Bear in mind th…

Bear in mind that the representation of clouds in climate models (and of water vapour, which is intimately involved with cloud formation) is such as to amplify the forecast warming from increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide—on average over most of the models—by a factor of about three. In other words, two-thirds of the forecast rise in temperature derives from this particular model characteristic. Despite what the models are telling us—and perhaps because it is models that are telling us—no scientist close to the problem and in his right mind, when asked the specific question, would say that he is 95 per cent sure that the effect of clouds is to amplify rather than to reduce the warming effect of increasing carbon dioxide. If he is not sure that clouds amplify global warming, he cannot be sure that most of the global warming is a result of increasing carbon dioxide.

No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason no doubt there are others why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

via No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.

While I agree with the thrust of Dr. Stokes article, I worry that he is getting a little close to the Argument from Authority and its inherent weakness as a proof technique. In Science, no one cares where an idea comes from (well, except the paper’s authors), what matters is how the idea holds up to experimental evidence. In the case of vaccinations, the medical evidence is crystal clear. But climate science is perhaps another story. In any case, I would urge Dr. Stokes to read the words of Richard Feynman in an invited address[0] to the 15th annual meeting of the National Science teachers Association and think carefully about the philosophy Dr. Feynman espouses.

When someone says, “Science teaches such and such,” he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, “Science has shown such and such,” you might ask, “How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?”

It should not be “science has shown” but “this experiment, this effect, has shown.” And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments–but be patient and listen to all the evidence–to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.

In a field which is so complicated [as education] that true science is not yet able to get anywhere, we have to rely on a kind of old-fashioned wisdom, a kind of definite straightforwardness. I am trying to inspire the teacher at the bottom to have some hope and some self-confidence in common sense and natural intelligence. The experts who are leading you may be wrong.

I have probably ruined the system, and the students that are coming into Caltech no longer will be any good. I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television–words, books, and so on–are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.


NSIDC interactive graph of arctic sea ice coverage

Go to the National Snow and Ice Data Center for a nice interactive graphic on the extent of arctic sea ice. Click on 2013 and compare it to recent years. Discuss.

Der Spiegel interviews Hans von Storch on AGW

A nice (English language) interview with Dr. Hans von Storch at Der Spiegel is well worth a read. It is nice to see climate scientists valuing the observational record, even if it is inconsistent with the predictions of climate models. Speaking of which, he seems to agree that we are well outside a 95% confidence level that the various climate models are wrong. That doesn’t mean we don’t have warming, or that there isn’t an anthropogenic component, or even that the earlier predictions of significant warming are mistaken. But it does lower the confidence rational people should have in the accuracy of the current climate models.

I also completely agree with this:

Unfortunately, some scientists behave like preachers, delivering sermons to people. What this approach ignores is the fact that there are many threats in our world that must be weighed against one another.

Anthropogenic Global Warming is “the global threat of our time,” as President Obama recently said, only until we detect an Earth intersecting asteroid, or a supervolcano goes off, or we get a 1918-style global pandemic, or a Carrington Event occurs, or a thousand other scary scenarios that could happen. We shouldn’t close our eyes to the very real dangers that could come our way.

Historical Climate Catastrophe in the 17th Century

The evidence for major climate change in the 17th century is both copious and unambiguous. Consider the year 1675. In July, the Paris socialite Madame de Sévigné complained to her daughter, who lived close to the Mediterranean: “It is horribly cold: We have the fires lit, just like you, which is very remarkable.” She added: “We think the behavior of the sun and of the seasons has changed.”

Judith Curry points us to a study of the 17th century climate in in The Inevitable Climate Catastrophe. She has extensive quotes from Geoffrey Parker’s new book “Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.” It is well worth a read, for this lesson if nothing else:

Nevertheless, it took human stupidity to turn crisis into catastrophe.

The historical record is also a great cautionary tale that cooling is much, much worse than warming. And, since a static climate is as unrealistic as a static universe…

“Recycling is always cheaper, no matter how much it costs!”

Curious, I phoned the public relations officers with the recycling departments in several small cities in the Northeast.  I asked one extremely cheerful and energetic young woman how her city could justify asking people to put their garbage in the dishwasher.  Isn’t that pretty expensive, in terms of human time, and the energy to heat the water, compared to the value of the garbage?

Using the same tone of voice one would use to talk to a five year old—she clearly thought I was not the sharpest can lid in the recycle bin—she gave me the most concise explanation I have encountered in the whole genre.  She said, “Oh, you have to understand, sir.  Recycling is always cheaper, no matter how much it costs!”  For her, and for millions of people like her, recycling is not an economic activity at all, but a moral duty, without limits and for which cost is irrelevant.

This is a brilliant article on the topic of “Why We Recycle.” Read the whole thing. I have stood at the sink, rinsing out a glass bottle or can, and wondering if the cost in energy to purify and pump the water, dispose of the dirty rinse water, drive trucks to pick up the recycled bin separately from the trash bin, sort it, then ship it to a plant which reuses the material is really worth it in net terms to the environment. But I still do it, because if feels so virtuous!

No one had ever said, “Recycle because it’s cheaper”; instead, they had been told “Don’t throw anything into the landfill, because it’s wrong!”  By that logic, the protesters had a point:  moral imperatives shouldn’t respond to relative scarcity.  If it’s wrong to throw things into the landfill, it’s not an excuse to say “it’s expensive.”  Using moral suasion to solve the problem of charging a low price for landfill is actually dangerous, because people confuse sensible frugality, contingent on prices, with morality, which is only contingent on the good or bad character of the citizen.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The Scientific method requires that scientists communicate their findings, clearly, accurately, honestly, and truthfully. Sir Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.” Each insight builds upon the framework of countless insights before, and the observations that vouched for their truth. Insight leads to hypothesis, hypothesis leads to predictions, predictions lead to experiments, observations, and measurements, and we compare the predictions to the empirical data and accept, adjust, or discard the hypothesis. Reporting on this cycle of predict, measure, compare, adjust is how scientists disseminate knowledge.

Since no one is infallible, modern scientific scholarship relies on the evaluation of people with similar competence to the original researchers; their peers. The peers review the research report for relevance, quality, and accuracy. This process of peer-review helps expose any flaws and areas that are unclear or need improvement. Research work may be accepted, sent back for revision, or even rejected. Only when a researcher’s peers are satisfied with the quality of the research is the resulting report said to be peer reviewed. It is the gold standard of scientific quality. But the peer reviewers are human as well, and in many cases are in competition with the researchers whose work they are judging. It is a testament to the intellectual integrity of the vast majority of researchers that the peer-review system works as well as it has to date.

A very interesting paper, peer-reviewed!, appeared three decades ago, entitled “Peer-review practices of psychological journals: The fate of published articles, submitted again” I found the results fascinating.

A growing interest in and concern about the adequacy and fairness of modern peer-review practices in publication and funding are apparent across a wide range of scientific disciplines. Although questions about reliability, accountability, reviewer bias, and competence have been raised, there has been very little direct research on these variables.

The present investigation was an attempt to study the peer-review process directly, in the natural setting of actual journal referee evaluations of submitted manuscripts. As test materials we selected 12 already published research articles by investigators from prestigious and highly productive American psychology departments, one article from each of 12 highly regarded and widely read American psychology journals with high rejection rates (80%) and nonblind refereeing practices.

So, what do you think happened?

With fictitious names and institutions substituted for the original ones (e.g., Tri-Valley Center for Human Potential), the altered manuscripts were formally resubmitted to the journals that had originally refereed and published them 18 to 32 months earlier. Of the sample of 38 editors and reviewers, only three (8%) detected the resubmissions. This result allowed nine of the 12 articles to continue through the review process to receive an actual evaluation: eight of the nine were rejected. Sixteen of the 18 referees (89%) recommended against publication and the editors concurred. The grounds for rejection were in many cases described as “serious methodological flaws.” A number of possible interpretations of these data are reviewed and evaluated.

There is a lot of food for thought here. I did a quick check and found a single citation of this paper. I think I’ll dig a little deeper and see if other studies of the peer review process itself have been done over the last couple of decades.

Bert and Ernie visit IceCube

IceCube is a neutrino telescope, consisting of a layer of ice interlaced with photomultipliers more than 1,000 meters below the surface in the Antarctic. Neutrinos are very low mass, ghostly particles which seldom interact with matter. IceCube detects neutrinos by recording Cherenkov photons emitted from secondary leptons produced in very rare interactions of neutrinos with water molecules in the Antarctic’s glacial ice. IceCube began observations in December 2010. Most neutrinos IceCube is expected to see originate in the Sun or cosmic rays interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere.
The first two years of data have been reduced, and two very high energy neutrino events were found (although at a level of statistical significant  is just below the point where they would be considered robust detections). These two events were whimsically named Bert and Ernie. The amazing part for me was the incredible energy of these neutrinos; 1.04 +/- 0.16 PeV and 1.14 +/- 0.17 PeV. That’s Peta eV, a thousand million million electron volts, or the mass equivalent of a million protons.
This energy level means that, as understood today, the neutrinos were unlikely to have originated near the Earth (or as an effect of the GZK cutoff for intergalactic cosmic rays). This is a tantalizing hint that we may have new astronomical neutrino sources out there! But with so few detections–I can’t really call them observations yet–it is hard to say anything with any degree of certainty. I’ve heard of some new results at lower energy which are reported to be statistically significant, but I don’t have any real info. Yet.
Neutrino astronomy is in its infancy, but already we are seeing hopeful signs of new physical phenomena just waiting to be explored.

Billion year old water could harbor early life.

From the National Post.

An international research team reported Wednesday that miners near Timmins are tapping into an ancient underground oasis that may harbour prehistoric microbes. The water flowing out of fractures and bore holes in one mine near Timmins dates back more than a billion years, perhaps 2.6 billion, making it the oldest water known to exist on Earth, says the team that details the discovery in the journal Nature.

This water doesn’t predate life on Earth–we think life first appeared around 3.5B years ago–but it suggests that life may have originated below the Earth’s surface, where it would have been protected from UV radiation from the Sun. Before the evolution of bluegreen algae and the subsequent increase of atmospheric oxygen necessary to form the ozone layer which today protects the Earth’s surface from harmful amounts of UV radiation, life would have been restricted to the oceans. And now, perhaps underground as well. If ancient living organisms are found in the isolated underground water… I find this simply amazing to contemplate.

A flash of insight

Near the end of April, a record setting Gamma Ray Burst was observed in the constellation Leo. Not only did scientists observe the highest energy gamma ray photons ever measured from such an event, about 35 billion times more energetic than photons of visible light, but the duration of the event also set records. The hours-long ‘burst’ enabled other telescopes to observe the region of the sky containing the source object. The redshift distance was remarkably small for GRBs, too. This GRB was exceptionally energetic, remarkably long-lived, and closer to us than 95% of other GRBs seen. The image below is from NASA’s Swift X-ray telescope.


The followup observations are expected to find a supernova remnant by the middle of May. The data collected may reveal new information about the physical processes involved in creating the most luminous events in the Universe.