Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Climate, Climategate, and the Heartland Institute

I think it is likely that human actions are having some destabilising effect on the environment.  That is more likely to be a bad thing than a good thing.  From the little I know of the science, I have to wonder why methane isn't the big focus.  That it isn't is actually one of my grounds for suspicion that this is post hoc reasoning to kick Big Oil and Free Market, and elevate nice Arts & Humanities people to positions of moral importance.

I also know that none of us have much ability to prove scientific theories from scratch.  Even for accepted theories, such as a heliocentric solar system, plate tectonics, or germ theory, we are entirely dependent on the work of others for what we believe.  Even knowing it to be true, I am hard-pressed to think how I would to prove any of these to some skeptical society.  What we believe, like it or not, is almost entirely dependent on who we believe.

I believe most climate scientists, however defined, are decent Joes and Janes, wanting to get the right answers to questions, doing a bit of good for the world on the way. I also believe that they work in a social context with a history and implied acceptabilities, and this influences them. I also know that threats to one’s professional acceptance (or worse, even one’s livelihood) are perceived at great distance – sometimes even exaggerated.

Regarding that last, I have enough examples of my own being influenced by social context for at least some of what I believe – at work, at church, and about a hundred issues – that I don’t find it automatically reprehensible that other folks are influenced.  It is a failure of objectivity. The more one is influenced, the greater the sin, I suppose.  I give credit that people for whom objectivity is part of their job description are probably more ethical about this than I am.  My profession has different absolutes.

Heck, they’re likely better people than I am anyway.  Just not perfect. They are influenced. And – from my own experience where I am an expert – the failure to acknowldege even a 1% chance of being badly wrong, is itself evidence of bias that runs deep.

I have heard that “we’re the experts” tone of voice before, and react badly to it.  So I perhaps remember more the times when the bastards did not prove out – possible causes and treatment of schizophrenia, autism, depression, OCD, Borderline Personality Disorder – than when they did.  Once I go looking, I can also remember folks in other fields, with proper credentials, dead wrong but still condescending. Pastors whose seminary training is now revealed as rather obviously a product of its era, with a dozen approaches now lying in the ditch; literature professors sneering at understandings now considered mainstream.

Experts are more often right.  In particular, there are certain types of errors they are not prone to.  I trust climate scientists to get it mostly right.  Except that they* act like the people I have known who were dead wrong but still quite sure, and that seems to be getting worse instead of better.  At this point, I have to say my default position is that  they exaggerate.

* I admit - the ones who are quoted and in the news.  I do also try and follow some respectable climate sites, but people go all advocate on me very quickly, and I just turn it off.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

I hold in almost superstitious awe the people who can figure out things like the heliocentric system from scratch in the face of ignorance and skepticism. I also agree with you that most of what I know I must take on authority. So when it comes to big, disputed issues like AGW, it's tough to sort out the good ideas from the balderdash. You certainly can't go by how sure people seem, or even by how irritating their smugness is. You can find historical examples of people acting just that way who turned out to be disastrously wrong or absolutely right.

It is possible, though, to pick up danger signals, like data-handling scandals, or a suspicious tendency to claim that practically all data, no matter how contradictory, mysteriously combine to prove the same theory. Confirmation bias has telltale signs even when you don't know the details of the underlying discipline. A hostile, defensive response to simple questions is a bad sign. A stink of politics is a really bad sign.

I don't have the least notion how climate works. My impression is that it's too turbulent and complex a system to yield to our present analytical abilities; it's certainly to complex to yield to mine. Obviously I believe we do all kinds of things that harm our environment; you have only to look at the state of our estuaries. But although I'm completely persuaded by evidence of declining oyster stocks and levels of water contaminants, I'm not ready to believe just any cockamamie theory of causation that anyone with a jury-rigged computer model can dream up.

I'm going to have to take a wait-and-see attitude until someone's model proves genuinely predictive over a decade or two, without cheating and retro-rigging. The fact that the models have so far failed this test strongly suggests to me that they're just curve-fitting in hindsight instead of describing a genuine causative mechanism. Yes, if I wait it may turn out that it's too late to take corrective action, but the same caution applies to wrecking the world economy to cure a condition that didn't turn out to exist in the first place.