Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Of a Climate of the Mind

It is odd that views on global warming are so consistent with political leanings: left-wingers always believe in it and want something done; right-wingers usually doubt it and want to wait and see. It should not be so; it should be based on the science. But most of us are not climate scientists; yet we must all make the judgement, since huge sums of public money are involved.

So here's my take, as someone who is emphatically not a "climate scientist." Leave aside science: here's my simple math. The value of protocols like Kyoto or Copenhagen depends on a string of unproven assumptions being true. 1) First, the world must indeed be warming. 2) This warming must indeed be unprecedented in speed and scale. 3) Its overall effects must be harmful, not helpful or neutral. 4) It must be possible for humans to do something to prevent it (whether or not they have caused it). 5) The cost of doing something to prevent it must be less than the cost of the event if it occurs. And 6) the particular solutions agreed upon in such a conference must be the most effective means to prevent it, or reasonably close to the most effective.

None of us who are not scientists have any real data to address any of these claims. So, in the absence of evidence, what are the odds that proposition 1 is true? There are three possibilities, a warming earth, a cooling earth, or an earth staying at about the same temperature. So our odds are 33.3%. Cut that in half to represent the odds of thesis 2, which seems to be a yes/no proposition. We're at 16.65%. There are three options again for the third thesis: we're at 5.5%. Halve that again for proposition 4: 2.775%. Again for proposition 5: 1.3875%. Option 6 seems to be less than a real 50/50 proposition, given the known unscientific nature of politics, but let's give it the benefit of the doubt: the overall likelihood of money spent for Kyoto or Copenhagen being money well spent stands at 0.69376%. Put another way, there is a 99.30624% chance we are wasting our money.

I don't like them odds. They'd be worth pitching in for if the prize were big enough and the price of entry cheap enough; like lightning insurance or a ticket on the lottery. But not much more.

But this is precisely the calculation that all of us who are not climate scientists should be making. Even if there were a consensus among climate scientists—and this is not at all clear—those of us who are not climate scientists could not trust it, since asserting the reality of global warming is clearly in any climate scientist's self-interest.

Indeed, that being the case, we should probably chip a bit more off those odds. Make it 0.34688%.

On top of that, I have one further caveat. Consider, if you will, that we are in effect talking here about the weather. That's all climate really is, so far as I can see: long-range weather prediction. Now, any one of us knows from our own common experience that we are not very good at this. We can do reasonably well in forecasting a day ahead, a lot less well for a week ahead, and are notably unreliable once we get much beyond that threshold. The Old Farmer's Almanac does as well as anybody at a year's distance.

So how likely are we to be accurate in any forecast of climate a hundred years hence?

“Chaos theory” was invented by Edward Lorenz in 1961 specifically to explain our inability to predict future weather patterns.

Here's Wikipedia on Chaos theory:

"Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, _rendering long-term prediction impossible in general_."

Emphasis mine.

"... [Lorenz] wanted to see a sequence of data again and to save time he started the simulation in the middle of its course. He was able to do this by entering a printout of the data corresponding to conditions in the middle of his simulation which he had calculated last time.

To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. ... The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. ... Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome.[35] Lorenz's discovery, which gave its name to Lorenz attractors, proved that meteorology could not reasonably predict weather beyond a weekly period (at most)."

Just to double-check Wikipedia's veracity, here's "Whatis.com" on the same subject:

"Poincare proved mathematically that, even if the initial measurements could be made a million times more precise, that the uncertainty of prediction for outcomes did not shrink along with the inaccuracy of measurement, but remained huge. Unless initial measurements could be absolutely defined - an impossibility - predictability for complex - chaotic - systems performed scarcely better than if the predictions had been randomly selected from possible outcomes."

So “climate science” is perfectly positioned as a distant canvas on which we can project anything we want or can imagine: including mankind's eternal fantasy of the world coming to an end in some great catastrophe of water or fire. “Here be monsters.”

And now, we also have the intriguing evidence of “Climategate”...

The whole affair strikes me as almost laughable. It probably belongs in a newly-revised edition of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.”

2 comments:

Bob said...

I love your first two paragraphs. In fact, I may use the second in my own arguments (with due attribution) absent any objection. Beautifully put.

Postulating that since there are three different scenarios each has the same liklihood of happening strikes me as suspect, however. I think that the entire science of climatology is basically dedicated to determining what is most likley to happen. As you rightly point out, they are conflicted and biased, meaning that we cannot reasonably use a different calculation with any degree of certainty. Still, I suspect that the equal 33 1/3% probability is probably off by a not completely insignificant amount.

Stephen Roney said...

If we were God, we would know the correct answer with 100% certainty. If we were climate scientists, we might be able to budge the needle significantly off the 50/50 mark. But since we are not, those of us in the general public really have zero evidence one way or the other. In the absence of any evidence, one must factor the odds of answering any given two-option question (think of a True/False question on an exam) as 50/50. As citizens, though, we are all called upon to answer the "global warming" question for ourselves; because it has become a political issue, a matter on which public policy must be decided.

Hence my calculations.