Eric’s Memes

Eric Winsberg teaches philosophy at the University of South Florida. He specializes in philosophy of science, in particular computer simulations in science. He wrote a book that may interest AT’s readers, called Philosophy and Climate Science. We met over teh tweeter a while ago. What follows is an edited transcript (Eric being disgraphic, English  not being my first language) of our chat about Montréal, memes, and music.

[Willard, hereinafter W]
hello, good sir
an update – i have an article to write on the spark joy meme before our interview
if it’s still in the cards

[Eric Winsberg, thereafter E]
hey. what did you want to interview about? what format, etc?

[W] it is for a climate blog
readers may want to buy your book

[E] yeah yeah, sure. anything to pimp the book. 🙂

[W] since we both like memes, i think running through your meme presentation would work like a charm – you have it in pdf?

[E] i think so. were you there?

[W] no, i only saw some tweets, and compliments about your meme game

[E] ah, ok. it was mostly on a dare. i dont know how to send files on twitter. whats your email?


[E] do you do the interviews over skype or by text.

[W] we do it here, simpler
ok, watched your slides
saw you made a point about emergent ECS
but why, what did you want to say to a bunch of philosophers listening to the talk

[E] is this the interview??
I thought the idea of emergent constaint reasoning was interesting.
but that it is easy to misuse.
and I thought I could use it to draw an interesting connection between two points people had been making about the epistemology of climate modeling:
stufff about robustness, and stuff about process understanding.

[W] what is this stuff about robustness, and process understanding, is it in your book?

[E] yeah, chapters 11 and 12.

[W] i guess i have no excuse anymore
[reading aloud the introduction] ok, jessica williams and chora – spouse and dog?

[E] girlfriend and late dog.
(died between when the book went to press and when it came out)

[W] i like that you thank feminist philosophers in the introduction for…

[E] pushing philosophy of science to be more focused on being in the service of social good

[W] i like the book structure – data, models, simulations, chaos, probability, confidence, decision, values, skill, robustness, diversity, social epistemology
looks like a book i could use to teach a course on philosophy of climate science

[E] that was the idea!!!

[W] you are transparent, it’s a Good Thing
your presentation is about the last section: “the fact that some climate hypotheses are supported by a variety of lines of evidence, and of the fact that some hypotheses are jointly predicted by a whole ensemble of different models.”
so, your robustness is what climateball players call consilience


[E] yeah, consilience in philosophy of science was kinda taken by theory confirmation lit. robustness has been more common for talking about agreement of models.

[more reading aloud]

[E] by the way: do I get to find out who you are? 🙂

[W] it’d be easy to find me out [inaudible]
never thought i’d meet philosophers when i started in 2009
otherwise i’d have chosen an even more obscure nick, like wilfrid or wilfred

[E] hahaha. i didnt even realize it was quine. quine is way better than sellars or tupac

[W] more so that if i get the point of your book right, in the end, holism wins
“in the end, holism wins” is something my character says a lot

[E] haha, dunno. maybe
didn’t think of it that way. but holism is good

[W] it may improve diversity – the more ways you can attack a problem, the better

[E] def

[W] let’s connect with what you want to say with other slides
were you following your book closely?
there is “model robustness” and “instrument robustness” – what was your point?


[E]  the main point was: if you want model robustness, you need emergent constraint reasoning, and once you see that you see that what knutti calls process understanding, and contrasts with robustness, is actually what you need *for* robustness.
they in fact go hand in hand

[W] robustness and process understanding, alright

[E] later
always great to talk to a montreal, especially a montrealer.


[W] hello again, if you have time, i have a clarification to ask
Andrew ranted about emergence a few days ago
i sense an equivocation needs to be clarified

[E]  Emergent Constraint [EC] reasoning is great, but its also had to do well.
I actually wrote a piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung criticizing an EC paper in nature. I’ll email you the real article and also the english version.
dessler is absolutely right that you can’t use EC reasoning to get right at climate sensitivity

[W] i like that

If the degree to which they cancel out changes as the climate does, the apparent emergent constraint could be spurious, and provide false confidence. What does this mean for the new uncertainty estimate in the Nature letter? The IPCC gives about a 20% probability of ECS falling above 4.5C. The Nature letter says 1%. To really be confident in this, we need to be at least 99% sure that the alleged emergent constraint is not founded on compensating errors. Given the vast number of processes and feedbacks that contribute to ECS, it is hard to see why we should think the likelihood of this is anywhere near that low.

[E] so the idea that from consilient lines of evidence emerges robustness does not imply we go all in in emergent constraint analyses
yeah, so this last point is complicated and might be hard to make in a pithy line or two.
but the idea is: consilience, properly understood, isn’t cheap.
you need a lot of background knowledge to understand when you are accumulating more and more evidence and when you are looking at multiple copies of the same newspaper. and EC reasoning is similar.

[W] that meme is my favorite
if we could rule out alternative explanations, that’d be great
rule out alternative explanations with RA, i.e. Robustness Analysis ?


[E] right. that’s the schupbach account of RA, that each new addition to the set, in order to add to robustness, should rule out a possible explanation of why the old set might have erroneously indicated that the hypothesis was true.

[W] you believe in that?

[E] ben ouais

[W, flipping] i see that you do on p. 205
oh, you rule out ECS under 1.5C because of volcanos, solar cycles, and paleo
(and i know at least one reader who will like this)
but we can’t rule out >6C
and you have no confidence that we can constrain these results more than we already do

[E]  not right now, no
i think >6 is unlikely, but can’t be ruled out

[W] it’d be foolish not to allow the possibility as a swan-like event
the other end requires we revise physics, or we get really strange cloud effects

[E, in a more professoral tone] The main difference between the left tail and the right tail is that we know that low ECS correlates with long equilibration time. So if it were below 1.5, we would have seen it equilibrate at a low value. But if it’s over 6, there are reasons we might not have seen it good. What the Schupbach account shows us, is why we can’t rule out >6 we don’t have a set of detection methods that each collective rule out something the other don’t have, because the main way to rule out >6 is with really long data, and really long data is also full of errors. So nothing will rule out the possible explanation that it takes a really long time to see the >6, and that’s just being hidden in the messy really old data. The good news is ecs is probably not >6 and if it is, it will almost certainly take centuries to get there.

[W] ok, i think we got everything, but we can’t end like this
we got Eric, the montrealer and the memes, we need the music
why tupac, like here for instance

[E] I don’t like tupac a) because he got biggie killed and b) he has no flow

[W] flow, who has flow

[E] best flow: biggie. other contenders: method man (he’s lazy though and not many great verses–try his verse on “shame on a n..”), Big L, and Snoop Dogg, Ghostface Killah on “Ice cream” is also great flow.

[W] wow, so much to listen to now
alright, that’s a rap
thanks for your time
nice to see that philosophers are stepping in

[E] ok, ttyl

Posted in Interview, The philosophy of science, We Are Science | Tagged , , , , | 37 Comments

Early 20th century warming

I’ve noticed that Judith Curry is discussing the early twentieth century warming. The idea is that there was a period of warming during the early twentieth century that was similar to the warming we’ve experienced since the second half of the twentieth century. Tamino has already pointed out that the warming since the mid-1900s far exceeds the early twentieth century warming, so I won’t say much more about that.

The suggestion, though, is essentially that this early period of warming confounds our understanding of anthropogenically-driven warming. In other words, if it warmed this much during a period when we weren’t emitting much, how can we be confident that most of the modern warming is anthropogenic? As Judith highlights, there is a recent paper that estimates that about half of the early twentieth century warming was externally forced (anthropogenic and natural) and about half was due to internal variability. So, internal variability could have contributed 0.1-0.2K of warming during the early 20th century. This is entirely consistent with what we might expect over a period of a few decades.

So, does this mean that internal variability could be responsible for a reasonably large fraction of the overall warming we’ve experience to date? Well, no. Internal variability can produce quite substantial warming on short timescales, but it’s very difficult for this to persist for a long time. By itself, internal variability just moves energy around. For there to be long-term warming requires some kind of response (for example, changes in clouds or water vapour) that prevents any enhancement in surface temperature from simply being radiated into space (which would happen in months without this response). However, since the system is long-term stable, these responses are – on average – smaller in magnitude than the Planck response (how much an increase in surface temperature changes how much energy we lose to space). Therefore, on long, multi-decade timescales, any internally-driven warming should decay back to the equilibrium set by the external factors (i.e., the Sun and the planetary greenhouse effect). It’s therefore very difficult for it to provide substantial warming on multi-decade/century timescales.

There’s also a paradox. For internal variability to contribute substantially to our long-term warming, there needs to be some kind of radiative response. As I said above, this would be changes in clouds, or changes in water vapour. However, these also respond to externally-driven warming, such as due to changes in atmospheric CO2. As I try to explain in this post, if internal variability has produced more than half of our observed warming, then somehow the system is responding to internally-driven warming, but not to externally-driven warming. This doesn’t make any sense, as the climate system can’t know if some temperature change was internally-driven, rather than externally-driven. Therefore, arguing that internal variability could have contributed substantially to our observed warming introduces a paradox that noone who suggests this has ever addressed.

Basically, the early twentieth century warming doesn’t really challenge our overall understanding of anthropogenically-driven warming. It seems likely that internal variability contributed to some of this early warming, but that doesn’t mean that it has contributed to a substantial fraction of our overall warming. It may have had some impact (~0.1K) but that can work in either direction. In fact, the overall analysis suggests that it may have produced some cooling since 1950, so that anthropogenic influences – by themselves – would have produced slightly more warming than we’ve actually experienced. Those who promote the role of internal variability typically seem, for some reason, to ignore this possibility.

And then there’s the energy imbalance – post I wrote about the significance of the planetary energy imbalance.
95%, attribution, and all that – post I wrote trying to show how it’s very difficult to construct a physical plausible scenario in which most of the observed warming is not anthropogenic.
IPCC attribution statements redux: A response to Judith Curry – Realclimate post responding to Judith Curry’s suggestion that more than half of the observed warming could be internally-driven.
The feedback paradox – post I wrote about the paradox of feedbacks operating only when the warming is internally-driven.
Predictable and unpredictable behaviour – Realclimate post that also discusses the feedback paradox.

Posted in Climate sensitivity, ClimateBall, Judith Curry, Pseudoscience | Tagged , , , , | 34 Comments

Recursive climateball

I noticed on Twitter that Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has got people talking, again, about controversies based on emails from almost 20 years ago. Rather than delving into it too much myself, I thought I would just post the video below, in which Michael Mann explains the issue, and why it really isn’t one.

Posted in Anthony Watts, ClimateBall, Michael Mann, Sound Science (tm), Steven McIntyre, The philosophy of science, The scientific method, Watts Up With That | Tagged , , , , | 117 Comments


I’ve mostly avoided writing about Brexit, as it’s a pretty depressing situation. There are many aspects of this issue that I find frustrating, but something I find particularly irritating is when politicians claim that not leaving the EU would be some kind of threat to our democracy. The suggestion is that the people have spoken and our democratic principles require that we enact the will of the people.

One immediate problem is that the referendum was advisory, not binding. On top of that, the leave vote may have won the referendum, but it’s wasn’t exactly a resounding victory. The result was 52% (17,410,742) in favour of leaving, while 48% (16,141,241) voted to remain. The turnout was 72%, so almost 13 million people didn’t even vote. The idea that our democracy requires fundamentally changing the nature of our country because 37% of the electorate voted for something seems a bit much, especially given that 35% voted against this, and 28% didn’t even bother voting at all.

In fact, if you go the 2015 election manifestos, only one party (UKIP) explicitly campaigned on the basis of leaving the EU. The UK is a parliamentary democracy; the party that wins the most seats typically forms a government and tries to enact their preferred policies. If we like the way they’re running the country we can vote for them again at the next election. If not, we can vote for a different party.

UKIP has only ever had one member of parliament. We’ve essentially allowed a political party with virtually no parliamentary representation to shape the future of the UK. This seems like a much greater violation of our democractic principles than parliament deciding that it can’t enact the referendum result in a way that doesn’t do much more harm than good, especially given that making decisions on our behalf is why they were elected in the first place.

I realise that most of the “threat to democracy” rhetoric is hyperbolic, but I still find it irritating, especially coming from those who are embedded in our democractic process. I realise that many people are not going to be happy if we do stay in the EU, but a similar number (maybe even more) are going to be very unhappy about leaving. I also realise that staying in the EU will be politically very difficult. This doesn’t mean, however, that parliament deciding to do so will be some kind of fundamental threat to our democracy.

Posted in ethics, Personal, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 91 Comments

Guest essay: The Missing Key

This is a guest essay from Peter Miesler, who writes the blog Citizen’s Challenge.

The Missing Key to Stephen Gould’s
“Nonoverlapping Magisteria”

“… missing was a much more fundamental division crying out for recognition. Specifically,
the magisteria of Physical Reality vs the magisteria of our Human Mindscape. …”

The increasingly shrill and disconnected from physical reality attacks on science by faith-based organizations and individuals has me thinking about an essay evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen J. Gould wrote some twenty years ago in an attempt to address the tension between scientific truths and religious truths.

His solution was the notion of “Non-overlapping Magisteria” which delineated two teaching “authorities” (magisterium), the “magisteria of science” and the “magisteria of religion.” It wasn’t his original idea, rather a continuation of a centuries old dialogue between scientists and the Catholic Church that I don’t have the space to get into.

In any event, Gould concluded there should be no conflict because each realm has its’ own domain of “teaching authority.” Since these “magisteria” do not overlap, they cannot contradict each other and should be able to exist in mutual respect.

When it first came out, I loved the idea because of my own struggling intellectual spiritual journey which was embedded within gathering and learning from sober scientific knowledge about this Earth, while dealing with the spiritual aspect of ‘touching Earth’ and having experienced ‘God’s breath’ against my back, so to speak.

Gould’s idea was interesting and it gained a lot of attention and lively discussion, but in the end seems to have offered little to either side. For myself, the criticisms made sense and my enthusiasm diminished. Still, the conflict kept echoing like an unresolved challenge as I increasingly engaged faith-shackled contrarians towards science.

In the years since I’ve kept learning more about Earth’s amazing evolution and geophysics and also the scientific process itself. A process that’s basically a set of rules for gathering and assessing our observations in an honest, open and disciplined manner that all who’ve learned to understand science can access and trust.

Recently it occurred to me that what Stephen Gould was missing was a much more fundamental divide that is crying out for recognition.

Specifically, the Magisteria of Physical Reality vs the Magisteria of our Human Mindscape.

In this perspective we acknowledge that Earth and her physical processes and the pageant of evolution are the fundamental timeless touchstones of reality. Part of Earth’s physical reality is that we humans were created by Earth out of her processes.

Science shows us that we belong to the mammalian branch of Earth’s animal kingdom. Yet, it’s undeniable that something quite unique happened some six million years ago when certain apes took a wild improbable evolutionary turn.

By and by besides the marvel of our two hands, we developed two feet and legs that could stand tall or run for hours and a brain that learned rapidly. During that evolutionary process something extraordinary fantastical was born, the Human Mindscape.

On the outside hominids learned to make tools, hunt, fish, and select plants, plus they mastered fire for cooking and better living.

On the inside our brains were benefiting from the new super nourishment while human curiosity and adventures started filling and stretching our mindscapes with experiences and knowledge beyond anything the “natural” physical Earth ever knew.

While the human mind and spirit are ineffable mysteries, they are also of tremendous consequence and real-world physical power. They drove our growing ability to study and manipulate our world, to communicate and record our experiences and to formulate explanations for a world full of mysteries, threats and wonders. People learned to think and gossip and paint pictures upon the canvas of cave walls, or even better, upon the canvas of each other’s imaginations. We’ve been adding to our brain’s awareness and complexity ever since.

Of course, while all this was going on the human mind was also wondering about the ‘Why’ of the world it observed and the difficult, fragile, short lives we were allotted. In seeking answers to unknowable questions it seems inevitable that Gods would inhabit our mindscape. I suspect inspired by buried memories of being coddled within mom’s protective loving bosom those first couple years of life.

No doubt these “Gods” enabled further successes, though not through super-natural interventions, but rather through their ability to form, conform, reform and transform the mindscapes of the masses of people beginning to congregate. Thus, combining pragmatic civil societal needs with universally felt, but keenly personal questions, fears, and dreams.

After the middle ages tribal stories, accepted ancient doctrines and religious “truths” were no longer enough to satisfy our mindscape’s growing desire for ever more understanding and power over the Earth. The human brain took another tremendous leap forward in awareness with the Intellectual Enlightenment and the birth of serious disciplined scientific study.

Science’s success was dazzling in its ability to learn about, control and manipulate Earth’s physical resources and to transform entire environments. Science was so successful that today most people believe we are the masters of our world and most have fallen into the hubristic trap of believing our ever fertile mindscape is reality. Which brings me back to Gould’s magisterium and his missing key.

The missing key is appreciating the fundamental “Magisteria of Physical Reality,” and recognizing both science and religion are products of the “Magisteria of Our Mindscape.”

Science seeks to objectively learn about our physical world, but we should still recognize all our understanding is embedded within and constrained by our mindscape.

Religion is all about the human mindscape itself, with its wonderful struggles, fears, spiritual undercurrents, needs and stories we create to give our live’s meaning and make it worth living, or at least bearable.

What’s the point?

Religions, God, heaven, hell, political beliefs, even science, they are all products of the human mindscape, generations of imaginings built upon previous generations of imaginings, all the way down.

Here we are, 2018, sober assessment of physical facts is out of fashion and fantasy thinking in the service of ruthless avarice is in.

Now it literally threatening to topple USA’s government Of The People, By The People, and For The People, in favor of a Me First, profits are more important than people, oligarch run machine.

Well, unless an awful lot of sideliners start getting engaged in our democratic process.

All the while the actual physical creation outside of our conceited little minds keeps on unfolding, following well understood geophysical rules regardless.

Ignore at our own peril.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Global warming, Personal, Science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , | 31 Comments

Fact mongering

I thought I would highlight an essay that some of my regulars might find of interest. It’s by Adam Briggle in Issues in Science and Technology and is about Fear mongering and fact mongering. The article is essentially about responsible research conduct. We typically regard research misconduct as being falsification, fraud or plagiarism. The article suggests that we should expand our sense of research ethics to include responsible research and innovation. The idea being that researchers should be conscious of the potential impact of their research and should do the right thing.

The article then focuses on responsible rhetoric of research. Researchers can engage in fact-mongering, where they present information that is factually correct, but that leads people to draw conclusions that are not really consistent with all the available evidence. In some sense, the suggestion is that researchers should be aware of how the manner in which they present information might influence how people interpret the significance of that information. On the other hand, some could engage in this type of rhetoric intentionally so as to encourage a conclusion that suits their narrative, even if it isn’t actually consistent with our best understanding. The examples provided might be of interest to regular readers of this blog.

Although I think that this is indeed an issue, I can’t see any way in which we could, in most cases, objectively determine if someone has engaged in irresponsible rhetoric. I also think that this runs the risk of challenging aspects of academia, such as academic freedom, that we regard as extremely important. I think we probably just have to accept that there will be cases where we disagree with the manner in which some people choose to engage publicly.

I do think, however, that the author is slightly too generous to some of those he uses as examples. The suggestion is that although they might be engaging in irresponsible rhetoric, their thesis is logically, or empirically, flawless. I don’t think this is true. I think there are many fundamental problems with the arguments of those highlighted. However, the topic is sufficiently complicated that this isn’t always obvious.

I think the problem is simpler than some engaging in irresponsible rhetoric; I think there are some who simply present flawed arguments that suit some preferred narrative. The real problem is how one deals with this, and I don’t think there is a simple way. If there are critiques from the scientific community, then there are accusations of bullying, consensus enforcement, and/or there being some kind of science police. If you ignore it, then people can get away with making potentially convincing, but flawed, arguments. Even though I’ve been writing about this kind of thing on this blog for quite some time, I don’t really have any good suggestions. Even I’ve found myself getting tired of dealing with this kind of thing.

You might think that this would be something that social science could help with, and the article I’m discussing is clearly an attempt to do that. However, I also think that many social scientists regard this as simply illustrating a diversity of views and that it is an indication of a vibrant social discourse. It’s hard to see how we can develop ways to deal with something if there isn’t even really agreement that it’s a problem worth addressing. I may be wrong about this impression, so happy to be corrected if I am.

As usual, I’ve gone on way too long. I do think that the article highlights something that is a real issue, but I don’t really see any simple way to deal with this. Although I agree that we should expect/encourage responsible research rhetoric, I don’t see any way in which we could introduce some kind of formal procedure that would censure those who are assessed as having engaged in fact-mongering.

Letters responding to the Briggle article (some of which might, again, be of interest to regular readers of this blog. Kate Marvel’s is particularly good).
Criticising the critics – an older post of mine about this kind of issue.
The Science Police.
Watt about climate models running way too hot – post highlighting one of Bjorn Lomborg’s slip-ups.
Bjorn Lomborg, just a scientist with a different opinin – Realclimate post highlighting some more of Bjorn Lomborg’s blunders.
Lukewarmers – a follow up – a post about some discussion of Lukewarmers.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Philosophy for Bloggers, Pseudoscience, Research, Sound Science (tm), The philosophy of science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , | 473 Comments