Saturday, August 29, 2009

I love the Czechs

First of all I should proclaim a disclaimer that, unlike my partner John, I am not a scientist. My scientific credentials are sketchy at best - a few undergrad classes and a few courses in the military in scientific subjects - so my opinions on scientific topics are not jealously or zealously held. It is easy for someone to sway my opinions on technical subjects if they have better scientific evidence than me. But I do think I know enough to spot weak science - when the facts to back up a conclusion or theory just aren't there, or the scientific method has been short-circuited.

One of the Czechs I love has scientific credentials that are not sketchy (as it were): Luboš Motl. Dr. Motl is a theoretical physicist who was an assistant professor at Harvard until he was forced out - apparently because he angered the mainstream academic establishment at Harvard in many different ways.

One of the things I like about Luboš is that is attitude towards science is a sceptical one: it takes a lot of good hard falsifiable evidence to convince him. I have been reading his writings for several years now (both his blog and his publications in physics), and for years thought he'd probably eventually be forced out of Harvard, for reasons having nothing to do with his scientific contributions, which are significant. He's pretty cranky when it comes to bad science and his sense of humour, while entertaining, is apparently regarded as very undiplomatic. (I get the impression that his sarcasm and irony simply don't translate in to politically-correct-ese.)

This situation reminds me of why I'm not in academics (which I'd like to be, but it wouldn't be in science, unfortunately): that the truth takes a back seat to the consensus of the crowd, which is far too often wrong. It's basic social science: us humans are social creatures, and tend to go along with one another, and reject those who don't - and that rejection is much more aggressive if the outsider is right, because it introduces the exposition that the crowd is wrong.

But this post is not about Luboš, nor is it about Vaclav Klaus, to whom Luboš refers in his most recent post.

Dr. Klaus, like Dr. Motl, is a controversial Czech academic, although in his case also the president of the Czech Republic.

Instead this post is about freedom, and why the Czechs seem to have a better sense for it than some of the rest of us.

Both Klaus and Motl have been vilified (in Motl's case, perhaps ruined) for their scientific scepticism about anthropogenic "climate change" (so called because "global warming" has apparently already become discredited).

Klaus and Motl, like many other Czechs as well as other citizens of former Soviet vassal states, are pretty sensitive to totalitarianism and suppression of intellectual freedom. Both see a lot of it in western civilization these days, and are vocal in their criticism. Both see the politics of climate change as among the most hostile to freedom - intellectual and otherwise - currently threatening us.

A good bit of what little scientific education I have had was in climatology, meteorology, and oceanography. I once passed on the (fully funded) opportunity to pursue an advanced degree in oceano, for reasons that in retrospect are absolutely stupid (only to study politics instead, to compound my already-epic stupidity). So while I absolutely don't claim to be anything like an expert, I probably do have more qualifications in climatology than most politicians.

What I see is much like what I see in many other fields of academia: corrosive groupthink.

Here's an example:

Still, there are incontrovertible facts. We can measure the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. And we do know exactly what they do. It’s simple physics. If you put “X” amount of these gases into the air, the temperature will warm by “Y.” It’s like putting a lid on a boiling pot of water, or like the heat that builds up inside your car when your park it in the sun with the windows closed. It’s clear that global temperatures have increased in recent decades, right in line with what the physics predict.
OK - I'm not the scientist around here, so maybe some of those of you who are can help me. "You put X amount of gas in the air and the temperature will warm by Y"? Where are the other variables? Like "A", the amount of thermal energy transmitted by the sun, or "B", the amount of energy transported by thermohaline circulation, or "C", geothermal and volcanic energy released by the earth, etc? This is science? "It's clear that global temperatures have increased in recent decades"????

My understanding of climatology says that of all the factors affecting the thermal budget of the earth, the sun is #1 by several orders of magnitude, and normal fluctuations in solar activity can have vastly greater impact on earth's climate than anything humans are thusfar capable of doing. Solar energy is followed by geologic energy, e.g. volcanoes, etc., which still dwarf human activity in terms of energy output.

More compelling is the geologic record, which shows the sun is overwhemingly the dominant influence on climate. (Uh, common sense aside: why is this news to anyone?) The correlation of CO2 output on climate appears, to the scientific layman such as myself, to be as much coincidental as anything else, and because it is coincidental, the correlative data seems likely to diverge, which has apparently already happened:

Here's a graphic:

The red line shows the predictions from the "Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change" at the MIT Center for Global Climate Change. (If that name doesn't scare and alert you, I'm not sure what would.) The rest of the lines on the graph show what has actually happened. The name of the organization that produced the prediction pretty much sums up the situation: a pseudo-academic organization created to push a political agenda.

And that's the point - which the Czechs kind of automatically get because they suffered under this kind of crap from the Soviets for decades: It's not about science or truth or reality, it's about some people who want to exert control over, and expropriate resources from, the rest of us.

The whole fuss about "CO2 emissions" isn't about the climate - it's about control of the world, because CO2 emissions are roughly correlated with wealth, power, and influence. Control who gets to use energy and you control the world.

I don't consider myself a conspiracy nut, although I'm idly amused by conspiracy as an intellectual diversion. But I have to wonder what processes are at work here. Who came up with the idea of controlling CO2 emissions as a way of dictating economic policy? How is this agenda coordinated, successfully, in the face of all the science I can find? My point is this whole business is about political science, not scientific science.

Finally, here's another interesting graphic, showing CO2 vs temperature over geologic timescales. The point of this chart is to show where we are today, in terms of the earth's history:

Because this data is geologic, there's no human influence represented. Anyone please let me know what correlation they detect, and how it applies to us.

Finally: I know it isn't scientific, but I also know experience can be indicative. I watch the local temperatures at my house, in particular in my swimming pool, which is literally 8-10 degrees cooler this summer on average than last year. What does that mean? Possibly not much - local variations do not mean much because global climate can vary assymetrically - it can get hotter in one place and cooler in another while the globe warms or cools overall. But dramatic variations in the mid latitudes from one year to the next also tend to get reflected in global averages - and what I'm seeing is the trend is not up.

I'm hoping for an ice age. They're really very nice in the mid-to-lower latitudes.


Tom said...

CW, in general I'm not a fan of "anthropogenic climate change" (and I would argue that's a better placement of the quotes, to differentiate the "human-affected" type from other "climate change" theories) either, but that doesn't mean I blindly accept some of your premisses.

I'm at work, and can only see the last graph, the geologic time graph, because the other is content-blocked by the work network.

First off, I would be hard pressed to accept the geologic time graph without knowing where the data on atmospheric CO2 or the data on average temp came from. It's not like someone was there measuring. I understand some data may have come from ice cores, which could be a pretty good source, but certainly not for the entire span of the graph. So count me somewhat skeptical about what the graph purports to show.

Secondly, your geologic time graph has only about one data point for the entire span of human history, so it doesn't show what happened to atmospheric CO2 or average temp during human history, much less give any indication of possible correlations.

Third, there is data that shows the effect man has had on climate over the last 100 years of so. It's called the "flat pan evaporation rate" which has been tracked for much of that period. The trouble is that it shows a decrease in evaporation rate, rather than an increase which would be expected for a rising temperature. It seems that the particulate matter being released by humans (coal dust, smog, that kind of thing) has cut down on the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth, thus offsetting some of the effect of "greenhouse" gases. The effect has come to be known as "Global Dimming".

But the "climate change" argument should be less about "did we do it" and more about "do we know what will happen and can we change that". Scientists reported in the 70's and 80's that by 2010 the sea level would have risen by 20 feet. That hasn't happened. Glaciers have disappeared and North Pole ice coverage has decreased, which should have dumped a bunch more water into the oceans, but that doesn't seem to have happened, either.

So do we really know what "climate change" will do, regardless of whether it is anthropogenic or not? I'm not sure. And I shudder to think of applying "fixes" (whether we actually can or not) before we really know what we are trying to fix.

But I do agree with your "Control energy use, control the world..." point. It's not only who gets to use energy, but also who gets to control the use. The US has used a lot of energy, both because this is where most of the technology is, and because of relative technological population size, but this is in the process of changing, mostly because of China's and India's high populations rather than the initial amount of technology in use.

But the more energy that's available, from many diverse sources, the less a specific group can control. I'm looking at various ways of generating my own energy, in a non-poluting and cost-effective manner, rather than arguing over who will control someone else's energy.

CW said...

Some good points Tom... The geologic record of atmospheric CO2 comes from not only ice core samples but also sediment samples... I believe there are some isolated sea bed samples (in Norweigian fjords maybe?) that are considered very accurate for the chemical history of the atmosphere, I think.

The issues of atmospheric pollution and global dimming are slightly different from global warming... there is no doubt that pollution is bad and it has an effect but you make the good point that we don't really understand what it is.