The orthodoxy offers a defence — of sorts

One of the first things I encountered, when I started to learn about anthropogenic global warming, was the charge that humanity was conducting a giant experiment with the planet, and since we only had the one planet, the experiment should stop. There are different versions of this defence of the position that ‘we must combat climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions’, and by and large I now take little notice of them.

But I came across one recently that I thought was worth summarising and wrestling with. It was by Steven Mosher, whom I’ve mentioned here as the joint author, with Thomas W. Fuller of an excellent book, Climategate. The Crutape letters. Mosher is a quirky guy, often commenting in terse and sometimes almost incomprehensible fashion about what he sees as errors in other people’s comments. He can receive a taste of his own medicine, too, as was the case here. I always read what he writes, and on the present occasion I thought what he wrote was important, even though I disagree with his position.

It wasn’t about anything substantive, but what he called the structure of the arguments. There is a single temperature time series, he says. It’s all we have — the temperature of thousands of places at thousands of times, over quite a short period. We have earlier proxies for temperatures too, but for a smaller range of places and over a much longer period of time. All of them come with errors of various kinds.

Mosher sets up what he sees as the central sceptical attack on the orthodoxy. In a lab setting we could run an experiment and control and vary these causes and develop a working theory of how things work. But we can’t — there is no lab, and we don’t have a ‘control planet’ to use as a test-bed. Climate science is not a lab science where you run controlled experiments. And some critics (sceptics) point out that the time series is the result of a chaotic system which we cannot understand. So while there are causes for the time series, its trajectory is chaotic and not predictable. Climate science, then, is not ‘real’ or laboratory-based science, where hypotheses are tested experimentally, by observation and measurement. Critics then say we should dismiss the work, because it doesn’t satisfy the ideal of experimental science.

Mosher sees these two objections as misunderstanding the world that climate science lives in, so to speak. As he sees it, sceptics can attack the data, or attack the theory, because the data don’t quite, or effectively, support it, or point out that the theory is incomplete. The criticisms sound persuasive, but Mosher thinks they miss the point. I’ve written this somewhere else: the data are what we’ve got. We need to make the best use we can of them.

How would he do this?  Since I cannot control the variables in the real world, the second option is to create a synthetic world where I can: modelling or simulation. In simulation we move from the theory to the observation. In simulation we can flip CO2 on and off and hold volcanos constant. we can hold everything constant and only change the sun. And with simulation we can make predictions or test our hypothesis… simulation makes an observational science more like a lab science. 

To which the critics can respond, as follows:

1. These really are not experiments.

2. You can’t model nature perfectly.

3. Your answer isn’t perfect.

4. Even if your answer is perfect, your explanation is still underdetermined; something else could have caused it.

And he goes on: It doesn’t matter what physical system you are simulating — folks will have the same objections. To those outside observational science these objections will always look reasonable. They can appear to be made in good faith. Until you point out that they rely on observational science all the time.

I hope that I have done his argument justice. There is always a risk of my not doing so when I cut, paste and summarise. I think Mosher has made a sensible defence of the position that the data are what we have and that models are the only way we can investigate their meaning and importance. Let me step aside from the climate domain, and consider the Australian economy. It can be argued that governments and the Reserve Bank are conducting experiments with the Australian economy. Governments and central banks have levers, and they manipulate them in the hope of achieving certain outcomes.

But they don’t have an AustraliaB as a control, nor can they really use any other country as a control, for none of them is close to the Australian reality. So they use models. There are a number of models of the Australian economy, owned by Treasury, the RBA and others, and I can remember considering whether or not to recommend funding for an early university version of one in the 1980s. To the best of my knowledge, neither the Treasury nor the Australian Government ever relies wholly on any model output in making recommendations or decisions. Why not? There’s too much at stake.

It is different in the world of climate. To begin, AGW became important not just because scientists said it was, but because there was a mood in the electorate receptive to that message. I wrote about this factor recently. The combination of the early ‘warmists’, like James Hansen and others, and the anxiety in the electorate has proved decisive in the Western economically developed societies.

In consequence, the real debate about ‘climate change’ is not about the science, it is about policy. No one I know in the sceptical and agnostic worlds disputes that the earth has warmed a bit over the past century or so. Nor does anyone argue that adding CO2 to the atmosphere has helped in that warming, and will do so again in the future while we continue to burn fossil fuels. They do argue about whether or not the warming is beneficial to life generally, and they do argue about whether or not the warming could become dangerous.

And this is where the models come in. Because the notion that warming could be dangerous is not based on science, but on assumptions that are plausible, and on their being incorporated into models that produced ‘projections’ about the future. So far the serious tests to which the climate models have been subjected to — the pattern of warming over the last ten years — has shown them to be deficient. Maybe they’ll improve, maybe not.

Now to policy. With the science in this state, how could one support carbon taxes, subsidies on renewable energy sources that require fossil fuel backup, and the great agitation about getting a worldwide agreement in paris at the end of the year? The answer is straightforward: that is about policy and politics, not about science. Mosher is right, I think, but his defence is a defence of a very limited kind — about whether or not the temperature data are any good. I think that the discussion has gone a long way past that.

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • Mike says:

    For the moment imagine you have no knowledge of anything about the warming of the planet controversy let’s say you’re an alien visiting Earth. You mention you are a supreme propagandist on the planet you come from could you apply your talents here? The people saying this are propagandists on earth. They quote their achievements the most important of which is that on the basis of a temperature temperature rise of .8 of a degree rise since 1900 the public has been convinced that we are in mortal danger and it is their fault. Individual nations have been convinced to take action that affects their economies even though the prescribed cause obviously is a global one. Relying on public ignorance it was linked to the most vital part of our society’s advance into a modern world that is the use of fossil fuels. I must give due credit you would say that this is brilliant and that you could not possibly compete with such brilliance.

    Even the planet now disagrees because it has refused to change temperature in the lower troposphere for about 18 years and in the upper troposphere for about 25. The flimflam men have managed to still maintain their position without being ridiculed, amazing.

    It seems politicians aren’t particularly concerned about good policy and cost as well is effectiveness but more they are concerned with pandering to the squeaky wheel in the hope that they will maintain power. They are not concerned with anything other than does the voter believe this. Little chap in stop the world I want to get off thought the voter had a great concern about how they were going to pay for their dentures. So he offered as an election platform free false teeth for all! That is about the standard of what we get.

    My opinion is that it’s not about global warming is about ruining our economy. The actions of the most vocal activists the Greens points this way they are for anything that is useless and costly. Here in the ACT we have a Greens party who wants us to spend $1 billion on a useless tram to serve 3% of the population. In the UK there is a proposal to join all their major cities by a fast train network they have a very dense population and big transport problems and would seem a very worthwhile idea. Guess who is against it the Greens of course so why, the answer is the tram is useless and costly but the UK train network probably would be an advance.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Thanks Don and Mike – many good points there. One correction – the 18 year figures are from land stations, not atmospheric measures, although that makes little difference to either discussion.

    As I understand, we have three eras for figures – (1) before about 1880 when useful numbers of land measurements with thermometers began and proxies like geological and historical records are used; (2) land measurements with thermometers and very limited ocean data; and (3) satellite measurements world-wide since the 1970s.

    Proxy figures often relate to regions only, although some things like the approximate extent of Ice Age glaciers and sea levels are beyond doubt (eg, the aboriginals must have walked to Tasmania, there was no other way for them to get there, and that means the the current ocean floor of Bass Straight was exposed; and geological evidence of past glaciation is very convincing.)

    Land measures were patchy, tending to come from more advanced countries and settled areas, but they mostly tell the same story of a mild 0.8C warming for most of the land areas of the world. Ocean data for this era was scant at best, lacking any system with world-wide coverage of the 70% of the Earth’s surface covered by ocean.

    Only since the satellites went up do we have precise, world-wide data. Until then, our knowledge lacks precision, even though it is still good enough to give us a good general picture of regional and world-wide trends. But that is all it can do. We don’t have any good, precise land measurements before about 1880, or sea surface measures before the 1970s and no one should claim otherwise.

    But as Don says, that is the data we have. And, as he also says, I does not support claims that anything dangerous or unprecedented is happening, nor does it support the politics now driving things like the RET. I guess I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I believe we have to find every possible way of getting these simple facts-based statements out to the general public in the hope that reality will eventually win over political ideology. Only Gaia knows how long that will take.

  • Alan Gould says:

    I wonder if it is the power of any given imagination to encompass the idea of scale that lays down whether an individual will be panic-struck or sanguine when AGW data is manipulated for us.
    I was lucky. Having a close interest in my Norse forbears, and a compulsion to write about them in my late 20’s, therefore I read about them, and so came across the writings of the Canadian author, Farley Mowat. This gent, apart from writing with great limpidity, is a genuine independent spirit such as WW2 was wont to engender, (as a mere Major he accepted the German surrender in Holland). Sometimes his publications are pacy pot-boilers, sometimes they reflect the sharp critical mind he was undoubtedly recognised to possess.
    From the latter, he wrote a book called ‘Westviking’ that looks at the Norse westward voyaging to Helluland, Markland and Vinland in the 9th-15th centuries (publ 1965). But he does so taking into account the physical and climatic geography that lay in favour, then later in disfavour, of westward voyaging. Tantalisingly, not only does he give close climatic conditions for the colonising and later eclipse of the two Greenland settlements, but he links this to what the planet was doing in terms of welcome and unwelcome over 500 years, He also expands his compass to look at how the Arctic may have been entirely ice-free in a remoter human period (The Holocene), and how the inexorable return of glacial conditions after 1300 spelled the decay of the Greenland Norse when the southerly migration of the fiercer Thule Eskimos – a wave of Arctic peoples more ferocious than the taller Dorset Eskimos who preceded them and with whom the Norse could co-habit, meant tenure of these glaciating territories, with the cold’s effects on human frailties, succumbed to simple ol’ natural selection as applied to Darwinian natural selection. I was in my late 20’s when I read this stuff and comprehended its logic, so had instilled in me the volatile nature of our planet’s systems and therefore, the volatile nature of how systems bigger than us create effects in us. Since then, I cannot ignore how history is properly told by the coordination of systems. To recognise this is to recognise how, within the human mind, present pressures can never be free of the scale – and scales – in which they are embedded.
    The appeal of the sceptic argument to me is that it recognises this. I can note all the models being produced, while remembering Southern England exported wine in the 11th century, and my forbears planted barley in Greenland to mixed success.

  • dlb says:

    I can’t really see that Mosher has seriously countered points 1 to 4 which are valid criticisms.

    Is he saying because you can run experiments and produce observations by models they should be taken just as seriously as experiments done in test tubes and petri dishes?
    Well of course models should not be dismissed but how are their outputs “observations” comparing with what is happening in the real world? Pretty poor I would consider.

    I get the impression he is an apologist for mathematical modelling which with the advent of computing is very fashionable in scientific if not academic circles.

    • David says:

      This argument that Climate science is not a real science because
      it is heavily reliant on statistical models is not convincing. The German astronomer,
      Gauss, developed statistics in the 19th century to predict the path of comets
      and planets. And anyone who has done Stats 101 will be familiar with the Gauss-Markov theorem. Astronomers cannot easily do experiments
      either. They cannot move the stars and planets around the universe to test the
      effects of gravity for example. So they developed mathematical models to help make
      sense of what they observed. But Astronomy is still a science.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Yes, I agree. A great deal of geology is not lab-based, too. Mosher offers a defence along those lines, and it is good as far as it goes. It is not the science that is at issue, really. It is the policy. The policy does not inevitably flow from the science, and can’t because the science is very iffy. See above.

        • dlb says:

          Well you would never have guessed the science is “iffy” when the common cry is that 97% of climate scientists can’t be wrong.

      • dlb says:

        David, I have no real issues with the statistical models except for dodgy ones highlighted by people like Steven McIntire. It is the GCMs that I take issue with. Using your Astronomy analogy, GCMs would be able to move stars and planets around the universe because the position of every star and mass would be known and the effects of gravity are well known. Naturally such a model is sure to fail as we haven’t mapped every star and there are things like dark matter we are uncertain about.
        Similarly with climate models, a lot of weather processes are missed because they are smaller than the geographic grid squares which the models run on. There are also things we are uncertain about such as clouds feedbacks, ocean cycles etc.
        Yes climate science is a real science, but I would accept the word of someone like Prof Lindzen who have spent decades researching climate processes than the trumped up computer jockeys of today.

  • David says:


    Of course, it would make sense for you to do nothing. You are 75 after all. There will be no downside to you personally if AGW continued to get worse.

    But for a 20 year old today the down side risk to AGW is real. To “wait-n-see” for another 30 years and then decide to do something if global temperature rose another 1.5 degrees, would be a risky course of action. Especially since changing how we generate energy will take time.

    To me it seems prudent, to takes some steps to deal with the possibility that AGW will continue get worse. Far easier to remove an unnecessary tax/subsidy than adapt to 450ppm CO2.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      The trouble is that the ‘policy’ of carbon taxes and RET will not reduce temperature by more than a trifling amount. So why do it? They are not sensible steps at all, because they do nothing of any consequence other than transfer money. And what is the ‘down side risk’? All the evidence so far is that a warmer world is a better one. Do you have in mind runaway warming? There is no evidence that it has happened in the past when CO2 levels have been very much higher. In short, while the precautionary principle is sensible if there is a measure one can take that actually achieves the desired result, there isn’t one at the moment, and no sign yet that one is needed.

      • David says:

        “All the evidence so far is that a warmer world is a better one.”

        All? Not some, not a preponderance, or even an overwhelming majority, but “all” the evidence. 🙂

        • Don Aitkin says:

          And the exceptions are? I’m not aware of any evidence to the contrary, though no doubt there’ll be someone who knows of an exception.

      • Mike says:

        Already this passion to save the planet is costing trillions and the only thing that will probably end this madness is that the planet has become a climate denier. But the argument that the old shouldn’t or don’t care care is fairly spurious. Because if this is allowed to continue and spreads to all nations (something I consider very unlikely) then it is the youth in finality that will pay for it. Certainly Don I think you would care about your children’s future as I do.

        Many just don’t get it if it is a problem it is a global one Australia hoping to change things by modifying their 1.4% while China has 30% and the USA 20% it is an exercise in futility. All that can be achieved is to ruin our economy something the UK is well on the way to doing but they may have seen sense recently.

        Sort of tilting at windmills don’t you think?

      • dlb says:

        So why do it?
        Because it makes many feel good.
        Emotion beats logic every time.

  • Margaret says:

    As you realise by now, I have no expertise in the field of ‘climate change’. I initially came to this site because of an unrelated article on research funding that I thought would be of interest to my son in law. That was a couple of years ago and I added it to my frequent reading and sometimes gleaned some understanding of the ‘climate change’ debate. But now I find myself revisiting from the fascination I have with the mindset that there’s a point in the argument. I think David is correct, the 20 year old cannot be blasé about ‘climate change’ and whether or not it exists. The 20 year old doesn’t have the luxury of the ability to devote time to proving it is wrong but they do have the luxury of time. Time to enjoy their life ahead and why not err on the side of caution – do what is necessary to ensure that future generations don’t look back at an image I have of people with grey hair who’ve had and are continuing to have good lives and just to prove their point are trying to stop the preventative measures that just might give the future generations time to see for themselves. Not succinct, not lucid but on a phone it’s impossible to write properly.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Margaret, isn’t it me who doesn’t have time? No one is proposing immediate doom and gloom any more, as they were in 2006 and 2007. That’s been forgotten. Now it’s all to happen in the second half of the century and later still. So the 20 year old seems to have time on his side — time to find out whether or not there really is a problem. As I’ve said quite a few times, the general problem doesn’t require anyone to have a degree in climate science. Is there a problem? How do we know? What could be done about it if there really is a problem? What effect would that have? And so on.

  • Mike says:

    In a galaxy far far away was a man called Isaac Oldtown he thought
    about the movement of the planets plus bodies of all kinds so he devised the
    laws of motion, a couple hundred years later another man used statistical
    methods to also study the movement of the planets. He was known as Callas’s Gaseous
    and this made great strides in the areas of scientific thought and study. As
    time progressed society developed machines that could do calculations far
    quicker than the mere Golder Frenchum’s could do for that was what they call

    This was a marvellous advance and was used to predict the
    movement of the planets and asteroids. But then this party pooper came along
    and using this exactly same method that is the machines and heaven forbid actual
    data determined that there were discrepancies. He proposed another theory which
    was incorporated Hardy Cooper
    into the programs for the machines. All worked well for a time and the programs
    were named as a class that is they were called models. With the passing of the
    years more and more things had these models applied to them. Astronomy was conquered
    they proved to be very useful in the building of other machines and testing
    theories. Then the rot set in someone Callas Smit proposed that these could be
    applied to anything.

    Now on their home planet the youth through idleness and too
    much twitter had become a threat to society and the older generation thought
    something had to be done. Callas Smit gave a lecture to the Universal Noidea
    and said my models can do anything I am sure we can use these to solve our
    problems with the youth. People protested and said but their behaviour is
    indeterminate and chaotic how can we possibly apply your models. Well said Smit
    we do know something about it the psycho practitioners have many thoughts on
    hard and fast rules they have of how the youth does behave. That they are so
    diligent in devising these rules they update them into something quite
    different every few years. For lots of money I am sure I can devise models to
    predict what our youth is going to do for at least 50 years.

    So it was the psycho practitioners were interviewed and
    asked to lay down what they thought would predict the behaviour of the youth.
    These were incorporated into a large super machine as a model using Faultron
    seven. It quickly became so complex no one understood how it worked. It was
    agreed that these models were untestable because the idea was to know what the
    previously unpredictable youth would do so how would you test it? Wait until
    the prediction came true untenable no we cannot afford in many cases to wait
    that long. What if the prediction is that this youth will rape pillage and
    murder in the future? Can we wait for that to happen certainly not and besides
    the models had proved to be reliable in other spheres such as machine design
    astronomy and many other things. It you will not bother are not authorised
    sorry yes that’s right arm so is Gary ready Thursdays are at the both of us
    were my actually be easier very busy this week you the other find a sister to
    be able to find a sister okay gave excellent So it was a, sample of the child’s
    cells was taken at conception and fed into the computer if it predicted a dire
    outcome for this child then the conception was terminated. It was argued that
    the result of allowing such a child to live on, as a precaution, action must be
    taken as soon as possible.

    Many years on with the aid of parents some of these children
    escaped termination. Some of these proved to have very dire predictions and
    then one particular example was found. The prediction was this male (Goodus
    Gius) if allowed to grow up would certainly use hatred of the Jishu to ferment hatred
    of all other than Giru to start a global war on the planet in order for the
    Giru to become the dominant race. Instead he had worked for many years to help
    the disadvantaged and advocate tolerance understanding and all other social
    excellent traits amongst the populace. Some got to thinking well if our models
    could be so wrong in this case maybe they are fallible. Much money was poured
    into examining this and they found there were many examples as well as Goodus
    Gius of the models being wrong. All were abandoned including the most used “Roulette”
    and motion set in place to prosecute those who had created this hideous system.

    Fortunately for Callis Smit the law did not move quickly
    enough to try him before he died. On his deathbed a journalist managed to talk
    to him and asked why. He said “I knew all along that the models were nonsense
    but it was a great success millions died and that’s what it was all about I don’t
    like the young much and it was much more effective than being a serial murderer”.
    The moral beware those who promote ideas what drives them might not be what it
    seems. Perhaps as a precaution nothing should be done since it might be wrong.

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