Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Responses to 'climategate'

I like to read many different blogs and the recent hacker-released e-mails to and from scientists at East Anglia University has been causing a small furor over the blogs that I read. Termed "Climategate" (although I prefer "Climate-denialistgate"), the basic background is that last Friday (November 20, 2009), a bunch of hacked e-mails were dumped on the Interwebs and Climate Change (CC) denialists started crowing that this proved that CC is a sham, a fraud, a conspiracy of epic proportions.

Since that time, I've been curious as to the responses to these crowing claims of the end-of-CC-science. I've compiled a few of the ones that I particularly liked, below:

From Aguanomics, Dave Zetland makes an interesting economic argument:
Someone asked my opinion on the theft and revelation of data and emails related to climate change research. From my brief readings, it appears that some academics were blocking the views (preventing publication) of others they disagreed with, as well as -- perhaps deleting "inconvenient" data.

Since the blocked people were climate change skeptics (not anti-deconstructivist poets), this is a big deal for NON-academics.

My opinion is that this kind of sabotage, censorship, backstabbing and favoritism occurs all the time (just look at the editors of a journal and how many of their students and colleagues publish there...)

My opinion is that this is going to give WAY too much impetus to the "climate change is not happening" crowd.

And, you may ask, how can I trust the CC scientists, now that they are revealed to be "typical" humans? Because the gains (in career, fame, money, etc.) to ANYONE able to show that climate change is NOT happening, is all a hoax, etc. are extreme. With that kind of reward on the table (from Exxon?), anyone with a plausible analysis showing that it's not happening would be a rockstar.

But there isn't anyone, because climate change IS happening.

That line at the beginning -- Since the blocked people were climate change skeptics (not anti-deconstructivist poets), this is a big deal for NON-academics -- is great. So true. Looking at the comments that accompany many of the posts, this is so blatantly obvious (except apparently to the non-academic denialists). However, no one really can state the blindingly obvious of anything and everything statistical as Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight:
It's the global warming scandal of the century, says Michelle Malkin!

The exposure of the warmist conspiracy, says Andrew Bolt!

The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming, bleats James Delingpole!

A stunning tour de force -- four stars, says Leonard Maltin!

OK, so that last quote is made up. But the others aren't. What is it these conservatives are so excited about?

Apparently, the networks of University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit were hacked into last night. Approximately 160 megabytes of files, containing hundreds or thousands of e-mails and documents were leaked as a result of the security breach, reports The Guardian.

... Jones is talking to his colleagues about making a prettier picture out of his data, and not about manipulating the data itself. Again, I'm not trying to excuse what he did -- we make a lot of charts here and 538 and make every effort to ensure that they fairly and accurately reflect the underlying data (in addition to being aesthetically appealing.) I wish everybody would abide by that standard.

Still: I don't know how you get from some scientist having sexed up a graph in East Anglia ten years ago to The Final Nail In The Coffin of Anthropogenic Global Warming. Anyone who comes to that connection has more screws loose than the Space Shuttle Challenger. And yet that's literally what some of these bloggers are saying!

Perhaps, though, a farce can truly be called "ripened" once it gets to the point of parody. And via Climate Progress, there is a link to the Carbon Fixated blog's parody response to this whole "conspiracy":

If you own any shares in companies that produce reflecting telescopes, use differential and integral calculus, or rely on the laws of motion, I should start dumping them NOW. The conspiracy behind the calculus myth has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed after volumes of Newton’s private correspondence were compiled and published.

When you read some of these letters, you realise just why Newton and his collaborators might have preferred to keep them confidential. This scandal could well be the biggest in Renaissance science. These alleged letters – supposedly exchanged by some of the most prominent scientists behind really hard math lessons – suggest:

Conspiracy, collusion in covering up the truth, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.

But perhaps the most damaging revelations are those concerning the way these math nerd scientists may variously have manipulated or suppressed evidence to support their cause.
However, I like what most of the bloggers say: that scientists are human, and it shouldn't be surprising that some of them act ... human. However, being and acting along the foibles of humanity doesn't change the underlying testable veracity of CC science. I think Megan McArdle made a good comment in her blog on The Atlantic:
Scientists are human beings.  They react to pressure to "clean up" their graphs and data for publication, and they gang up on other people who they dislike.  Sometimes they're right--there's a "conspiracy" to keep people who believe in N-rays from publishing in physics journals, but that's a good thing.  But sometimes they're wrong, and a powerful figure or group of people can block progress in science.


That doesn't mean their paradigm is wrong; rather, it means we need to be less romantic about the practice of science.  No scientific consensus is ever as powerful as its proponents claim, because no scientists are ever as perfect as we'd like to imagine.

The more ardent defenders of the emailers are glossing over the fact that in some cases, they really seem to have behaved quite badly, and with less-than-stellar scientific integrity.  But I have yet to see the makings of a grand conspiracy, rather than the petty bullying of the powerful over the weak, the insider of the outsider.  I'll take the statements of this particular group of scientists with a little more salt in the future.  But as far as I can tell, the weight of the evidence--and what we know about the history of the planet, and carbon dioxide--still seems to be on their side.
That's true: the science has the weight of the evidence, regardless of how much of an asshole one (or more) scientist may be. The paradigm isn't wrong just because of the possibly petty feelings of one scientist. Indeed, if anyone of the denialists were to consider how Kuhn proposed how paradigms get overturned, the denialists need to provide a better theory than the current one (thus the reason why the particle theory of light, the ether, and hollow earth theory all took a long time to die out, even though more and more evidence mounted against them).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What would the Earth look like with rings similar to that of Saturn?

Ahh, the wonders of the imaginative combination of astronomy, astrophysics, some mathematics, and Photoshop:

Working in public increases my productivity

I don't know why I get more work done when I'm in a coffee shop. Maybe it's because the idea of sitting in the coffee shop and playing online makes me guilty that I don't do it, thus improving my productivity. Maybe it's the idea that the people around me are judging my progress depending on what they see on my screen, thus improving my productivity. Maybe it's the relatively slow Internet connection (caused by over a dozen other people using a common-pool resource) that limits my surfing of the Web to necessary items, thus increasing my productivity. Maybe it's the fact that I am paranoid and don't want to leave my computer alone on a table to do other things like talk to other people, go to the toilet, go outside to take a breather, thus improving my productivity.

I know it's not due to the expensive coffee ($2.10 for 20oz/$1.60 for a refill compared to ~$1.00 for roughly 60oz of home-brewed coffee) and some sort of economic rationality of not wanting to waste my time. I know that it's not due to the time of day or the weather outside, from which a retreat into a cozy coffee shop is welcome relief. I know it's not that I schlepped my computer 4 miles from my house to downtown, either, since I don't easily get work done in areas other than cafes to which I bring my computer.

Okay, so, yes, I AM taking a break from work to write this. But in actuality, it is a break after about two hours of work -- the most productive two hours that I've had in several months. ... and I'm hungry, so will be going back to the forest to make some dinner.

When 1-in-1000 is no longer 1-in-1000

I started an interesting post over at Climate Progress, which made me think about the following question before I even finished that post to read the punch line:

What happens when a 1000-year-flood occurs? Well, to answer that question, first we need to answer the question of what a 1000-year-flood is. Simply put, such a flood is the statistical probability of such a flood happening once over a given period of time. In other words, every year, there is a 1-in-1000 chance that such a flood will happen, however, that kind of flooding can happen more than once during a millennium (or not at all). To that extent, calling these events 1000-year-floods (or 1000-year-storms, or the like) is a bit of a misnomer. However, what happens when the chance of deluge increases -- one expected consequence of climate change?

If we are going to enter into a period of greater rainfall intensity -- and, consequently, more flash-flooding -- then the number of expected large floods should also increase. If we continue to term floods as 1000-year-floods (or 300-year-floods, or any other X-year-floods), then shouldn't they change to meet the new understandings of flooding? I mean, if a 1000-year-flood for a particular stretch of river is currently listed as a discharge of 10,000 cfs, that means that every year, there is a 1/1,000 chance that a discharge of 10,000 cfs will be reached. However, let's assume that climate change will change the hydrological impacts for that region, increasing the intensity of flooding such that a 10,000 cfs discharge has a 1/700 chance each year. That will mean that the same 10,000 cfs discharge will now be a 700-year-flood.

What does that mean for planning? I mean, 1000-year-floods are such rare occurrences that they are unlikely to be planned for due to a variety of reasons (including prohibitive cost for construction and maintenance). However, what of the smaller floodings that are important thresholds for planning? If current 200-year-floods (which are usually cited as the minimum required limit for planning) will occur more often, then that means that future 200-year-floods will have a higher discharge than currently. That means that existing minimum-required designs will be less capable of protecting against a range of statistically likely flood scenarios. Let's assume that a current 200-year-flood occurs at a discharge of 1,500 cfs, and city flood-water management systems are developed to protect against a likelihood of flooding of 1/200. However, if the future 200-year-flood occurs at a discharge of 1,700 cfs (and the 1,500 cfs discharge were a 150-year-flood), then the existing infrastructure will only be able to protect against a likelihood of flooding of 1/150. The laws would have to change to set flooding to a lower level of safety (the old 200-year-flood discharge level), retrofits will have to be undertaken, or insurance measures would need to be undertaken by those living in the zones affected by all floodings below the new 200-year-flood levels.

Just another way in which future planning and laws will be affected by climate change.

UPDATE: the CP blog post only recounts the increased number of recent deluges in the UK, US, and Australia, but not the implications of what it means for planning.

Pre-Mardi Gras video

Next Mardi Gras, "Your Disco Needs YOU!"

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Explaining climate vs weather

A person wrote a comment in a Treehugger entry that seems to have not recognized the difference between temperature and climate forecasting. (At least that was my perception.) This is something that people seem to have a problem understanding, so I decided to make the effort to describe what the difference is. Even when you say that climate is the long-term weather patterns, that doesn't really make sense for lots of people; that definition of "climate" remains a string of words without a significant meaning, especially since climate predictions usually revolve around temperature values, which (at least in my head) makes it seem more akin to concepts of weather.

Starting off, weather forecasting is determining the temperature, wind, cloud cover, and precipitation conditions on a day (or hour) in the future. Climate forecasting is determining the character and timing of the seasons.

Even if one knows what the climate is, that knowledge doesn't help one too much with weather forecasting. For example, if one lives in Southeast Michigan (as I do), then one would know that the climate of the region is that of four seasons, with relatively cold winters and warm summers; rainy springs and falls; snow melt usually coming around March; prevailing winds from the west-southwest; a mean air temperature of around 50F; and an average monthly precipitation of 2.8 inches. However, knowing all of this doesn't allow one to know what the temperature, precipitation, and wind speed will be tomorrow or even this weekend. All one can say with absolute confidence is that it is more likely to be like weather expected in the autumn than it is weather that would expected any other time of the year. In other words, the climate model of ascribing characteristics of a "Continental Temperate Zone" tells one as much about weather patterns occurring now as future climate models tell one of future weather.

In the same way that one cannot predict the weather this weekend even though one knows the climate of this region (although I can make informed predictions based on knowledge of my regional climate), one cannot predict the weather of the future from climate models. However, one can say that if average annual temperatures increase by 2C (~3.6F), certain trends in weather patterns (i.e., physical responses around the globe, including glacial melting leading to sea level rise, warming of oceans leading to more intense storms, melting permafrost leading to releases of formerly trapped methane, etc.) will be seen.

The problems of percentages

This morning I read a Treehugger entry on how much greater New York City is now that their bicycling metric has increased by 26% over the last year. I don't have any problem with the article message, or it's tone, except that the writer states:
"[the increase] is a lot by any measure, though it is lower than the 35% increase in 2008."
That's an example of a poor understanding of mathematics. Why? Well, the increase in cycling went from 255 in 2008 to 321 in 2009, an increase of 66 points. The increase from 2007 to 2008 was 62 points. In other words, the two years' increases were roughly the same in terms of absolute value, but not in terms of percentage.

A percent growth means that the total value must increase in ever-greater amounts. In other words, a percent growth rate of 1% means that the initial value will double after 70 years; 2% will double in 35 years; 3% will double in 24 years; and so on. If the percent growth of 26% is continued, it would take only 3 years to double the initial value; in this case to go from 321 to 642 (which would be awesome).

On the other hand, a "mere" growth of 64 points per year (the average increase over the years) means an ever-decreasing annual percentage growth. Declining from the "lower" value of 26% it will sink to 17%, 14%, 12%, 11%, and so on in succeeding years (slowly approaching a 0% increase limit). Of course, the value will still have doubled by 2014 if the increment stays constant; two years slower than if the 26% growth rate was maintained.

Thinking in terms of percent growth is problematic, since thinking of percents in this way is actually implicitly implies that one is looking at growth rates. However, a growth of 0% is not the same as a growth rate of 0%. A growth of 0% from 2008 to 2009 would have meant a value of 255 in both years. However, a growth rate of 0% would mean that 2009 would have been 317 (instead of 321). In other words, the growth rate from 2008 to 2009 was relatively close to 0%.

But let's look at the overall benefit: in the twenty years since 1989 (the low point in the graph), the metric has increased by 418%. That's awesome!

Stupid Homophobic Hateful Legislation ... sung to a tune we all know

Come one everyone, you know the chorus now!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New haircut

New Haircut
Got a haircut at the Douglas J Aveda school. Not too bad of a job for $16 (which included free coffee, scalp massage, shampoo, and cut), so I'll likely go back there again.