Monday, 28 April 2014

Climategate: the vindication of science

In recent posts I defended the right of climate-change doubters to air their sceptical views, even if they are wrong. But I didn't explain why they are wrong to be sceptical. This is an important point, because scientists make a lot of noise about what amazing all-questioning, all-doubting truth-discovering geniuses they are, so what's wrong with everyone else being a bit sceptical, too?

The problem is that people don't understand what scepticism means to the professional scientist. If they did, then they would have treated an event like the 2009 Climategate scandal, which purported to reveal that scientists spend half of their time slagging each other off, as a glorious vindication of climate-science research.

For most people, being sceptical means saying, "I don't believe you! Prove to me you're right!" But there's no point doing that unless you know enough to judge the answer you get. How much you need to know to be usefully sceptical depends enormously on the situation. There are times in everyday life when you don't need to know very much at all. For example, on those blessed lucky days when you get a call from the mobile phone company.

"Good evening, may I take a few minutes to slash your monthly phone bill?"

"Actually, I'm busy right now trying to feed a baby and a three-year-old--"

"That's fine, this will only take a few minutes."

"Plus I'm trying to cook a lavish meal for a dinner party that starts in 45 minutes. There's a very fiddly French chicken dish that requires careful concentration…"

"I'm sure you can handle it."

"…and I have to translate the recipe from French as I proceed."

"One more piece of multi-tasking won't hurt you."

Our harried hero is then presented with a series of options for a new phone, combinations of free call time and text messages, daytime calls, evening calls, weekend calls, international calls, data plans, and contract lengths. At the same time, as he barely manages to catch the baby as she leaps from her high chair, put a plate of fish fingers on the table at the same moment the three-year-old announces his intention to rip all of the speaker wires from the stereo, and glaze a chicken, he also scribbles down the phone plan costs in the margin of the French cookbook. While converting 3.5 tablespoons into teaspoons, which are all he has handy, and halving the recipe, he also adds up the prices, and concludes that the new phone deal is indeed marginally cheaper.

"I will save only pennies each month. Why should I bother?"

"Our customer service is better."

"How can you prove that?"

"And transfer will be automatic. You just have to say Yes."

"Plus a changeover fee?"

"Of course."

"Goodbye."

This is the sort of scepticism that our expert parent and novice French chef can be justifiably proud of, and further dramatise as he gloats about it over dinner. But this skill is entirely meaningless when presented with a scientific discipline that most practitioners learn over four years of undergraduate study, five years of doctoral training, and seven years of post-doctoral research, at which point only 6% of the original students remain, and half of those are dunderheads who will eke out the remainder of their academic careers in obscurity.

Imagine, nonetheless, that he receives another call the next day.

"Good afternoon, I would like to convince you that the recent BICEP2 observations confirm inflation of the early universe."

"Ok. My kids are at school and there are plenty of leftovers in the fridge. Go right ahead!"

"Thank you. Let's begin. What do you know already about the cosmic microwave background?"

"I'm afraid I only cook with gas."

"I can see this will take some time…"

We have reached a point where mere scepticism is not enough. It is entirely possible that he could ask enough probing questions to make a judgement just as informed as a celebrity cosmologist, but not before the kids get home from school.

You might argue that, unlike cosmology, climate change is such an important topic that non-experts should be able to do something to check up on the climate scientists. And there is something you can do. You can make sure that the scientists are exercising their own highly trained sceptical skills. To help you out, here is an example of good scientific conduct.

A scientist turns up at her office one morning, and discovers in her email that her most hated competitor has just published a wonderful new result.

"That's impossible. He's a moron!"

She prints out the paper, then locks her office door and turns off the lights and puts on some massive noise-canceling Cyberman headphones and pumps evil thrash metal through them for the rest of the day, while she pores over the paper. Every line, every equation, every table, every figure, and especially every citation, is studied with the utmost suspicion. She finally concludes that the paper is rubbish, based on unjustifiable assumptions, sloppy methods, and flawed analysis, and that in fact precisely the opposite conclusion must be true. She will now devote the next week to proving it. It becomes her Number One priority. She tells her postdoc, "Prove me right, or your contract won't be renewed." She tells her graduate student to stop writing up her thesis. "This is much more important! You can graduate next year." Her lectures for the coming semester are given precisely zero preparation time, ensuring that she will once again receive teaching evaluations so poor, and some containing death threats, that she is guaranteed rapid promotion.

The week-long project extends to a month, and then a year, and finally, eighteen months later, she is forced to admit that her competitor was right after all. But in the process of trying to prove otherwise she (i.e., her long-suffering postdoc and graduate student) have produced a related result that she is confident will irritate him almost as much as his result infuriated her.

That is what top-notch scientific scepticism is like.

If you want to be helpfully sceptical about climate change, you can devote 16 years to becoming an expert, or you can just make sure that the scientists are maintaining a sufficient level of professional bitter rivalry. And that is why Climategate was such a relief. Behind their demure public image, the scientists appeared to be pummelling their data with every trick they knew, and treating each others' ideas with utter contempt. Just as they should.


Next: My expert prediction.

16 comments:

  1. You have a fundamental misunderstanding of climate science as well as Michael Mann's role in falsifying data.

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  2. Wow, are you a bona fide climate-change sceptic? That's wonderful -- I've never met one of them before! Since I know so little about climate science, what's the problem with Michael Mann? Sounds like a pretty smart cookie to me.

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  3. In fact, the very experiment you propose was done by a climate-change skeptic, Richard Muller. Starting from being a PhD in physics, it took him a mere 7 years (from 2004 to 2011) to learn enough climate science to realize he was wrong. For the sake of economic efficiency, I recommend that skeptics accept the word of climate scientists rather than each putting in the 4+6+7=17 years each getting their physics PhDs and starting their own climate-science centers.

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    1. That's a great story. According to the Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers (2012) article I just read, he was even funded by Charles Koch when he did his study. Admitting you're wrong in such a situation is no mean feat!

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  4. I don't buy it. It used to be global warming. Chicago had its coldest winter ever, and here in the UK I've cut my grass once in six months. And then there's this:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2614097/Top-climate-experts-sensational-claim-government-meddling-crucial-UN-report.html

    I will not be told to that I am too ignorant to be sceptical.

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    1. You're not too ignorant to be sceptical (whatever that would mean), but you are too ignorant to draw any useful conclusion from your scepticism. Most of us are, on all but a few topics. More on that in the coming posts.

      On the examples you raise: The coldest winter ever does not disprove global warming, and the hottest summer ever does not prove it. The relevance of the Robert Stavins story is unclear. He objected to how the policy recommendations section of the IPCC report was produced, but made clear his full agreement with the science. And even if he disagreed on the science, this would prove little. More on that in the next few posts as well...

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    2. It's a matter of evidence and observation Mark. Compare and contrast climate change with Clifford Will's The Confrontation between General Relativity and Experiment.

      I was rather hoping you'd be getting back onto relativity and black holes in your next few posts.

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    3. The climate change story will be wrapped up to everyone's satisfaction very soon, and I might get back to black holes...

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    4. I look forward to it Mark. Here's something you might like to consider for a future blog entry:

      You are standing on a massive gedanken body holding a gedanken laser pointer from which a light beam is emitted vertically. It doesn't curve round or slow down like a upthrown rock. Now I tap my gedanken magic wand to increase the mass of the body. The light still doesn't curve round or slow down. Repeat ad infinitum, and it never ever does. But there comes a point when the light doesn't get out.

      Why?

      NB: a concentration of energy tied up as the mass of a body results in a gravitational field which alters the motion of light and matter through space. But this doesn't make space fall down. We do not live in a Chicken-Little world. The sky is not falling in. No waterfall analogies please.

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    5. I was with you until the third sentence, but then my gedanken began to ache.

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    6. That's because it's thinking like Einstein. Exercising muscles you didn't know you had. Keep at it. Why doesn't the light get out?

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  5. It is certainly true that there are some actual climate change deniers.

    Most of the time, however, many who are branded deniers actually accept anthropogenic global warming. The skepticism arises over how much is it warming, how much of a problem it will cause, and what, if anything, we should do about it.

    In light of the some of spectacular failures in predicting the future (some of The Limits to Growth predictions of natural resource shortages and Paul Ehrlich's predictions about millions starving) why should we not be somewhat skeptical about climate change predictions?

    Let's say we are 95% certain that climate sensitivity is 2 degrees.

    Let's say we are 95% that we will continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere at current.

    Combining the two we are already below 95% certainty about how much warming we will have, but let's continue.

    What is the level of certainty for food production models, extreme weather events, sea level rise, etc? Whatever you pick, the overall level of certainty drops more.

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    1. Can you guarantee with 95% certainty that current CO2 output will have no negative impact on our civilization?

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  6. Are you going to continue to not publish my comments on how Mann faked the proxy data? What kind of "science" blog is this when you refuse to post actual data? Don't answer that. We all know what this blog is about. When all your lies about climate change fail to come to fruition (as has happened for the past 40 years), it's probably time we start holding scientists children accountable for their lies. Long prison terms? Mandatory neutering? Death?

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    1. As far as I know, you have made two comments (including this one), and I have published them both. Neither contained any data, so maybe I missed something. I am curious to hear the case you make, despite the apparent risks involved if I disagree with it.

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  7. Climate change is *clearly* a conspiracy by the government

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