I THINK, THEREFORE I QUESTION
In my June 2010 column, I said I would reply in this one to some of the issues raised in letters to Brass Tacks (and elsewhere) concerning my “Lessons from the Lab” November 2009 column, with “gloves off.” At the time I wrote that, I assumed I would be challenged to reign in my combativeness before I submitted the finished manuscript. However, so much news has broken under the collective name of “Climategate” since then that I now find myself challenged to reign in my desire to gloat, and so, the gloves stay on.
Even by the time this Alternate View sees print many readers will still think, “Gloat about what?” For those of you who feel that way, more power to you, but you may not feel like reading further. Other readers have been skeptical of the apocalyptic claims made about the dangers of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) for even longer than I have. Perhaps they see Climategate and the subsequent damage to the “Warmist” cause (the political aspect of AGW) as vindication that they were right all along, and with them I concur. Those in the middle I hope have at least accepted this particular truth: The science isn’t settled after all.
I have been scouring the news and reading extensively in climate studies for the last few months, and I have a confession to make—most of this shit bores the hell out of me. Nevertheless, visit to my blog—http://www. jeffkooistra.blogspot.com—will find additional discussions about global warming and links that I think useful. (Posts with AGW in the title are climate-change-related.) The topic is too big to discuss much of it in a few AV columns, so I will do so there. I have too many other topics I’d rather cover in the pages of Analog.
There is an attitude among the AGW camp followers that can best be summed up with: “How dare you question climate scientists and their peer-reviewed studies!” In my case, I dare because I am a sentient being. Since I do not know everything, I ask questions to find out. I ask people, I read books, I interrogate Nature herself, and I even question myself. One of the reasons I write Alternate Views is to learn, by putting my ideas out there and having them questioned. No one’s words should be accepted uncritically. And if there is one thing of which I am most skeptical, it is excessive certainty.
I think, therefore I question.
True, I have been skeptical of the alleged dangers of AGW for years. But I lost interest in following the story closely once I became convinced that there was no imminent danger to the human race, regardless of whether or not “excess CO2” was causing some amount of “excess warming.”
Some personal history is in order.
When I first heard of AGW, I thought it was a reasonable hypothesis worth investigating, since it is not unreasonable to study whether or not CO2 produced by the activities of Man has resulted in additional terrestrial warming. However, I heard about AGW in connection with dire warnings that sea levels would rise by a foot or two in the next hundred years (or whatever the exact claim was at the time). It struck me as ridiculous to think this problem would pose a serious challenge, so it also served as my introduction to global warming hysteria.
Despite the noise of the Y2K hype, the contested presidential election of 2000, and the calamity of 9-11, around that time I learned of the “hockey stick graph.” This graph removed the medieval warming period (MWP—you know, when the Vikings were setting up colonies in Greenland) from history, and claimed to show that we were living in a period of unprecedented warmth and increasing warming. Around then I also learned there were “Deniers.” I realized I must be one because I was certain of the historicity of the MWP. Naively I assumed anyone with scientific sense would feel the same and that the claim of unprecedentedness would soon fall by the wayside.
Yet it did not.
I vaguely followed the subsequent ongoing debate, such as it was. I was investigating superfluid aether theories then, which interestingly enough would contribute to my skepticism about AGW claims. I picture the atmosphere and oceans as complex systems of coupled nonlinear oscillators, which we are only just beginning to understand. Once you learn how difficult it is to adequately model even simple fluid systems, automatically, skepticism greets assertions of certainty about what a computer model predicts for Earth’s future climate. Long-term predictions made on the basis of these models, though interesting and perhaps suggestive, are not remotely certain.
But that is not how the predictions were treated.
In my April 2007 column, “Baseball and Hurricanes,” conceived shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I confronted the claims being made that hurricanes were going to be more frequent and powerful than ever due to AGW. I pointed out that such claims presuppose an accurate knowledge of hurricane statistics from the era before we had satellites and modern technology to count hurricanes and measure their strengths. Not having such knowledge, the claims remain hypotheses only. And as it turned out, the years following Katrina brought relatively calm hurricane seasons.
My feelings about AGW circa 2007 can be summed up in several quotes:
“It makes very little sense to believe the output of the climate models.”
“When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations, and the superficiality of our theories.”
“Computer models of the climate . . . [are] a very dubious business if you don’t have good inputs.”
“We do not know how much of the environmental change is due to human activities and how much [is due] to long-term natural processes over which we have no control.”
All of these quotes are from Freeman Dyson, one of the handful of living physicists who is undisputedly a genius. He, like I, does not get money from oil companies to preach “anti-AGW heresy,” and he certainly is neither stupid nor anti-science. A few more Dyson quotes like these can be found here: http://noconsensus.org/scientists/freeman-dyson.php. Though his statements sum up my views at that time, I did not know Dyson was a fellow AGW skeptic until recently. I arrived at the same understanding independently and for the same reasons he did, but why quote me when I can quote him?
In recent years I stumbled upon www.wattsupwiththat.com, a page popular with “AGW denialists.” This is the site of Anthony Watts, the man behind the surface stations project I discussed last November. I did not go there to learn about global warming, though. I went because he had a link to the SOHO (Solar & Heliospheric Observatory) satellite and I wanted to see sunspots. But there were hardly any and no one really knew why. I found this interesting and would visit to read updated reports on sunspot numbers and how this low-count period compared with those of the past.
Watts also occasionally posted pieces entitled “How Not to Measure Temperature, Part (number).” I liked these because I am a stickler for experimental measurement and technique. The postings usually came with a picture of a particularly egregious example of improper siting of an official temperature station, most of them in the US. Watts was up to Part 88 when I decided I’d be discussing the results of the surface stations project in an Alternate View.
What I really appreciate about Watts’ page are the comments following the assorted postings. Reading them is very much like being at the Analog online forum. Some who weigh in do so entirely from a political perspective, which is interesting even if not scientific. Quite a few AGW embracers also join in the discussion, and it is sometimes valuable to read their input. But the best comments and commenters are like the best on the Analog forum. They are intelligent people from all walks of life, many of them toiling in or retired from scientific, engineering, or other technical professions, all of them with a lifelong interest in science. I feel every bit as comfortable with them as I do in a gathering of the Analog Mafia. It is people like us who volunteered to photograph and survey stations for the surface stations project.
I did make a pedagogical error in my November essay. When I said I was fortunate that there was a slow but tedious way I could recover my data in my junior year physics experiment, I assumed readers understood that my case was anything but typical. The only reason I could recover my data (and even then it was only good enough for an experiment fulfilling a school requirement, not for journal publication) was because I did one, and only one, thing wrong. And it was with one piece of equipment, and I was the only person making the measurements. There is no magic computer program or methodology that can undo bad measurements taken with bad or improperly placed sensors. Period. You can attempt to recover some useable data in some cases if you can isolate the source(s) sufficiently, and the nature of the correction is sufficiently simple (i.e. add 0.5 milliunits to each measurement). You still pay for it in increased uncertainty. But you cannot recover accurate data from a thermometer that is sited in a swamp and next to air conditioning units. (See this link for a discussion of that particular station: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/ 06/09/revisiting-detroit-lakes/more-8299. See this one for a detailed discussion of another station from which you will never know what the readings would have been: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/03/22/how-not-to-measure-temperature-part-84-pristine-mohonk-lake-ushcn-station- revisited/more-6436.)
Some have suggested the number of poorly sited stations is not enough to seriously compromise the data set. This is nonsense. With 80% of stations surveyed, 89% don’t meet the NOAA’s own siting criteria. 58% were rated as class 4, meaning the expected error is greater than 2°C. That’s three times the entire claimed 0.7°C increase for the twentieth century. If this doesn’t matter, why have siting criteria at all?
Take any arbitrary century-wide slice of Earth history. Ascertain the averages of the statistics considered relevant to AGW—temperature, sea ice extent, glacial increase and recession, animal population densities and extents, hurricane numbers and intensities, and so on. For any of these categories, it would be unusual to find no change whatsoever from one end of the century to the other. Glaciers come and go, hurricane seasons vary greatly, animal populations are far from static whether people are around or not, and some periods are warmer than others. There are no changes now being attributed to AGW that would not have been changing anyway.
What, you Warmists, is the world supposed to look like if there were no AGW at all? On what grounds do you assert that expectation is valid? You cannot claim to know, and with certainty no less, that the world is warmer than it should be due to AGW if you do not know how warm it would be without it.
One thing that Climategate has accomplished is the loosening of the tongues of those climate scientists who, even though confident that AGW will ultimately be validated, felt all along that claims were presented with more certainty than the state of the science could provide. Another thing it brought is something no scientist can do without: A healthy dose of hard-earned humility.
Copyright © 2010 Jeffery D. Kooistra
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