Friday, 17 November 2017

15,000 climate scientists can't be wrong, can they?

On November 13, a grand total of 15,000 scientists from around the world signed a “warning to humanity” letter that climate change is far worse than expected.

"Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out," the letter warns. "We must recognise, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home."

Are 15,000 scientists correct? Well, it depends on the question. A scientist can be anyone who follows a certain process to produce reliable information – the scientific method. While it’s not perfect it’s been pretty good so far at removing errors, and this seems to be a scientific conclusion.

No, not the ice!!!
But a scientist might also be someone awarded credentials by an institution, entitling him to a prestigious position. Calling that person a "scientist" is like calling him a "duke." The word "duke" was originally defined as a leader of fighting men. There are still dukes around today – and there are still warlords – but the dukes are not warlords and the warlords are not dukes.

Same goes for scientists.

The problem isn’t the people, it’s the institutions. If you compare (a) the pre-WWII Western scientific establishment with (b) the post-WWII Western scientific establishment and (c) the Soviet scientific establishment, I think it’s fairly obvious that (b) looks suspiciously more like (c) than (a).

Both are centrally planned and funded by a few agencies in an extremely small number of governments, which means it is pretty easy to create official pseudoscience. And if you're going up against the Machine, you need to be right all the time, not just most of the time.

The way I see it – give me some room here – climate change is essentially just palaeoclimatology and climate modelling. Since neither palaeoclimatology nor climate modelling have anything remotely like Popperian falsifiability, we can safely say they are "science" rather than science.

Paleoclimatology is rife with massaged and invented numbers, and even if performed honestly cannot distinguish causation from correlation. Whereas climate modelling tries to outline a chaotic system that could not be accurately modelled with ten or twenty more orders of magnitude of computer power. It also asserts that hindcasting can validate its models.

This means our political system nurtures pseudoscience and makes major financial decisions based on it. But this has been happening for a while.

The man who started ClimateAudit, Stephen McIntyre, has a background in hard-rock mineral exploration, which is one of the shadiest industries in the world. As a mining consultant, not only does he know statistics, he made his living investigating bad numbers and the fudging of data.

So one day out of pure curiosity he decided to look at the use of statistics in palaeoclimatology.
Palaeoclimatology estimates temperature trends from before scientists were running around with thermometers. It measures "temperature proxies" that naturally record temperature effects – things like tree rings, for example. As you can probably imagine, before the rise of global warming, this was a rather obscure discipline, but today you can make a lot of money in this field.

Penn State's Michael Mann takes a break from drawing hockey sticks
Mr McIntyre analysed the famous "hockey stick" curve associated with several notable paleoclimatologists, notably Michael Mann. If you have ever seen a headline saying "20XX is the warmest year in XXX years," that’s the "hockey stick." Dr Mann is a star.

But Mr McIntyre found a pattern of bad statistics that came close to simply being deceit. Dr Mann had chosen nonstandard statistical procedures which amplified a single sample, from a set of trees (bristlecone pines) well-known to respond directly to CO2 rather than temperature, into a pattern that looked like it covered the entire world. Moreover, Dr Mann's website had a directory called "CENSORED" in which the same calculation was repeated without the bristlecones, showing no hockey stick at all.

Sure, scientific misconduct happens. Just because a physicist, like Jan Hendrik Schön, pulls some stunt, doesn't mean Einstein was wrong. But Schön was rapidly drummed out of his profession. Dr Mann, however, is still employed and respected (although he’s not on the list with the 15,000 others…). And this despite two external reports, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel, and an independent report prepared by Edward Wegman, one of the US's leading statisticians, confirming all of Mr McIntyre's results.

What was the consequence of all this in the official press? Funny you should ask.

The NAS panel, which included many of Dr Mann's colleagues, came up with a nice dodge. They admitted the results were useless but claimed that since other studies – many using the same flawed methodologies – reported the same outcome, the entire idea was vindicated. You may have heard the phrase "fake, but accurate." That’s not how science works.

Back before WWII, a pool of scientists, tiny by today's standards, would have their own little pet theory to defend and progress was made when you exploded someone else's pet theory. Today, pet theories are held not by little cliques of scientists, but by giant conglomerates of funding mafias and NGOs. The explosion of theories has become all but impossible.

Well, I guess if you start the graph from there...
There is no future in climate science for a sceptic. Those who are still around are dinosaurs, full professors and professors emeritus. Any grad student or assistant professor would have to be crazy to attack these people. They’d never get a grant again. Why on earth would anyone hitch their horse to this wagon when there are rivers of enviro-cash to be had? At least in the US, the cash is green too.

I think Mr McIntyre proves that in the Western social system, it is possible to corrupt an entire field of science, or at least an entire department (such as palaeoclimatology) can exhibit systemic bias. If you want to refute this proposition, you'd have to explain why past corruptions of science, such as Lysenkoism, the late acceptance of Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory, "German physics" and so on, have occurred.

Perhaps everything is different now. Perhaps humans have simply become good and sweet, and it really is significant that 15,000 scientists signed a piece of paper. Personally, I don't see a lot of goodness and sweetness in science. I see a lot of politics and a lot of power structures. Science and the distribution of information – what one might call "education" – plays a role in the West comparable to the influence of the military in Wilhelmine Germany.

Suppose you were evil and you wanted to destroy the world in the subtlest possible way? Would you rather be a general, a reporter at the New York Times or a professor at Harvard? Which of these three is not like the other?

Mr McIntyre's work has shown quite conclusively that, at least in the field of palaeoclimatology, the scientific method is no longer operating, at least not in the form Darwin and Newton would recognise. But Stalin might.

If climate modellers want to change my mind, they would have to build a new climate model in a clean-room process, which (a) correctly simulates Earth's climate in the past and (b) was not made to do so after a very extensive process of tuning and the introduction of unconscious bias. To be more specific, the largest source of uncertainty in climate models is their handling of water.

So what is my prediction of the weather in 2057? I have no idea, I am not a climatologist.

But if this all proves to be a con job, it will take us a long, long time to recover from this idea of "official science." I'm not sure what that phrase means. Maybe the West is moving away from truth derived from science. Who knows?

People still assign tremendous credibility to science because they think it’s a structure of knowledge maintained by a large set of independent actors, each of whom is rewarded for truth and punished for error. But it’s pretty clear post-WWII science is something different, a true novelty in Western history. It might retain traditions from the liberal age, but it looks like they are rapidly eroding.

If the government pays your salary, you are a government official. And in a democracy, the idea that any aspect of government can be above politics is laughable. I am not sure that trying to insulate science from politics is the best way to preserve or restore the scientific tradition. It might actually have the opposite effect. But science, fortunately, is not a democracy so it will survive. The question is whether it will survive in the West.

Are 15,000 scientists correct? Who knows? We have no possible way of knowing. But everyone seems perfectly happy to create a planetary government to attack global warming. I get a bad feeling about that. Central planning killed a lot more humans in the 20th century than bad weather.

I think I’ll take my chances with the bad weather.

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