Posts Tagged ‘science’

The Big Wet

datePosted on 15:27, January 12th, 2011 by Lew

Having neglected my bloggerly duties these past six weeks (in fact, I’ve been neglecting all my duties which aren’t strictly in service of looking after my family and keeping my job), I had resolved to write something about one of the many momentous events which have taken place recently. There are many to choose from. Some topics (Pike River; Wikileaks; Foreshore and Seabed for instance) are no longer immediate; others (the re-emergence of Winston Peters, commencement of the NZ general election campaign and its forerunner the Botany by-election) are not yet sufficiently well-formed for me to quite know what to say about them yet. Yet others (notably the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Wikileaks and the Urewera Terra trials) have been more ably dealt with by Pablo and/or so many others, such that anything I could say would be redundant. There’s already enough peoples’ two cents rattling around in the hollow urn of internet discussion. In the context of these events other things I was meaning to write about (such as the manvertising topic Pablo discussed before the break) seem a bit trivial.

Add to all of this, today there is really only one story; that an area twice the size of Texas — the canonical measure of a really big thing — is underwater in Queensland; including much of Brisbane. The coverage put out by the Australian media, and in particular the ABC, is first-rate, and the best I can do is commend it to your attention.

There is one point, however, that I don’t think has been made strongly enough: and that’s that events such as these are a consequence of climate change. While it is fashionable for climate change deniers to mock those pointing to the increasing frequency and severity of snowstorms, cold snaps, hurricanes and torrential rainfall events as evidence for ‘global warming’; implying that climate science proponents try to take everything as evidence of ‘global warming’, the fact is that the term ‘global warming’ was retired and replaced with ‘climate change’ because the thesis isn’t just that the planet will get warmer.

That’s part of it, but the events — snowfall and what not — being pointed to are not climate; they are weather. The relationship between climate and weather is a lot like the relationship between mathematics and arithmetic — indistinguishable if you don’t understand them, but fundamentally of a different order. Weather, like arithmetic, is by and large small, trivial, unarguable stuff — stuff which is more or less self-evident. It rained this much last week; 2+2=4 — whereas climate, and mathematics, are bigger, more open-ended and by definition less quantifiable. Mistaking ‘weather’ for ‘climate’ is an immensely useful rhetorical device, and one which I believe has not been sufficiently well guarded-against by those whose task it is to argue the climate change case. But even though it may not have been made clear to the degree necessary for broad public and political comprehension, this distinction is well understood by those working in the field and anyone who cares to acquaint themselves even scarcely with the material. And fundamentally the take-away is this: climate change caused by the increased quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to the extent that it takes place, will have unpredictable flow-on effects such as increased frequency and severity of severe weather events, and not just heat waves and droughts such as ‘warming’ would suggest.

The XKCD comic above (of which some years ago, my wife bought me the t-shirt) shows the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation spectrum. This has nothing much to do with climate change, but it is a famous proof of the scientific method: a near-perfect agreement between theory and actuality which is pretty fundamental to our understanding of a bunch of stuff. Science’s only defence; the only thing which gives it any importance or makes it any use at all, is that it works. When properly applied, it predicts actual events. The Queensland floods, as well as other such events, are happening as predicted, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant, or having you on, or both. In Andrew Bolt‘s case, it’s both. Queenslanders — and others similarly impacted by such events — need neither.


Climate credibility fail

datePosted on 07:30, January 19th, 2010 by Lew


I’ve remained largely silent on the so-called ClimateGate thus far, mostly out of an abject lack of expertise to judge the whys and wherefores of it all. It’s science, I’m not a scientist. But given Poneke’s magnum opus on the topic, the likelihood of an IPCC Himalayan glacier retraction and a NZ Herald survey which found that New Zealanders harbour deep doubts about anthropogenic climate change, I thought it apposite to repost something I wrote the other day at the bottom of a very long (but interesting) thread (somewhat edited). It’s something I’ve argued many times in other contexts.*

Climate change is often couched as an important problem of the sort which democracies fail to address — along with things like the global credit crisis, and fascism. But the failure is not with democracy itself, but with the calibre of certain actors within it. Climate change is an issue which should have been hit out of the park by any political movement with any competence, because the magnitude of the stakes and the weight of both reasoned evidence and benign symbolic matter which it embodies yield raw material for the most profound and powerful sorts of political campaigns — the sort which fundamentally change peoples’ beliefs and allegiances and which, if properly conducted, can grant a political movement incredible license to implement far-reaching policy of the sort which reforms society at its most basic levels. The Great Depression was just such an event for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Michael Joseph Savage. The miners strike was for Margaret Thatcher. September 11 was for George W Bush. And so on.

And yet, the skeptics are winning the battle of ideas around climate change. The failure to convince the electorates of the free world of the need for urgent climate change policy, a matter of the most critical and immediate importance backed by the best science available, reflects an utter failure on the part of political and scientific elites whose most important job it is to provide such leadership. The political and scientific establishment has squandered a phenomenal opportunity, with the exception of Al Gore, who with An Inconvenient Truth did more to progress the cause of gaining electorate buy-in to the topic than everyone else has done since. They are struggling and failing, not only to implement reforms of the magnitude which are required, but even to maintain the credibility of the scientific establishment.

Some [including Ag, to whom this was originally addressed] argue that it was always impossible to sell climate change to the electorate due to the vested interests amassed against it, cognitive biases, lack of expertise, plain ignorance, etc. Those are important factors, but other factors are more important and more controllable to boot — after all, people in a liberal society can only really control their own actions, and must be prepared to defend their positions against others.

The scientific establishment failed by allowing a tiny minority of skeptics and raving moonbats and vested interests to frame their establishment as a corrupt back-slapping club funded by grant money; by evading and prevaricating and playing dirty when legitimately challenged on important matters of fact and procedure; most recently by covering up emails and giving the conspiracy theorists grist for their mills. In defending their failures, they blame the heterodox minority, the vested interests, the rapturists and the conspiracy theorists.

Politicians have failed mainly by couching their arguments in favour of urgent climate change policy in terms of hard facts and economic figures, assuming that people could connect the dots themselves rather than spelling it out in terms they could understand at a visceral or intuitive level as well as when they whip out their utility calculators. The politicians blame the same people as the scientists, ignoring the fact that a generation of failure on their part to adequately contest the battle of ideas and to safeguard the political process against the influence of vested interests has allowed such lobbyists to become entrenched.

Part of this is systemic — there are problems with the scientific peer review system which politicians can’t understand; there are ruthless and well-resourced lobbyists with vested interests which have been permitted to entrench themselves in democratic political systems. But none of that is any excuse. They should have been able to drive it home anyway, given the raw material at their disposal. This is not a failing of democracy, but a failing of certain actors within the democratic system: particularly, those who believe so deeply that they are right, so they need not prove their case. People who think that inherent truth of the position will simply shine through. If their position was that strong, then it should have been easy, right? This ignores a fundamental reality of a free society: that people are free to be wrong, and must be brought about by reason and persuasion or not at all. I think it is that strong, and should have been easy.

The world is going to pay for the failure of climate scientists to adequately protect their credibility, and for the failure of politicians and policymakers to adequately sell the most politically saleable concept of the past generation — that the planet is going to get inhospitable if we continue to pollute it, and we don’t have a fallback position — and it’s infuriating that those responsible for this failure want nothing more than to shift blame for their own incompetence.


* It should be clear, but nevertheless: I’m not arguing that AGW isn’t real; in fact, the opposite: I am arguing that the problem is real but that the credibility of much of the evidence and the policy agenda is critically undermined. I don’t really buy Poneke’s conclusions drawn from his analysis of the emails, although I do accept that they demonstrate severe systemic and credibility failures which call a lot of the evidence into question. But in order to believe that it’s all a hoax, you have to believe in a scientific conspiracy of unprecedented scale, with no credible payoff. I just don’t see it.

Passion and reason about climate change

datePosted on 22:15, August 6th, 2009 by Lew

While I agree with most blogging folks that John Key was a fool to try to smack down Keisha Castle-Hughes for her role in the Greenpeace climate change campaign, I do still have concerns about the specifics of how she fronts it.

BK Drinkwater posted on this recently, and then took it back after some criticism. I don’t think his first instinct was that far wrong, but it was framed poorly – in terms of expertise as granting a right to advocacy, rather than expertise as being necessary to meaningful advocacy. I don’t have concerns about Keisha’s views or her right to advocate for them, or about her position as a young mother concerned about the future of humanity rather than a scientist or a policy expert, or about her being exploited for a cause. The problem for me is that Keisha’s advocacy is apparently based entirely in passion, and not at all in reason.

Her breathless and slightly incoherent performance on Close Up (horrible flash video) the other night, while it may have been inspiring for some, left me in little doubt that she doesn’t know anything much about the topic. She completely avoided answering Sainsbury’s question (from about 01:50) as to whether she knew anything about it – saying (again and again) that she was passionate about climate change and wanted to know what she could do about it. This is the problem with celebthorities (actorvists, pseudo-experts, etc.) – they frequently substitute passion for reason, and in doing so they encourage the wider public to do the same.

While I don’t expect celebrities (or anyone, really) to be an expert before they’re allowed to advocate, their passion for a cause should be somehow proportionate to their knowledge of it. Keisha’s passion seems to far (far) outweigh her knowledge, and passion without reason is dangerous. It may be that she does know more than the first thing about it – any reasonably intelligent person can familiarise themselves with the scientific orthodoxy in a few hours and after a few days of reading will probably know more than 90% of the general population – but as a media person, having not prepared a convincing answer to that question of credibility gives me serious doubt that she has any, even as little as the average celebthority. The same goes for her published response to Key on the signon blog. At the very least she should demonstrate some knowledge of the subject matter. Perhaps she’s saving this for the proposed tête-à-tête. Extreme optimism if that’s so.

Don’t get me wrong – both passion and reason are necessary weapons in the campaign arsenal. Al Gore’s passion was instrumental in breaking the issue into the mainstream, which no amount of science or evidence could have done. But passion without reason is especially dangerous when the task, as with climate change, is to convince people to believe and accept science, reason and evidence instead of uninformed opinion, ‘I reckons’, conspiracy theories and convenient misinterpretations of the evidence which perpetuate a particular lifestyle to which they’re accustomed. The primary tactic of climate change denialism is to muddy reason with passion, and get people thinking with their gut rather than their brains, and by privileging passion so completely over reason Keisha risks weakening the strongest weapons the climate change environmental movement has – science and reason and evidence.

Advocacy is great – but let it be based on something.