I’ve written before about scientific error cascades and the pernicious things that happen when junk science becomes the focus or rationale of a political crusade.
The worst example of this sort of thing in my lifetime, and arguably in the entire history of science, has been the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) panic. Now that the wheels are falling off that juggernaut, I’m starting to hear ordinary people around me wonder how I knew it was bullshit and hot air so much in advance…
It’s Climategate II, with another email dump from the CRU team, and Phil Jones writing that “All [our] models are wrong”
I enjoy creating useful neologisms. I’ve floated several on this blog: kafkatrapping, collabortage, politicism, chomskyism, and prospiracy. One could argue that my take on the term “error cascade” is neologistic.
Today, another one: “ecoforming”. By analogy with “terraforming”, this is what humans do when they deliberately modify an ecology to suit their purposes. The term is intended to include the introduction of non-native species, the deliberate use of fire as a technique for ground-clearing, and the sculpting of landscapes by selective planting and suppression of local wild flora, but to exclude cultivation of domesticated plants.
I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing because I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled 1493 by Charles C. Mann. This is a history of what he calls the “Columbian exchange” (borrowing the term from pioneering biohistorian Alfred W. Crosby), the transplantation of New World species to the Old World and vice-versa after Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Mann makes a persuasive case that the shock of that contact has been reverberating through the Earth’s biosphere ever since, reshaping human societies and much else in its wake. He tells well-known stories such as the way that the introduction of the potato to Europe enabled the rise in population that led to the Industrial Revolution. Also, many more (previously) obscure ones, such as the way that the introduction of American food plants produced ecological catastrophe in China, leading to the fall of the Ming Dynasty.
In a recent comment thread, I wrote that I am revolted by the corruption and politicization of science. After I wrote that, I experienced a moment of introspective surprise during which I realized that my feelings about people who commit scientific fraud for personal or political ends are in tone and intensity very much like a deeply religious person’s feelings about people who commit sacrilege.
This realization made me quite uncomfortable. I’m a hard-shell rationalist; what I have in my life that corresponds to religion I carefully chose to not involve me in faith-holding or the other kinds of emotional attachments that religious people form as a matter of course. I regard religion, in the sense the term is normally used, as a dangerous form of collective insanity – and I want above all to be sane.
Because I felt uncomfortable, I decided that I needed to perform the exercise I have elsewhere described as killing the Buddha – in this case, killing the premise that I am not like a religious person by examining and embracing all the ways that my relationship to science makes me like one.
Some comments on my last post sidetracked into a discussion of evolution, teleology and design and under what circumstances the language of “purpose” or “intention” can reasonably applied to a natural system. I’ve had a new insight while thinking about that discussion, so I’m going to write about it a bit more. And yes, I am aware that this discussion may appear to overlap with Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance, but I’m actually addressing a different set of issues.
Had my life gone a little differently, I might have been a molecular geneticist and hip-deep in what is now called bioinformatics. When I was twelve or thirteen or so I came to intellectual grips with the fact that I have congenital cerebral palsy; shortly thereafter I dove into the science of congenital defects, developmental biology, and from there into genetics. Eventually I taught myself a fair chunk of organic chemistry before becoming fascinated by linguistics and theoretical mathematics, and a few twists and turns from there got me into software engineering; but my interest in genetics and human developmental biology didn’t cease so much as become pushed into the background. I give this background to explain why I’ve been paying closer attention to genetics than most people do ever since.
In the wake of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, I’ve seen three or four forward-looking articles about the implications of cheap genomic analysis (most recently a quite good one in The Economist) all of which are are haunted by a common fear. It’s almost like they’re written to a template; glowing projections of accelerated drug discovery, personalized medicine, and deep insight into the nature of humanity, ended on a worried note about what we’ll find when we discover just how much of human variation is genetically rather than environmentally controlled. Sometimes the prognosticator can only bring himself to drop hints, but the braver ones come out and ask the question: what if it turns out that genetic differences among races are real and actually matter?
A while back, in Sugar and the Bathroom Demon, I blogged about the knotty questions of evolutionary biology and ethology that engage me when I interact with my cat. I returned to this theme in The Nose of Peace.
And today I have something new to report. My cat, at the age of 16, has noticed something novel in the world: the cat in the mirror. This is interesting because it feeds into a fascinating theory: we produce cognitive uplift in our pets.
In the horrible-inevitability department: Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets.
My first thought when I read this was: “Creationists opposing AGW hysteria? Wow. So those stupid fucks are good for something after all.”
My second thought was: “It’d be a damn shame if AGW ends up discrediting good science with the public, but if it happens the scientific establishment has only itself to blame for not busting the AGW fraud first.”
In fact, I don’t think that bad outcome is likely to happen, for reasons I explained in Will the AGW fraud discredit science?. But this news story is a warning to all scientists: if you don’t want creationists to get traction, you can’t just treat this as someone else’s problem. You have to clean house. You have tolerated liars and rascals like Phil Jones and Rajendra Pachauri in your midst too long; you need to throw them out.
A diplomatic way for any random professional society to do this would be to demand that all climate science must be held to the strictest standards of methodological scrutiny. All data, including primary un-“corrected” datasets, must be available for auditing by third parties. All modeling code must be published. The assumptions made in data reduction and smoothing must be an explicitly documented part of the work product.
These requirements would kill off AGW alarmism as surely as a bullet through the head. But its credibility is already collapsing; the rising issue, now, is to prevent collateral damage from the scientific community’s failure to insist on them sooner. Every day you delay will strengthen the creationists and the flat-earthers and all the other monsters begotten from the sleep of reason.
UPDATE: and, in a nice bookend, ABC follows the money, suggesting strongly that the scientific establishment has failed to clean house because alarmism is just too damn lucrative.
My regular readers will know that I’m sometimes fascinated by the extent to which mammalian body language crosses species lines — and, indeed, is so well conserved that families as far apart as felids and primates can communicate in ways that are emotionally satisfying to both parties. We take this for granted, but it’s really quite remarkable when you think about it; there’s a repertoire of mammalian gestures that must have maintained consistent social meanings since the earliest mammals in the late Triassic, 200 million years ago, all the way through dizzying changes in size, encephalization and ecological niche.
My wife Cathy reminded me of another one today: the Nose of Peace. “I thought you’d enjoy this photo of a kitten and a young deer exchanging the Nose of Peace” she wrote; our label for it comes from my attempt to describe to a friend over the phone the behavior of two cats who, after quarrelling for days, decided to get along. My friend understood what was intended by “the Nose of Peace” immediately, and that term for it has since spread to several other mutual friends.
The AGW true believers who determinedly reasserted their faith after the Climate Research Unit emails leaked have just been embarrassed by one of the high priests of the cult. Phil Jones, the former head of the CRU, now admits that there has been no statistically significant global warming since 1995.
I’ve used the term “error cascade” on this blog several times, notably in referring to AGW hysteria. A commenter has asked me to explain it, and I think that’s a good idea as (a) the web sources on the concept are a bit confusing, and (b) I’ll probably use the term again — error cascades are all too common where science meets public policy.
James Delingpole, in Climategate: Time for the Tumbrils, noting the public collapse in credibility of AGW “science” utters a fine rant summed up in this wise (parochial references to British political figures and organizations omitted):
I’m in no mood for being magnanimous in victory. I want the lying, cheating, fraudulent scientists prosecuted and fined or imprisoned. I want warmist politicians booted out and I want fellow-travellers who are still pushing this green con trick to be punished at the polls for their culpable idiocy.
For years I’ve been made to feel a pariah for my views on AGW. Now it’s payback time and I take small satisfaction from seeing so many rats deserting their sinking ship. I don’t want them on my side. I want to see them in hell, reliving scenes from Hieronymus Bosch.
I too long to see the frauds and the fellow-travellers in the hell they’ve earned for themselves. But revenge, while it’s a tasty dish that long-time public “deniers” like Delingpole and myself are now thoroughly enjoying, isn’t the best reason to hound them and their enabling organizations out of public life. The best reason not to relent, to name and shame the fraudsters and shatter their reputations and humilate them — ideally, to the point where there’s a rash of prominent suicides as a result — is this:
If we don’t destroy them, they’ll surely ramp up yet another colossal, politicized eco-fraud to plague us all.
The Times of London reports a determination from the Information Commissioner’s Office of the United Kingdom: members of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia broke the law by refusing to hand over its raw data for public scrutiny.
Now, this is interesting. Mark Lynas writes this: Copenhagen climate conference How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room.
I had a strong hunch that it was going to turn out that the Chinese had trashed any hope of an agreement in Copenhagen, and Mr. Lynas mostly duplicates my reasoning — well, except for the part where I’m inclined to feel grateful to the Chinese for their obstructionism; he isn’t.
Well, it’s happened. The Copenhagen climate conference has concluded with a three-page fig-leaf over its naked failure that even the New York Times can’t spin as good news for the AGW alarmists. It’s kind of entertaining to watch them try, actually, but the glum tone of the report is palpable.
The best laugh line from the article is that President Obama left before the vote on the document because he wanted to get back to Washington ahead of a major snowstorm. Yeah, I know, weather not climate, but it’s still funny. Good thing Al Gore cancelled or they’d probably be trying to dig out from under record accumulation.
I won’t say this was the best possible outcome from Copenhagen; the best possible outcome would have been an outright PR disaster that wrecked the careers of everyone even remotely connected with this boondoggle. And yes, on a sane planet the fact that they invited Robert Mugabe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez to speak would have been that PR disaster; cripes, were they trying for the thug-tyrant trifecta? But having all that sound and fury add up to a big fat nothing is excellent.
It’s excellent because, by the time the kleptocrat gang at the UN can wind up for another try, the likelihood is that the “scientific” support for their AGW scam will have been entirely exposed as a tissue of fraud. That’s the way things seem to be heading, anyway. Faster, please!
Oh, it just keeps getting better. As the Copenhagen conference collapses, word comes from Russia that the Moscow-based Institute for Economic Analysis has found evidence of skulduggery and fraud in the CRU’s treatment of Russian climate data.
Two days before the deadline for an agreement at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, Mother Nature is demonstrating the same sly sense of humor that Al Gore, el jefe of the global-warming bloviators, often seems to elicit from the old gal. That is to say, it’s snowing like a a sonovabitch and there’s no hiding the decline in temperatures…
While the weather outside is frightful, the prospect inside is delightful: it looks as though the negotiations are going to collapse in a welter of incompatible agendas, mutual finger-pointing, and much talk of high-handedness and betrayal. If we are really lucky, the wreck will cause such lasting bitterness that nothing like this three-ring circus of purblind idiocy will ever be seriously attempted again.
But wait…difficult though it may be to credit from the news coverage, there’s at least one person in Copenhagen today who sounds like neither an unctuous Orwellian gusher of transnational-progressive newspeak nor an outright spluttering loon. And who might that be?
OK, this is lovely. Remember Phil Jones of the CRU saying they had retained only “homogenized, value-added” data rather than raw measurements? It seems that well before the CRU leak there was strong circumstantial evidence that much (perhaps all) of the supposed global-warming signal is accounted for by “adjustments” made to the data.
The unravelling of the AGW fraud continues to provide an entertaining mix of high drama and low comedy. My favorite recent entry on the CRU mob is a screed from a professor of mathematics in Canada: “All of my colleagues have had to endure these bullies and criminals for a very long time.”
Then there’s David Bellamy’s tale of being canned from a very successful science-popularizer gig on the BBC because he dared to speak anti-AGW heresy.
That’s a theme in a lot of recent revelations. As long as the lid was on the CRU’s fraud, nobody dared speak up about for fear of being dismissed as a crank. Now that the AGW crowd’s power to suppress dissent has been broken, expect to hear a lot more actual scientists — not politicians, but scientists — coming forward to confirm that the emperor has no clothes.
For the “low comedy” part, return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Time Magazine was predicting catastrophic global cooling. And Newsweek, too. It’s hilarious how easy it is to substitute “warning” for “cooling” and have an article that could have been written last week.
For more low comedy, at least one news story alleges that the IPCC intends to investigate the allegations of CRU misconduct. Yup, I’m sure; the kleptocrats in our permanent political class don’t like it when their plans for a power grab go awry, and the U.N.’s contingent doubtless wants to know who’s to blame for this debacle. For some reason, the phrase “the prisoner was shot while attempting to escape” keeps running through my head.
It just keeps getting better and better. Now we learn that the CRU has admitted to throwing away the primary data on which their climate models were based. I quote: “We do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.â€
This means that even the CRU itself has no idea how accidentally corrupt or fraudulently altered its data might be. And the IPCC reports used the CRU’s temperature reconstructions as a gold standard. So did other climatologists all over the world. And now they can’t be verified! Without a chain of provenance tieing them back to actual measurements, every single figure and trendline in the CRU reconstructions might as well be PDOOMA, a fine old engineering acronym expanding to “Pulled Directly Out Of My Ass”.
Words don’t often fail me, but this is beyond ridiculous. How could anyone who calls himself a scientist allow the primary data and metadata to be destroyed? I’ve long thought the AGW case was built on sand, but it’s worse – it’s built on utter vacuum. Somebody will have to do the work of collating raw historical data from the weather stations and time periods the CRU mined all over again before we will know anything about the quality of their results. A significant portion of the climatological literature — everything that used CRU reconstructions or models as an input — will have to be outright scrapped.
While I still think the leaked emails and code make a strong case for active fraud, the scale of this disclosure makes that almost irrelevant. It is, at the very least, procedural incompetence on a breathtaking scale — the most astounding case of my lifetime, and I’m hard-put to think of a parallel in the entire history of science.
UPDATE: High drama! There’s a strong argument, based on the CRU dump, that the CRU’s claim to have lost the data in the 1980s has to be a falsehood. If so, we’ve moved from an incompetence-centered explanation back to a fraud-centered one. But then, a counterclaim that the reporting was bad and they’ve only destroyed 5% of their data. Pass the popcorn…