Sunday, December 16, 2007

GCC: The problem

In a continuation of a series of posts that I'm breaking up for my own purposes (specifically, so that I can reference them individually at a later date) I'll explain my take on the Big Problem with the state of affairs that exists surrounding global warming.


There, wasn't that nice? You could probably do the same thing to define the Big Problem in a lot of areas, but you'd be speaking (writing?) more tongue-in-cheek than I currently am.

Science is a funny thing. I don't think many people understand the kooky world that is academia. To get into the club you have run a gauntlet of various tasks that will take no less than 4 years after the successful completion of a bachelor's degree. A graduate student must take the GRE, apply to a school, get in, find an adviser, figure out how to pay for school (funding, the four letter word of research), pass qualification tests which reassert the right for him to even be there, complete a rehash of his education within his field of study thus far, conduct research, write copiously about the research, have these papers subjected to the fury of his adviser, rewrite these papers, submit these papers, have them subjected to the peer review process (which can be daunting, if done correctly), write an all-encompassing description of his work known as a dissertation, and finally defend not only his dissertation but himself and his knowledge of his field in front of a jury of his superiors. This is a process that occurs in series. Any failure in any of these steps will result in the student being thrown out on his ear, or having to start all over.

So scientists are stuck up. They often develop God-complexes, especially once they're tenured. They tend to be smart, and the writing that is accepted as scientific is full of jargon, math, and is so highly stylized that it is almost its own language, which results in papers that may as well be in code to people who aren't in the club. Sometimes papers are so obscure and esoteric that a PhD isn't sufficient to gain insight or true appreciation for a paper -- but instead a thorough understanding of the basis of the research being explained is in order. Quantum physics can be explained in a matter of moments, provided you have the ten years' worth of math and physics required to understand the equations.

To be sure, you don't need a PhD to read 90% of the papers out there. You don't need to be a scientist to understand them, either. But it does require a large amount of diligence and fortitude, patience and perseverance to get through a paper which is built on a body of research that proceeds backwards through reference after reference, each with little or no explanation beyond a footnote. That is to say, most particular journal papers. And who has that kind of time on their hands? Most folks can't be bothered to read the whole newspaper, much less a fifteen or twenty page paper in two-column format written in ten-point font with itty-bitty figures (and smaller font captions that are two and three sentences long).

Unfortunately for the world, this leads to the intelligentsia making proclamations that often mean little to anyone but others in their club. They discover important stuff, and it needs to be disseminated to people who lack technical education, even to laymen. This is where the media gets involved.

I don't know if you've watched CNN lately, but those guys and gals don't have doctoral degrees. I mean, heck, Katie Couric doesn't even know what "sputum" means. The people writing the stuff that's fed into their teleprompter don't, either. This is where things like the IPCC policy committee come in.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is more than one body of scientists pounding away on their keyboards, Prometheusing us into understanding of climate change. There is a "working group" (i.e., the guys with doctorates) and then there's a committee of people dedicated to take what the scientists say and translate it into one- and two-syllable words so politicians don't get confused or scared and retreat behind their staffers. Thus, the Third Assessment Report is condensed from 1,000 pages into 20 to create the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM).

Think about that for one moment, if you will. Understand, please, that scientists may be wordy in their writing, but they're not superfluous. 1,000 pages exist in the IPCC third report because 1,000 words are necessary. It's like trying to take War and Peace and summarize in a may get the gist, but you won't love Pierre Bezukhov after reading it. (A nice explanation of the variations and impact of this sort of scenario exists here. Happy reading!)

That isn't to say that the SPM is wrong. But I can tell you right away that it almost guarantees that the plethora of news articles, statements, and sound bytes it causes will have as many errors in them as an installation of 32-bit Norton antivirus onto Vista 64. (That's a lot, by the way).

And so politicians misunderestimate what the scientists say. And the Katie Courics of the world tell the laymen the wrong information with cute segues with titles like "Global Warming: Are We All Going To Die?" and you get a big, fat mess. A poster child for this scenario is the Kyoto Protocol. Another is the phrase "George Bush doesn't care about polar bears". Another is anyone who tells you that the science of climate change is settled (yes, that would be Al Gore, specifically).

And there you have it. Whatever the science may say, unless you actually read the publications or chat with the scientists who wrote them you're probably not getting the correct story.

To alleviate this problem, I try to read important or relevant journal papers. I also visit quality climate change blogs such as World Climate Report, which is written by climate scientists and describes itself as "...a concise, hard-hitting and scientifically correct response to the global change reports which gain attention in the literature and popular press. As the nation’s leading publication in this realm, World Climate Report is exhaustively researched, impeccably referenced, and always timely."

Thus, reader, my assertion is that it is absolutely vital for anyone who wanted to really argue with me about global warming climate change to discuss science. Not popular opinion, not "common sense", not conjecture or hearsay. Science. And that means papers, math, and logic. And that's why I always attach the following disclaimer to my posts about cold snaps, snowfall records, and unseasonably cold temperatures:

Anecdotal evidence is beyond stupid as support or condemnation of global warming. I only point these out as a foil to the increasingly shrill comments and stories presented by the mainstream media linking warm-weather aberrations to global warming.
If you want to debate GCC with me, find a journal article, read it, digest it, formulate an opinion based upon it, and get back to me. Because that's what I do.


C said...

Theories are human constructions and the environments they are created in constantly change. They undergo frequent recasting, acceptance, and rejection. The IPCC doesn’t necessarily say that global warming is or isn’t, it does however say that there is more research to be done. Do you have the correct story? Are you reading the full thousand page reports? I have yet to see any actual empirical evidence in your arguments. You have however gloated to the fact that you know how scientists write, as well as the process that a grad student goes through. I fail to see any correlation in this to the comments that seem to rip right through your arguments. The “Spin” factor in your writing is through the roof. Do you think that you could actually argue a counter point to someone that criticizes your work, or are you so spun that you don’t even know where your argument is going? Unfortunately there might not be a perfect paradigm yet to explain global warming but the evidence if heavily weighted in favor of it, yet the topic itself is continually twirled around in your writing.

k2aggie07 said...

My point was lost on you, apparently. It isn't gloating. It's an explanation of why he fails to satisfy me with his "arguments". They're not scientific at all, they're merely ad-hoc regurgitations of facts presented by media outlets. He quotes no papers, cites no references, and then sneers at mine. And has the nerve to insult me.

The whole point of this was not to gloat that I have experience in research. Experience in anything doesn't particularly make a person better or worse than anything else; it's what they do with that experience. It's nothing to gloat about. Unfortunately for the purposes of this discussion, my experience makes me think in numbers and formulas, not in arguments. I'm an engineer. So even though his "facts" are entirely relevant to the big picture as he sees it, they don't satisfy me because I have to see numbers. Which is why I do read journal papers.

Now, to answer your questions:
I understand the variability of theoretical science, and I also understand that this variability doesn't necessarily make the a premise at any given time false.

And when you say that the IPCC doesn't say global warming exists, you are wrong. The IPCC actually did, in fact, say that global warming exists. The third report also suggested that it was probable that the whole situation is anthropogenic.

I don't have a monopoly on truth. I don't know for a fact that global warming is or isn't anthropogenic. But have you ever been asked the question "how do you eat an elephant"? The answer is "one bite at a time".

Have I read the IPCC third report cover to cover? No. I never claimed to. Have I read numerous journal papers written by many of the scientists who make up the IPCC? Yes, and this is largely what I base my opinions about the whole thing on.

I see two sides of this issue. One is political, and the other is scientific. And at the present moment, both sides seem to be doggedly ignoring each other to the detriment of both.

I'm not sure what you're driving at here other than to say you disagree with me, and therefore don't like my writing.

And if you'd like some empirical evidence, here are two (1 and 2) brief summaries of decent papers I've read in the not-so-distant past.

Can I prove, empirically, that global warming is not anthropogenic? No, I cannot -- at least not right now. But I suspect that it isn't. If so, it will be shown to be so in the future as humans aren't producing less CO2 (and won't, by my guess) and I don't think we're going to have "Inconvenient Truth" type scenarios. Or even any noticeable global warming.

We're piggybacking some limited data onto trends that extend backwards into the past well beyond the range of the data set we've collected. It's like using Newton's Method to define a complex polynomial.

At any rate, you can't debate non-science with science. I don't want to talk about hearsay, and he doesn't want to talk about why bother?