Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Hannam Effect

Whenever you think of a cold and heartless scientist, feel free to think of me.

The fate of humanity doesn't especially concern me, or the fate of the planet, for that matter. Humanity will die out in N generations. N could be two or it could be two million. It could also be 0.2, in which case I will be personally very upset, but that's just too bad. Similarly, planet Earth, and all the miraculous variety of life that mushy animal-lovers coo over, will be gone in M generations. I expect that M will be much larger than N, although the fiction industry has squeezed a lot of dramatic mileage from the possibility that M=N (Earth is blasted out of space when we least expect it by a disgruntled author), or M < N (we all bugger off to another planet, and for poor old Earth it's detonation on departure). I would certainly prefer it if human society steadily progressed to the point where we all lived in a joyful utopia situated on a thriving Earth, but that's just the result of some strange culturally-imposed idealistic compulsion, which I'm sure can be cured by appropriate medication.

So when I complain about climate-change doubters, dissenters and deniers, it's not because I think it's important to save coral reefs, polar bears, or even my favourite ski slopes. They upset me because they misunderstand science. If we're all going to die in an incredible special-effects apocalypse of poisonous air, rising oceans, and all-consuming wars fought hand-to-hand by the last survivors amidst raging storms, that's fine with me, so long as (a) we do so with at least some basic understanding of the scientific method clear in our heads, and (b) someone films it.

I'm afraid to say that the number of sensible clear-headed scientists like myself out there in the world appears to be very low. People either refuse to accept the scientific evidence, or triumphantly trumpet the evidence because it's on their side. How many people are there whose views are informed by the evidence?

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine that I am a climate scientist, and I discover a new effect. I will of course have no choice but to call it the Hannam Effect. Here is the Hannam Effect: when greenhouse gases rise beyond a certain percentage in the atmosphere, a whole new as-yet-unobserved climate mechanism will come into play, and a set of air currents will develop that cause the gases to collect in isolated clumps. The areas where the greenhouse gases are less dense -- which are in fact vast sections of the atmosphere -- will act as huge vents that allow the planet to cool, or at least not rise in temperature any further. Ice-cap melting, glacier recession, and of course ocean rising, will reach a certain level and then stop [1].

Now, what happens after I've discovered the Hannam Effect? We can imagine two extremes. One is that the climate change deniers (i.e., the major industrial big shots) will embrace my theory, will promote it with the most lavish financial support they can muster, and in no time at all the climate-change case will have collapsed, and there will be no hope of serious environmental legislation, etc., etc., for decades. The other extreme outcome is that the climate change community rigorously block my research, refuse to publish it, discredit me, and throw me out as a heretic, and the Hannam Effect is ridiculed as a crackpot theory that circles the lowest depths of the nutjob blogosphere.

It is easy to imagine either of these outcomes, depending on your present view of climate change. I like to think (and we're assuming here that the Hannam Effect is real: every subsequent experiment, test, and new piece of evidence only increases support for it), that the truth will win out. But even if it does, I suspect that plenty of climate change crusaders will fight it with their last breaths. Why? Because as much as they claim to be on the side of science, they're really on the side of an ideology (i.e., environmentalism), and aren't especially interested in the facts. It would clearly be better if we cared more for the environment, they argue, and if the spectre of climate catastrophe is what we need to get that to happen, then so be it. I would like to think that these people are a tiny minority, the scum floating on the surface of good science, and that no true scientist would take such a shabby stance. But a "true scientist" is as hard to find as the Loch Ness Monster; I know people who claim to have sighted one, but never have myself. Do you think you are one? You can measure your position on the scientific-objectivity scale by your own particular personal reaction to the Hannam Effect [2].

In case you're a climate-change sceptic who's feeling smug right now, I might add that I can also consider a thought experiment that highlights bias in the other direction. Imagine that there is a Second Hannam Effect, a mechanism that incontrovertibly demonstrates that a growing atmospheric density of greenhouse gases causes the average ocean and surface temperatures to steadily rise, leading to radical climate change. Unfortunately, I don't get to name this process after myself, because it has already been discovered. It is called the Greenhouse Effect, and the scenario in which it is supported by a continuously growing collection of evidence is not a thought experiment; it is reality.

You may not care about being one of these mythical "true scientists"; you might think that unless we employ intellectual guerilla tactics, then we will be unable to stop the water from rising. I disagree. I am sure that I will be completely safe, up here on my scientific moral high ground.

Next: Climategate: the Vindication of Science.

1. Yes, I know that my little for-the-sake-of-argument idea is immediately shot down by the geological record, which suggests that the Earth has in the past been so warm that the poles were tropical, and so clearly no such mechanism exists. Please don't get hung up on these details. Just assume that I can dissemble my idea into plausibility for as long as it takes you to get to the end of this article. Speaking of which, time to go back.

2. These days we are all of sufficient philosophical sophistication that we do not use the term "objective". Our views are not objective, they are "evidence based". I prefer the current term. But a current scientist would, wouldn't they?


  1. N [generations] > M [years] ?

    Unit mismatch - your theorist badge is proudly on display.

  2. You're right, what a shocking mistake! I'm sunk without proper peer review.


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