The Elusivity of Trust

I've long been interested in issues of trust and meaning, particularly in regard to scientific information. The importance of context, the "who, when, where, why" of any piece of information, is critical in determining first whether we even learn of that information, and second the degree to which we accept it as part of our base of knowledge about the world.

Historian and philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a book on the subject (titled Trust). Ironically, while I felt some interest in it, I haven't read it because of my reaction to an earlier book of his (The End of History) - which I also didn't read. But anybody who could write a book with that title and the apparent thesis that all the interesting debates and conflicts regarding forms of government were somehow in the past was, I decided, not really worth my time. Thanks to just that cue, my level of trust in his ideas fell essentially to zero, and I haven't read what might otherwise have been very interesting to me. Or perhaps not if my judgment was justified.

Trust is fragile, hard to gain and easily lost. Which was why I found a recent post on science and journalism by Scientific American blogger Bora Zivkovic (who I've followed for a long time as @BoraZ on twitter) a little annoying.

5 year planning

APS Staff were recently asked about our thoughts on the future, to help with a planning exercise for coming years. The following are somewhat frank comments I submitted in response to two of the questions, on biggest challenges and opportunities for the future. I doubt they represent the average views of APS staff right now, but they do capture a number of my concerns and ideas at the present so I thought I'd share a bit more widely... I'd certainly be interested in others' thoughts on these and other ideas for what the relatively near future may hold.

Five biggest (but perhaps not most likely) challenges:

1. Retaining the trust of the physics community as a filter and enabler of physics communication (journals, meetings, new media). Trust is fragile; mistakes that drain that trust could come from any front; openness and honesty in all dealings with the community and society at large are paramount.

Blinding them with math

There exists a widely quoted story about [18th century philosopher/mathematicians] [Denis] Diderot and [Leonhard] Euler according to which Euler, in a public debate in St. Petersburg, succeeded in embarrassing the freethinking Diderot by claiming to possess an algebraic demonstration of the existence of God: "Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x; hence God exists, answer please!"

This story turns out to be (at least in detail) false, but it was likely invented and resonated because it embodies an underlying truth almost any of us in the sciences have seen: once a mathematical equation comes out, it tends to blind the naive, and even the experienced will often skip over the equations on a first reading of any complex argument. A minor error in a mathematical expression (a forgotten minus-sign being the most common example!) can completely change its meaning, and reasoning about such things requires detailed understanding, it's something that's intellectually demanding, requiring time and mental effort. Sometimes we are willing to put that time in, but more often than not we just don't have the time, or the requisite background, and just skip over the math, hoping that it makes sense to somebody else.

Of course, there is an equation that's proof of amazingly beautiful self-consistency in mathematics, that some have taken as evidence for God:

ei π + 1 = 0

but the beauty of that expression isn't something I intend to get into right now.

What brought to my mind the apocryphal story about Euler and Diderot was a pair of recent posts by Dr. Judith Curry, who I've criticized here before. The first post seemed in some ways to finally be a response to my earlier queries about the no-feedbacks question - about which more below. But in the second she oddly chose to highlight 3 comments which claimed the whole thing was ill-defined, with one of them chock-full of equations that seems to have blinded her and others to the fact it made no more sense than Euler's apocryphal equation, ending with a claim that it's all nonsense:

... it is impossible to evaluate these 2 integrals because they necessitate the knowledge of the surface temperature field which is precisely the unknown we want to identify.
The parameter dTa/dFa is a nonsense

which is the sort of language that should remind my few regular readers of our friends Gerlich and Tscheuschner...

A Puzzling Year

Ever since I can remember I've enjoyed putting together jigsaw puzzles. Even as an adult it's a fun diversion for me; of course there have been lots of opportunities to do simple ones with the kids over the years. Every once in a while, since we've been married, Shelly and I would get out one of the tougher ones and do it together - ones with 3000 pieces, or unusual shapes, or other challenges. Each is different, to some degree unique: dominant colors may greatly help find the right piece with one puzzle, while textures, element size and focus help with another, or sometimes you just have to go by piece shape.

The nothing that was Climategate

Joe Romm has an excellent perspective on the last year, since "Climategate" - focusing on the developments in the science of climate that make our situation only that much more alarming. The real story of "Climategate" is not the frank discussions between climate scientists revealed in stolen emails, and at least so far not the Watergate-like computer break-in whose perpetrators and sponsors have still not been revealed (though I am sure one day that will prove a very interesting story). As Romm emphasizes, the real tragedy of "Climategate" is the media circus that chased this shiny new conflict-driven nothing of a story when there were far, far more momentous issues regarding the reality of climate at hand. If even one of the 9 scientific claims of the past year reviewed by Romm holds up under further research - and in my judgment very likely at least 4 or 5 of these, possibly 7 or 8, are real - the future for my children will be a far less happy place than I had anticipated even just a year ago.

Andy Revkin's coverage of the climate email hack at the NY Times, for example this early Dot Earth post, was an unfortunate example of the herd mentality among journalists on the subject - I've gone back and forth myself on whether Revkin was to some extent responsible for leading the herd. It was around that time I decided his "Dot Earth" blog, which largely launched my interest in climate science, was just not worth my time any more. But even the usually science-friendly George Monbiot thought what was revealed by the emails was serious. Other than the possibly illegal freedom-of-information suppression request by a flustered Phil Jones (who I'd never heard of before), it was not, as Monbiot later confessed.

The strongest lingering widespread meme raised by "Climategate" seems to be along the line of climate scientists being cliquish and "mean", saying nasty things about their critics. But all of science is like that "under the covers" - science is a relentlessly tough intellectual endeavor, and scientists don't waste their time being polite to people who they see as wrong. I work for research journals and see communications between scientists criticizing one another on their science day after day; a lot of this seems very harsh, some hardly the dispassionate image we have of the objective scientist. I looked through a random sample of such commentary recently, selecting a few relatively generic comments (i.e. leaving out the criticisms that were very specific to a particular piece of scientific work) and have posted them below - if the climategate emails seem overly harsh, well, we get just as bad day in, day out, around here!

The paradox of Curry

It's hard to believe that Professor Judith Curry can spend so much time writing blog posts and not seem to have the time to make sense. I've not bothered to follow the drama in any detail, my earlier interaction with her proved rather pointless - she appeared to learn nothing from it, even repeating essentially the same provably false claims about the bare no-feedbacks response in this Scientific American profile.

Anyway, this is intended as a very brief post just to highlight some of the people who've tried to understand Dr. Curry in recent weeks, and found her claims completely without foundation, as I did in the no-feedbacks case. I strongly recommend Coby Beck's latest post getting to the essence of her conspiracy-theory mindset:

there is another plausible explanation for the formation of the IPCC, the rise in funding of climate science and the emergence of the very strong consensus that climate change is happening, human caused and going to get worse. That explanation is this: science revealed a potential problem for human society, society used its institutions to watch for and investigate this problem, honest research has found strong evidence that the problem is real and serious, and virtually all experts, using their best and sincere judgment, have advised the world that the problem is deadly serious.

No conspiracies, no alterior motives, no malfeasonce, just geeks doing science. I know it is not Hollywood material, but sometimes reality is just that dull.

Hal Lewis: Incontrovertibly Emeritus

Hal Lewis, emeritus physics professor at UCSB, has just published an open letter to the American Physical Society announcing his resignation, presumably as both a member and Fellow of the society. Lewis' complaint regards the way the society has treated the issue of climate change; he was the second signatory on this open letter published in Nature last year, so has certainly been known to have strong opinions on the matter.

Of course, I've written a bit here before on the genesis of the 2009 APS Council discussion and my thoughts on the "commentary" that was proposed as a way to satisfy some of the complaints.

Deep Problems with the Wegman Report

On May 6th, 2010, climate skeptic Christopher Monckton testified before the US House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The hearing was supposed to be on The Foundations of Climate Science. Democrats on the committee invited 4 leading scientists from major US scientific institutions to testify; Monckton was the only witness on the Republican side. Commitee membership is listed online and includes James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin as the ranking member on the Republican side, who presumably was responsible for selecting Monckton. It's hard to believe the Republicans were even taking the hearing seriously with that choice. Nevertheless, many climate scientists and other observers were quite disturbed by the misinformation provided as testimony by Monckton to the hearing. A comprehensive rebuttal of Monckton's claims was recently put together by leading climate scientists, with sample comments from them including "very misleading", "profoundly wrong", "simply false", "chemical nonsense", and "cannot be supported by climate physics".

HockeyStick.png Unfortunately, this is far from the first time congressional Republicans have perpetrated this sort of stunt. An example with far worse implications is the story of the "Wegman Report", supposedly an analysis of the science underlying scientist Michael Mann's early work on reconstruction of historical temperatures, the so-called "hockey stick" (to the right), which showed that temperatures now are warmer than they have been for many centuries, and getting hotter very fast. Mann's results have been repeatedly reproduced with differing methods by himself and other researchers. A 2006 review by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences determined that, according to data and methods available at that time:

  • It can be said with a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries. This statement is justified by the consistency of the evidence from a wide variety of geographically diverse proxies.
  • Less confidence can be placed in large-scale surface temperature reconstructions for the period from A.D. 900 to 1600. Presently available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900. The uncertainties associated with reconstructing hemispheric mean or global mean temperatures from these data increase substantially backward in time through this period and are not yet fully quantified.
  • Very little confidence can be assigned to statements concerning the hemispheric mean or global mean surface temperature prior to about A.D. 900 because of sparse data coverage and because the uncertainties associated with proxy data and the methods used to analyze and combine them are larger than during more recent time periods.

This NAS report, chaired by Gerald North of Texas A&M University, was actually requested by a congressional Republican - Sherwood Boehlert of NY, who was at the time chair of the House Science Committee. He has since retired - one of the last sensible Republicans in congress.

But other congressional Republicans were not interested in what field scientists had to say, and came up with an alternative report on the "hockey stick". Representatives Joe Barton and Ed Whitfield requested a separate report from statistician Edward Wegman, and had Wegman and colleagues testify to congress about the results. The Wegman report seemed to raise a lot of questions about the "hockey stick" and climate science in general. People who have examined the report in isolation may have been quite impressed by some of its claims - just as those lacking expertise might be impressed by Monckton's song and dance. Now, 4 years after its release, computer scientist John Mashey has done an in-depth study of the report and found a large number of indicators of shockingly low academic quality, and further indications that the report was actually tailored as part of a public relations campaign orchestrated by the usual anti-global-warming suspects (conservative and libertarian think tanks, sponsored by fossil fuel concerns).

My predictive powers continue to astound

As I noted back in December last year, way back in February 2008 when the whole world (at least of climate "skeptics") seemed to be touting a new global cooling trend, I had made some slightly educated guesses about the global average temperature through the end of that year, and for good measure for 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 too. My numbers were calibrated to the Goddard Institute global land and ocean temperature index as were the others on the thread - here are mine:

2008: 0.41
2009: 0.55
2010: 0.65
2011: 0.75
2012: 0.80

Scientific group-think: the meteorite case

I'm still reading Michael Polanyi's "Personal Knowledge" - it's a deep book, with lots of interesting digressions. The latest that caught my attention was an off-hand remark he makes in his chapter on "Intellectual Passions" in the section on "The Tacit Component":

But there is, unfortunately, no rule by which to avoid the risk of occasionally disregarding [...] true evidence which conflicts (or seems to conflict) with the current teachings of science. During the eighteenth century the French Academy of Sciences stubbornly denied the evidence for the fall of meteorites, which seemed massively obvious to everybody else. Their opposition to the superstitious beliefs which a popular tradition attached to such heavenly intervention blinded them to the facts in question.

with a further footnote:

"Scientists in other countries were anxious not to be considered as backward compared with their famous colleagues in Paris", writes F. Paneth ("Science and Miracles", Durham University Journal, vol. 10 (1948-9), p. 49). "... many public museums threw away whatever they possessed of these precious meteorites; it happened in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Austria."

Currying confusion

Dr. Judith Curry is chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, and has an extensive background in studying Earth's climate, particularly regarding changes in storms, hurricanes, and the like under changing climate conditions. She recently coauthored what seems a very interesting paper on the growth of Antarctic sea ice - apparently the effect of a moderate degree of warming such as we've seen so far is to actually increase sea ice extent in the southern ocean, thanks to increased precipitation in the form of snow. Higher sea temperatures mean more evaporation of water (mostly closer to the equator) which in turn leads to higher levels of precipitation (mostly further south), and if it's cold enough to snow, then paradoxically the result is actually more ice on the water surface, not less.

Kloor's five strikes

Keith Kloor is a free-lance writer who reportedly now teaches journalism at NYU; during 2008-2009 he was on some sort of fellowship in Colorado. He has been blogging for a couple of years on climate issues at Collide-A-Scape, generally on meta-level issues concerning the image of particular individuals and their claims in discussions of climate, rather than any technical science questions. Some of his stuff has been mildly interesting. His best stuff has been interviews with bloggers and scientists who have had differing stances in discussions.

My commentary on a question about Venus

Note: I wrote the following at the request of climate blogger "Science of Doom" - go there to read the full article in context! Also, please make comments over there, not here, thanks.

[The following is in regard to models of the high temperature of the surface of Venus which ascribe that high temperature essentially to the high atmospheric pressure on that planet, without properly recognizing the role of infrared absorption by greenhouse gases. In particular, Leonard Weinstein, in previous discussions there, had essentially claimed that even if all solar radiation were absorbed by a thin high layer in Venus' atmosphere at a relatively cool temperature, the surface temperature would still be very high. The following is why I disagree.]

My Prius experience

Almost 6 years ago, in September 2004, I was intrigued by the Toyota Prius and put myself on one of the waiting lists for a car. Somewhat unexpectedly they actually had a car for me by April 2005. It was a delight from the moment I first test-drove it, and the only car I've liked more in the time since has been a 2010 Prius I was a passenger in earlier this year. It wasn't just the fancy hybrid electric drive, nor being able to ride in the expressway HOV lane any time I want, joyful as those things might be. Somehow the car expresses a compact perfection that's hard to put into words. The interior is spacious, the seats comfortable, the controls (dashboard and all over the steering wheel) easy to reach and intuitive. The digital speedometer and other urgent indicators above the main dashboard give a different feel from other cars I've been in, one that emphasizes what's important, and lets you ignore the irrelevant. The keyless entry and push-button ignition (thanks to an RFID key that never leaves my pocket) spoil me for other cars I have to drive on occasion.

But the meat of the car is the hybrid engine and fuel efficiency. So how does that do? The dashboard monitor tells me how I'm doing, usually somewhere between 40 and 50 miles per gallon. But I wanted to keep better track, so after my first year I decided to start recording my gas purchases; the following graph shows the record:

Open Thread

I have closed several comment threads which were the recipients of the bulk of recent "spam" comments - it's pretty annoying weeding through all that stuff, so hopefully this will simplify my life a little.

Polanyi's ineffables: inherent, or just awaiting better means of articulation?

I've been slowly working my way through Michael Polanyi's 1958 book "Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy: A chemist and philosopher attempts to bridge the gap between fact and value, science and humanity". I find the book fascinating, and interestingly apropos to many current issues surrounding the interaction between science and policy, debates about certainty and instances where differing modern "tribes" seem to have vastly different views of reality.

Epistemology (studying how we come to know things) is closely related to the issue of semantics (meaning) which I've written about before (and see that post for further links on related topics here). In Polanyi's chapter 2, section 5, "The Nature of Assertions", his discussion nicely emphasizes essentially what I wrote on the centrality of "trust, provenance, and context" to meaning:

A sincere allegation is an act that takes place in speaking or in writing down certain symbols. Its agent is the speaking or writing person. Like all intelligent actions, such assertions have a passionate quality attached to them. They express conviction to those to whom they are addressed. [...] no sincere assertion of fact is essentially unaccompanied by feelings of intellectual satisfaction or of a persuasive desire and a sense of personal responsibility. [...] It is clear that I can make use of the sign |- to put on paper an allegation of my own; but it has not been explained how this sign is to function between different persons and between successive periods in the same person's life. [...] the symbol |- . p must be supplemented, so that it may tell us whose allegation it represents and at what time the person in question had alleged p.

Once again, this is something I expect to return to... but what I wanted to comment on today was a bit later in the book, on the issue of tacit knowledge and the "ineffable".

How about a truly representative Senate?

I've had a number of responses to my last post on changing the way the US Senate is built, in particular pointing out that yes, it would be very difficult to make such a change given the constraint in Article V of the constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

In other words, the 3/4 of states agreeing to the change would need to include at least every state that would be "deprived", i.e. have reduced representation. Since it's rather rare for any entity to give up power willingly, even for a good cause like equal representation, there would most likely need to be additional simultaneous changes adopted. Obviously this issue of upper house representation was a stumbling block in the original constitutional convention in Philadelphia all those years ago - but it should be noted that the states did give up power to the federal government in forming the union in the first place, so the process is not unprecedented.

A proposal for fixing the US Senate

The recently announced death of the climate bill in the US Senate has been cause for much anguish in the last few days among those of us who understand the implications of inaction for our future. Nevertheless, it is hardly the first instance in recent times where the structure of the US Senate has proved an obstacle to necessary legislative action. The drama associated with the recent much-delayed passage of a standard unemployment benefits extension is only the latest example in a very long list.

Having an upper house that runs at a somewhat slower pace to act as a deliberative body on proposals for changes in laws seems to have proved a good idea over time among many different nations, and the US is fortunate to have an upper house that acts as much more than a rubber stamp. Nevertheless, the structure of the US Senate as it works now is fundamentally flawed to the extent that what is necessary regarding actual reality often simply cannot be addressed at all these days, "for political reasons".

One common complaint at the moment regards the filibuster, which in the present Senate has resulted in "parliamentary maneuvers" from the Republican side to delay essentially every action unless a 60-vote super-majority can be found. There is some promise that that will change, at least at the time the next congress begins in 2011.

But the real problem is that the US Senate is a fundamentally un-democratic body.

More climate change basics part 2

Since various people thought some of my recent comments trying to explain certain basic properties of the greenhouse effect were educational, I thought I'd repost them here organized in more narrative fashion, as a follow-on to the previous "climate change basics" post. The questions this time regarded the definitions of radiative forcing and feedbacks, the magnitude of various feedbacks, and the relation of surface energy fluxes (the subject of the previous post) to different forcings. Once again the Trenberth-Fasullo-Kiehl diagram of Earth's energy flows is a useful reference:

Michael Mann's errors

[UPDATE July 1, 2010: Penn State just today issued a final report on their investigation into allegations of misconduct by Dr. Mann. Note their criteria for misconduct were as follows:

(1) fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other practices that seriously deviate from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research or other scholarly activities;
(2) callous disregard for requirements that ensure the protection of researchers, human participants, or the public; or for ensuring the welfare of laboratory animals;
(3) failure to disclose significant financial and business interest as defined by Penn State Policy RA20, Individual Conflict of Interest;
(4) failure to comply with other applicable legal requirements governing research or other scholarly activities.
where "research misconduct does not include disputes regarding honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data, and is not intended to resolve bona fide scientific disagreement or debate."

The report concludes "there is no substance to the allegation against Dr. Michael E. Mann"; the worst they could say was that he was somewhat "careless" in sharing unpublished manuscripts with colleagues. However, this was a pretty high-level review, and seems it did not get into the "Tiljander" issue. So we'll see where that goes here.]

Deep Climate has a new post up concerning the IPCC TAR Figure 2.21 "hockey stick" curves prepared by lead author Michael Mann for the 2001 report. This follows up on my post looking into similar questions regarding the AR4 Figure 6.10b "hockey sticks" in the latest (2007) report. Despite Steven Mosher's claims that the same rather subtle "trick" of padding the Briffa curve with instrumental temperatures was used in both figures, my analysis showed it could not have been in the AR4 case. Deep Climate has now shown that it's possible this padding was used for the Briffa curve in the TAR figure, but it makes essentially no difference (0.01 degrees over about 10 years, almost imperceptible in the full graph). The Mann curve in the TAR figure ("MBH") clearly was padded from 1980 with instrumental temperatures in the end-point smoothing, while the Jones curve in that figure clearly was not. The details of Mosher's (and McIntyre's, in this case) accusations about Mann and Briffa also seem to be contradicted by the actual record as DeepClimate shows, but that's another matter.

In any case, there definitely was an issue with the way Michael Mann was doing end-point smoothing in several of his early published papers, and in at least one of the curves in this IPCC report. As noted in the previous discussion, Mann admitted to this several years ago and indicated it wouldn't happen again, and it doesn't seem to have. So, an error, with minor impact on a couple of curves, since repented of.

In my last post, I called for the best examples of anything close to fraud by climate scientists, in particular Mann. There certainly are a number of cases where he has made similar errors that seem to have not substantially effected the results, but still were indicative of a certain carelessness, and sometimes stubbornness in recognizing the problem. And there are other examples of minor errors by other groups, for example several glitches in the GISS instrumental temperature analysis over the years that caused minor shifts in historical temperature numbers, particularly regionally.

Of course the worst case of unacknowledged errors in climate science was probably the UAH satellite analysis, which for 26 years was substantially under-reporting warming due to an algebra error in the analysis.

People make mistakes; as long as they correct them when the error is detected, it's really not such a big deal. The question I raised in my "Where's the fraud?" post was whether there was any substantive error of some sort that had not been admitted or corrected after exposure.

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