Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Science-riffic


In his July 1, 2007, New York Times Op-Ed piece, "Moving Beyond Kyoto," Al Gore states:

Consider this tale of two planets. Earth and Venus are almost exactly the same size, and have almost exactly the same amount of carbon. The difference is that most of the carbon on Earth is in the ground - having been deposited there by various forms of life over the last 600 million years - and most of the carbon on Venus is in the atmosphere.

As a result, while the average temperature on Earth is a pleasant 59 degrees, the average temperature on Venus is 867 degrees. True, Venus is closer to the Sun than we are, but the fault is not in our star; Venus is three times hotter on average than Mercury, which is right next to the Sun. It's the carbon dioxide.

OK, look: I think Al Gore might have gotten the shaft in the 2000 election. I will give him the benefit of the doubt on the political end of Global Warming. I think he wants to do right by the planet. He is a smart guy.

But to compare Earth and Venus- Earth with less than 0.04% of its atmosphere carbon dioxide, and Venus, with an atmosphere that is 96% carbon dioxide- and to think that this comparison is relevant must be the product of abject contempt for his audience, or downright stupidity on his part.

The fishy part isn't the plain statement of fact, about the distribution of carbon. By comparing the two, though, he implies that Venus is somehow a model of how Earth could be. First, it isn't just carbon dioxide- Venus' atmospheric pressure is 90 times that of Earth, and this huge density difference matters a lot. With the projected doubling of CO2 that might happen by 2100, we'd still have less than a tenth of a percent CO2.

Gore's statement that the relative position of Earth and Venus isn't important is also suspect. It is thought that the boiling off of early Venusian seas might be responsible for the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

As nitpicking as it might seem to bitch about these points, there is something well worth bitching about: if you want to make scientific arguments, make sense. Don't overstate any effect, oversell any model, or overstate certainty. Don't hesitate-no, rather rush headfirst- to admit deficiencies, error bars, and confusion.

My darkest fear is that he knows that this is crap, but thinks that it sounds like it would be effective. As a scientist, I am offended by that thought, though I don't accuse him of it. I just fear it.

The really irksome thing to me is that I hear people beginning to conflate Al Gore with the science itself. To criticize Gore is to commit a moral wrong, equivalent to not believing 2+2=4. Well, bull-fucking-shit. One can argue that Gore is right and virtuous to lead the fight against Global Warming, to which I say, OK. But if he gets scientific things wrong, then I owe him nothing but criticism of the science.

Shrinking from direct engagement of skeptics is troubling, I think, since the data and models ought to be such that anyone properly trained can examine the data and models, and deduce the same things. But the protestation that the science must be accepted is just the thin film over something else entirely. The subtext is that the regular folks will be lulled into thinking that there is nothing to worry about, if the uncertainty is revealed. So the disbelievers have to be silenced.

The Tobacco companies are always trotted out as examples of evil, misplaced skepticism, as sowers of uncertainty and discord, as deniers. The problem with this analogy is that Big Tobacco was not beaten down by ignoring the uncertainties in the scientific study of tobacco's health effects. To the contrary, the battle was won by continuing until the evidence was overwhelming.

The much bigger worry is that people will be cowed into believing something that requires a radical response on thin evidence, and will concomitantly be brow-beaten into acting before proper cost-benefit analysis can be performed.

This last point may be lost on politicians (and non-scientists in general). Things like relativity, or evolution, or plate tectonics, do not spring fully formed, with all the details worked out, from the scientific community. Things have to be figured out. If you follow climate science, which I do only as a spectator, you can see that despite the general picture of GW being figured out, the details are very much in flux.

It is damned rare that even good understanding of problems leads, smoothly, into public policy. I, for one, am delighted that there isn't a yearly malaria epidemic in the US. That DDT was used willy-nilly to get to this point inspires less delight. The trade offs necessary to achieve huge goals are often ugly, akin to warfare. This isn't the sort of thing that I want to be driven by half-assed science.

Appeals to scientific consensus are even more misleading, and horrific, than even goofy or misleading scientific analogies.

Consensus, indeed! For scientific revolutions to occur, after all, the consensus must be, at some point, dead wrong. It takes a while to get fairly accessible, well defined problems figured out. Climate is neither accessible nor well-defined, and the best models going ignore things like clouds and aerosols. So when Gore or the like says "the science is settled", I don't hear bright peals of scientific enlightenment. I hear the crackle of kindling, ready to burn the heretics.

Oh, and Live Earth sucked. Or so I read, because neither I nor anyone I know (a group that includes more than one rather fearsome greenie) saw any of it. I don't owe anyone any fealty for good intentions culturally any more than I do scientifically. Watching Madonna was something I last did in the early nineties, and not on purpose then.

2 Comments:

At Wednesday, August 29, 2007, Blogger DWPittelli said...

Shocking though it may be, Al Gore may believe everything he says on global warming.

While Gore has been tested at an IQ of 134, which is pretty good (almost 99th percentile), he did quite poorly on his college board achievement test scores (Physics 488/800 and Chemistry 519/800), was a fairly weak student in prep school and college, and essentially flunked out of divinity school (i.e., dropped out after several Fs).

Certainly no one should take seriously an argument from authority made by Al Gore. You have to look closely at the data and the science.

 
At Friday, August 31, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...

That's always my aim. There are plenty of areas where I just don't know enough to do anything but follow expert opinion- astrophysics, for instance. But anywhere else, I want to see as much data as possible, and at least run the basic calculations at an order of magnitude level.

Maybe he does believe everything he says.

Global warming debates have a habit of morphing into proxy fights on economics and politics. I'm curious to see how these will change once there are clear costs involved, and unintended consequences. It is easy to be (say) left-leaning and anticorporate and an antiAGW crusader, because you are largely defining the problem in terms of political positions to which you are already committed, and vice versa for radical libertarians, perhaps. Once you start talking about putting an actual wind farm in the path of actual Kennedy's open view of the ocean, loyalties fray. This will become more interesting as actual costs supplant rhetoric, I predict.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home