Guest post: What would you do?

This is a guest post by regular commenter, AnOilMan. It’s rather personal and reflective, so please bear that in mind. I don’t have anything else to add, so will let AnOilMan take over.

What would you do?

Growing up, I was always prone to having colds that clung on. I’d have a cough for months afterwards. But last fall my coughing didn’t clear up. In fact by Christmas, I was coughing so hard that I was having a hard time keeping food down and friends started telling me to go and see a doctor.

An XRay, and some meds later the coughing mostly cleared up… mostly. A few months ago I was sent for a second XRay and based on that, I was sent for a CT scan.   On the day I had the CT scan my doctor’s office hounded me to come in the next day. (They never do this… Let alone speak to a strange doctor since my GP wasn’t available.)

I sat down, and the doctor said that based on the XRays and CT scan they know that there is a mass growing in my right lung, and it has spread to my left. Its likely cancer, although an infection hasn’t been ruled out yet. A lot of things went through my head. But mostly, will my wife and kids be taken care of if I die. (Yes, I’m well insured.) Then I tried really hard to think of all the questions my wife would ask because I know she’d ask a lot, and that means she’ll ask me a lot. I was told that I would be seeing a specialist soon, and that everything was already in the works.

As I was heading home I stopped to get gas for the car, and started texting people. As the risks started to sink in I felt faint. I waited for that to pass before continuing on my way.

The thought I dwelled on the most is what kind of world am I leaving behind for my kids? Will they be in an unpleasant place with food shortages and constant heat waves? What will the world be like for them? Have I done enough for them?

Should I freak out about all this?

No… It’s not like we know what this is. But there is no doubt that the risk is serious, and it’s quite possible that the result may be a fast and brutal result.

Should I ignore all doctors out there because there have been a few quacks getting up to no good?

Clearly like any other field there are disreputable folks who will do whatever they can get away with to make money. So… should I ignore all doctors for the failings of the few? I don’t think so. I think I’ll check into the people who’ll be looking at me though.

Should I listen to organizations that are paid to spread misinformation?

Consider a company that profits from selling medication and smoking cessation aids like Pfizer. Is it reasonable to listen to PR firms supporting the pro smoking lobby? Not that I smoke… but it’s hard to imagine listening to PR firms handing out paid advertising, as Heartland/Pfizer do.

Should I read information from strange people on the internet?

There’s always someone somewhere crazy enough to claim they’ve got a miracle cure for something. Would you like a tin hat with that?

What about web sites that believe in UFOs and other conspiracy theories?

Seriously? Are these places credible enough to listen to? Should I worry? Maybe someone out there doesn’t like what I say!

Should I listen to someone who only has a high school diploma?

Interestingly I can’t find any examples of this in the real world. Perhaps it happens in the third world, but medicine is regulated for our safety. In climate science we have colorful people like this;

I tend to think of him as the Dr Nick of Climate Science;

How about a massage therapist with a bachelor of psychology?

Would that person be able to advise me on growths in my lungs? No. I don’t think he’d be qualified.

Should I decry the fact that I’m using state funded health care and try to go it alone?

Libertarians think that state funded health care is somehow inferior. I call completely and total bunk on that. I live in Canada where we live longer than Americans and pay way less for health care.

Maybe I should ignore it all!

Let’s face it, the CT scan was digitally dictated using Dragon voice recognition software. It’s entirely possible that it’s just a glitch, so I should just ignore all this and go about my life. Right? Is that a reasonable response?

Or should I trust an educated, decorated doctor who specializes in this field, and who has had considerable success in treating lung disorders?

Clearly he’s biased, he wrote the SOPs for most of the treatment processes. He also has a patent on one of the sensors he’ll undoubtedly be using. He also pioneered getting DNA typing into the biopsy process in this region.   Furthermore, he directly makes money from the treatments.

As I was thinking of all that I remembered an interview between James Delingpole, and Sir Paul Nurse.

Apparently equating climate science denial to quackery completely floored him. I think that’s because Delingpole knows it’s true;

For what it’s worth, I’ll be listening to the decorated doctor who specializes in this kind of treatment.

What would you do?

Posted in Personal, Science | Tagged | 16 Comments

Is this the latest tactic?

Willard has a contrarian matrix that is intended to illustrate the evolution of contrarian arguments. It certainly appears that it evolves with time, varying from it’s not happening, it’s happening but it’s slow, it’s stopped, it’ll be good, there are higher priorities, etc. More recently I’ve noticed a number of people criticising the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), in particular RCP8.5; a pathway in which we reach a change in anthropogenic forcing of 8.5Wm-2 by 2100.

The kind of criticisms I’ve seen have varied from claims that it’s scientific fraud, suggestions that it illustrates poor assumptions by the IPCC, and arguments that it’s not possible to following such a pathway so it should be ignored. The problem is, in my view, that these RCPs simply present possible future emissions pathways, going from one – RCP2.6 – in which we have rapid emissions reduction and finally negative emissions (which has also been criticised) through to one in which we continue to increase our emissions – RCP8.5. The different pathways simply provide information about what might happen were we to follow such a pathway. Even if a pathway is unlikely, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider it. In fact, going from one extreme (rapid emission reductions) to another (increasing emissions) is a perfectly standard way in which to consider future projections. Reality is most likely to fall somewhere between those two extremes.

However, I think there is something that those who criticise these extreme pathways may not realise, or don’t want to acknowledge. Consider the figure on the right. It shows the various pathways, the range of warming for each pathway, and where we are today. We currently appear to be following the RCP8.5 emission pathway. Of course it is a long time until 2100, so we may not continue to follow it until then. Now I get the impression that some people think that to end up within some range of warming, we simply need to ultimately reach the same level of emissions as the pathway that would likely produce warming within that range. In other words, if we want to have a reasonable chance of staying below 3oC we need to ultimately have emissions similar to that of RCP6 (i.e., just over 40GtCO2/yr).

That, however, is not correct. What determines how much warming we will experience is our cumulative emissions, not our annual emissions. If we want to have a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 3o, then we need our cumulative emissions – not our annual emissions – to be the similar to that for RCP6. The longer we continue to follow an RCP8.5 emission pathway, the more rapidly we’ll ultimately need to reduce our emissions in order to achieve that.

mitigation-pathwaysIf we want to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2oC, it’s even more severe. The figure on the left (from here) illustrates this very nicely. The longer we wait before starting emission reductions, the more rapidly we’ll need to do so. If, for example, we continue along an RCP8.5 pathway for another 5 years, a 66% chance of staying below 2oC would require reducing our emissions by 50% within a decade.

So, it may well be true that we’re unlikely to follow something close to an RCP8.5 emission pathway until 2100, but I can’t see anything wrong with presenting information as to what might happen if we did. Also, even if we can’t follow such a pathway until 2100, that we might follow it for another decade, or longer, does have consequences that we shouldn’t – IMO – be ignoring. Maybe I’m missing something – in which case, feel free to point it out – but it seems to me that those who criticise these extreme emission pathways either don’t realise this, or this is simply the latest tactic in the ever changing contrarian argument against actively doing anything to reduce the risks associated with climate change.

Posted in Climate change, Climate sensitivity, ClimateBall, IPCC, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 136 Comments

Alien invasion!

Despite being blocked by Roger Pielke Jr yesterday for pointing out that his righteous indignation appeared to be based on information that was not true, I thought I might still comment on his recent Guardian article about the risks associated with discovering extra-terrestrial life. By and large, it appears to show a significant lack of understanding of this general topic.

The sub-heading is

The search for extraterrestrial life is seen as one of pure curiosity. But, as in other areas of science, we should worry about the consequences of success.

and it ends with

My answer is the same one I apply to other areas of investigation and invention. So long as we are searching, we should be discussing the consequences of success of that search. If we discover alien life we may not end up dead or captured, like the New York prison escapees, but we will better prepared for the possibility of success if we consider success possible.

Roger seems to be essentially confusing two related, but largely independent, issues:

  • what are the chances that we could be attacked by some alien civilisation, and
  • what are the risks associated with our search for extra-terrestrial life?

Personally, I think that the chance that some alien civilisation could attack us is vanishingly small, but there would be nothing wrong with considering this risk, and it’s quite possible that this has been done. However, this is largely unrelated to our search for extra-terrestrial life, which carries virtually no risk at all. Why? Because, with the exception of potential robotic searches in our own Solar System (which are almost certainly not going to uncover some advanced civilisation living on one of Jupiter’s moons and that will attack us once discovered) all extra-terrestrial searches for the foreseeable future will be passive. We’ll be listening with large radio telescopes, or observing with large optical/infra-red telescopes.

Given that detecting human-like extra-terrestrial intelligence will be difficult even with the largest radio telescope we’ll have in the next few decades, the most optimistic scenario is that we detect some spectral signature that might indicate the presence of life on a planet outside our Solar System. We will probably not even be able to confirm that it is indeed life on another planet, or – if it is – how complex such life forms may be. Even if it were some advanced, war-mongering civilisation with the ability to travel through inter-stellar space, it would certainly have no knowledge that we’d discovered its existence. Also, if it were advanced enough to travel through space, it would almost certainly know of our presence, before we knew of theirs. I guess it could work out that we now had the technology to detect their existence and should therefore be destroyed, but I can’t see us deciding to avoid technology development just in case some alien civilisation might attack us once we become too advanced.

The only possible realistic risk that I can envisage, is how we might respond to the knowledge that we aren’t alone in the universe. However, not only is this not the first time that humans have encountered unknown civilisations, I suspect that the societal response to climate change will give us some hints as to what might happen; those who find that this information challenges their world-view will simply deny it, while almost everyone else will simply carry on with their busy lives regardless. Remember that the best we will probably have in the next few decades will be some complicated spectrum that scientists will claim shows signatures of life; we’re not going to have photographs of little green men.

So, unless Roger was joking, I don’t think his article presents a particularly informed view of this issue. If you want to read something more informed, you could try this. I should, however, acknowledge a very strong conflict-of-interest, as I’ve worked closely with the author of this article for many years.

Posted in Science | Tagged , , , , , | 63 Comments

Is the GWPF ‘avin a larf – again?

I’ve been doing quite a lot of cycling during our holiday, and today cycled over Duke’s Pass (a classic Scottish cycling route, apparently) and then cycled back around the Loch on the banks of which we’re staying. Very nice, but very tiring. Given that I need a bit of a break, I thought I might highlight the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s (GWPF’s) latest illustrative series. A previous one was how to whine like a 7-year old. This one appears to have a running title of how to lack irony and self-awareness. After years of highlighting anyone who suggested that global warming stopped in 1997/1998, they finally say

When estimating trends, especially for such short periods in a noisy data set such as global surface temperatures, care must be taken with start and end points as they can affect the trend obtained.

Of course, the only reason they’ve done so is because Karl et al. (2015) have suggested that the trend since 1998 may now exceed the 2 \sigma confidence interval (i.e., it might be statistically significant, for those who think that’s appropriate in this circumstance). I guess it’s good that the GWPF now recognise that one should take care when estimating trends over short time intervals in noisy data. It would have been much better if they’d recognised this when the trend did not exceed the 2 \sigma confidence interval, and they were using this to claim that global warming had stopped.

The GWPF report also includes a discussion on statistical significance by Professor Gordon Hughes, from the University of Edinburgh!!!. The only time I’ve encountered Gordon Hughes was when Nic Lewis repeated some of what he’d said about the Marotzke & Forster paper. In that instance it was clear that Gordon Hughes did not understand the physical sciences particularly well. His most recent foray into this topic would seem to further confirm this lack of understanding. His basic argument seems to be that to estimate the variability in 17 years trends, one should use all possible 17 years trends. This may be true if all 17 year time intervals were essentially equivalent, apart from some kind of random variability, but they’re not. It’s true that the variability for different 17-year time intervals isn’t the same, but that doesn’t change that the variability in a particular 17-year time interval is determined by the data for that time interval, not by the data from a large sample of other 17-year time intervals.

If anything, what Gordon Hughes has illustrated is that it is quite likely that variability on 17-year timescales can mask an anthropogenic/forced trend. That’s why one should be careful of claiming that global warming has stopped if the time interval is short. It’s certainly not a reason for claiming that it has, as the GWPF has done, time and time again. In fact, one problem with over-promoting the Karl et al. result is that it’s not all that surprising that variability could have produced a slowdown in surface warming.

Anyway, that’s all I was going to say. There’s more that I could say, but the Wi-Fi here is very slow and I’m not even sure if this will actually post. It’s also why I haven’t included many links in this post. I’m also struggling to access the comments, so apologies if I don’t respond, and let’s keep everything civil and polite.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming | Tagged , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Rude and touchy

I’m off on holiday tomorrow. Just somewhere local, but it will be nice to get away and relax for a week. Some walking, some cycling, some relaxing and doing nothing, maybe a bit of eating good food and drinking nice wine; just what you need after a busy year. I don’t plan to do much blogging but I can’t help highlighting a recent article that reports on an interview with Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee for Climate Change.

What caught my eye was what he said with regards to Matt Ridley and Nigel Lawson:

Their influence is less and less I am happy to say. The facts of science, life and measured views of people like Pope Francis are undermining them. They have become just rude instead of arguing and they are so touchy.

I’ve discussed Matt Ridley and his views on a number of occasions and, in particular, how he can become rather touchy when criticised.

To be fair, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Matt Ridley being actually rude, but he does seem to make a habit of making fairly basic mistakes and then complaining when criticised. For someone with a background in science, he also seems to rather ignore some of the basics of the scientific method.

So, I’m obviously quite pleased to see someone with actual influence criticising these rather typical tactics: make stuff up, get criticised, whine if the tone isn’t absolutely perfect while completely ignoring the substance of the criticism. I note that Andrew Montford has also commented on the article, complaining that they’re smearing Matt Ridley because he doesn’t actually own a coal mine, he only owns land on which there is a coal mine; okay, that makes all the difference! The good thing about Andrew Montford’s article, though, is that it nicely illustrates the point that Lord Deben is making.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 92 Comments

Understanding versus Accepting

If there’s one thing about which even reasonable people can disagree, it’s science communication. The more I encounter this, the more I think that it’s often a misunderstanding about what others are actually trying to do. For example, a typical claim is that the deficit model has failed. What I think is meant by this is that if you want people to accept a scientific position, simply trying to reduce their knowledge deficit is a particularly poor strategy. The problem is that, as a physical scientist, my particular interest is public understanding of science, not public acceptance of science. As far as public understanding is concerned, the deficit model is essentially all there is. I think improving public understanding of science is a good thing to do, even if it doesn’t particularly influence public acceptance of science. Whether or not people choose to accept a scientific position is, in my view, entirely up to them.

On the other hand, I think that some physical scientists who criticise social science, don’t quite realise that what’s of interest to social scientists isn’t necessarily public understanding of science, but why some people don’t accept certain scientific positions, and how we can increase the level of acceptance of these positions. Physical scientists may be more interested in public understanding, than in public acceptance, but that doesn’t mean that studying public acceptance of science isn’t an interesting issue. It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where everyone understood everything that they accepted, but we don’t, and it would be naive to think that we can. We all accept things that we don’t fully understand. There will also be occasions when working out how to increase public acceptance is important.

So, it would seem useful if people tried a little harder to understand each other’s motivations. I think improved public understanding of science is intrinsically good, even if it doesn’t lead to increased acceptance of contentious scientific positions. However, I also think that understanding why certain people may not accept certain scientific positions, and what strategies could be used to change this, is also useful; even if I have no great interest in using those strategies myself.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Science | Tagged , , | 91 Comments

Mini ice age?

There was a press release from the National Astronomy Meeting – which I go to every couple of years – suggesting that the Sun will return to Maunder Minimum-like conditions during the 2030s. This has been picked up by some as suggesting that we’re heading for a mini-ice-age.

SolarIrradianceReconstructedSince1610This kind of idea has been addressed before. The basic problem is illustrated in the figure to the right. If the Sun returns to Maunder minimum-like conditions, then that might imply a reduction in Total Solar Irradiance (TSI) of maybe as much as 3Wm-2. However, to determine the corresponding change in forcing requires considering the geometry of the Earth (approximately spherical) and the albedo (about 0.3). A reduction of TSI of 3Wm-2 would produce a change in solar forcing of about 0.5Wm-2.

\Delta F_{\rm solar} = \dfrac{(1 - {\rm A}){\rm \Delta TSI}}{4}.

Anthropogenic forcings have, however, probably increased by more than 2Wm-2 since 1750, are currently rising at around 0.4Wm-2/decade, and will probably (unless we start reducing our emissions) continue to rise at at least this rate. A reduction in solar forcing of 0.5Wm-2 by the mid-2030s will therefore only offset about a decade’s worth of increasing anthropogenic forcings. Globally, therefore, the effect will likely be small, as illustrated by the second-to-last figure in this article.

I should, however, be a little bit careful, as it is possible that such a change in solar forcing could have quite significant regional impacts. This paper suggests that

For a high-end decline in solar ultraviolet irradiance, the impact on winter northern European surface temperatures over the late twenty-first century could be a significant fraction of the difference in climate change between plausible AR5 scenarios of greenhouse gas concentrations.

So, a return to Maunder minimum-like conditions could have quite large regional impacts, but globally is likely to have a relatively small effect, and would probably only delay global warming by about 10 years.

Edit : As some have pointed out in the comments, the TSI reconstruction I’ve included here is a bit old and newer ones suggest a smaller change in TSI between the Maunder Minimum and now – maybe as small as 1Wm-2. If so, that would make the resulting change in forcing even smaller, maybe a bit less than 0.2Wm-2. Even so, it’s fairly clear that even a substantial reduction in solar activity would have a relatively small impact on global warming, compared to the likely anthropogenic influences.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, Science | Tagged , , , | 98 Comments