Saturday, December 05, 2009

Science and Other Stuff

Climate-gate (for lack of a better term for it) continues to boil. I waited before posting something just to see how it all shook out. First off, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I am deeply skeptical of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis (AGW). The whole things boils down to a feud between the people who collect data (which shows no warming other than the 1C/century warming that has been going on since the end of the Little Ice Age) and the people who build models (which show run-away warming due to CO2 emissions from human activity). One of two things can cause collected data to disagree with results predicted by a model; either the model is wrong, the data is incomplete or corrupted in some way, or some combination of the two (science is rarely an exact science). When it comes to climate science, both the data and the models are suspect at this point. On the data side, we only have systematic data collection going back less than a century with the best data only going back a couple decades. When you are dealing with a system that changes over centuries and millennia, twenty years of data is really not going to get you far. There are secondary effects that can be looked at (ice cores, lake sediments, tree rings) that will push the data further into the past, but those are subject to all sorts of adjustments and interpretations. Even the current data is suspect due to the poor siting of many of the surface stations. On the model side, none of the models predicted the current cooling we are experiencing right now. None of the models can take conditions from some point in the past and "predict" the climate at any subsequent year. The very concept that something as dynamic and chaotic as global climate can all be distilled down into a single number, global average temperature, seems absurd from where I'm sitting.

It would seem obvious to me that what we should be spending money on is collecting better data and refining the models so they produce useful predictions. But that isn't what is happening. What we have is politics; a consensus that AGW is happening among credible scientists with "credible" meaning only scientists who believe in AGW. We have groups of politicians like the IPCC issuing alarmist reports for public consumption that contradict the scientific studies those reports are allegedly based on. We have politicians going to exotic places and being treated to free sex in exchange for doing nothing (other than adding tons of unnecessary CO2 to the atmosphere). And now we have a very embarrassing collection of e-mails that show the leading "experts" on global warming seemingly more interested in generating consensus (and thus guaranteeing their continued funding) rather than seeking facts. This isn't about hastily written e-mails worded in a way that could be misconstrued (for example referring to a method as a "trick" or a "hack"). This is about data being jimmied in a computer program to create a graph with a completely different shape than what the original data would have looked like. This is about a scientific journal publishing an editorial that reads more like some hatchet job in a British tabloid.

In 1974, Richard P. Feynman had this to say about proper scientific conduct:
There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in "cargo cult science".... It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked.... Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.... If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.

Unfortunately, "cargo cult science" is a fairly accurate description of what we are seeing in current climate research circles. Which is a shame, really, when you consider that we are running an uncontrolled experiment on the only habitable planet that we know of. I for one, would like to see some real science about the impact that the collective actions of 6 billion-plus shaved apes are having on the only place in the known universe where we can exist. That is too important of a question to be left in the hands of political hacks like Al Gore and Jim Hansen.

Meanwhile we have science being done the right way. First, Mars meteorite ALH84001 is back in the news. This was the one that was found back in the 90's that had chemical signatures for microbial life. Everyone got excited at first, then some begin to come up with alternate explanations that didn't involve anything living. Now further work shows that maybe the first impressions were correct. Notice that no one is having their funding threatened or yelling "Denier!!" at anyone. This is how science is supposed to work. And in other Mars news, the Mars rover Spirit is making discoveries as a direct result of all its thrashing around trying to get unstuck from the soft sand it's been trapped in for over six months. Like everyone else, I sometimes question NASA's priorities, its funding, even the intelligence of those running the place. But no one can question the over-the-top success of the Spirit/Opportunity missions. If we're going to have a NASA, this is what it should be doing.

In completely non-space, non-global-warning news, it's snowing. We're scheduled to leave for Portland, Maine tomorrow morning, so that figures. At least we have covered parking so we won't have to dig the car out of a snowbank. But we will be traveling on unfamiliar, two-lane roads that may be covered in ice and snow. Fun.

I'll wrap this up with an interesting bit I stumbled across. By what warped logic can someone be guilty of trespassing on their own property? By what twisted definition of the word "ownership" can someone dig up someone else's property after expressly being told they could not, then have the rightful owner arrested for challenging their right to be digging? Property rights have become a complete joke in this country, which is one reason I don't own any. There is no way this can end well.

And on that happy note, I'm going to sign off so I can watch some mindless movie and maybe do some napping.

1 comment:

Granny J said...

Thanks for the Nature link -- somehow I missed that one, though I read Watts Up regularly...a well done post.