wrong foot because the question was asked so awkwardly that there was some effort at first trying to figure out what the question really means, too.

This is all too familiar. I’m not saying climate science is pure physics, or climate scientists are as smart as Feynman or anything, just that sometimes the best answer is “because that is the way it is, you’ll have to trust me; it would take a lot of effort on both of our parts to come up with something better.” At least in the case of a magnet, it’s part of ordinary mundane experience.

Lucky for Feynman he didn’t have Barton commissions and Heartland institutions coming after him.

Still, the fact is that there really isn’t a very kind way of saying “I don’t expect you to understand this but you really ought to trust me”.

How Doomed Are We?

The MIT-based Climate CoLab project (“toward collective intelligence”) has an ambitious vision on new ways to think collectively, but [update: a project there] concedes a lot of ground on what we can actually achieve in practice:

A reasonable goal at this point in time is to stabilize CO2 concentrations around 600-650 ppm. Given the the current CO2 concentrations (~390 ppm) and the political challenges reaching a deal, an extremely ambitious goal of 350 or 450 is simply not realistic. The most important thing is that the global community agrees to take some type of action now. Setting a goal of around 650 ppm entails national policies that countries might actually be willing to agree to and, most importantly, is still aggressive enough to avoid/significantly reduce the worst risks of climate change. Most of the effort of our plan is supported by developed countries, but developing countries are still required to reduce their emissions relative to BAU.

NOTE In comments L Carey clarifies: your post is not clear that the text is from a grad student submission and not an “official” MIT document – in light of the heated nature of the topic, I’d suggest that you might want to clarify that and forestall the likely “green doom-monger” comments.

Is 650 ppmv as a goal tantamount to doom? I mean, given how quickly we have slipped from 450 to 650, this is pretty scary. I hope we get some sort of a grip before even that goal slips out of reach. I think we can survive it, but not without tragic loss. We are committing our future selves and our descendants to a much diminihsed natural world, at very best.

But in any case, it makes it more urgent than ever to cut back on ancillary greenhouse gases, a goal that perhaps can achieve more support. (After all, the saturation argument, however wrongheaded, doesn’t even apply to the trace GHGs.)

To that end, I will take up Alex Viets of INECE’s suggestion to draw your attention to a recent New York Times article on expanding the Montreal protocol to limit HFC emissions.

In any case, the possibility of avoiding unprecedented climate change is likely out of reach. So it’s biosphere management time for us. We just smashed the autopilot. Time to start thinking about steering.

Climate Change Myths

I’m pleased to inform you that my employer, the Jackson School of of Geosciences at the University of Texas, is producing a series of articles setting the record straight on common climate myths.

These may be useful as supplementary materials for the Skeptical Science site, which as most readers will know, collects a similar set of information. Here we have working climate scientists commenting on their areas of expertise.
The most recent “Myth” is addressed by my boss, Charles S. Jackson:

Myth No. 3: You can’t trust climate models because they do a lousy job representing clouds and aerosols.

Previous submissions include Dr. Rong Fu on Myth 1: What global warming? Earth has actually been cooling since 1998 and Charles Jackson on Myth 2: Increased carbon dioxide (CO2) can’t contribute to global warming: It’s already maxed out as a factor and besides, water vapor is more consequential.

Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga

Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi!

If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change!

“There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record.”

This is from Magurran and Dornelas, writing in Phil Trans Royal Society, the PNAS of the old world.

Joe Romm has more. You can accuse Joe of overstating his case sometimes, but “far exceeds anything in the fossil record” is something that is really, really, really hard to exaggerate.

The scary assertion is referenced back to The Future of Biological Diversity in a Crowded World by Robert May (2002).

He shows this graph of the great extinctions of the past:

and claims

recent extinction rates in well-documented groups have
run one hundred to one thousand times faster than the
average background rates

Such figures correspond to likely extinction rates of a
factor of ten thousand, give or take at most an order of
magnitude, above background, over the next century or
so. This represents a sixth great wave of extinction, fully
comparable with the Big Five mass extinctions of the
geological past

May makes three cases for conservation:

A narrowly utilitarian argument

One argument for the preservation of biological diversity
is narrowly utilitarian. It correctly emphasizes the benefits
already derived from natural products, as foods,
medicines, and so on. Currently, 25% of the drugs on the
shelves in the pharmacy derive from a mere 120 species
of plants. But, throughout the world, the traditional
medicines of native peoples make use of around 25,000
species of plants (about 10% of the total number of plant
species); we have much to learn. More generally, as our
understanding of the natural world advances, both at the
level of new species and at the level of the molecular
machinery from which all organisms are self-assembled,
the planet’s genetic diversity is increasingly the raw stuff
from which our future can be constructed. It seems a pity
to be burning the books before we can read them, and
before we can create wealth from the recipes on their

A broadly utilitarian argument

Another class of arguments is more diffusely utilitarian.
The interactions between biological and physical processes
created and maintain the earth’s biosphere as a
place where life can flourish. With impending changes in
climate caused by the increasing scale of human activity,
we should be worried about reductions in biological
diversity, at least until we understand its role in maintaining
the planet’s life-support systems. The first rule of
intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces.

An ethical argument

For me, however, a third class of argument is the most
compelling. It is clearly set out by the UK Government in
This Common Inheritance22. It is ‘the ethical imperative
of stewardship . . . we have a moral duty to look after our
planet and hand it on in good order to future generations’.

Yet he admits that these arguments may not be seen as compelling. Personally, I find the highlighted text dispositive. Anyone who has read Lovelock’s Gaia books will understand that at least conceivably we may breaking things which we may never have the capacity to fix.