Friday, December 14, 2007

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

The intartubez are just full of global warming deniers these days. Some deny because they don't want us to stop driving our Hummers, some because they genuinely get taken in by these sincere and smart-sounding charlatans, some because they can only parrot what their overlords tell them to, and some because they just like poking hibernating bears with sharp sticks.

Anyways, I stumbled across this post [among many others] and started to say something in a comment there. As you can see, my "comment" got a bit out of hand. I didn't read all the comments there carefully, so forgive me if I repeat what somebody else has already said.

1. For the non-scientist [in comments] who asks to be pointed to a couple of good reference books to read: that's what Al Gore has put together for you. He made a movie of it, called it something something Inconvenient Truth. Something like that. Also, you should listen to Wendigo and Badtux.

2. If you're unwilling to take at face value what Gore, Wendigo, Badtux, et al are telling you, then you're just going to have to do your own homework.

You'll need to take a minimum of:
  • 2 years of college chemistry [for chemistry majors, not "chemistry lite"]
  • 1 year of college physics [for physics majors or engineers, not "physics lite"]
  • 2 years of college calculus with differential equations
  • 1 semester of advanced statistics
  • 1 year of either oceanography, meteorology, or possibly geology [and not "oceanography lite" or "meteorology lite" either]
In other words, if you want to evaluate the evidence yourself, you'll need a minimum of a 4-year college degree in one of the physical sciences, and it will need to be at the level expected of a student who plans to go on for a PhD in one of the physical sciences.

3. Scientific "consensus" is a bit of a misnomer. Scientists, especially the top-tier researchers, are a rather contentious lot, and they thrive on trying to prove that the other guys' research is flawed. They endlessly pick apart the methods, the data, the conclusions of their competitors, and believe every other scientist is a competitor; getting and keeping grants for funding research, especially if it is abstruse or esoteric research, is a dog-eat-dog world.

So, as the evidence piles up, when a "consensus" appears to form, you can bet that everybody first tried six ways from Sunday to not believe the conclusions.

Does this process sometimes go awry, and a lone dissenter [or small group of dissenters] eventually prove everybody wrong? Sure, it happens, but very, very seldom. This "little guy wins out in the end" story is a romantic one and we humans do like our romances. For this reason we need to be extremely vigilant before buying into whichever scenario makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

4. Not everybody wants to get physics degree just to be able to decode this one issue, which is fine. A useful proxy for deciding how much faith to put into a particular study: who funded the work? This is not infallible either, but the denialists that have been funded by [to name one example] big oil companies have had their work shown up as shoddy science often enough to make this a useful piece of information to have when trying to decide who to believe. Sourcewatch. org is a good place to start.

5. Those dissenting scientists... where to begin?

5a. That post at Popular the first link in their list refers to the infamous and thoroughly debunked OISM petition signed by 19,000 scientists.

Yes, that petition did get signed by all those intelligent and eminent scientists. I was horrified to see that even a couple of my professors had signed it. Ack! I'd always thought they were smarter than that!

What happened was that they were duped into signing that thing. They all belonged to a fairly prestigious group of scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, iirc. It's going to look like I'm contradicting myself here, but in this case they did all more or less blindly agree with their fellow academy members. It's not really a contradiction though, because they thought they were endorsing a paper that their organization had produced after careful and thoughtful study of all the evidence.

What really happened was that ONE scientist high up in the organization had his own agenda and used the organization's stationery, mailing lists, etc to make his petition look official.

I refuse to go through that entire list in that blog post and do ALL your homework for you. Chances are good that your Google-mining skills are at least as good as mine and with a couple of hours here and there googling up the pros and cons on each one and applying some critical thinking to the evidence you find.

5b. The recent Bali conference, where some dude called Monckton [he's a global warming denialist] whined about the conference officials not accepting his credentials and trying to stifle his scientific dissent. Now, I'm all about fostering dissent, I'm hugely against censorship, and I know that a lot of smart people in this world do not have the "proper" credentials but they know what they're talking about anyway because they made a point of learning everything they could.
So I got all up in arms over this and was ready to take up the guy's case, even though I'd never heard of him [google, google!] Wikipedia says he's a business consultant. Uh oh. But some business degrees require huge amounts of advanced calculus and statistics and if he had been an amateur scientist since childhood on top of that, well, maybe he did know what he was talking about.

Hmmm, studied classics and journalism. Another red flag, but some classics programs include archaeology [science! math!] and some journalism programs allow a student to specialize in science reporting if they take some extra math and science courses. So, he could still know what he's talking about.

Nope. Turns out he's either a complete idiot or else he's lying to us, hoping that we're the complete idiots. Here's his paper on the "errors" he found in the IPCC report.

"Error" 1. He claims they made a 10-fold change in the results in the table that he drew their attention to. Well, they did, sorta. Their proofreading was sloppy and in the original table they didn't notice that some of their numbers were in meters/100 years and others were in millimeters/year. In the corrected table they put all the numbers in millimeters/year, but if you know even a little about meters, millimeters, etc, you'll see right away that the 0.31 m/century in the old table is the exact same quantity as the 3.1 mm/year in the corrected table [observed sea level rise from 1993-2003].

To put it into everyday terms, if yesterday I told you that a piece of string was 1 foot long and today I told you that that same piece of string is 12 inches long, did I lie to you? Did that piece of string grow 12-fold? No. Nor did the reported sea level rise change 10-fold when the IPCC fixed the table in their report.

"Error" 2. Okay, that first one is an easy mistake to make, losing track of where the decimal point ought to be, and Monckton might just be an excitable boy who did catch one mistake, but got in a hurry and made another one of his own.

Nope. In this one he proves that he knows nothing nothing about using what is really a very elementary equation. Or maybe he's sure that we'll be too intimidated by the funny symbols and squiggly lines to even try to understand it.

Assume unity, he starts off. WTF? There's no need to assume anything [unless you want to assume some calming yoga position before tackling math]. We've got all the numbers, all we need to do is plug them into the equation he gives us:

dF = 5.3 ln (380/360) = 0.26

So the change in the radiative forcing due to the 20ppm increase in carbon dioxide concentration [from 360ppm in 1995 to 380ppm in 2005] is 0.26 watts/square meter. He goes on to tell us a little later that the change in radiative forcing due to CO2 from 1750 to the present is a total of 1.6 watts/square meter. I'm going to take his word for it. [I'm also going to assume that 1750 would be just before humans started producing CO2 by burning fossil fuels, coal early on, oil and natural gas later]. Plugging these values into the simple formula for calculating % increase in anything:

0.26/(1.6-0.26) = 0.23/1.34 = approximately 19.5% increase

B-b-b-but, isn't that awful darn close to 20%? Why yes. Yes, it is. QED.

I haven't done a very neat job here of showing you how to calculate radiative forcing, me being a bit of a dinosaur and vastly preferring to do math with pencil and paper [or on a *chalkboard], so if you want to consult Wikipedia for a better explanation, please do.

6. Economists. They might actually have an argument to make when they talk about comparing the costs we'll impose on developing nations if we limit their use [and ours] of fossil fuels to the costs we'll impose on them if we heat up the planet, drown their coasts, and drastically alter the weather patterns they've come to depend on to grow their food.

So far though, they seem bent on proving only that humans are not hurrying the warming of the planet. I know they call it The Dismal Science, but for purposes of this discussion, I think maybe economists ought to quit thinking of themselves as scientists.

Those competing costs are going to be tough to calculate, because we don't have all the data we need, nor all the equations, and we won't get any do-overs. Whatever we decide to do or not do, we're stuck with it. See ya in 50 years or so, and let me know how it turns out for you!

7. - 9759650. So many more claims to debunk, so little blogspace.... I think I'll stop here.

* yes, i did say chalkboard. get over it.


Keifus said...

Preach it sistah.

I peaked at your list, looking for alumni. UConn's Howard Hayden, who may have occupied an adjacent wing to where I hung out, is an atomic physicist with some serious interests in alternate power. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I can't say I met him or knew much of anything about him. He's written a pamphlet on warming by CO2, (here), which seems to downplay but not deny anthropogenic climate change, basically presenting an overdose of scientific precaution, which I suppose I can forgive. I'll try and give it a read eventually and give a better review. The rise of atmospheric CO2 levels (if not warming) correlates pretty culpably with human activity, after all.

The RPI alum, Chauncey Starr, died recently (obit here). Electrical engineer, founder of the EPRI, and proponent of nuclear power. (The EPRI seems to accept global warming, but evidently gets some funding from oil companies. I don't know if that means much, actually, as almost anyone who does research on energy from oil is likely to apply.) I want to read his paper on calculated social risks, which looks to be seminal.

Both of these guys are dinosaurs, for what it's worth. Starr particularly was an old-school engineer, looks like, and energy research in teh 60s and 70s was a different animal. I'm inferring quite a bit now from cursory sources, but both of these guys (1) appear to ahve observed necessary points about available energy density from various sources (Hayden writes about it, and Starr was a huge nuclear guy), (2) observed that the benefits of consuming oil (yay, modern society and lots and lots of people) outweigh the consequences. That's different from denying global warming, but I have to read more.

83.7% of people fail on teh statistics. I know I do.

Anonymous said...

See comment on debate above.


I read a lot of British media. They have a soft spot for crazed aristocracy.

hipparchia said...

i have a soft spot for crazies, of all stripes. sometimes they even turn out to be right, but not this one this time.

hipparchia said...

lots of dinosaurs on that list, as you say. when i first discovered it a year or so ago, i spent some time randomly choosing names from the list and looking them up on the net. out of 25 or 30 names, probably 8-10 of them had died since signing the petition.

[i did seriously consider writing a conspiracy-theory post for botf on the hazards of signing wingnut petitions but decided not to]

i'll be interested in your review of hayden's booklet. if i find it at the library, i'll read itm but if i have to buy it, i'm going to ignore it.

speaking of dinosaurs, hayden isn't the only one who points out that temperatures have been higher and co2 more abundant in the past. none of these people mention the giant ferns, the vast humid and swampy marshes, the thunder lizards.... i don't remember reading about the dinosaurs sipping on lattes with soy milk, or nibbling bagels with cream cheese, or dining on chiken kiev. plus, there weren't skyscrapers and interstates and parking lots back then.

aure, the yeccies think we were walking side-by-side with our trusty dinosaur friends only a few thousand years ago, but i'm not buying that as a workable strategy for coping with climate change.

if we have another 100,000 years or so to adjust to that kind of rise in temperature, no problem. the question is: by adding co2 to the atmosphere as fast as we are, how much are we going to speed up the temperature increase? and can we adapt to the inevitable changes?

we're only going to know the answers to that when we get there.

starr. he's right about people not liking to put themselves in the hands of others [driving vs. flying] but i'm not sure he quite covered all the bases. studies show that humans are notoriously poor at judging risk. even when you do enlighten them, we all know people who indulge in the magical thinking of "yabbut, that won't happen to me." and along those lines, has anybody accurately quantified the risks for good drivers vs bad drivers? i do look forward to hearing your opinion of his paper if you read it.

i used to think nuclear energy was the way we were headed too. we've had the technology for some time, it's affordable, it meshes easily with our existing grid, and "energy density" is a valid concept to factor into whatever decisions we make.

i think we need a better plan for dealing with the waste before we go full tilt on building nuclear power plants, but not everybody agrees. i have to admit though, i'm not thrilled about not having reliable electricity in the foreseeable future. if we went to nuclear power in a big way, it's unlikely i'd refuse to do without electricity as a protest.

it may well turn out that continuing on our present path will ultimately cost less than trying to change things, but i'm not willing to do that without taking a long and serious look at it all. nor should we allow ourselves to be persuaded to either course by lies and obfuscation. change is a comin' and pretending that all will be hunky-dory and nobody will get hurt is unconscionable.

Keifus said...

Ah, at thirteen bucks for 60-odd pages, I'm not making it top priority. (But I'll check the library too.)

The fact that the primitive atmosphere covered a much different world hasn't been lost on me either.

Your last couple of sentences pretty much nailed my thoughts on the matter. It's what pisses me off most acutely about the various deniers and best-case-scenario dimwits. Even if there's enough oil for a few generations, and even if (and I've got to call this unlikely) moving hundreds of billions of years of sequestration into the atmosphere doesn't do nuthin', it's still ultimately finite in supply (most obvious law of physics at work right there), still causing wars, still making us more (and more and more) overpopulated, which is the real tragedy. I don't want to give up on electricity either, but we're dangling more and more people from a skinnier and skinnier string.



hipparchia said...

but we're dangling more and more people from a skinnier and skinnier string.