Climate pushback #2 (of 2)

After the jump, excerpts from a few more readers with thoughts to add, in response to this and this, about the notorious famed "hockey stick" chart and the general state of the climate-change debate.

I'll let these speak for themselves -- and also let them wrap up the discussion in this space for the time being.

But a note about a point that could use re-assertion What attracted me to Richard Muller's book "Physics for Future Presidents" and still does, despite varied complaints about parts of its argument, is that it tries to do something that too few experts and specialists bother with. It attempts to explain the way scientists approach complex issues of public policy. How they weigh evidence. What they're skeptical of and convinced by. How they think about data that never perfectly fits -- and how they try to discern general trends even when particular details are messy. I was using this in contrast to a George Will column breezily asserting that a decade of flat temperatures (a claim that itself is disputed, to put it mildly) said something significant about longer-term climactic trends.

How many other experts even try to do this? Explaining their manner of thinking -- which is more valuable than their judgment on any particular point? Rather than simply asserting that they are right on the basis of their expertise. Historians Richard Neustadt and Ernest May -- both unfortunately now dead, both men I admired greatly when taking their classes -- notably did so in their book Thinking in Time, which tried to explain how historical analogies could inform --  mislead. I have not yet read Jerome Groopman's How Doctors Think, but the title is certainly promising in this sense. I have read The Art and Science of Politics, by Harold Varmus, and it's a fine example of this approach. Atul Gawande's justly celebrated New Yorker report (on why medical costs were so much higher in one Texas city than another) was great because he applied his knowledge as a physician to explain how other doctors did their work. The Galbraiths -- John Kenneth, and now his son James, especially with Predator State -- earned the suspicion (and envy) of many fellow economists by trying to explain what was right and wrong about economic reasoning to lay readers. To avoid the risk of offending by omission, I'll stop here (rather than talking about lawyers, engineers, biologists, teachers, etc.

The entire purpose of Richard Muller's book was to convey how people trained in the hard sciences make their way through the contradictory signals from the real political world. That is worth noting, no matter what you think about his view on the "hockey stick."

Reader comments after the jump.


From a Canadian scientist

Since you posted regarding the now-infamous Mann et al. "Hockey Stick", I thought I'd forward you the summary of the report "Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years" written by the National Academies. [Here]

This report was compiled at the request of Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) in order to clarify the issues surrounding climate change and the Hockey Stick flap.  To summarize that report, let me simply quote from a AAAS Newsletter:

"At Chairman Boehlert's request, the National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed this issue. In a report released on June 22, entitled Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, the Academy concluded that, while Mann's statistical procedures weren't optimal, the procedure did not unduly distort his conclusions, which the Academy reinforced. "The basic conclusion of Mann et al. was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on icecaps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years." Due to the degree of uncertainty in the temperature estimates from many centuries ago, the Academy did not support Mann's specific claims that the 1990s was the hottest decade and 1998 the hottest year in the past millennium."

Obviously, the Hockey Stick episode did nothing to help the climate science community's case.   That said, the Mann study wasn't very far off the mark.
A scientist in Zurich writes:
I just wanted to point out a simplification of a simplification in your post about Antarctic ice. While it is true that higher temperatures lead to higher humidity and higher snowfall, you have to be careful with equating snow with ice, and assuming that storage increases.... higher fluxes into the system mean that there also higher fluxes out of the system and if you replace snow (or firn) with ice then the density difference leads to non-trivial losses in absolute mass. Loss is absolute mass within the ice sheet is a gain to the oeans, hence sea level rise without a loss in the *area* of the Antarctic ice sheet. Furthermore, something that isn't discussed very much is that slightly warmer temperatures can lead to very dramatic differences in the speed that the ice is moving off of the continent (due to melting at the base of the ice sheets in contact with bedrock)....


In this PDF file of a paper called "Science Advice as Procedural Rationality," Michael Feuer, of the National Academy of Sciences, talks about the general problem of incorporating expert advice into public/political decisions.


From reader Brian Filipiak:

You may have read Michael Crichton's book: "State of Fear". I have enjoyed Crichton for years, and I had to force myself to pick up this book and read it. I didn't want to read it because it was supposedly "against" global warming.

It wasn't. It was "against" public-opinion science. He brought a level of questioning to the debate that had not been applied in a large, popularized way, before. Doing so, he took a *lot* of heat for it.

He did a nice interview with Charlie Rose, and touched on it during that discussion. Interview here: 

About 19:50 into the discussion. He describes himself: "I am not a catastrophist."

For me, reading this book helped me further learn to question things, and if Muller simply is trying to accomplish the same thing with his book, then I'll be sure to read it.


From reader Leslie Forman

I am a UC Berkeley alumna, now living in Beijing... I'm writing to chime in to the discussion about Richard Muller's Physics for Future Presidents course.  I took it three years ago, in my final semester, to fill a graduation requirement.  My take-aways from the course were (A) science is relevant to public policy  (B) admitting that, unfortunately, doesn't make political decision-making easy  (C) energy policy is interesting!  I recall that his lesson on nuclear power attracted especially passionate questions from the crowd. 

In many ways, I think this class was a microcosm of my Berkeley education -- so many perspectives to consider, so many sets of conflicting facts, such a strong imperative to make sense of them in a personally compelling way.  I think I've often explained to my Chinese students that the central question of my college education was, "what do you think?"  This question is far less common in Chinese schools.


A topic that combines frogs, Chinese education, Michael Crichton, and other longstanding concerns -- plus matters of real importance! Thanks to all.