Monday, December 14, 2009

Random Notes on the Climate Debate

Drafted this while I was not feeling well in Atlanta last week. In all honesty, the post is boring as shit, and I defer any actual valuable analysis to the unspecified future, so read on at your peril. Is it better to write a post a month that's actually interesting, or to keep the train rolling with whatever crosses my mind? Wish I knew, but at the end of the day, it's only my crappy blog, and where else would I write it? Stay tuned for a review of Cloud Atlas, which will probably be better.

I thought I said all I cared to about global warming, but a few things have happened to bring it to the forefront of my awareness. The first is that one of my Facebook friends, in his indignant (is there any other kind?) conservatarian crusade, keeps trumpeting articles that, allegedly, debunk the whole argument. Horrors! Could it be true? How many nails is this coffin going to need anyway? The other, of course, is the scandal of the month, elevated to the always retarded "-gate" status, involving hacked emails from the East Anglia University's Climate Research Unit. Might as well opine while the audience is still lukewarm, after all.

(There are places to inject politics, and I expected Facebook to be sufficiently analagous to a conventional social setting that one might be cautious about starting an unsolicited argument. Especially when it's predictable bullshit. Am I supposed to just let the gloating slide when it's based on so little? Blogging's different. Shut up.)

Actually, I don't have much to say on the CRU email scandal itself. Hard to see why instructions to delete email messages should ever be made, although I don't know the context. (Talking bad about people of note might be one such context that has nothing to do with the data itself.) The dastardly word "trick" isn't remotely unusual for anyone who's ever processed graphics or used math, and tellingly, the biggest outrage is reserved for calling the critics a bunch of assholes. Bad politics, I guess, but (1) they're internal emails, and (2) who could possibly disagree with the assessment? (Go ahead and click the link to look at that Delingpole guy's picture. He looks like someone who's turned a snit into a professional career.)

My Facebook friend did introduce me to the best deniers in the business however. you can survey Climate Audit and find people who actually use numbers. CA is like the evil twin of Real Climate, a blog that discusses issues rather equanimously to my eye, but then I again, I happen to agree with them, which always makes people look smarter. Here's RC's support of the "hockey stick" (a reconstruction of thousand-year historical temperatures that shows a recent increase in mean global temperature corresponding to CO2 increases). The CA commenters run on the intellectual bullying side of the fence, and the posters themselves generally want you to use their code and other annoying things before they'll talk to you. I don't think they've refuted the physical understanding of the dynamics of global climate, which remain (I believe) reasonable enough, and is certainly where I take a passing interest, but they do their best to discredit the pre-thermometer data itself. It's too bad statistics is almost as boring as reading a daily argument with 500 comments to a post, or I might have generated some more substantive comments by now. Much as I try not to judge by style, I have to admit that I find CA's stand not overly friendly to even the casual scientist, but you can find at least one summary of their arguments by McKitrick (they evidently removed a better one between when I first drafted this and now). Feel free to judge the content for yourself; I'm unenthusiastically working through it. They at least deserve a better analysis than a shitty vanity-pressed pamphlet offered by a congenital crank. They're still assholes, though.

I don't really approve of CA's argument by vendetta. And I can't help but note the lesson as it applies to makers of political opinion too, especially those that choose to identify themselves by the crayon-drawn philosophical tract of a given political party. (As for me, I can't vow to stick only to important critique, but I will at least try to fucking entertaining about it. And I just might occasionally join in the mockery of the people that are making all the noise and/or have all the power, which only seems only fair.) I don't object to citizen journalists, if they're accurate and convincing, and I guess the same should go to citizen scientists. Of course in science, the barriers to publication or conference attendance are smaller if you satisfy the condition of having a quality argument (smaller than in journalism! they certainly exist in science, and developing a quality argument can sometimes be rather expensive if you need equipment n'shit), and it's the right way to get attention.

I like this quote from RC about these guys:
There is however a different way of criticizing scientific papers that is prevalent in blogs like ClimateAudit. This involves challenging, ‘by all means necessary’, any paper whose conclusions are not liked. This can be based on simple typos, basic misunderstandings of the issues and ‘guilt by association’ though there is sometimes the occasional interesting point. Since these claims are rarely assessed to see if there is any actual impact on the main result, the outcome is a series of misleading critiques, regardless of whether any of these criticisms are in fact even valid or salient, that give the impression that every one of these papers is worthless and that all their authors incompetent at best and dishonest at worst. It is the equivalent of claiming to have found spelling errors in a newspaper article. Fun for a while, but basically irrelevant for understanding any issue or judging the worth of the journalist.

And I noted last time, but it deserves repeating, that arguing for the status quo (high consumption is great!) is not bold. Granted, a protected platform to argue against it can make the pissants a little annoying, but it's pretty clear who has the real power to move the world, and that's the people who agree with with the CA team.

The reason that I don't completely write them off is that they spend most of their efforts trying to refute the core data. The climate model is important, and the supporting data should be as solid as possible, so, like, go ahead and pick at it. I dug deeply enough into CA to question omitting some tree-ring records in some papers, although the practice seems to be defended well by the titled scientists. On the other hand, I only trust multivariate analysis, or epidemiology (or economics) up to a certian point, and I'd also only extrapolate a computer model cautiously in any case, and when it encounters conditions that are anomalous with respect to the historical record I'd be even more cautious. I also am skeptical that we're causing a new steady state conditions of climate and geological activity, but neither did Chicxulub, if you catch my meaning. Human activity is a tremendous perturbation to the system (shaking it badly, regardless of whether it knocks the train off the track), which is plenty dangerous enough.

The most rewarding part of the reading was to learn a little about principle component analysis, and I have to admit it's kind of neat. It's a sort of generic eigenvalue analysis of a data set, an exercise analagous to finding the components (vectors, harmonics) of some function, and in this case prioritizing them by impact, using as many as you need to reconsturct the data accurately. You subject data to Fourier analysis (I've been known to get goofy about that, as it's followed me the last couple of years, and I still don't know if I want to keep it) along the same philosophical guidelines, which of course involves another sort of eigenvalue program. PCA is more exclusively a tool to analyze trends from noisy data, however, and I take amusement that it doesn't need any physical interpretation at all to work. Nature doesn't need our interpretation either, and you can design systems by "genetical" or "evolutionary" processes, although it's tough on the pursuit-of-knowledge thing. The idea is to select for desired traits taht come out of some network, system, or complex mathematical construct, varying the working parameters among the "surviving" generation and then repeating the task. It's just like breeding--except you write some algorithm to guess the next variations for you--and of course you can make living things do weird tasks this way too. I don't know if people have applied genetic algorithm ideas to raw data sets, or if they should. Anyway, a digression, and I apologize.

Finally, I think we can all agree that Sen. Inhofe is a moron.


twif said...

here's my take on those who work fervently to deny a) climate change or b) anthropogenic climate change: why? what value is there in defending the production of excess CO2? i really cannot see any good argument for it. the simple fact is that, models aside, we are pumping extra CO2 into the atmosphere. we know it's a greenhouse gas, we know what it does. we add more than is removed by natural or technological processes.

even if you want to argue that antropogenic CO2 production is a contributing, instead of driving factor, it doesn't change anything. there is no value in producing that gas, unless one wants to count the profit from fossil fuels.

this needs to be said. someone needs to stand up and say, hey, even if (for the sake of argument)we aren't the driving force, being a contributing factor doesn't help and we still need to do something about it. unfortunately, it will never be said because even with a caveat, it would be reported as "scientists admit there is no climate change" or some other stupidity.

the attitude of deniers is akin to an alcoholic being diagnosed with cirrosis and saying, "fuck it, might as well drink more!".

Keifus said...

Well, the value is a continued really awesome standard of living (keeping the bender going, by your analogy). It's not exactly an act of defiance for deniers to champion this.

By my thinking, we're talking changes of nearly a geological scale (all that ground carbon is now air and sea carbon), and wise enough to think what the likely consequences of this might be. Assuming there are no consequences has a poor historical record. (And I don't think this bunch of deniers is really questioning the dynamics of what does what in the cycle--they're bidness statisticians more than scientists, not that that makes anyone immune.)

On top of this, there's not an unlimited amount of stuff in the ground, and you know, moderating the pace of consumption is probably smarter than hitting the wall when the vodka's all gone. Or counting on plenty of fucking AquaNet.

Michael said...

Of all the hot (pun pardon) issues of the day, my 80 year old mother decided to make the global warming "hoax" her personal chew-toy about 2 years ago. I tried to explain to her that in my opinion there's no way to determine if it's a real crisis by examining 10 year, 50 year, 100 year models.

Absolutely the earth has gone through ice ages. Of course the temperature averaged over the course of a thousand years will rise and fall.

When I try to ask her about the real issue, that is to say "How is humankind impacting the environment?" her response is knee-jerk attacks on Gore and the scientists who are all on the take, and a dismissive "We aren't changing the climate one bit. You can read all about it in the Weekly Standard."

An issue like this is, in my opinion, so misunderstood that discussion is practically futile.

I haven't talked to her about this since the "incriminating" emails surfaced, nor do I want to. But I do find the reaction to those emails by global warming skeptics to be a bit telling. A hah! We told you it was all made up bullshit. I;m not so sure a few emails from a few off-the-record scientists prove anything.

It's way below normal temps in Chicago for early December. See? There's no global warming. It's all a hoax.

Keifus said...

What's the impact is exactly the right question. (Or what's the impact to us?) For shits and grins, here's Slate reporter Anne Applebaum dismissing global warming because hippies scare her nine-year-old, and because some eleventh-hour cornucopian innovation is going to let human population expand indefinitely. (And I think a nine-year-old kid has a little more invested in the argument, frankly.) It reminds me why I stopped reading the mag, and the commenters clearly listen to the same scientific talk-radio luminaries that your mom does.

I'm finding it all really tiring lately.

Michael said...

Oh and in case I don;t get a chance to tell you tomorrow, ...

Happy Birthday Keifus.

Hope you're feeling better.

Keifus said...

How the hell was the road trip, anyway?

Schmutz said...

I leave on the 27th, unless I change my mind.