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Flying Off The HandleTM


Annotation July 2015

For some recent evidence to support my contentions in the piece below, read  Global Warming: The unsettling truth

May 2014

Global Warming? Bring It On!

How ego, greed and the social imperative affect the practice of the scientific method. Or proof that even scientists are only human


Carlton W. Austin


It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine*     


Senate Democrats pull an all-nighter on climate change. A piece in the ever-climate-vigilant Washington Post reported that the latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1) had attributed nearly every event that could be viewed negatively on planet Earth in recent years—from “lowering crops yields,” to “forcing many marine organisms to flee hundreds of miles to cooler water,” to, yes, “hurting the poor”—as being caused by anthropogenic climate change, or, without obfuscation, global warming.  All this after one of the coldest winters in the lower-48 states in recorded history.

But it was a piece in the same Washington Post on the need to be circumspect about our food choices in order to minimize CO2 emissions and stave off the looming climate cataclysm that finally pushed me over the edge. (Beef or broccoli? Which creates less CO2? Wow! I’ll take both.)

Full disclosure: I am not a climatologist. I do, however, have an excellent education in the sciences: the physical, the biological, the social, and some computer science.  I worked in a neuroscience research lab during my time at the University of Maryland at College Park. Later, I managed a molecular genetics research lab for a couple of years.  Though I no longer work in science, I love science and admire and respect all the great work that has been done by those diligently and properly practicing the method.  My appreciation for their basic discoveries and the fruits that those discoveries bore in the way of technology knows no bounds. Nevertheless, like Charles Krauthammer wrote in a recent column, “…I’m not a global-warming believer. I’m not a global-warming denier.” (2) At least not in the way it is used today.

Anthropogenic means human-caused, and as it relates to climate change in today’s hysterical debate, the implication is that we humans are, if not the sole cause, the major cause of global warming through our burning of fossil fuels and the consequent production of carbon dioxide, which is an important greenhouse gas (mere water vapor is a much stronger culprit).  Human-caused global warming is, we are told repeatedly, a “settled” issue because the “consensus” of scientists subscribe to a narrative that portends catastrophic scenarios for much of life on Earth, including human life.

Let us stipulate, then, that humans affect climate, because humans are a part of animal life on Earth, and climate is inextricably intertwined with all life. As James Lovelock described in his famous Gaia Principle, there is an intricate, self-regulating complex system of inorganics and biomass that sustains conditions for life on the planet.  Since life—especially human life—is the most complex thing we know of in the universe, the implication is clear: climatology is right next to biology in its complexity, making the science of it among the most difficult of scientific activities. It is not merely physics.

Unfortunately, most people in today’s increasingly secular society treat science as if it were the new religion, even though few of those same people have even a miniscule understanding of what science is and what it can and cannot do. Who can blame them? What with smartphones, the Internet, flights to the moon, medical miracles, etc.

But what is science anyway?  Simply put, it is the best method we humans have ever found for explaining how the natural world works.(3) It is defined by three indispensable principles, first enunciated, it is believed, by Ibn al-Haytham, whom many regard as the first true scientist: 1) Observation and data collection, which of necessity require mathematics to interpret, leading to confirmation or refutation of hypotheses; 2) Skepticism, which is the main defense against the social imperative, or worrying about being rejected if you don’t tow the group-think line; and 3) Humility, to guard against the self-aggrandizing appetites of the ego, or hubris. Why the last two? Because science, like every other endeavor, is corruptible by human nature, which has never changed and will not change except by something on the order of a divine intervention (read Second Eden for such a possibility).

So skepticism and humility are necessary to keep the negative aspects of human nature in check; otherwise they will contaminate the process of truth seeking. Consequently, when you hear the claim that there is a dispositive “consensus” or that something scientifically is “settled” you know there is mischief afoot. As the author of Jurassic Park, Michael Chricton, who was also a scientist and medical doctor, famously said, “There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.” Following that lead, Krauthammer makes a more recent brilliant case for this, but there are numerous examples throughout history. A great book detailing these exploding-of-the-settled/consensus stories is the Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Among others are stories of how Newton’s laws proved to be less than complete in explaining the universe when Einstein introduced General and Special Relativity, until they too were  found lacking in explanations of the subatomic world, about which quantum mechanics provided crucial answers. History is littered with the detritus of failed consensuses and the unsettling of settled paradigms.

Here’s a recent comment by a true scientist on why science is never settled:

    “We’re very excited to present our results because they seem to match the prediction of the theory so closely,” Kovac said in an interview. “But it’s the case that science can never actually prove a theory to be true. There could always be an alternative explanation that we haven’t been clever enough to think of.”—John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, announcing evidence for gravitational waves

And why humility is important:

    "The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals."--Albert A. Michelson, German- Born American Physicist 1894

Over the years I’ve noticed human frailty operate in many parts of the scientific arena, where to some degree, all of the following things detailed in this Dick Pothier piece entitled “Plain Prose: It’s Seldom Seen in Journals,” occurred.:

    “If you want to publish an article in some scientific or medical journal, here is some unusual advice from Scott Armstrong, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School: Choose an unimportant topic. Agree with existing beliefs. Use convoluted methods. Withhold some of your data. And write the whole thing in stilted, obtuse prose. (4) Armstrong, who is the editor of a new research publication called the Journal of Forecasting, offered the advice in a serious, scholarly article last month in the journal’s first issue. He said yesterday that he had studied the publication process in research journals for years.

    “’Although these rules clearly run counter to the goal of contributing to scientific knowledge — the professed goal of academic journals — they do increase a paper’s chance of being published,’ Armstrong said.”—Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 23, 1982

Ah, yes, that pesky human nature rears its ugly head. Embarrassingly and sadly, there are serious professional costs for not towing the “consensus” line: Not being invited to conferences; losing grant opportunities; making it harder to get contrary ideas published in journals; and, what is most damaging for most people, being ostracized by your social group, or not being welcome in the faculty lounge. Some ardent supporters simply have so much of their professional life invested in their favored theory that they are not willing to admit that a lifetime’s work has been for naught. (As an aside, these are examples of what in other venues would be called “political correctness.”)

Back to global warming, aka climate change. With at least 15 years without statistically significant global warming, during a time of record human-produced CO2, something is wrong with the consensus narrative. None of the supporting climatologists’ mathematical models predicted this.

Though it has been many years indeed, there is one important thing I remember from my graduate-level course in mathematical modeling: results of mathematical models do not equal empirical data. Garbage in, garbage out still applies. (5) Yet in the most recent IPCC report, scientists argued that “Key findings…were that the planet is warming at an accelerated pace and that, with 95 percent certainty, humans are the cause.” Notice that the articulated premise is that “humans are the cause,” not just a factor in enormously complex workings of the bio-climate. I can tell you with conviction that claiming a 95% confidence level in anything biologically influenced is an extreme claim, one that should cause the skepticism hairs to rise on the back of one’s neck.

Okay, what about the argument that when possible outcomes are overwhelmingly catastrophic, a consensus probably should be followed, just in case it is correct?  When it comes to catastrophic global warming, I would point to what life on Earth was like during times in geologic history when there were no polar icecaps and the temperatures were much higher than even the most exaggerated estimates for the next 30-40 years by the current IPCC report. (Remember, 30-40 years out; made by mathematical modeling; but couldn’t even predict the last 15 years. In note (5) below you’ll see that when it comes to hurricanes even one year out is difficult to predict.  Not coincidentally, this is a great example of what David J. Hand calls the “probability lever” in his fascinating book The Improbability Principle, which I highly recommend.   [6])

So here’s the real issue: what climate is most favorable to all life forms? Plants. Cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals. Humans. And as a consequence, what kind of climate change should we welcome?

Answer: a warmer climate.

Because the periods in Earth’s history with the most abundant life—or biomass—were also the warmest. And for good reason: Higher temperatures mean accelerated chemical reactions, including biochemical reactions, positively enhancing the generation of new life, mainly plant life that reduces the CO2 content of the atmosphere. The most recent period exhibiting these characteristics was the Cretaceous— the time of the dinosaurs. Which may have grown to such large dimensions because of the accelerated biochemical reactions in the warmer environment. Excess human-generated CO2 by use of fossil fuels is simply the equivalent of CO2 from greater extinct biomass (a surrogate for former animal life: the T. Rex and his relatives, among others). Humans, of course, did not exist for most of these vast expanses of geologic time.

    “The greatest warmth is found in what geologists call the Cretaceous Period, about 100 Ma, when the mean global surface temperature may have been as much as 6 to 8° C above that of today.”—- Page Paleontology Science Center

Not surprisingly, then, the greatest biomass in Earth’s history occurred when there were no polar icecaps and the average global temperatures were about 14 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) above where they are today. As a recent article in Scientific American reveals: “Researchers examined the number of known families of marine invertebrates, as well as sea-surface temperatures, over the course of 540 million years of Earth's history. They found that when temperatures were high, so was biodiversity. When temperatures fell, biodiversity also declined.”

The truth is the greatest danger to all life on Earth, including mankind, is the cyclical global cooling better known as an Ice Age. Over geological time Ice Ages have been far more devastating to plant and animal—and especially human -- life than periods of global warming:

    Earth's climate was in a cool period from A.D. 1400 to about A.D. 1860, dubbed the "Little Ice Age." (7) This period was characterized by harsh winters, shorter growing seasons, and a drier climate. The decline in global temperatures was a modest 1/2° C, but the effects of this global cooling cycle were more pronounced in the higher latitudes. The Little Ice Age has been blamed for a host of human suffering including crop failures like the "Irish Potato Famine."— Page Paleontology Science Center

In case it escaped your notice, the “crop failures” predicted by the IPCC (above) are based on current crop failures with well-known causes; climate change is not required to account for the diminished returns. To make the theoretical leap and suggest that future crop failures will be primarily as a result of warmer temperatures seems unwarranted, to say the least; whereas the crop disruptions of the Little Ice Age are documented historical fact.  Forests with their beautiful and rich ecological diversity will be expunged under the massive weight of glaciers thousands of feet high.

The virulent zealots of the “green movement,” or radical environmentalism, will reject everything I’ve written. They will call me a climate-change denier. Well, I would call them non-scientific ideologues. I think one of the original founders of the green movement would agree with me:

    “I am James Lovelock, scientist and author, known as the originator of Gaia theory, a view of the Earth that sees it as a self-regulating entity that keeps the surface environment always fit for life… I am an environmentalist and founder member of the Greens but I bow my head in shame at the thought that our original good intentions should have been so misunderstood and misapplied. We never intended a fundamentalist Green movement that rejected all energy sources other than renewable, nor did we expect the Greens to cast aside our priceless ecological heritage because of their failure to understand that the needs of the Earth are not separable from human needs. We need take care that the spinning windmills do not become like the statues on Easter Island, monuments of a failed civilization.”— James Lovelock, 12 December 2012

History has shown that it is almost always better to err on the side of the Vulcan and to be wary of our fickle Human Nature. In other words, be a Mr. Spock, not a Dr. McCoy. (8) Rationality always trumps emotionality.

Conclusion? If man-influenced global warming prevents or partially mitigates the next Ice Age, as logic would favor, I say bring it on!

*                        *                      *


* Lyrics to the song  “It's the end of the world as we know it. ( And I feel fine)” by R.E.M.

1)  “There was controversy in the run-up to the report's release when one of the 70 authors of a draft said he had pulled out of the writing team because it was ‘alarmist’ about the threat. Prof Richard Tol, an economist at Sussex University, said he disagreed with some findings of the summary. But British officials branded his assessment of the economic costs of climate change as ‘deeply misleading.’ “ –The Guardian newspaper, April, 2014

2)  Dr. Charles Krauthammer, “The Myth of Settled Science,” Feb. 20, 2014, Washington Post

3)  An excerpt from Second Eden on “What is science?” (See below.)

4)  A great example of “stilted, obtuse prose” is revealed in this insanely incomprehensible, magic-like meanderings of a quantum-science practitioner: 

“One of those promoting the idea that ‘dark flow’ was evidence for a multiverse was Mersini-Houghton, who in a 2008 paper with Holman, wrote:

“ ‘Our contention, then, is that these observations of bulk flow can be construed as evidence for the birth of the universe from the landscape multiverse imprinted on the super-horizon sized nonlocal quantum entanglement between our horizon patch and others that began from the landscape. When we calculate the size of the induced dipole in our theory and convert it into a bulk velocity dispersion, we will see that for the constrained values of our parameters we arrive at a velocity dispersion of order 670 km/sec, remarkably close to the observed value of 700 km/sec.’ ”

5) “For some forecasters gathered last week for the National Hurricane Center’s annual conference in Orlando, looking back at last season proved a painful reminder of just how tricky their jobs can be.

“ ‘It’s hard to go all these years and then make your worst forecast after 30 years,’ said climatologist William Gray, 84, the man who pioneered the science of preseason predictions. ‘It’s not very good progress.’

“But for the last two years, predictions have been off — way off in the case of 2013, which Gray called a ‘bust.’ Colorado State University had predicted an active season, with 18 named storms and eight to nine major storms. Instead, it was slow, with 13 named storms and only two hurricanes.

“Technology and ever-improving computer models have dramatically improved the ability to forecast the path of storms once they have formed. But, as last year illustrated, there are still flaws in long-range, preseason predictions.

“ ‘This is another illustration of how brilliant meteorologists are, after the fact,’ he joked. ‘I’ve been working very hard the last three or four months to explain our bust. So we’ve eaten our crow, especially me.’ “--”Health, Science and Environment” section of Washington Post, April 21, 2014

6)  “This is the essence of the law of the probability lever: slight changes to a model, or slight inaccuracies in what we believe, can have massive consequences in terms of differences in probabilities.”--The Improbability Principle, by David J. Hand

7)  The Little Ice Age, by Brian Fagan

8) Characters from the Star Trek series

Second Eden excerpt:

    The place: Kenya, Africa, a rural Catholic school for orphaned children. Teacher and overseer Father Easterbrook, an African American transplant, tells of his journey from research cosmologist to a life of communal charity in a desperately poor African village:

“By the way,” Peter inquired between sips, “I’ve been wondering ever since we got here, why does someone with a Harvard Ph.D.—in cosmology, no less—give it up to be a priest in a place like this?”

Father Easterbrook sighed and straightened up in his chair. He put his hands together under his chin and paused for a moment. “Because I loved science too much. The way I should have been loving people. You see, the satisfaction of curiosity can be addicting—like so many things in life. And I was hooked.”

“You’re not suggesting curiosity is evil, are you?”  Roscha said reproachfully.

“Not at all. The desire for knowledge is entirely natural. But one needs balance and I’d lost mine.”

Molly thought of her father. If only he’d been able to reach the same understanding before he died.

“But oddly enough,” Easterbrook continued, “it was a child’s innocent game that made my decision easy. I’m sure you know the Why? game. Every three- or four-year-old knows it—they question everything at that age.

“Well, during one of these sessions with my niece, it struck me that if the game were carried to its logical conclusion, there would always be one last ‘Why?’

“Think of it this way.  Suppose I build a box that performs some function—a true X-Box, if you will. You can study it completely. Take as long as you like. Eventually, you will describe it at whatever level of detail you choose. Even down to the subatomic, or quantum, level, as we’ve done with our own world. But even if you succeed in describing it fully, in the end, you won’t know why it exists. That is the last ‘Why.’

“What you’ll be left with is a description. But not, I’m afraid, an explanation. You’ll be able to say what it looks like, how it functions, but not why. An explanation requires an answer to this last question. You see, unless I told you I made this box as a toy merely to please my child, you would never know this. Ultimately, our X-box is truly a metaphor for our own universe. And while science can give use very detailed descriptions, it cannot provide us with knowledge of intention! Only intention gives meaning. Intention reveals the heart of being. It is Free Will expressed.”

“But science can’t measure that,” Molly said, following his story closely, searching for some shred of hope that the Gypsy was wrong after all.

“Exactly,” Easterbrook agreed. “Take love. Can its existence be proved scientifically? Of course not! Yet would anyone deny its existence?”

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