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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Inconvenient Truths

What happened to Global Warming? To the planet "having a fever", as Gore in his arguably more inconvenient than truthful oratory impressed upon us? Apparently we have bigger fish to fry now (with, of course, non-carbon emitting heat sources). The economic meltdown, for instance. More powerful than a war-on-terror, which, apparently, wasn't enough to keep the feverish planet out of the lime light. Not so the Credit Crisis.

So, perhaps, it's a good time to revisit what I've long suspected is an entirely suspect political/scientific cause du jour.

Plenty of facts to bore everyone to tears, but let me instead explain the type of argument that Global Warming seems to inspire. It goes a little like this...

First, we have scientific data. We have charts. We make the case. But next, inconveniently, some really smart people (e.g., professors at MIT) disagree. They have different data, or see the existing data differently, and draw, with MIT rigorousness, entirely non-Global Warming conclusions.

Now, when confronted with these nay sayers--and for no apparent political reason do they nay say (unless, perhaps, they wish to disintegrate their careers, for some unknown future benefit)-- the GW crowd goes democratic: "Well, most, indeed nearly all, of the scientists cut the political cake our way. There's consensus. We voted, and we won." More scientists said what they wanted them to say.

That's fine, but science is hardly a show of hands. Its evidence based. Just one well-informed person (expert) with something to say, ought to be heard, whether contradicting the bandwagon or not. Maybe he'll get less research money. But, if he or she is doing science, and if GW is so obviously right, it ought to be just easy then to rebut the dissenting view. Just prove the irritating dissenter wrong, if the theory is so obviously right. No need to vote. That sounds like politics. We didn't vote on General Relativity, after all. It just is, as any physicist will tell you.

The GW debate is so far from over, it just astounds me that its near-religious proponents want so desperately to slam the lid shut. I've heard mamby-pamby justifications for this non-scientific attitude like "Well, even if we're wrong, and there's not imminent catastrophic climate change, we should do something about our emissions." Yes, yes, yes. Of course. We should also import less foreign oil. Sounds like a win-win to me too, but lets do science as science. It's not pragmatism or policy, after all; it's supposed to be the search for truth. Let's find it, if we can.

At any rate, and to return, the Gore-scare seems to be largely over, for now, replaced by the Credit-scare. And so, if something needed to be done now to fix Global Warming (I mean Gore-now, right now!), we're either completely insane (worrying about this credit crisis crap), or less susceptible to b.s. than some would hope. An inconvenient truth, perhaps.


mijopo said...

The reason you don't hear about global warming is because the media no longer cares. That has nothing to do with whether or not it's good science.

I don't claim to have a good understanding of all the data relevant to assessing the correct theory of global warming, but I do know that good scientists that I know contend that the evidence is overwhelming, I take this seriously because this isn't filtered by the press, they have no agenda and are able to explain their reasoning to me in ways that I find quite satisfactory. Secondly, as you know, we can always save the theory, so it's not surprising that we can find people who can interpret the evidence for a relatively difficult to prove hypothesis in other ways. I'm willing to let science be science, but it's absurd to not take action until all scientists have reached the same conclusion. Simple decision theory will tell you that.

Erik said...

Yes but there's slippage between:

a) GW is right, and therefore we have a responsibility to act.

b) GW may be right, and although it's not yet proven so, we ought still to act, for decision theoretic reasons of maximizing utility.

a) has not been proven, in any rigorous scientific sense, as even died-in-the-wool GW proponents would have to agree. I think the phrase is "strongly suggestive", or at least in purely dispassionate terms, many read into the date the party line GW thesis (and they're not irrational, if not obviously right). I'd offer that, on purely epistemic grounds, we just don't yet know. Very smart, informed people interpret the data differently. The dissenters are not, presumably, insane, and so there's a debate (e.g., has the planet increased Co2 before in the absence of human emissions, why are some parts of the globe cooling, etc. etc. etc.). Hard interpretive problems.

As to b), I'm inclined to agree that we might act-as-if the debate is settled, since, really, reducing carbon emissions has obvious political, economic, und national defense benefits. Sure.

By my point is that standard GW rhetoric wants to marshall the a) type arguments while really moving forward with b) logic.

Just separate them, and I'd be happy. Admit that Gore's "Planet has a fever" thesis is not General Relativity but rather a disputed, tendentious, and more epistemically precarious statement than GW proponents will admit (hence the argument ad populum, a sure sign that something more epistemically fundamental is missing), and proceed with the decision theoretic arguments that are, in the end, just pragmatic plans given that we don't know the real truth. It makes sense to construct policy that reduces carbon emissions (for one, because foreign oil is a huge national security problem). So let's proceed as if.

But, again, it'd be nice if GW proponents were intellectually honest enough to admit that the're not dealing with a) but rather b), and just come clean that Pascal's Wager applied to energy is better than ending up in hell.

Erik said...

I should have said: GW proponents want to convince us of the a) arguments, and if we reasonably object, fall back to b) arguments. Just be honest up front, and save us all the time of sorting this out!

A. Larson said...

I happen to be currently reading a book about the history of fusion (or lack thereof) and it immediately came to mind when I read this thread. I think we should keep in mind that science is funded by governments (for the most part) meaning that politics decide what gets funded and for whom in a way that is not particularly scientific. And secondly that scientific research is carried out by actual scientists, i.e., people, who are just as susceptible to all of the same psychologies as the rest of us. Yes, the hard facts of it all ultimately prevail; but along the way, the political wrangling, public outcries, expensive gadgets and whatnots, and general theoretical wackiness tends to abound in the meantime. A few lessons in cold hard history might make us all a little more cautious, if not Al Gore a little less important. So I am not surprised that the GW debate is so important; nor am I surprised that the science is, at this point, up for grabs. And to be honest, the "better safe than sorry" angle is not one I am inclined to put much stock in (maybe that's why the credit crisis has become to popular).

mijopo said...

Well, the notion of 'proven' is a problematic one in science. As you know, nothing is proven in science, it's theories all the way down. The difference between (a) and (b) has also been famously exploited in the creation/evolution debate. About what kinds of non-mathematical/logical claims can we say that (a) holds? At what point do we move from (b) to (a) regarding empirical theories?

Erik said...

My own view is that there's a difference between scepticism of the theory of evolution and that of GW. The inferencial leaps one has to make to call into question the entire framework of evolution are much larger and questionable than the smaller jumps required to brow crinkle about the inevitability of human-caused massive, catastrophic changes in the environment in relatively short periods of time. It would take a Ph.D. thesis to make this case, I think, so I'll stop there.

On your other question: How about plate tectonics?!

Erik said...

a.larson, I like the "better safe than sorry" angle, actually (really), as long as it's wise in the context of competing needs (such as a strong economy, defense, etc.). Which is to say, I suppose, that I like it as long as it has no claim on us other than those that already make good sense.

This may be a little self-indulgent, but nonetheless will I think make my point. Here's an email from a friend, talking about the GW debate:

The global warming one is more complicated – our models are certainly not complete, the data is difficult to interpret, …. If the consequences of doing nothing weren’t so high I think everyone would be more comfortable with gaining a deeper understanding. But the fact is that there are things we can do that don’t seem to have a vast cost (compared to the cost of doing nothing). From minor things (like removing tax breaks on oil and giving it to renewable resources) to major things like serious actual investment in alternatives. And sensible things, e.g. not subsidizing alternatives like ethanol from corn that generate a net carbon increase.

Once Florida is flooded, it’s going to be hard to undo. And the Army Corp of Engineers isn’t going to build flood walls around the state. It is one of those things where the downside is so bad, you need to develop policy for action now, based on our best understanding in order to minimize long term consequences. "

This business about Florida flooding caught me off guard at first. I replied with this:

On the Florida flooding, I'll bet you a thousand dollars that flooding on the scale you suggest won't happen in the next 25 years. We won't even see undeniable, incremental worsening. Hurricanes will continue to be cyclical as they have since we began measuring them. Etc. Etc. If Florida floods to an extent that brings in the national guard and causes widespread panic, I'll write send the check with a note: "To [my friend], who knew better than me".

To which he replied:

I just used Florida as an example. The key is that climate change is happening (scientific consensus is unequivocal that average global temperatures are going up. Have we never been wrong before? Sure we have, but not believing in plate tectonics didn’t mean the end of our civilization if we got it wrong.) , we have good ideas about the underlying causes, fixing many of them would be good for a lot of other reasons, and we don’t understand the science well enough to make precise predictions about just how bad things may be. If I say there is a 60% chance large portions of Florida will flood in the next 50 years and it doesn’t happen, was I wrong? What if there was a major, successful effort to reduce carbon emissions in the meantime?"

60%? In 50 years? Oh c'mon, step up to the plate! I was thinking Gorian rhetoric licenses something like 90%, within a decade, give or take.

These sorts of exchanges do not, obviously, do much to reduce my skepticism. Heck, I'll even jump on board with a prognostication that, within a few hundred years, the climate will be measurably different than today. You see, I'm on board!