Wise words from a scientist


Whenever there's something interesting happening, Slashdot is on the piece.

A recent article stated: In the wake of the CRU "climategate" leak, reader Geoffrey.landis sends along a New York Times blog profile of Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech. "Curry — unlike many climate scientists — does not simply dismiss the arguments of 'climate skeptics,' but attempts to engage them in dialogue. She can, as well, be rather pointed in criticizing her colleagues, as in a post on the skeptic site climateaudit where she argues for greater transparency for climate data and calculations (mirrored here). In this post she makes a point that tribalism in science is the main culprit here —- that when scientists 'circle the wagons' to defend against what they perceive to be unfair (and unscientific) attacks, the result can be damaging to the actual science being defended. Is it still possible to conduct a dialogue, or is there no possible common ground?"

The discussion generated, as of December 1, 2009, 795 comments. Normally this would imply two things:

  1. People just repeat the same things over and over, with the typical comment being one or two-lines long (à la digg)
  2. Most of them are SPAM (à la... well, most of the communities out there.)

Luckily, Slashdot is unlike any other community. To prevent abusive comments, a highly sophisticated comment moderation system has been implemented whereby every comment posted (including those posted anonymously) has a starting score which can be incremented or decremented by semi-randomly chosen moderators. When moderating, the moderator chooses a given descriptor (such as "insightful", "funny", "troll") and each descriptor has a positive or negative value associated with it. As such, posts not only are scored, but characterized ("20% insightful, 80% interesting"). The book "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" (Esquire Magazine – Best book of the year) by Steven Berlin Johnson cites Slashdot's comment moderation system as an example of emergence and describes its operation in detail.

As a result of this, almost no useless comments are ever posted, and it's fairly easy to navigate though the most relevant ones. One of the most enlightening I found so far in the entire web is the following answer to the question posed in the article (Is it still possible to conduct a dialogue, or is there no possible common ground?):


Being a scientist but not of the climate variety, I've got to say 'No'.
In a lot of cases, if not most, dialogue on the merits of your scientific work is simply impossible with a layperson.

I work with this stuff. Every day. 40 (well more like 50-60) hours a week. It took years of study for me (and everyone else)
just to get to the level where you can properly understand what it is, exactly, that I do. That's what being an expert at something entails.
Now when I get into a dispute with someone, they typically have the same level of expertise. They know more or less everything I do. I know what they're saying, and they usually know what I'm saying.

Now you bring into that situation some layperson with their religious reasons or ideological reasons or crank personality, who wants to dispute the results of my work. So they pore over it, and they simply don't understand it. (And ignorance breeds arrogance more often than humility, as Lincoln said) But they think they do. And then they formulate their criticism. Even if that criticism makes sense (often not), it's typically wrong at the most basic level. And that will practically always be the case - because there's virtually *nothing* in the way of criticism that a beginner would be able to think of that an expert hadn't thought about already. You're just not going to find a professor of physics having made a mistake of forgetting the first law of thermodynamics.

Now I'm happy to defend my science against legitimate, good, criticism. But a scientific debate is *NOT* where anybody should be TEACHING anybody science. What kind of 'debate' is it if every answer amounts to "That's not what that word means, read a damn textbook." It's not the scientists who are being arrogant then. Hell, since when didn't scientists bend over backwards to educate the public? We write textbooks, and popular-scientific accounts. Research gets published in journals for everyone to see, etc. It's not like we're keeping it a big secret - The problem is that some people are simply unwilling to learn, yet arrogant enough to believe they should be entitled to 'debate' with me, and that I should be personally burdened with educating them in the name of 'open debate'!

(Just to pick one out of the climate bag. How often haven't you seen someone say "Yeah but climate change is cyclical!" - What? As if _climate scientists_ didn't know that?! Refuting someone's research with arguments from an introductory textbook)

The fact that these climate-skeptics were prepared to take these e-mails, pore over them for some choice quotes (which didn't even look incriminating to me out of context), blatantly misinterpret them without making any kind of good-faith effort to understand the context or the science behind it, and trumpet it all out as some kind of 'disproval' of global warming (which wouldn't have been the case even if they were right), just goes to show that they're simply not interested in either learning the science, or engaging in a real debate. And it's in itself pseudo-scientific behavior in action: Decide there's a big conspiracy of fraud behind climate change, and go look for evidence to support your theory, and ignore all other explanations.


There is only one more thing I can add: qui habet aures audiendi, audiat.

p.s. This article was crossposted on the TH!NK ABOUT IT - Climate Change blogging competition.


Open challenge to all climate sceptics: bring it on!

My latest post "When science calls: Climategate, a lesson to learn" fired up quite a discussion.

Bring it on, climate sceptics!

I hope you will forgive me: I was amused by the hilarious and highly improbable photoshopped pictures of Al Gore posted by some fellow bloggers, and I could not resist to make one cheap and kitsch image of my own.

The Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident raised a few questions about the validity of the research of some of the most prominent climate scientists. While it seems absurd that a few out-of-context personal messages can suddenly invalidate the long-life work scientists such as Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit, Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University's Earth System Science Center, and Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, let's assume for a moment that they cannot be trusted, nor can their research institues (I'm taking a long shot in favour of the sceptics' argument here, folks).

In the comments I posted a list of peer-review publications that support the IPCC conclusions and that are not coming from the National Academy of Sciences, the Earth System Science Center, or the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Here's a small excerpt of such publications, in alphabetical order:

  • Åkerman, H. J. & M. Johansson, (2008) Thawing permafrost and thicker active layers in sub-arctic Sweden. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 19, 279-292.
  • Alexander, L. V. & J. M. Arblaster, (2009) Assessing trends in observed and modelled climate extremes over Australia in relation to future projections. International Journal of Climatology 29, 417-435.
  • Allan, R. P. & B. J. Soden, (2008) Atmospheric warming and the amplification of precipitation extremes. Science 321, 1481-1484.
  • Allen, R. J. & S. C. Sherwood, (2008) Warming maximum in the tropical upper troposphere deduced from thermal winds. Nature Geoscience 1, 399-403.
  • Allison, I. et al., (2009) Ice sheet mass balance and sea level. Antarctic Science, 21, 413-426.
  • Andronova, N. & M. E. Schlesinger, (2001) Objective estimation of the probability distribution for climate sensitivity. Journal of Geophysical Research 106, 22605-22612.

Here's the challenge:

take every single peer review publication I posted in the comments and prove that they only used Mann's data to evaluate their results.

If you do, then I'll give you some more. And if you manage even those, I'll admit you have a point.

However, if you find any excuse not to accept the challenge, such as:

  • I don't have time for this
  • I don't know how to read scientific publications
  • I don't know how to get the papers
  • There is no space here in the comments
  • I don't have to because it's obvious they ALL got their data from Mann

or anything as irrelevant as that, then you will have proven that all your arguments are based on superficial analysis which ride on emotion, faith, conspiracy and generally speaking nothing to do with serious science.

Bring it on, I'll be waiting.

p.s. This article was crossposted on the TH!NK ABOUT IT - Climate Change blogging competition.


When science calls: Climategate, a lesson to learn

The recent events of the so called "Climategate" made the headlines in most of the newspapers and blogs around the world.

This is the moment people like Alex Jones have always waited for, a moment to finally call man made global warming a "Ponzi scheme", "a fraud", "a reason to tax beef", "total control of our society", and so on.

Just to be clear, as noted on, the emails contain "no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to 'get rid of the MWP', no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no 'marching orders' from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords." Period.

And even though the blogosphere is all fired up and the hypotheses are running wild for conspiracists, the science behind climate change is not at risk. But this is not the point. This was an organised effort by some scientists to discredit all dissidents, an orchestrated smear campaign, and it's not something to be proud of.

This reminds me of a story: back in 1950, a psychiatrist named Immanuel Velikovsky (Иммануил Великовский) suggested that an object of planetary mass, which he called a comet, was somehow produced in the Jupiter system. After a very complicated game of interplanetary billiards is completed, Velikovsky proposed that this comet entered into a stable, almost perfectly circular orbit, becoming the planet Venus. We know that this idea is almost certainly wrong, as all the evidence we have suggests.

Nevertheless, however absurd and unsubstantiated his idea might have been, there is an important lesson to learn, and nobody can teach that better than Carl Sagan himself.

The video will automatically start at the right time: 2m29s

"There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That's perfectly alright. It's the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny. The worst aspect of the Velikovski affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross contradiction to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some scientists attempted to suppress Velikovski's ideas. The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge and there's no place for it in the endeavour of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system and the history of our study of the solar system shows clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources."

Knowledge is free, and data should always be made public, for anyone to read, without any restrictions, regulations and alterations. The pursuit of knowledge is based on these premises, and we shall never forget that this is the force of the scientific method. Let us not be blinded by our goal, or we will forget about what matters most, and stop being real scientists.

p.s. This article was crossposted on the TH!NK ABOUT IT - Climate Change blogging competition.


History is your teacher

I wanted to write about this since October 10, when I read Richard Black's BBC article
'Scary' climate message from past, then for some reason it slipped away. My interest came back after looking at Vitezslav' hilarious post 5000 ppm: What happens when CO2 levels are 20 times higher?. I say hilarious not a disrespectful way, but in true meaning: some of the phrases pronounced really made me laugh out loud.

How about the CO2 is green advertising-like catch-up spot?

Save the plants! Support more CO2 emissions! Maybe instead the campaign we should start some campaign.

Or the even better false syllogisms (please forgive him, Aristotle), such as:

Life is based on carbon. Declaring carbon as a "pollutant" is the greatest insanity in history. It is like declaring life a pollutant.

I could not help but reading again Adela's excellent post on the subject Flashnews: CO2 is green and noticing how we seem to take a direction and follow that path without considering other people's work. Adela's made some very sensitive social remarks and presented unequivocal facts, which were mainly ignored and the questions remained unanswered.

So, what can we learn from the past? In the last few million years CO2 concentration cycled between 180ppm and 280ppm in rhythm with the sequence of ice ages and warmer interglacial periods.

Scientists have been able to map relatively well the last 800,000 years from ice cores drilled in Antarctica, but now a new research allows us to look back in time 20 million years, to the Miocene period.

Data came from samples brought up by
the drilling ship Joides Resolution (BBC)

At the start of the period, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere stood at about 400 parts per million (ppm) before beginning to decline about 14 million years ago - a trend that eventually led to formation of the Antarctic icecap and perennial sea ice cover in the Arctic.

"What we have shown is that in the last period when CO2 levels were sustained at levels close to where they are today, there was no icecap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25-40m higher," said research leader Aradhna Tripati from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

"At CO2 levels that are sustained at or near modern day values, you don't need to have a major change in CO2 levels to get major changes in ice sheets," she told BBC News.

This amount of CO2 on the air and sea levels were associated with temperatures about 3-6o C higher than today.

"This is yet another paper that makes the future look more scary than previously thought by many," said Jonathan Overpeck, who co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) work on ancient climates for the organisation's last major report in 2007.

"If anyone still doubts the link between CO2 and climate, they should read this paper." I think they are referring to "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis". It's 996 pages long, and some of the best scientists in the World contributed to it. Before posting any more pro-CO2 propaganda, maybe you should take a look at it.

"We can say that we've identified past tipping points for ice sheet stability; the basic physics governing ice sheets that we've known from ice cores are extended further back, and... I think we should use our knowledge of the physics of climate change in the past to prepare for the future."

"But what this new work suggests is that... efforts to stabilise at 450ppm should avoid going up above that level prior to stabilisation - that is, some sort of 'overshoot' above 450ppm on the way to stabilisation could be playing with fire."

This concern is shared by other people and organisations alike. Low-lying countries such as The Maldives, Palau and Grenada, and of course, are pushing for adoption of the much lower figure of 350ppm.

Let's hope this position will be shared at the COP15 by the big five as well: China, India, US, Japan and Europe.

p.s. This article was crossposted on the TH!NK ABOUT IT - Climate Change blogging competition.


In memory of Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot

In memory of Carl Sagan who would have turned 75 yesterday.

Video Carl Sagan - Pale Blue Dot.

I've been re-watching Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and every time I feel this sense of awe and inspiration.

A great man, a true scientist, a visionary, and a somewhat too ahead of his time to be understood and appreciated fully. One of the greatest people that humanity had the privilege to have.

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