Things I thought

Monday 23 November 2009

Similies are like metaphors

Imagine, if you will, that you are the world's cleverest mathematician, quantum physicist and demonologist all rolled into one. You are cleverer than a billion Einsteins, the "Einstein" being the internationally recognised unit of cleverness.

Now imagine that, one night, hunched over your self invented abacus/particle accelerator/portal to the ethereal darkness, you discover something horrifying. The logarithmic wave function of the prison of Ba'al is going to collapse, very soon, releasing Ba'al from his millenia old torment, to wreak a terrible vengeance upon the Earth. It won't be the end of the world, but it will be pretty bad: millions will die, whole cities will be destroyed, Horne and Corden will be given a third series, before their second has even aired.

Worst of all, you are the only person who has the requisite knowledge, expertise and intelligence to understand the coming catastrophe.

Fortunately, something can be done to prevent Ba'al's infinite wrath from being unleashed. Unfortunately, it's going to be quite expensive. A solid diamond superconducting altar must be built to push the prison of Ba'al back into quantum superposition, keeping him trapped for another thousand years. If everybody mucks in, you feel confident disaster can be avoided.

How do you sell this proposition to the general public, whose money and resources you need to to stop the hellspawn's merciless claws laying waste to all he surveys? They can't be expected to understand the intricacies of mathematical quantum demonology - only a handful of scientists do. So you give it to them in layman's terms. This, naturally, makes the information less accurate, which allows those opposed to the idea of giving up their diamsonds, to poke holes in your arguments. You are fighting against the economic tide.

Time is now running out. Frogs are falling from the sky, a kitten with seven heads is born, and the lion has lain down with the lamb as your models predicted. But the critics are saying there's no evidence that these signs of the coming cataclysm have anything to do with Ba'al. It's just a massive coincidence.

You have done your best, as a scientist, to convey your scientific opinion to those who need it. But it's being twisted, distorted, rejected. Mankind is heading towards a terrible disaster and you are the only one who can see it. What do you do?

In that situation, I'm guessing most of us would decide we had no option but to adopt the tactics of our critics, disingenuous and unscientific as they were. Sure, Ba'al wasn't going to devour the whole earth - at least, probably not, only a few studies suggest that his ancient hunger can only be sated by consuming the whole of creation - but perhaps suggesting that he might would finally convince people to get on and build that solid diamond altar.

And, sure, the nature of your field means that you can only be 80-90% positive that Ba'al is coming. But your critics are preying on your equivocal statements as evidence of doubt. So why not start pretending you are absolutely certain? People are bad at understanding probability in any case - that's why they play the lottery.

Finally, not all of those signs have come in quite how your model predicted. A second kitten is born, this one with only six and a half heads, causing the Sun to run a front page story declaring "Ba'alism HEAD as the dodo!". You decide that, should this happen again, you might just glue on an extra half a head.

This analogy, tortured far beyond anything that would be tolerated under the Geneva Conventions, is of course about Climate Science. E-mails between relatively prominent climate scientists have recently been stolen from the Hadley CRU by, well, who knows? The point isn't their theft (if someone on our side had done it to ExxonMobil I'd be rolling around with glee, so I'll not make any pretence to moral superiority), it is their perceived contents.

Blogs far and wide have declared that the e-mails as showing proof of collusion, cover up and malfeasance at the very top of the world of Climate Science. I, despite my best efforts, can find no such evidence. I can't claim to have read the entire body of e-m,ails, running to some ten thousand, but I have focused on those the Climate Deniers seem to think are noteworthy. In the process I have found numerous examples of data being changed and manipulated - because that particular datum is anomalous or has been gathered in an unusual/unusable way. The only example I have so far found of the Hadley crew manipulating data in an unscientific way to change its appearance was an admission that scientists had given in to "toning down" a document in order to ensure they received more funding in the future!(document number 1089318616 for those who want to look it up on the searchable database). So far, I have not seen an e-mail that provides anything like 'smoking gun' evidence of a conspiracy.

I say 'so far' because I am actually surprised by how little there is to chew on in these e-mails. As our little thought experiment at the top of the page showed, you would expect the scientists to alter and manipulate data, tweaking the presentation so the public's understanding, and from there their actions, are better aligned with objective reality. But there is little to no evidence of that happening

I had always rather assumed that the worst prophecies of the doomsayers were deliberately over-egged, that the temperature curves were sloped a little steeper than was necessary, that we had more time than the scientists suggested. Now, I'm not so sure.

If we've not been being lied to all this time, we're in serious trouble.


P.S. Any of you who like to do your own research, and who therefore clicked through to the e-mail I referenced in the main body, will hopefully have noticed that the 'document' that was toned down was a letter to a superior, not a climate research paper. It in no way supports the claim I made that scientists have toned down their findings to secure further funding. But it is a good example of the kind of deliberate misreading of these e-mails which has been undertaken by those in the Climate Denier camp all weekend.


  1. Johnny,
    While i understand what you are trying to say, the arrogance with which you attempt to portray this great altruist is the problem with "discussion" of the type you ask for.

    This problem manifests itself in the way you purport to open dialogue. You do it in such a way as if to say its not just the truth, but a forgone conclusion, that its happening, which gives you not only a false sense of superiority, but an aura of smugness that has no place in real debate.

    I am not siding with anyone here, but i was alive in the mid 70s when the NY Times trumpeted the impending ice age. Now i recall my 6th grade science teacher telling me that pollutants were blocking out the sunlight, so the world was getting colder.

    That was someone who was much smarter than me putting things in laymans terms, and it was something him and his university buddies thought my generation should know.

    Funny how they had no clue what they were talking about isnt it?

  2. That's how science works. We have the wrong idea until we have the right one. The science in ten, twenty, thirty years time will be better than the science we have today.

    But the very best science we have available says that global warming is happening and, if we don't do anything about it, the effects will be catastrophic. Sometimes, it makes sense to wait until the science is 100% certain before doing anything.

    This isn't one of those times, because the only experiment which could validate the theory involves doing nothing, and seeing what happens. That's a bit like testing the theory of gravity by jumping out of a plane without a parachute. After all, we might be able to fly, so why waste the money?

  3. Oh, and you are right about one thing: I am a horrifically smug individual. It's one of the tricky side effects of being right.

  4. The very best science we have is saying the earth is cooling, weather extremes are at an all time low, and plantlife is starved for CO2.

    The worst possible thing we could do is DECREASE our CO2 emissions. I invite you to visit

    Happy New year.