A retrospective about engaging online

Philip Moriarty wrote a post about engaging online called rules of engagement: seven lessions from communicating above and below the line. Philip’s experiences are quite negative, and he has mostly stopped engaging on social media. I had said that I would try to write something about my own experiences, so this is an attempt to do so.

One problem with trying to write some kind of retrospective about my experiences engaging on social media is that I know that I’m not the same person now as I was when I started; I’ve learned a lot, and how I respond to things is also very different. I’ve slightly forgotten how I would have responded to things in the past, so may not even correctly represent my own experiences. I’ll do my best, though.

I should probably remind people that I started doing this pseudonymously. I don’t have a really good reason for having done so. I think it’s partly my own nature, and partly I was aware that it could be a contentious topic, so thought that it might be better than engaging openly. If I had known then what I know now, I might have started differently, but I didn’t, so I didn’t. It only lasted about 18 months before I was outed and I think I was quite pleased when that happened.

Something else I remember is that I was very naive when I started (I may still be naive, but not quite as naive as I once was). I really did think that trying to remain civil, and trying to explain things clearly and carefully, would make a difference. It very quickly became clear that this was not the case. In some sense I learned, first hand, the failure of the deficit model. On the other hand, my interest was more in explaining/discussing science, than convincing people to do something. So, it’s still not clear to me what I – as a scientist – can do that is different to what I started doing. I still think that the best I can do is to simply explain the science as clearly and carefully as I can, even if that doesn’t necessarily achieve anything specific.

This is probably the bit I find hardest to write. I have found some of what I’ve experienced, extremely difficult. There have been stages where I have worried about the impact this was having on my general health and well-being. I have, however, partly learned to deal with this and partly I now know my limits. I am less bothered by the vitriol, and I simply post less and comment less. I also know when to simply take a break and recharge. The down side, though, is that I think I am far less passionate about this than I once was.

I also think that I’ve learned to recognise when something is worthwhile, and when it is not. Similarly, I think I know how to write things that will either provoke a response, or – sometimes – not. If I don’t feel like having to deal with predictable responses, I think I know how to write things in a way that minimises the likelihood of getting those responses. What worries me a little, though, is that I’m essentially applying some form of self-censorship. In some sense this can be good, because it might indicate that one has learned how to phrase things in ways that are regarded as reasonable. On the other hand, it probably also means a reluctance to address potentially contentious topics. I don’t have a sense of whether or not I’ve achieved the right balance, and this is something I do ponder from time to time.

Some positives. I’ve learned a lot. This can be challenging, and I do quite enjoy challenges. It’s also an important topic and I would like to think that I’ve made some kind of contribution, even if it’s not a very large one. I’ve encountered some people who I respect and like and from whom I’ve learned a lot. Sadly, I’ve also encountered some who I want little, if anything, more to do with. There are some who seem incapable of engaging in a reasonable manner, and it is – in my view – worth identifying these people as soon as you can and avoiding them if at all possible. These people are not all anonymous trolls, which did surprise me initially, but doesn’t anymore.

Okay, this is getting rather long, so I will try to wrap up. Do I have any general observations and advice for those who might be considering engaging on social media? It’s challenging, but can be very interesting and rewarding. However, it’s important to learn your limits and not to do too much; there are aspects that can be very frustrating and unpleasant. Given that I think I’ve reached a point where I now know my own limits and what I think I can do, I’m also trying to be supportive of others who are engaging online. I think it would be good if more were engaging on social media and I think it’s important for those who are more established to try and help those who are starting out. I’m also just trying to be nicer, even with those who I mostly disagree with; if the next thing I want to say isn’t very pleasant, then I simply try not to respond. This is partly because I do think it would be good if the dialogue were better and the only person you can actually influence is yourself, but is also partly because I’ve learned how much I dislike engaging in vitriolic discussions.

Anyway, those are some reflections about my own engagement on social media. This is, of course, simply one person’s experiences, so may not be the same for others, and others may have very different ideas and views. I also certainly don’t not claim that my own engagement is some exemplar of how it such be done, but maybe some will find these reflections useful.

Posted in ClimateBall, Personal, Scientists | Tagged , , , , , | 78 Comments

Be wealthy

Bret Stephens has a new op-ed in the New York Times about Hurricanes, Harvey and the Capitalist Offset. His conclusion is that the storm will be a speed bump to Houston’s economy and that

[t]he best lesson the world can take from Texas is to follow the path of its extraordinary economic growth on the way to environmental resilience.

Essentially, get wealthier and you will be more able to deal with environmental challenges.

The problem I have with this is not that it’s wrong (I’m sure it’s roughly true) but that it’s just trivial. It doesn’t really tell us anything about how to do so, and it ignores – in my view – many relevant factors. A response I particularly liked was this one, by Joseph Majkut, which points out that we should really be considering what it would cost to follow a pathway that reduces the impact of climate change and comparing that with how much of a reduction in damages that would produce.

However, rather than discussing this any further, I thought I would just make some points that I think are relevant and often ignored.

  • The issue is not about fossil fuels specifically, but about the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. If we could find a way to use fossil fuels without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, then that would be one viable solution. However, I do think that we should be careful of banking on technologies (such as negative emissions, or CCS) that have currently not been shown to work at the appropriate scale.
  • We have the potential to emit enough CO2 that the resulting impacts would almost certainly be regarded as catastrophic. Furthermore, even if we do not emit as much as we possibly can, we still can’t rule out that the impacts will still be very severe. Maybe we’ll be lucky and climate sensitivity will be on the low end and we end up not emitting enough to produce changes that are severe. Maybe we’re lucky and we end up reducing our emissions without really considering how to do so. However, assuming that this will be the case seems a poor way to address this; we can’t rule out the possibility that we could follow a pathway for which the impacts of climate change will be so severe that we will not simply be able grow ourselves out of trouble.
  • A key thing that I think is misunderstood is that CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere; it’s not about stabilising emissions, but getting about them to zero. As long as there is a net anthropogenic emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, it will accumulate. This means that as long as we are emitting CO2, we will continue to warm, our climate will continue to change, and the impacts will continue to get more severe. This implies that if we continue to rely on fossil fuels that emit CO2, then there has to be a level of growth below which climate damages will almost certainly grow relative to the size of the global economy.
  • About 20% to 30% of our emissions (depending on how much we emit in total) will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and the resulting changes will effectively be locked in. This means that climate change is essentially irreversible on human timescales. If we do too little now, and the impacts turn out to be very severe, we don’t get to try again. Yes, maybe we can develop technology that removes CO2 from the atmosphere, or cools the planet by reflecting some extra sunlight back into space, but these will carry their own risks and will probably be technologically challenging. Certainly my view is that it would be better to think of ways to avoid possibly having to rely on technologies that we’ve yet to develop.

So, I certainly don’t dispute that becoming wealthier is an effective way to deal with environmental challenges. However, implying that we can grow wealthier without actually considering the potential environmental challenges, seems remarkably naive, especially as we do have the ability to produce changes to our climate that could lead to impacts that are extremely severe.

Trash arguments from Lukewarmer Oren Cass.
When integrity checking is more important than fact checking: More bad faith from Bret Stephens.
NY Times climate-misinformer tells Houston: You’ve ‘never been safer’.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Climate sensitivity, Global warming | Tagged , , , , , , | 139 Comments

Extreme weather events

Gavin Schmidt had an interesting Twitter thread about discussing the link between extreme weather events and climate change. I’ve included an image of the thread on the right (click on it to expand) but the basic suggestion (with which I agree) is that there will always be some who try to control the story and deligitimise other voices, but it is generally worth exploring the relationship between climate changes and extreme weather events. This should, however, be grounded in the science.

When it comes to any weather event, asking if it was caused by anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is silly, since this question is ill-posed; it’s not even that we can’t answer it, it’s more that it’s a question that doesn’t even really make much sense. There are, however, links to climate change that are worth exploring. Sea levels are rising, and much of this can be attributed to AGW. Sea level doesn’t rise evenly everywhere, but in regions where it has, storm surges would be higher than they would be otherwise. Warmer air can hold more water vapour, so there is the possibility of more extreme precipitation events.

When it comes to something like a Tropical Cyclone, there is a thermodynamic limit to the maximum wind speed that increases as the climate warms. Hence, climate change makes it possible for there to be more intense Tropical Cyclones (TCs). However, these are very complex systems and there are some indications that we may see fewer TCs overall, but an increase in the frequency and intensity of the strongest ones.

The key point is that even though we can’t make direct attribution claims about individual weather events, we can say something about how climate change might influence these types of events. For example, we expect an increase in the intensity and frequeny of extreme precipitation events, extreme TCs, and we expect sea level rise to exacerbate storm surges. It’s certainly my view that we shouldn’t shy away from discussing these links, even if some regard it as a politically sensitive topic. It really shouldn’t be, given that discussing how climate change might be influencing extreme weather events doesn’t immediately tells us how we should respond to this information. Being aware of this information, however, might make it more likely that the response will be appropriate.

Anyway, one reason I wanted to write this was to post the video below, which shows Kerry Emmanuel discussing how climate change will probably influence tropical cyclones.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Science, Scientists | Tagged , , , , , , | 156 Comments

Early 20th century warming

I’ve been involved in a discussion on another blog (which I won’t highlight) about there being a period of warming in the early 20th century that seems comparable to the warming we’ve experienced since about 1980. This is a somewhat standard “skeptic” talking point that is meant to suggest that a period of warming in the early 20th century, that is comparable to a similar period in the late 20th century, somehow challenges the fundamentals of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Well, it doesn’t and you can read this Skeptical Science post that discusses this.

I’ll make a few general comments. If you consider, for example, a 12 month running average of GISTEMP then selecting the period 1910-1940 might seem a bit of a cherry-pick, as it happens to go from a particularly low point, to a particularly high point. Karsten Haustein has also suggested that there might be a data issue with some of the early-1940s data. So, some of this apparent earlier warming could be somewhat exaggerated.

If we put this to one side though, then there does indeed appear to be a period, starting around 1910 and ending sometime in the 1940s, during which the surface warmed at a rate a bit higher than 0.1oC per decade. However, if you consider this paper by Matthew Palmer and Doug McNeall, then it’s quite possible for internal variability to drive trends of around 0.1oC/decade for a period of a few decades. So, that such a period exists, isn’t necessarily all that surprising. Over longer timescales, however, we would expect internally-driven trends to tend to 0.

Furthermore, if you consider the GISS Forcings, then the net change in external forcing (mainly anthropogenic and solar) over the period 1910-1940 is about half that of the change over a similar period starting around 1980. The earlier warming is maybe about 2/3 that of the later period. So, a large part of this earlier warming could simply have been externally forced (mostly solar and anthropogenic), although maybe not all of it. The point, though, is that there are perfectly plausible explanations for this earlier period of warming, and it doesn’t somehow provide some kind of major challenge to our understanding of AGW (that it has warmed before, doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for the warming now).

However, I think this is all largely beside the point. The fundamentals of AGW are very simply that we pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and causing the atmospheric concentrations to rise. This increased atmospheric CO2 reduces the outgoing longwavelength flux and pushes the system out of energy balance; we will be gaining more energy than we’re losing. This extra energy will be distributed throughout the climate system (atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere) and some of it will warm the surface, causing surface temperatures to rise. In fact – given the increase in atmospheric CO2 – the only way to regain energy balance is for surface temperatures to rise.

Of course, our climate is very complicated and there are various circulations patterns/cycles in the atmosphere and in the oceans. This means that there will periods when this extra energy is distributed in such a way as to cause the surface to warm faster/slower than at other times. This doesn’t, however, mean that some of the warming is not anthropogenic; until we regain energy balance, it’s essentially all anthropogenic.

Of course, one could regard the variability about the long-term trend as a consequence of internally-driven cycles. I’m also certainly not arguing against trying to understand how internally-driven cycles influence how the surface warms. I’m simply pointing out that while we still have a planetary energy imbalance (a consequence of rising atmospheric CO2 due to our emissions) the surface will – on average – continue to warm, and all of this warming will – until we regain energy balance – essentially be anthropogenic. Arguing about the causes of short periods when we warmed faster/slower than expected does not somehow mean that the overall warming is not being driven by our emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s my view, at least. Feel free to disagree in the comments.

Posted in Climate change, Climate sensitivity, ClimateBall, Global warming, Science | Tagged , , , | 71 Comments

Machine unlearning

Credit: xkcd.

Someone sent me a paper by John Abbot and Jennifer Marohasy called the application of machine learning for evaluating anthropogenic versus natural climate change. Their conclusion is that most of the observed warming could be natural and that the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) is about 0.6oC. Remember that the IPCC’s likely range is 1.5oC to 4.5oC, so this is well outside the range where we would expect it to be.

So, how did they do this? They take proxy data (5 sites plus a multi-proxy for the Northern Hemisphere) and use spectral analysis to determine a set of sinusiodal variations that fit this proxy data. The output from this spectral analysis is then fed into an artificial neural network (a form of machine learning) which is then used to project the warming for the period 1880-2000 for the Northern Hemisphere and at the individual proxy sites. They find that the observed warming, since the mid-1800s, can mostly be explained as being a consequence of these natural fluctuations. The residual is then used to estimate the ECS, which they suggest is around 0.6oC.

Well, this is simply nonsense. It’s essentially just a complicated curve-fitting exercise. The average temperature of the Earth is largely constrained by energy balance. This, of course, does not mean that it can’t vary, but we do mostly understand what can cause these variations. There are internal/natural cycles that can produce variations, but there are limits as to how large these internally-driven cycles can be and how long they can last. On timescales much longer than a decade, or so, we would expect these to be small, otherwise it would indicate that our climate is much more sensitive to perturbations than we expect (exactly the opposite of what this paper suggests).

Long-term (multi-decade) changes in our climate are mostly a consequence of external perturbations; volcanoes, the Sun, emission of greenhouse gases, changes in ice sheets (typically a consequence of variations in our orbit). These are all rather complex processes and the idea that one could predict how they will change in future by fitting some sine curves to a few different temperature proxy records is rather ridiculous.

This highlights the key problem with the approach in this paper; you can’t try and understand what causes our climate to vary, or how it might vary in future, using machine learning alone. Even though our climate is complex, it is still a physical system and we do understand the underlying physical processes quite well. You do need to take this into account. The idea that (as the paper suggests)

[a]n alternative approach, as demonstrated here, does not require a prior understanding of the physical processes, but adequate data and appropriate machine learning techniques

is ridiculous. If you don’t consider the underlying physics, then you essentially know nothing about what’s causing the climate to change/vary.

That’s not to say that machine learning can’t play a role. However, if you are going to use something like machine learning to make predictions about the future, you do need to be pretty confident that the data that you use to train the machine learning algorithm presents a reasonable representation of the system you’re trying to model. This requires some actual understanding of the system being considered. If you change it by, for example, pumping lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then the training data will almost certainly not be appropriate.

Ultimately, if your naive approach – that completely ignores physics – produces a results that is inconsistent with our understanding of the physical system (suggesting, for example, that it’s almost all natural and that the ECS is about 0.6oC), then it’s much, much more likely that the machine learning algorithm is producing nonsense, than there being something wrong with what is essentially fairly basic physics.

Posted in Climate change, Climate sensitivity, Global warming, Greenhouse effect, Research, Science | Tagged , , , , | 185 Comments

Kate Marvel on clouds

Although we are confident that adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will cause the planet to warm, exactly how much we will warm is uncertain (the IPCC likely range for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 is 1.5oC to 4.5oC). A major reason for this uncertainty is that we don’t know what clouds will do as we warm. Low level clouds act to reflect incoming solar radiation, cooling the planet. High-level clouds are very cold and hence radiate very little energy into space, but block some of the radiation coming from the surface; they act to heat the planet.

Therefore, estimating how much we will warm requires understanding how low-level and high-level clouds will change. It’s possible that these changes could act to reduce how much we warm (cloud feedbacks could be negative). Alternatively, these changes could amplify the warming (cloud feedbacks could be positive). Do we have some idea of what is likely? Yes, we do, but rather than me telling you what it is, you could watch Kate Marvel’s recent TED talk. Kate explains it much better than I possibly could.

Posted in Climate change, Climate sensitivity, Research, Science, Scientists, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

STS: All talk and no walk?

In my previous post I discussed a paper by Harry Collins, and colleagues, that is mainly a response to an editorial by Sergio Sismondo. Collins et al. argue that Science and Technology Studies (STS) must take some responsibility for today’s post-truth environment, and that social scientists should be aiming to understand the formation of knowledge and who can legitimately contribute to expert debate.

I’ve since, however, come across another paper (H/T Mark Carrigan) that also discusses the Sergio Sismondo editorial. It’s by Steve Fuller (whose writings I’ve discussed before) and it asks is STS all talk and no walk? It takes a very different line to that taken by Harry Collins and colleagues, essentially suggesting that STS should take credit for the post-truth world. Steve Fuller’s article claims that STS set loose on the general public — if not outright invented — at least four common post-truth tropes:

1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.

2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.

3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.

4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties.

I find the above competely bizarre; they’re simplistic caricatures of science. Science is a process that aims to understand what is being studied; publishing a paper is simply one way of disseminating the resulting information. It’s true that precisely defining the scientific method is difficult, and that there isn’t actually a single method. However, that doesn’t mean that science isn’t some kind of process of discovery. It is true that there is no definitive scientific “truth” and that what we take to be scientific “truth” today will not be the same as it will be in the future. However, in many cases it is more evolution than revolution and not knowing the precise “truth” now, doesn’t mean that we can’t be confident about things that are not true.

A consensus is not manufactured, it emerges if all the various lines of evidence suggests a consistent picture. It is true that overturning a consensus can be very difficult, but this is often because doing so requires not only illustrating the strength of the evidence supporting the new position, but also why all the evidence supporting the original consensus is wrong, or has been misinterpreted. Overturning a consensus is not meant to be easy. I do agree that determining who is competent and has expertise is non-trivial. However, there is a vast difference between determining who qualifies, and illustrating who does not.

Steve Fuller then goes on to say

What is perhaps most puzzling from a strictly epistemological standpoint is that STS recoils from these tropes whenever such politically undesirable elements as climate change deniers or creationists appropriate them effectively for their own purposes.

His argument seems to be that these politically undesirable elements independently corroborate these tropes’s validity. I’m having some trouble deciding how to respond to this. It seems fairly clear that there will probably always be ideologically motivated people who use simplistic caricatures of science to try and undermine mainstream science for political ends. Why, though, would an academic discipline want to take credit for this, and argue that this somehow validates their caricatures of the scientific process (what Steve Fuller calls tropes)?

This seems to suggest that there are at least some within STS who do not see their role as helping society to understand the nature of knowledge and how to identify those who have competence and expertise (or, maybe, who does not). There certainly seems to be some within STS who regard STS as somehow having provided validity to those who many would regard as having little competence or relevant expertise.

This post is getting rather long, and it’s always possible that I have misunderstood Steve Fuller’s article (or that there is something really deep and clever that I’m missing). I suggest reading the article yourselves and making up your own minds.

I’ll end by quoting something from the conclusion of Steve Fuller’s article:

STS’s most lasting contribution to the general intellectual landscape, namely, to think about science as literally a game

Okay, there are clearly aspects of the scientific process that involve people competing to either find the answer first, or to overturn our current understanding. There are, however, underlying rules, even if they aren’t all that easy to understand/define. I had assumed that one of the roles of STS was to help the public understand the basic process and something of the underlying rules, not rewrite them so that people can essentially make them up as they go along. I don’t see this as either productive, or of benefit to society. Others may well disagree.

Posted in Politics, Pseudoscience, Research, Science, Scientists, The philosophy of science, The scientific method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 49 Comments