Sunday, May 29, 2005

Global Warming Catfights

The global warming debate is fascinating. Even referring to it as a 'debate' is enough to raise hackles on the side of the faithful, certain that nothing short of rolling back the industrial revolution will save the planet.

Climate is very complex (!) and computer models of it are far from certain. I am not going to wade in here; I have my opinions, but the field is so complicated, and I am so unexpert, that I wouldn't add anything except bloviation, and there's all that anyone needs all over the internet.

For an interesting look into the kind of fights underway, I would direct you to two sites, and for insights into one little section of the debate. The Climate2003 site has been supplanted by

One thing to watch for in the posts and comments of the sites are evidences of very unscientific attitudes, like denunciations, ad hominem attacks, obfuscations, and reluctance to share information, like data and methods, this last fault lying largely on the pro-global warming side. The whole thing stinks to high heaven, in my opinion. I am skeptical by nature (comes with the scientific territory) but I will generally bow to the experts when I have no good reason to doubt them. These guys are giving me lots of reasons. They might be right and righteous, but it stinks.

On the other hand, even if their data, models or methods suck, it doesn't mean that global warming isn't occurring, or that humans aren't playing a part, even the biggest part. It just means that they didn't prove it. .

I can comment on the debate without wading into the scientific waters, which I have admitted are over my head. What bothers me most is the constant harping on the "consensus" of climate scientists regarding global warming. I think that it isn't clear that there is a consensus, but, damn it all, if science has any lesson, it's that consensus can be wrong, and heresy has to be tolerated. Until 1905, scientific consensus was that Newton was right. Einstein took care of that, and then some. And any scientist who isn't up to a full frontal assault on his ideas ought to consider another line of work. Anyone who rejects a criticism of scientific canon is being unscientific unless some basic principle, like conservation of energy, is being violated. Climate science is impressive, but it isn't at the point of being natural law.

The faithful will claim that the negative consequences of global warming are so dire, we can't wait for the science to be certain. This sort of argument is fallacious. It's like someone saying that you have to believe in Cthulu, because if you don't, he'll send you to the netherworld. Not if he doesn't exist...


I do a lot of calculations in my job. I use Microsoft Excel, MatLab, and Igor to analyze data. To gather the data I use LabView. This sort of thing is something I'm used to associating with being a scientist or engineer. I had never really thought much about it outside this arena, though.

Recently, I found a really neat site recently called Political Calculations, billed as "interactive tools for interactive politics." It's full of interesting data and lots of interactive web apps to calculate interesting stuff. One post I particularly like is one about deciding whether medical tests are worth the costs, based on the cost, the likelihood of doing any good, and how long you are likely to be around to enjoy the benefit.

It's come as a revelation to me just how interesting the work of economists and political scientists can be, especially those with a quantitative bent. Following some of these, I have found some cool data online. I am no economist, but I can follow the data provided at the Bureau of Labor Statistics site well enough to make my points when arguing with my friends about the likely effects of raising minimum wages, for example.

As a physics and chemistry undergrad, I had a pretty condescending attitude toward the social sciences. These days, I realize that being able to measure something to 15 decimal places doesn't make it relevant to society at large. I still think that there is a lot of crap that gets too much play in these fields, but it is clear to me that this is well understood in the fields themselves. There's also a lot of just really neat stuff being done, not all of it quantitative. If I could do it all over again, I'd be torn between being an economist and a physical scientist. Even more so if economics involved explosions and fires.

Friday, May 27, 2005


Things have been a bit crazy, so I haven't posted in a while, but I haven't been idle. I'll be back very soon, with a few new things to say.