Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Did Monbiot try to understand climate science?

In The Guardian's Comment is Free section there's an article by George Monbiot called The trouble with trusting complex science which argues that:

The detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust.

He does this in the context of climate change science. I wonder if he actually tried to read the key paper that describes why we know that the global temperature is increasing. The paper is Uncertainty estimates in regional and global observed temperature changes: a new dataset from 1850. Go on, read it. I dare you.

The critical thing you need to be able to understand to understand that paper is... how to calculate an average. That's a GCSE level maths subject; here's a quick page to revise that in case you've forgotten how to average.

Because, you see, the entire process described in that paper involves the following steps:

1. Get temperature data (i.e. thermometer readings) at different places around the world for many, many years
2. Work out the average temperature at each location by averaging the values between 1961 and 1990 on a monthly basis. So you end up knowing things like the average January temperature at Heathrow.
3. Now go back and work out how much the temperature for any given month and year deviates from the average: all that means is subtract the average temperature from the observed temperature for the same month. Now you know how 'different' the temperature is. This is called the anomaly. If it's getting hotter the anomalies will get bigger.
4. Divide the globe up into squares 5 degrees on each side. Find all the thermometers inside each square, find their anomalies for each month and year. Average them to get an average anomaly for that square.
5. Take all the squares in the northern hemisphere, average their anomalies for each month and year. Draw a graph showing the temperature changing. Repeat the for southern hemisphere.
6. Now take the northern and southern hemisphere temperatures for each month and year and average them to get a global temperature anomaly chart.

Child's play? Yes.

I'll admit that the rest of the paper has some harder concepts (standard deviation, anyone?). But I'll wager that the real reason that people don't understand science is not because it's too hard to understand, but because they aren't motivated.

Yes, there are parts of science that require a lot of knowledge, but covering your eyes and not trying to understand is likely where many people go wrong.

Or to put it Monbiot's way:

My heart rebels against this project: I would rather be pelting scientists with eggs than trying to understand their datasets.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Wojtek Swiatek said...

The problem I see with motivation is that you cannot apply it in today's world.

I come from an ancient time. My son defines it as "Middle-Ages", his grand mother is pinpointed to the "dinosaurs" time -- hey, he is 5 yo and is very much exited about these two times in history, especially when he know someone who actually lived then :)

This was a time where the TV was black and white (not cool) and had 4 buttons (very cool). I knew how to use it, my mother (from the dinosaurs era) knew as well.

I recently bought a TV, making the 3000 years technological jump from my old 21' CRT TV. I needed to have a matrix on a piece of paper to actually watch TV and use the right combination of inputs, outputs, HDMI, you-name-it between the TV, the set top box and the home cinema. And the Wii. And the NAS. And the USB drive. The NAS can be accessed by both the TV and the set top box. Yada yada yada.

I was motivated to watch TV, so I did the extensive research to create the beautiful matrix.

I also have a new oven. The old one had a "temperature" dial. The new one has 7 buttons.
I am motivated to eat so I read the 20 pages manual, accessorly to understand how to set the [censored] blinking 00:00 to actual time so that it stops to blink.

I forgot to mention that I have a PhD in Physics and I work in a high tech company in IT.

The point I want to make is that one needs to be motivated in order to go to the toilet today and not end up locked for 4 days because you need to remember a 128 bits password coupled with a one-time PIN. This is crazy.
I wish I could buy a decent quality flat TV for dummies like me but they do not exist!

So yes, I agree that in today's world you need to trust 100x more people because it just got complicated and the time you spend understanding yet another subject is gone. At least if you are not locked in the toilet because you forgot to take your PIN token.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Jose Simoes said...

(1) global temperature

(2) temperature measured at the thermometer

Are they the same thing? How do they relate?

With time people move closer to the thermometers? And do the people heat the thermometers with all sort of machines and buildings?

How short budgets let out of work remote thermometers and increased the number of thermometers in populated areas?

That are really the questions and I do not believe you can answer with such simple math.

And the conclusions, if that is all, are garbage. You are using thermometers and speaking "global temperature".

[if the temperature is increasing which is the cause? That's the following question as critical as the previous one]

I Do NOT know the a answers

Jose Simoes

5:27 PM  
Blogger A.J. said...

The issue of climate change for any concerned citizen who is not a professional climatologist is not, if the climate is changing, but rather is the change a function of man-made activities (i.e. greenhouse gases, etc). This is something that a data set using post-industrial aggregation of global thermometer readings does not encapsulate for a number of reasons. 1)Because it does not include the primary variable of man-made climate change (the release of greenhouse gases by way of fossil fuel emmision) and 2) because a 50 year time frame infinitesimally small when compared to the geological time-frame that global climate change would most likely trend over.

In other words, a convincing case for man made global climate change must use different methods to be pertinent to anyone outside of the highly specialized field of climatology. And it is the veracity of these different methodologies where people must rely upon the expertise of scientists in the field. And for good reason, because not only do average people not know the particulars of how core samples and tree-rings are used to ascertain historical temperatures, or how computer simulated models of climate change work, but also because there are real, live, epistemological questions concerning the appropriateness of their applications. This is only complicated further by the recent evidence of coordinated professional indiscretions by highly influential members of this scientific community.

Acts of indiscretion aside, I have long had concerns about the methods by which man made climate change was proven. Yet, as a matter of public policy I have long been a proponent of prudent environmental standards, because the fact is we can only screw it up once. I understand the need for climatologist to highlight worst-case-scenarios in order to garner the attention of the average person in today's media saturated society. But I worry that if their projections prove to be overblown, they will forever lose the attention of they layman and forever be lampooned as little-boy-blue academics.

6:26 PM  
Blogger kim said...

it's also conceivable that technical papers are often shrouded in tech speak. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, scientists use language that's most appropriate for what they're expressing in a paper and that language is often the clearest, most precise way of presenting scientific ideas. But if you're a lay reader it can appear incomprehensible.

7:44 PM  
Blogger tz said...

In ancient times priests would point to the entrails of some beast that was a portend of good or bad fortune. A layman would be pointed to the same Sh** and the explanation of how to decode it would be given so he could come to the same conclusion.

There were those who disagree and they were labeled heretics and persecuted or even executed.

Meanwhile today, the AGW priesthood has had to retract the destruction of the rainforests and the total disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. And there attempts at burning the dissenters have been exposed.

Thermometers? Are they all in remote "natural" areas, or has urban expansion heated them?

Candles cause your room to cool - if you have air conditioning and the candle is near a thermostat.

Causation is hard to prove. It is best proven if you start from skepticism or disbelief so you don't sort or alter data to agree.

Ice sheets expand and contract. We've had bad hurricanes in the 1930s then nothing in the 1950s.

I forget where, but there is more than one page of stupid correlations. Birth control boomed with the pill about the same time, as did abortion. That causes global warming! (CO2 levels has some problems with physics - anyone really want to try measuring the reflectivity effect of the different TRACE amounts of CO2?).

It is the height of arrogance and hubris to claim X caused Y without showing the causal link - a chain of evidence. But that is difficult and not very entertaining. It is easier to say we will all burn in hell-on-earth if you don't listen to the white-coat priesthood.

2:35 AM  

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