It’s Not Rocket Science…

One of the more overused rhetorical tropes of recent times has been the notion that when it comes to Anthropogenic Global Warming/Weirding/Climate Change, “the science is settled.” As I’ve noted before, if it’s really settled, it’s not really science, because real science is always open to the experimental falsification of a theory, and as others have noted, what we’re dealing with in many cases aren’t real data, but computer models. (Full disclosure: I believe there is some human impact on climate, but that it’s miniscule compared to things like that enormous nuclear furnace only 1 A.U. away. In any case, I don’t think it warrants the gutting of technological civilization that a number of activists seem to have in mind. And of course, as soon as we move from observation to acting on that observation, we have departed from science and entered the realms of the social and political.)

The Washington Examiner observes that there are other folks who are concerned that the climate change activists are engaged in a rush to judgment for whatever reason. What’s interesting in this case is that the concerned parties are Apollo astronauts and former NASA officials, and they are specifically warning that the space agency risks squandering its ethos by putting all its eggs in the climate change basket.

Oh well, scientific illiterates all, right?

H/T: Jonah at the Corner

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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32 Responses to It’s Not Rocket Science…

  1. Minor quibble…actually, it isn’t even that, more like an open question. Since, for all I know, maybe you’re right.

    In any case, I don’t think it warrants the gutting of technological civilization that a number of activists seem to have in mind.

    I’m not sure they want a “gutting of technological civilization.” From all I’ve seen and heard about this over the last twenty years give-or-take, what they want is for influential leadership spots, specifically, those positions that determine where revenue goes and how assets are used, to be monopolized by the incapable and unproductive. They want a fiat economy.

    But I’m not sure if that’s true across-the-board, or if we’re dealing with a mix of different people coming from a diverse panorama of interests.

    • profmondo says:

      I think there’s some overlap. Consider the glee with which the President and his lackeys have spoken of skyrocketing fuel costs. Consider the late, unlamented Kyoto accords. Stuff like that both consolidates government power and makes our current, technologically driven standard of living inaccessible for the politically unconnected. Of course, the apparatchiks will always have their dachas…

  2. Bret Bearup says:

    If 98% of the world’s automotive engineers were of the opinion that your car was not safe, would you drive it? Would you have your family hop in because, as we all know, scientists have no idea what they’re talking about? Or would you blame it on a political movement whose hidden agenda is to take away some area of personal freedom, and continue to drive your car like you’ve always done? I don’t understand smart people thinking they know more about climate science than climate scientists do. It baffles me.

    • profmondo says:

      As I said, I believe there is some human contribution to climate change — but I’m also aware of prior climate fluctuations like the Medieval Warm Period, and I recall (as you might) predictions a few decades back of a new Ice Age. Science ain’t democracy. It’s not about consensus; it’s about data.

    • bluesun says:

      If only climate scientists were scientists instead of politicians…

    • David says:

      If it could be shown that those 98% owned stock in a competing auto company, then no, I would feel no compunction about ignoring their advice.

    • Alpheus says:

      I think this “98%” business may be misleading. As far I can tell, it’s a made-up statistic. Besides, “climate scientist” tends to be defined in terms of belief in global warming, so there’s some circularity here. If you’re a geologist, or an atmospheric physicist, or even a meteorologist, then you get dismissed as not being a “climate scientist” — which doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s convenient from the point of view of polemics, since people in those other fields are much more skeptical of many of arguments about global warming.

  3. I missed the part where some overwhelming consensus lined up behind the “tipping point” idea.

    Saw some discuss the idea of an imminent tipping point…and I saw an overwhelming consensus…but I’m having a Superman/Clark Kent issue with them, I never see both of them in the same room at the same time. The overwhelming consensus, from what I recall, is limited to the “carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and humans do produce it,” extending not much further than that.

  4. Huck says:

    And of course, as soon as we move from observation to acting on that observation, we have departed from science and entered the realms of the social and political.

    Ah! But here is the rub, indeed. It seems to me that the “observation” of AGW is fairly “settled science” as we understand what “settled science” means. But acknowledging this simple reality then puts the burden on human beings to respond to this reality in a way that cannot escape the realms of the social and political, especially because the climate directly bears on the social and the political in ways that, say, the “settled science” of the laws of gravity or the earth’s rotation do not. So, for those who simply are too lazy to grapple with the moral implications of NOT thinking of what to do about AGW, the response is either to deny altogether the science that overwhelmingly supports the reality of AGW or to claim the futility of human agency in responding to climate change. Therefore, the conclusion is drawn that it makes no sense for humans to actually do anything about it, both individually and as a collective, because any such action would be both a Herculean (requires extraordinary efforts) AND Sisyphean (which efforts are ultimately meaningless) endeavor. But this strikes me as both arrogant and lazy, because there are many things we can do individually and collectively to actually be better stewards of the environment. And it would be unethical and immoral for us not to do such things.

    • Huck,

      Seriously, if it’s all about avoiding being lazy (and not about, as I suspect is the case, just earning superficial bragging rights over other, lesser, humans for being less lazy), shouldn’t we be putting a little mental-muscle behind the dilemma I posed above?

      Is there any “scientific consensus” behind the tipping-point idea? I’ve heard lots of so-called scientists wax lyrically about how, if we don’t act right now, it will soon be way too late…but in every case, by that time they stopped speaking scientifically a few sentences or paragraphs before.

      What is the ideal earth mean temperature that would guarantee such a doomsday never happens, if that’s what we’re after? What is the ideal carbon saturation in the atmosphere? Is there a corresponding guarantee that, if we bring the carbon saturation down to 380,000 ppb let’s say…that we will not, in so doing, retard the plant growth that is needed to grow food?

      It all comes down to: Lecturing isn’t science. No matter how good it might feel.

      • Huck says:

        Morgan – I think there is nearly universal consensus, not just among the scientific community, but among humanity as a whole, that a tipping point exists. We may not be very adept at predicting when we may cross the tipping point or how imminent doing so may be or even how adept we are at evolving into solutions that we simply can’t even fathom now, but I don’t think anyone doubts that resources are finite, that our earth has its limits, and that the growth of humanity simply in terms of sheer numbers taxes and stresses the limitations of the globe’s finite natural resources. I wonder if you are one of the few who actually doubt this. If not, then it stands to reason that acknowledging this bears with it some obligation for responsible stewardship of the environment. What baffles me is why many AGW denialists would not embrace both individual and collective efforts to make the world’s resources last just a little bit longer and, at the very least, acknowledge that human action with regard to environmental stewardship is meaningful and good.

  5. Huck, I’m not nearly as interested in what you’re concluding about this tipping point, nor am I concerned with how many scientists & non-scientists agree, as I am with how you’re getting there.

    Let us say for sake of argument that I do indeed doubt this. Where, exactly, am I errant? I’ve heard the drama and I’ve heard the doom-and-gloom…as Mark Steyn was putting it so elegantly, mankind has been prophesizing the end of the world since, roughly, the beginning of the world. How do we know this time it’s the real deal?

    I mean, scientifically.

    • Huck says:

      We know it’s the real deal scientifically because the science shows fairly clearly and convincingly the trajectory towards an environment that cannot sustain human living is real. When we reach the point at which the earth is no longer able to sustain human life is the much harder thing to predict. And whether humans are able through technology to live in another non-earthly environment is also a big unknown. And even the argument that claims that humans will evolve into some order of being that can live on an earth whose environment changes in ways that cannot sustain human life as currently constituted is speculative, too. But what is not speculative is the science that not only has shown how environmental change can occur which eliminates species (i.e. the ice age and dinosaur extinction) but also shows gradual and sustained environmental change currently that, if the trajectory continues, poses a threat to the environmental conditions necessary for human survival. Given this, it actually seems to me that the conservative position should be the one that looks at past evidence of environmental transformation and species survival, that looks at current patterns of environmental change in light of the requisites for human species survival as we know it currently, and which adopts the view that even though the future is uncertain, the proper course of action based on what we know to be scientifically true, is the one that opts for caution and prudential behavior that presumes the worst case scenario.

      That said, you might think that erosion of coastlines, rising ocean levels and temperatures, melting polar ice caps, changes in the chemical composition of our atmosphere, and other indicators of environmental change that may pose threats to human existence are not things to be worried about. But the science that shows these things actually occurring is really uncontestable. And we also know from science that the long term consequences of these kinds of changes on the environment will have deleterious effects on the environmental conditions we know we need to have in order to sustain human life. The question then becomes what to do about it.

      In short, the science behind global climate change that shows concerning patterns and trends is not really in question. The real question, regardless of whether we think humans are the cause of global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it or not, is what do we think its impact will be and then what should we be doing about it, if anything. These are the social and political questions.

      • But what is not speculative is the science that not only has shown how environmental change can occur which eliminates species (i.e. the ice age and dinosaur extinction) but also shows gradual and sustained environmental change currently that, if the trajectory continues, poses a threat to the environmental conditions necessary for human survival.

        The statement I’ve highlighted in bold is a much bigger “if” than the alarmists would care to admit. This is where the whole argument breaks down. It controverts history, since at one time “science” was predicting complete depletion of the world’s supply of petroleum, gold, zinc, et al, and it hard nice hard “math” to back it up. It also controverts Newton’s second law of thermodynamics.

        Now if we’re talking about a bottle of nitroglycerine, then I agree with your “if” — the science is settled, there is a tipping point, if the temperature rises above a certain level things are going to get real exciting. Ditto for an un-discharged bullet fresh out of my ammo box. These things have explosive agents, which function as devices to make sure if the temperature becomes extreme, natural consequences will make the environment even more extreme. Among other things upon which science has settled, though, is that the Earth has devices in it that push more toward the opposite. There is the above-mentioned law of equilibrium, there is basic physics, evaporation is a cooling process condensation is a warming process…all that good stuff. Earth, being a living water-based ecosystem, has this going on.

        I don’t pretend this is Nobel Prize grade scientific thinking/research, it’s really straight out of middle & high school. But it surpasses the scientific diligence involved in what I’ve personally heard, so far, about this “if the trajectory continues” stuff. Which is to say, I’ve not seen anyone produce any kind of thesis about what will make the climate metrics continue to move in the direction in which they’ve been moving. The whole supposition seems to be based on a nothing…if the global climate proceeds from a temperature of M to M+1, we should expect it to proceed to a reading of M+2 more surely and swiftly, and to M+3 more swiftly and surely from even that. Nobody has demonstrated to me in scientific terms, so far, why we are to think of the environment as possessing that “nitro glycerine” characteristic, rather than as the (somewhat) self-regulating ecosystem we know it to be. Maybe you’ll be the first.

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  7. Zachriel says:

    Professor Mondo: As I’ve noted before, if it’s really settled, it’s not really science, …

    Eppur si muove.

    Professor Mondo: because real science is always open to the experimental falsification of a theory, …

    That’s right. All scientific findings are considered tentative, yet it would not be reasonable to given tentative assent to the finding that the Earth does move.

    Professor Mondo: and as others have noted, what we’re dealing with in many cases aren’t real data, but computer models/

    That betrays a misunderstanding of the scientific method. All science is about models, and matching those models to the data.

    Professor Mondo: Full disclosure: I believe there is some human impact on climate, but that it’s miniscule compared to things like that enormous nuclear furnace only 1 A.U. away.

    Certainly the Sun is important to the Earth’s climate, however, without the greenhouse effect, the Earth would be a frozen −18°C rather than a balmy 14°C. Human produced atmospheric CO2 has the direct effect of raising the Earth’s temperature about 1°C for each doubling of CO2. This increased heat will consequently result in a higher water vapor content in the atmosphere. The question is how sensitive the climate is to this increased water vapor. A number of methods have been developed, and climate sensitivity has been found to be between about 2°C to 5°C, with the most likely values around 3°C. However, higher values have been supported. Here’s a few such studies.

    Volcanic forcing
    Wigley et al., Effect of climate sensitivity on the response to volcanic forcing, Journal of Geophysical Research 2005.

    Earth Radiation Budget Experiment
    Forster & Gregory, The Climate Sensitivity and Its Components Diagnosed from Earth Radiation Budget Data, Journal of Climate 2006.

    Paleoclimatic constraints
    Schmittner et al., Climate Sensitivity Estimated from Temperature Reconstructions of the Last Glacial Maximum, Science 2011.

    Bayesian probability
    Annan & Hargreaves, On the generation and interpretation of probabilistic estimates of climate sensitivity, Climate Change 2008.

    Review paper
    Knutti & Hegerl, The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth’s

    Professor Mondo: Oh well, scientific illiterates all, right?

    Well, as it turns out, most of the signatories are not scientists.

    • Zachriel says:

      Hmm. No edit.
      Should read “it would be reasonable to given tentative assent to the finding that the Earth does move.”

    • profmondo says:

      First of all, Zachriel, thanks for stopping in. At least part of the problem, I think, seems to have involved whether the models are being matched to the data, or vice versa — that is, whether the data is being cherry-picked. That seems to throw the whole thing into doubt. As for the question of who is a scientist and who isn’t, there’s a comment upthread that notes that there may be some question-begging at work there too. And in fact, the Sonic Charmer has observed there are some similar ethos problems on the “establishment” side as well.

      As for your claim that climate change will result in more technological development, I’d like to think so — certainly the Ehrlich-Simons wagers suggest such. Unfortunately, it seems that the loudest voices in the controversy seem to be neo-Malthusians who call for governmental/international actions that will themselves devastate the standard of living for the developed world, and as P.J. O’Rourke has observed, that’s highly unlikely to fly.

      Finally (because I have to get back to grading), thanks for the bibliography. Although my science side is a bit rusty (I started out with a triple major of Math/Physics/CompSci before I turned to my true love of literature), I may be able to get it rolling this summer. Sincerely, thanks, Zachriel, and don’t be a stranger!

      • Zachriel says:

        Professor Mondo: At least part of the problem, I think, seems to have involved whether the models are being matched to the data, or vice versa — that is, whether the data is being cherry-picked.

        The science is crosschecked by multiple methodologies.

        Professor Mondo: As for the question of who is a scientist and who isn’t, there’s a comment upthread that notes that there may be some question-begging at work there too.

        Alpheus: Besides, “climate scientist” tends to be defined in terms of belief in global warming, so there’s some circularity here.

        A scientists is someone who does science, usually recognized through publication in the relevant peer literature.

        Alpheus: If you’re a geologist, or an atmospheric physicist, or even a meteorologist, then you get dismissed as not being a “climate scientist” — which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

        Actually, geologists and atmospheric physicists and meteorologists publish quite a lot of relevant studies (though meteorologists are necessarily scientists).

        Professor Mondo: Unfortunately, it seems that the loudest voices in the controversy seem to be neo-Malthusians who call for governmental/international actions that will themselves devastate the standard of living for the developed world, and as P.J. O’Rourke has observed, that’s highly unlikely to fly.

        Thought the loudest voices were for alternate technologists and for internalizing externalities. In any case, when billions of people in the developing world all start buying cars and central air and heat, then the problem will become immensely magnified. Fortunately, many of the solutions to climate change are also the solution to optimizing use of resources.

      • profmondo says:

        Zachriel said:
        Thought the loudest voices were for alternate technologists and for internalizing externalities.

        This seems on-topic:
        http://www.city-journal.org/2012/22_2_apocalyptic-daze.html

      • Zachriel says:

        Oh well.

        (though meteorologists are not necessarily scientists)

      • Zachriel says:

        Professor Mondo: This seems on-topic:
        http://www.city-journal.org/2012/22_2_apocalyptic-daze.html

        Rather vague. Surely some people prophesize doom and gloom, but let’s look at the “loudest voices”.

        Al Gore: “It is now abundantly clear that we have at our fingertips all of the tools we need to solve the climate crisis. The only missing ingredient is collective will.”

        World Economic Forum: “To ensure our future prosperity, we need a high-growth and low-carbon economy. To that end, a set of practical policies and incentives is urgently required to help remove the obstacles to more low-carbon finance and technology. This will enable green recovery packages to have maximum impact. ”

        Interacademy Council: “Lighting the way Toward a sustainable energy future”

        United Nations: “Properly designed climate change policies can be part and parcel of sustainable development and the IPCC’s findings confirm that sustainable development paths can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce vulnerability to climate change… It is also important to remember that climate policies can bring many win-win benefits that may not be factored into cost estimates. These include technological innovation, tax reform, increased employment, improved energy security and health benefits from reduced pollution. “

      • profmondo says:

        Zachriel, I would be more sanguine about the folks you cite, were they not the same people who have previously called for cap-and-trade/carbon credits/Kyoto etc. As Charles Cooke observed today at National Review:

        “[James Hansen’s] own NASA weather satellites — the most accurate barometers of global temperature — showed that, despite his eschatological forecast, the Earth had warmed very little[…]There is nothing wrong with a scientist repeatedly changing his mind — that is part of the game — nor should America’s researchers apologize for repeatedly altering their predictions as new evidence comes to light. In fact, given the sheer size of the issue, such movement is inevitable. But it all gets rather tricky when massive government programs are promoted and adopted on the back of inconclusive evidence[.]”

        [OK, this is Mondo again] But again, when we move to matters of policy, we’re no longer really in the realm of science, which is descriptive, and can be predictive, but is not all-encompassing. And in particular, when we see rhetoric of the sort that Bruckner observes, Cooke’s comments seem of particular value.

        On a related note, Zachriel, what do you see as the appropriate steps to take, particularly in view of the relative energy densities of fossil fuels vs. renewable sources? (I’m not asking this to be a wise guy — I’m genuinely curious). I’m in favor of more nuke and hydroelectric power, for example, but those alternatives seem cut off by environmental doomsayers as well, which is part of the problem. Too much of the environmentalist movement seems concerned less with actually solving the problem than with sacrificing human standards of living as a means of expiation of sin (back to Bruckner again).

  8. Zachriel says:

    Morgan K Freeberg: mankind has been prophesizing the end of the world since, roughly, the beginning of the world. How do we know this time it’s the real deal?

    Current climate science does not indicate a runaway greenhouse effect. Humans can and will adapt. However, it will cause severe dislocations, loss of arable lands, mass migrations, political instability, and a significant loss of humanity’s natural inheritance. The most dire consequences are avoidable.

    Morgan K Freeberg: It also controverts Newton’s second law of thermodynamics.

    Newton didn’t not propose the laws of thermodynamics. In any case, no, the greenhouse effect is a very real phenomena, and does not contradict thermodynamic laws.

    Morgan K Freeberg: The whole supposition seems to be based on a nothing…if the global climate proceeds from a temperature of M to M+1, we should expect it to proceed to a reading of M+2 more surely and swiftly, and to M+3 more swiftly and surely from even that.

    Climate scientists are not simply extrapolating, but have developed causitive models.

    • Excuse me,

      Where did I say the greenhouse effect contradicts thermodynamic laws?

      • Zachriel says:

        Something, “It”, is controverting the second law of thermodynamics. Piecing together the various grammatical articles, you appeared to say that the argument concerning the continuing temperature trajectory due to the greenhouse effect controverts (denies, refutes, argues against) the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps we misunderstood you, but it would be hard to see what you were connected to a controversion of the second law otherwise.

        Just to clarify the scientific point, greenhouse gases slow the transfer of heat from the Earth to space. This causes the surface to warm.

  9. Zachriel says:

    Professor Mondo: In any case, I don’t think it warrants the gutting of technological civilization that a number of activists seem to have in mind.

    Any reasonable response to climate change will involve new technologies and that means more economic development, not less.

  10. So in other words, you’ve substantiated exactly the point I was making.

    To even begin a reasoned debate about what kind of apocalypse awaits us — not even to provide solid support that there is one, but just to suggest there might be one, in reasoned and not emotional terms — a long list of things have to be demonstrated in a scientific way. The alarmist argument, here as well as in many other places, amounts to scientific diligence attached to just one or two of those things, leaving many others entirely unaddressed. And then the skeptics emerge, as they must and should, and the response is “Well we’re being scientifical so that must mean you’re not.” You just entirely dismissed the point I was making, without even understanding what it was. This is not atypical.

    Trajectory of the temperature. Uh huh. We know these plotted trajectories have scientific value because of the models…which are constructed by professionals who are more likely to get grant money if they say the world will end, than if they don’t. Within a field of scientific discipline everyone can see has been heavily politicized. After a long history of mankind being drawn, like a moth to a flame, to each and every doomsday scenario that has ever come along — we should believe the trajectory of the mean global temperature in the models. Meanwhile, the people selling the science have been caught red-handed trying to modify the peer review process.

    Off to buy a “More worried about the intellectual climate” tee shirt…

    • Zachriel says:

      This NOAA chart might help clarify matters. It shows data from a variety of sources, including satellite, balloon and ground-based instrumentation.

      In particular, note that the lower troposphere is warming, as is the surface. Meanwhile, the stratosphere is cooling, the *signature* of greenhouse warming.

      Morgan K Freeberg: And then the skeptics emerge, as they must and should, and the response is “Well we’re being scientifical so that must mean you’re not.”

      Skepticism is a healthy vantage, but that is quite different from simply rejecting the science out of hand. There is substantial evidence of anthropogenic greenhouse warming, and no, it is not based on a naïve extrapolation.

  11. Zachriel says:

    Professor Mondo: As Charles Cooke observed today at National Review …

    Typical polemic. That was the top end of the range in degrees Fahrenheit which included a very large range of uncertainty, which has since been narrowed. Then Cooke goes on to cite “49 former NASA scientists and astronauts”, most of whom were not scientists, much less researchers in the field of climate science. Nor do the possibly intemperate comments of one scientist change the scientific findings.

    Professor Mondo: Too much of the environmentalist movement seems concerned less with actually solving the problem than with sacrificing human standards of living as a means of expiation of sin

    Some, no doubt, but any reasonable solution to the problem of climate change has to include economic development. People in the developing world can’t be expected to do without the benefits of modern technological civilization. When a billion Chinese and Indians all have automobiles and central air, it will put huge stresses on climate and resources. Fortunately, the solutions to both problems are linked.

    Professor Mondo: On a related note, Zachriel, what do you see as the appropriate steps to take, particularly in view of the relative energy densities of fossil fuels vs. renewable sources?

    As mentioned, robust economic growth, the development of new technologies, and internalizing externalities of carbon-based energy sources.

    • profmondo says:

      I think we actually have common ground here, Zachriel. However, in a world in which NIMBYs have morphed into BANANAs, I’m skeptical that there are enough people of good will to do what you ask.

      This has been fascinating stuff — I’m glad you dropped by. How did you run across the site?

      • Zachriel says:

        Relying on individual initiative may lead to a tragedy of the commons. Solutions require coordinated effort. The problem is that any cooperative plan gets undermined by the lowest common denominator, the most recalcitrant.

        Dropped in from House of Eratosthenes. I usually only post on a limited number of topics, but have bookmarked your site. I appreciate your hospitality.

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