Making Sense of Science
March 2010

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Global Warming?  More Like Global Confusion.

We've seen a lot of mixed messages about the state of the planet's climate lately.  Many people desperately want to believe that it's all been a misunderstanding (or better, a Conspiracy) and that we can all go about our business as usual with a clear conscience.  While the evidence of a warming planet is clear, the arrival of Autumn each year throws the public into renewed confusion over what "global warming" is supposed to mean.

One Newsletter won't answer all the questions, but I'll try to put a few things in perspective for you.  To respond or send a personal message to me, please do not reply to this message, but instead please visit my contact page or use my personal email address.

Has the Scientific Establishment co-ordinated a worldwide program of misinformation about climate data?  No, it has not.  How can I be so sure?  Simple: no such Establishment exists.  Science is not an organization, but a disorganized, leaderless crowd of extremely bright, ambitious individuals all acting in their personal best interests.

Those interests are:

1. Discovering the truth about things through observation and experiment;

2. Promoting one's career by systematically producing unassailable research of the highest standard;

3. Promoting one's career by systematically disembowelling the shoddy, misguided  research of those other knuckleheads - I mean, of one's esteemed Fellow Scientists.

I know that Scientists are passionately, deeply committed to all three of these principles,  because I have grown up with, lived with and worked among Scientists my entire life.  I also know that they are not part of some global conspiracy.  Sure, there has been the occasional secret handshake and conspiratorial glance, but these are mostly about laboratory politics, not global co-ordination.  Even laboratory politics is something Scientists aren't very good at, because it's always the administrators who end up with the nicest office furniture.  And so, frustrated in political matters, Scientists tend instead to focus their attention on finding out the truth.

Here's how these principles operate in practice.  A crowd of scientists will gather around a hot topic.  As long as that topic holds out a reasonable chance for scientists to advance knowledge and thereby advance their careers, scientists will continue to experiment, argue, debate, question, test, attempt to replicate findings, and otherwise harass the topic and each other.  When there is no further opportunity to make new discoveries about a proposition or to publicly expose the ignorance of other scientists in relation to it, the crowd moves on to something else.  We outsiders have named this event "Reaching a Consensus."

When the science crowd is allowed to operate in an unfettered manner away from the media spotlight, the long-term result is extremely reliable, high-quality research.  A Consensus means that some of the brightest, most ambitious, well-informed and anal people on the planet with every incentive to discover any kind mistake, have ripped apart the research piece by piece and were unable to find fault with so much as the spelling or punctuation.

One offshoot of these three operating principles is the inherent impossibility of any kind of collusion, conspiracy to falsify data, the formation of scientific cartels, and other such things that would interfere with the truth.  Even when such things have begun to happen, they get exposed and dealt with fairly promptly.

It is therefore worthwhile to remain wary of "experts" who only lately entered the field and claim to know more about it than those who spent decades doing the research while enduring the most vigorous scrutiny.  One is also advised to be wary of politicians who use preliminary, unverified findings to gain or consolidate power.  There are also those who are willing to say anything, even entirely make up data out of thin air, if it helps them get media attention or sell a book.

What do we know about Climate Change?  The scientific crowd reached a consensus on the basic facts more than a decade ago.  The long-term trend in the average temperature of the atmosphere and oceans is clearly upwards.  In around 1880 it broke away from the normal pattern of natural variability, and is moving upwards much faster than any previous natural trend.  All the evidence clearly reveals that it is a direct result of human activity, specifically the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels.

How do we know that?  The amount of carbon contained in the year-on-year increase in oceanic and atmospheric carbon dioxide is roughly equal to the amount of carbon burned in the form of coal, petroleum, and gas each year.  Also, the amount of oxygen contained in the year-on-year increase in CO2 is roughly equal to the observed decrease in atmospheric oxygen each year.  Therefore there is no mystery as to where the extra CO2 is coming from.  What's more, carbon that has been underground for millions of years has a noticeably different radiological signature to carbon that cycles through our atmosphere, plants, and oceans on a regular basis.  That difference shows up in the additional CO2 we find in the atmosphere each and every year.  Yes, we know exactly where it is coming from and how it got there.

But CO2 is only a small percentage of the atmosphere, and it's actually good for plants.  Isn't it?  You don't need very much CN (cyanide radical) in the body before it becomes a problem, either.  It's not the quantity that matters, it's what it does.  CO2 fine-tunes the amount of thermal energy retained by the atmosphere or released into space.  More CO2 = warmer planet. 

And the plants?  You and I and the food we eat have gotten used to a certain temperature range and a certain level of CO2/O2 in the air.  I happen to like food, and I wouldn't be too keen on this system breaking down.  At no time in the last 400,000 years have CO2 levels in the atmosphere been this high or increased this rapidly.  And before that?  Who cares!  That climate may not have been capable of supporting this many people and the number of plants and animals we depend on for survival.  Only the more recent climate history is relevant to our survival.

What does it mean?  One thing to understand is that it has little to do with the weather or the seasons.  There will still be summer and winter; some days will be warmer, some colder.  Some years will be cooler overall, others will be warmer.   You may even get several down-trending years in a row.  None of these things are of the slightest consequence to the study of the climate.

Consider, for example, the financial markets.  Does the price of a single issue going down one day mean that the economy is in trouble?  Of course not.  What about an index, or even the average of all listings?  Nope.  One day's price movement of even all the worldwide market indices has little to do with the long-term state of the economy.

Macroeconomists look at sharemarkets from the earliest beginnings to the present and observe that it has basically been an unbroken upwards trend.  Only when they zoom in on the little wiggles in the line do they see evidence of the occasional recession or depression. 

Day traders, on the other hand, rarely look at 50-year index charts, but focus on minute to minute price movements of a single issue.  The overall economy means nothing to them; they can make or lose money as easily whichever way it goes.

The TV weatherman is like a day trader, interested in the hour-by-hour temperature of specific locations. Climate scientists are like macroeconomists, looking at an entire planet over hundreds of years. They have very little to say to one another.  But every time there is an extreme weather event, some ignorant journalist asks, "Would you say this proves or disproves Global Warming?"

The best answer to this inane and inevitable question was one I heard on the radio a few days ago, given by an astute climatologist:

"Well, Kent, if you analyzed thousands of such events over hundreds of years, the pattern that emerges may have some meaning.  Otherwise, what is the significance of reporting that, say, Google closed 2 points up on the day?  Would you say that means the recession is over?"

If someone calls himself a "climate change skeptic," he is probably not really a skeptic at all.  True skeptics are not smugly self-assured of a certain point of view, and a skeptic would never selectively ignore large chunks of data just because they contradict a cherished belief.  Only by having a strong desire to believe that it isn't so and by selectively ignoring clear evidence can someone deny today that the long-term temperature trend of this planet's climate is upwards, and that we did it.

Just as in financial matters, the best advice is this: Do your own due diligence using information from credible sources that you trust.




John will be appearing at the Army Museum, Fremantle, on Saturday 27 March at their Stars and Tanks event.  (I don't actually know what this is about - should be interesting though!)
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