Friday, February 19, 2010

An Oblique Reply to the Editors of the New York Times

All of the discussion of policy and scientific issues related to the earth's climate since "Climategate" broke has, quite reasonably, focused on the corruption of data by the "homogenization" techniques used by various and sundry research agencies throughout the English speaking world and on the bogus claims found in IPCC publications based on use of advocacy sources in place of actual scientific papers, or on just plain, stupid errors (always favoring the preconceived idea that AGW is taking place and getting worse--one supposes the plain stupid errors in the other direction were caught in the editing).

All of this calls into question whether there has really been any global warming going on at all (at least if one takes a much shorter time scale than from the end of the Little Ice Age, c. 1850, to the present)--Prof. Phil Jones of "Climategate" notoriety has admitted there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995.

What I find maddening is that critics do not put front and center a thoroughgoing critique of the method by which the supposed causal link between CO2 emissions and changes in mean global temperature was supposedly established: computer modeling.

The last big enthusiasm in science journalism before most science pages turned into AGW propaganda rags was "chaos theory", a sexed-up version of an observation Poincaré had made around the turn of the 20th century, that solutions to non-linear differential equations with nearby initial conditions could diverge radically over the long-run, meaning that physical systems governed by them were predictable only in the very short-run without perfect knowledge of the initial state of the system, supplemented by the discovery that the same sort of unpredictability could arise in other sorts of dynamical systems, including symbolic dynamics and the dynamics of iterated polynomials that leads to all those lovely pictures of (approximations to) fractals.

One of the popularized phrases thrown around in that era was "the butterfly effect", describing the sensitivity of the non-linear equations governing the dynamics of the earth's atmosphere to initial conditions in the terms "If a butterfly flies across a field in China, the weather in New York will be different three days later."

The mantra "weather is not climate" shows a fundamental misunderstanding, not in what it denotes, which is true enough, but because it papers over the fact that climate is weather, averaged and aggregated over time and place. Certainly in the popular mind, and I strongly suspect in the minds of a great many of the climate modelers who have contributed to this debacle, there is the idea, supported by the "weather is not climate" mantra, that the unpredictable short-term variations in weather are simply "statistical noise" overlaid on a predictable system. This is not the case. The variations in weather are the short-term dynamics of the system climate modeling seeks to predict long term. Creating time-averaged variables (turning weather into climate) and discretized space-averaged variables (gridding) out of the actual continuous moment-to-moment measurements that describe the earth's atmosphere do not magically turn a non-linear system into a linear system, even if done honestly.

The only proof offered for the causal hypothesis that CO2 emission from human activities cause whatever warming trend, whether really existing in the world or conjured by dark means out of "homogenizing" data, have been discretized computer models of a chaotic dynamical system, that perforce leave out both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns among influences on the earth's climate, but also have, by and large, left out known influences (for instance, the causal mechanism, proposed and verified in experiments by Svensmark, linking solar magnetism to cloud formation that accounts for the long-noted correlation between sunspot number and mean global temperature).

To the extent that the AGW hypothesis leads to testable predictions: a hot-spot in the troposphere over the tropics, and a decrease in out-bound infrared radiation correlating with rising CO2 concentrations, or, for that matter, the most elemental prediction that rising CO2 levels would correspond to rising temperatures, which they have not over the past decade and a half, the hypothesis has been falsified by observation.

The "proof" of AGW was never science, it was a pack of grant-funded nerds playing an apotheosis of SimEarth on supercomputers. And we now know they were cheating.

It is the AGW-believers who are at war with science, with their notion of "settled science". Computer modeling is not a "new way to do science" whatever Steven Wolfram may think or want so he can sell more software. The "skeptics" or "deniers" are, in fact, the defenders of science, defending it by making war on "settled". Real science is never settled, it is always provisional. As I have observed before, Newtonian physics seemed "settled" for two-hundred years, but came apart when it couldn't explain the precession of Mercury, the photoelectric effect and the constancy of the speed of light in a vacuum--observations that falsified its predictions.

I wonder whether the authors of the New York Times' recent lead editorial which still hawks the "need" to hobble the world economy and impoverish the world's people to "cut greenhouse emissions" consulted with James Gleick, their old science correspondent who wrote the popular "Chaos" back in 1987. I suspect not.

(A disclaimer: I do not know Gleick's views on AGW, and do not mean to attribute any view to him. But were he true to the science and mathematics he described in his 1987 book, he could have warned the editors of the folly of their position.)

We have seen the results of over-reliance on models that make false assumptions about short-term variability in the financial sector. What is needed from policy makers is not ploughing ahead with greenhouse gas emission regulations, but a recognition that they have been sold a bill of goods. As I have opined before, the correct, useful, response to climate change (which is real and has been going on for 4.5 billion years without human agency) is to make contingency plans against droughts, floods, rising sea levels, advancing glaciers, and the like and to throw a lot of money at making sure our agricultural infrastructure can grow food in hotter dryer, colder wetter, hotter wetter, and colder dryer climates than we now use.

At least seed money for the agricultural research might easily be found without raising budget deficits by defunding supercomputer climate modeling.