Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pseudoscience & 'ClimateGate'

Yet another diversion from creationism issues, but it is still related to pseudo-astronomy and its tactics.  The issues are still linked because the underlying physics is the same.

Probably the most complete work I've read on the physics, chemistry, and history of climate change is “The Discovery of Global Warming - A History” by Spencer Weart (American Institute of Physics).    But the bottom line on the issue is that the intake and output of every organism alters the chemical composition of its environment, and directly or indirectly, the Earth's climate.  These environmental changes can become so extreme that they prove detrimental for the organism itself.  Humans are just the most recent organisms in the history of the planet to significantly alter the atmosphere.

This video presents the problem as a risk analysis by a high-school science teacher.

Probably the most disturbing thought is a recent publication suggesting that it may already be too late:  Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide? by Timothy J. Garrett (21 November 2009).  This researcher analyzed the problem from the point of fundamental thermodynamics.  I suspect there might be a few parameters he missed, but it suggests tight constraints on the problem.

The latest political stunt in the field of climate change has been dubbed “ClimateGate” by some in the media.  You can search for the term to find more of the 'controversy'.  (also see Wikipedia: Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident)

Among the fallout of this 'scandal' are demands that all the data and software for analyzing it be made public.  Some of these people asking for data need to learn how to use Google.

The fact is much of this data already is already public.  NASA has pushed much of the satellite data it has collected into public data archives.  Many are freely accessible online, just like must of the astronomical data NASA has collected.  Over the past decade, there was a political effort to reduce the availability of that data, which takes some time to correct. Here's a link to some mission-specific data: Climate.

Real Climate is also distributing a growing list of links to data used in climate research.  See “RealClimate: Where's the Data”.   I suggest Mr. Horner stock up on a few hundred terabyte disk drives if he really wants this data.  After all, if you want to uncover a 'scandal', you have to go back to the RAW data.  He might want to hire a few (dozen?) programmers with a strong background in numerical methods and scientific data formats, that is, if he really plans to have it re-analyzed.

As for software, here's my short list of the numerous public codes available, mostly oriented towards education.
    •    pyClimate
    •    EdGCM
    •    SourceForge: Climate Model
    •    Java Climate Model
    •    NASA/GSFC Open Source Climate Model

Some of these are from my resource list when I used to work with Earth science data. Many of them show up in reasonably intelligent searches on Google.

For those who think the Sun takes the full blame for the warming trends, here's a one-stop resource for most solar data:  Virtual Solar Observatory.  (I've never understood why claiming the Sun is totally responsible for the current warming trend is regarded as good news by so many.  If it were due to the Sun, then there is virtually nothing we can do about it.  Consider the impact continued warming would have on water availability to food supplies to eventually the entire economy.  If it is the Sun, then as a species, we are so screwed!)

The downside of making too much of code openly available is too many researchers may rely on the exact same algorithm since it is so easily available.  Sometimes this is good, but it can be a bad effect as well.  Multiple independent researchers generally solve computational problems in different ways. They will argue about the techniques used and compare results (this is evident in some of the 'leaked' emails, which seem to be very conveniently edited - or quote-mined). This diversity in coding actually makes it easier to catch errors as erroneous code or algorithms will stand out more easily.  This checking of the algorithms used by others was also a content of the e-mails.  The fact that the different models generate such similar trends suggests that, while not perfect, they give a reliable guide.  Remember, the codes are just as likely to underestimate the severity of some changes as overestimate.

I am not a climate scientist but a bunch of them work “down the hall“ from me.  I know a few others, particularly Bob Grumbine of the More Grumbine Science blog, who gives interesting introductory tutorials on climatology and climate data.  Bob was (is?  My ISP no longer carries USENET) also a regular contributor on Talk.Origins on topics of creationism and Electric Universe claims.

As for some of the comments in the e-mails?  Yes, you always discuss what the detractors may throw at you. Any good scientist, or chess player, tries to plan several moves ahead based on possible responses from their competitors. Science is a competitive endeavor.

I've had discussions with colleagues about journals that appear to have had their editorial boards taken over by creationists and other cranks.  Those discussions would certainly read similar to the 'leaked' emails.  Is that evidence that the creationists and crackpots are correct?

There have been moves for nearly 20 years now for the scientific process to be more open. It is slow, but it is progressing.  There is a move to standardize scientific publications for more reproducibility.  This has only become practical recently with the availability of cheaper and larger methods of data storage to save the many stages of revisions scientific software goes through.  See  The Open Science Project

But science only works when all participants are bound by the same standards and criteria.  This is where pseudo-scientists start making excuses - claiming anything from “God did it” to get away from irreproducibility or declaring a distrust of mathematical models - as their exemption. 

So when are the climate-change deniers going to reveal their models and data? Or are the latest accusations just a ploy to distract the public's attention from the real issues?

Other nations have gone down this road of denying some aspect of science that challenged their belief system (See Wikipedia: Deutsche Physik, Lysenkoism).  Eventually the citizens of those nations pay a heavy price for that ignorance.  That these e-mails are viewed as a 'scandal' is an indicator of the sad state of science education in the U.S. and worldwide.


Aaron said...

I appreciate your posts on creationism and the electric universe. Concerning climate change, I also appreciate your links concerning RealClimate and temperature data sources. I recognize GW and AGW, and take issue with people I read online or even know personally doing an invalid baby-with-the-bathwater discarding of empirical science due to 'ClimateGate'.

However, I also don't agree with some seemingly foregone conclusions of many GW advocates that we should focus on worst-case predictions on amount of temperature rise expected, look at only possibly downsides and no potential upsides of warming, and the idea that - even if GW of 4 degrees by 2100 is a terrible thing to be desperately avoided - forcibly rolling back industry is the most ethical or effective approach. I'm open to arguments and discussion about possible detriments and benefits of warming, possible ways to address it if needed, etc. However, I must say that one very ineffective way to convince people of possible dangers of GW - especially on an anti-creationist site - is via a video rehash of Pascal's wager. ;)

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

Interesting pointing out the parallel to Pascal's Wager.

I recognize it is a divergence from usual topics and that is why I directed readers to Bob's blog if they wish to learn more. I hope to not feel the need to write on this topic again.

I only raised it because

1) in my day job I worked for a time with earth science data and knew much was available. I felt the need to do a brain dump.

2) much of the fundamental physics in planetary and stellar atmospheres is the the same - some hydrodynamics, gravitational stratification, radiative transfer, fluid convection. The major difference is the temperature and composition.

3) the quote mining tactic on the e-mails was infuriating. I should probably ask some of my occasional collaborators to publish our raw thought processes on the creationists and other cranks we deal with.

As for possible benefits of GW, the societal disruptions due to rising sea level will probably outweigh possible benefits, unless one regards significant population reduction by drowning as a benefit. I grew up in south Florida and lived in a house built atop coral rock. This area, 20 miles from shore, was underwater at one time (20,000 years ago, IIRC), and it looks like it will be again, perhaps in less than 100 years.

Thanks for your input.

Anonymous said...


As someone who surfs through here occasionally to see if there's anything interesting that I can

follow (I still have no idea what the heck "Electric Universe" is all about) I found this particular

post to be a surprising disappointment. On a blog of this nature I would have expected a fierce

defense of science against those who would corrupt it. In the case of Creationism, for example, the

idea is to defend science from those who try to impose their supernatural stories on others -

sometimes by trying to pass it off as "science".

Instead, what I found was a few self-contradictory paragraphs, followed by numerous paragraphs that

displayed both a profound ignorance of the ClimateGate subject, and a disturbing indifference toward

the undermining of the scientific method.

The CRU has admitted that exposed files are real (not "edited", as you suggest). It appears that the

packet was being assembled in case they ended up having to comply with the FOI requests - it is

unlikely that whoever leaked it would have had the time to "quote-mine". Regardless, there is plenty

enough context to show that a relatively small clique had gamed the system to eliminate anybody who

would question them from the peer-review process - and then go on to claim that anyone outside of that

process was an unqualified crank. (You're defending this? Really??)

There's insufficient context to determine if the famous "fudge factor" is a real issue, but the

"trick" (by any other name) - IN CONTEXT - has been shown to refer to a misleading manipulation of

high-profile published data to - as THEY put it - "hide the decline". (You're good with this?


There are numerous emails where there is clear defiance vs. following the freedom of information act.

(YGWT? R??) The CRU guys DON'T say, "I wish those FOI people would stop bothering me about data

that's already out there". What they DID say (before the fact) was that they hoped those guys

wouldn't find out about Britain's FOI laws. What you have suggested about data availability is,

therefore, ridiculous. Data is also disappearing off the public servers, now, BTW.

Your take on solar-driven climate theories is convoluted and confused, and then you offer an implicit

endorsement of hiding raw data and algorithms, followed by demanding that the whole world accept the

results without question. (YGWT? R??)

You call this a "political stunt", but Jones has been forced to step down from heading the CRU, Mann

is now under investigation, and DOE's Savanna River Site has issued a litigation hold on any CRU data

in preparation for pending litigation!

Perhaps what is most disturbing is that you apparently rely on sources like RealClimate for your

information on this. That's a lot like investigating the rumor of Sen. Edward's love child by asking

him about - and then going away saying "John says there's nothing to that rumor, so obviously there


You use the perjerative term "deniers" for those who would dare question the CRU, and then suggest

that they are just as secretive - when skeptics routinely post their data and methods in nauseating

detail on their web sites. Do I detect a little projection from the boys at RealClimate?

The AGW proponents in denial that ClimateGate is a serious scandal among the top AGW scientists are

being compared to "Baghdad Bob." Don't be one of those guys.


Anonymous said...

As to the last part of your comment, you might want to put on your physicist hat and rework that.

90% of the world's ice is on Antarctica, and - despite the hype about parts of the Antarctic Peninsula - most of that ice never sees temperatures that are even close to being high enough to melt it. There's a reason why nobody lives there - it's really cold, and a few degrees wouldn't change that.

9% of the world's ice is on Greenland. There's conflicting claims as to the overall level of ice there, but, again, nobody lives there. 'Caus it's really cold. Consider worrying if people start colonizing the place again, but consider also that it didn't take SUVs to make it warm enough for that the last time.

The ice on the North Pole is irrelevant to sea level due to Achemedes Principle. Except for a dip in 2007, it's been pretty steady for 10 years anyway, and there's no evidence that it's outside normal variation. Nuclear subs have surfaced in open water at the North Pole in decades past, and we haven't even seen THAT lately.

Even the IPCC doesn't predict the kind of temperature increase (or sea level rise) that would inundate your hometown in this century, and if the sea level rose a even as fast as a foot per decade (which would be extremely fast) that certainly wouldn't be fast enough to "drown" anybody.

So there's no need to be such a "Gloomy Gus"!


W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Optimizer:

My points for the original post:

1) like astrophysical data, often claimed to be 'covered up' by creationists, etc. a lot of climate data and tools are freely available. Those claiming most of the data was 'covered up' were clearly not looking very hard. I'll add Climate1Stop

2) I've been in some email discussions about specific creationists and other cranks that make the CRU emails look tame. After all, most of us who deal with the crackpots aren't paid to do it. Does that invalidate mainstream cosmology or validate the creationist claims? There have been similar discussions when the editorial boards of biology magazines start sneaking in papers on Intelligent Design (see Wikipedia Sternberg peer review controversy). You seem to suggest that the existence of these types of discussions means creationist and other crank papers should be published by professional journals.

3) Most of the material I had seen, up to this past Monday, was from the sites using selected passages of emails, claiming them to be 'smoking guns' that AGW is completely false. That they may reveal wrongdoing by a particular research group is another matter. Considering that 'standard operating procedure' in these cases is the person in authority must step down for at least the duration of the investigation, saying they were forced out is a bit extreme. Per my point above, these passages were not that different from conversations I'm familiar with in a highly competitive environment where you're always wondering what your competition is doing. If they got a different result than you, you want to know why. Did you do something wrong, or have you caught them in a error. I know I've made wise-crack responses to other researchers on various topics that could be really embarrassing if they became public. While the CRU emails are real, I have not heard if they are complete and some important details may be missing that should be revealed in an investigation. It would be also be very interesting to balance the point with exposure of emails from researchers who deny a human-driven component to climate change. I suspect their emails may be even more interesting.

4) I went to a talk this Monday by another climate scientist affiliated with the IPCC who showed detailed graphs comparing things such as CRUs temperature computation with GISS and others. CRUs plot stood out from the others. This researcher, who does recognize the human contribution to climate change, explained that even among climate scientists, CRU was putting out some numbers that were almost consistently different than other researchers (see similar graphic at RealClimate). The funny part was that the alleged 'cooling trend' of the past decade claimed by some deniers only appears if you use the CRU data (see RealClimate)! In this context , the talk certainly explained some other statements about CRU over the past several years on (ref1, ref2). This researcher actually seemed pleased that some discrepancies between CRU and other climate research groups might finally be explained.

But the evidence for a warming planet doesn't just come from a graph of temperature trends. Continued in part II.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Optimizer, Part II
A non-existent warming trend will not open the Northwest Passage, nor melt away glaciers that provide irrigation and drinking water for millions of people. Do you know where YOUR drinking water comes from? What about the water that irrigates the crops for the food you eat?

But when it comes to 'hiding data', in mentioning Greenland and Antarctica, you don't mention anything about how Antarctica and Greenland have a NET MASS LOSS (in spite of snow in some regions) based on gravity measurements by GRACE (ref1, ref2, ref3).
It doesn't appear to be cold enough to keep the ice from melting. One mechanism that contributes to keeping ice sheets cold is they directly reflect radiation back into space. As the ice sheet shrinks, more heat is absorbed in the water, or the ground, which accelerates the warming - which accelerates the melting.
Satellite imagery of glacier retreat in Greenland. Note the melt-lakes on the ice sheet.
Shrinking Arctic sea ice

The fact that the planet is warming is based on more than just some temperature measurements. There are even more effects measured, such as ocean acidification, etc. See Effects of global Warming).

How is your claim different than, say, how Barry Setterfield points to his graphs of data 'proving' the speed of light was significantly higher in the recent past while ignoring all the other implications of such a change?

As for the claim that no one lives in Greenland because it is too cold, note that ocean currents help keep coastal regions warm. I'm sure the approximately 60,000 people that live there would disagree with you (ref).

Perhaps those who claim the problem is all solar variation should come clean as well.

This is the same standard I try to enforce on creationists and EU advocates, yet they repeatedly try to evade. Continued in Part III.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Optimizer, Part III
You claim data is now disappearing off public servers? If you mean this. They appear to be talking about data this is not already public. Beyond this, I can't find any other evidence for your statement. Some data inaccessibility might be nothing more than DOS due to increased loads on the servers.

Want to claim natural cycles? Even natural cycles have physical drivers with feedback mechanisms. Such nonlinear systems have regimes where they can display cyclic behavior. But if some key parameter is pushed out of that regime, the cyclic behavior can change drastically. Here's some simple non-linear systems that exhibit this type of behavior Lorenz equation, Volterra equation.

RealClimate? They had legitimate links to other public data sources. I'd rather get my climate info from people who actually do the work. Similarly, I don't place high value on the judgments of hydrological engineers or electrical engineers on cosmology matters, or celebrities on medical matters. The times I've checked RealClimate's resources, they do a really detailed job of showing their analyses, *with links to real references* so you can check for yourself how they represent the data. If they have an *agenda*, it is attempting to present the science as completely as possible.

And the long run, Reality's agenda will have the final say, and science is the best way to determine Reality's agenda.

I'm closing this thread to further comments unless a commenter has something really interesting to say *and* does a *much* better job documenting their claims. Hyperlinks work in the comments for anyone conscientious enough to make the additional effort. I prefer to respond to comments which have some serious thought behind them.