Monday, February 15, 2010

The Canals of Mars the Climate Research Unit

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed faint lines on the surface of Mars. He called these lines canali - channels. When his findings were (mis) translated into English, they appeared as canals, and ignited the imagination of the world.

Rather than natural causes (as you would expect for channel), canal implies artificial construction. The thought of intelligent life in our solar system - an ancient race fighting a desperate battle for survival on a dying planet - caused legions of astronomers to rush to their telescopes. Others reported that they also saw canals. Some published maps. But nobody saw as many canals, or published such detailed maps, as Percival Lowell from his Flagstaff observatory, whose map appears here.

It wasn't just scientists whose imaginations were captured by the Martians. The press promoted the story almost hysterically, giving Orson Wells his opportunity to create mass panic with his radio dramatization of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. But the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs were the best.

John Carter was the human hero, mysteriously transported to Mars. Caught up in the epic battles there, as the slow drying of the planet led to desperate wars among the populations, his adventures amidst beautiful Martian princesses and noble Martian warriors fired the imagination of this young boy, back around 1969.

Alas, by then we knew that it was all impossible. Mariner 4 reached Mars in 1965, and photographed the entire planet from orbit. No castles holding Martian princesses, no Orovar cities, and most definitely no Zodangan canals. So how did the entire scientific community spend three decades chasing a Will o' the Wisp? I mean, this stuff was peer reviewed.

Eric Raymond has an interesting thought that seems to apply to both the science of Mars and the current theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (the theory that human production of Carbon Dioxide is causing the planet to warm). Most scientists are caught up in an error cascade:
A scientific error cascade happens when researchers substitute the reports or judgment of more senior and famous researchers for their own, and incorrectly conclude that their own work is erroneous or must be trimmed to fit a “consensus” view.

...

In extreme cases, entire fields of inquiry can go down a rathole for years because almost everyone has preference-falsified almost everyone else into submission to a “scientific consensus” theory that is (a) widely but privately disbelieved, and (b) doesn’t predict or retrodict observed facts at all well. In the worst case, the field will become pathologized — scientific fraud will spread like dry rot among workers overinvested in the “consensus” view and scrambling to prop it up. Yes, anthropogenic global warming, I’m looking at you!
When a few influential scientists publish important work, younger scientists will often defer to "established" results that contradict their own, even if the established results are wrong. Science tends to self correct this sort of thing, although it can take a while - the mass of the electron was incorrectly specified for years and years, because everyone who measured it got a different result than Robert Millikan. Millikan had received the Nobel Prize, and they hadn't, so their results "had to be wrong".

And so with AGW. Strong evidence opposing it "can't be right" and weak evidence supporting it "must be right", and as a result, AGW is an astonishingly weak theory. In the last twenty years its proponents have made many predictions, most of which have been falsified. Michael Mann said that the Medieval Warm Period wasn't warm, contradicting recorded evidence from the period like the Domesday Book that showed wine vinyards in England in the eleventh century. AGW computer models predicted a warm layer in the middle Troposphere in the tropics; MIT's Jim Lindzen and others looked and looked - no warm zone. NOAA's Global Historical Climate Network (GHCN) is the most comprehensive store of historical climate data; people are finding that the data has been frequently, consistently, and mysteriously adjusted so that older temperatures are lowered below what the thermometer readings showed, and recent temperatures are raised above what the thermometer readings showed.

It's an error cascade of epic proportions. The situation is almost like an astronomer in 1965 continuing to insist that the Mariner 5 pictures are irrelevant, because there is a mountain of peer-reviewed literature supporting Ptarth hydrological engineering. Phil Jones of the CRU admits that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today, and that the climate is not getting warmer lately - despite the theory predictions, and that his data is a mess (which is why he refused to release it, even after a Freedom Of Information Act request).

And yet the Climate Scientists still see canals.

Raymond points out why:

There an important difference between the AGW rathole and the others, though. Errors in the mass of the electron, or the human chromosome count, or structural analyses of obscure languages, don’t have political consequences (I chose Chomsky, who is definitely politically active, in part to sharpen this point). AGW theory most certainly does have political consequences; in fact, it becomes clearer by the day that the IPCC assessment reports were fraudulently designed to fit the desired political consequences rather than being based on anything so mundane and unhelpful as observed facts.

When a field of science is co-opted for political ends, the stakes for diverging from the “consensus” point of view become much higher. If politicians have staked their prestige and/or hopes for advancement on being the ones to fix a crisis, they don’t like to hear that “Oops! There is no crisis!” — and where that preference leads, grant money follows. When politics co-opts a field that is in the grip of an error cascade, the effect is to tighten that grip to the strangling point.

Eisenhower famously warmed of the growing Military-Industrial Complex, an alliance between the Government and Industry to justify and fund continuing increases in Government and its Industry allies. Follow the Money. How is this not identical to what we see happening in climate science? Billions of dollars of Government grant funding flowing to academic organizations, whose research (surprise!) provides justification for large Government programs like Cap And Trade. Government funding maintains the momentum of the error cascade.

The challenges to the AGW "consensus" have almost all come from outside of this "Environment-Academic Complex", as they would have to. Outsiders are free to report what the data actually say, without fear of losing their funding. As Raymond said:
If politicians have staked their prestige and/or hopes for advancement on being the ones to fix a crisis, they don’t like to hear that “Oops! There is no crisis!”
Thus the emphasis demonstrated by the ClimateGate emails on controlling the Peer Review process. If the narrative can't be directed at the front end, it must be channeled at the back end. The canali of the modern scientific process are indeed man-made.

And so, the debate isn't about science at all, any more than the debate over the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled Howitzer was about defense. I expect to hear any day that NOAA plans to appoint Dejah Thoris to head the new office of Climate Change.

I hope they don't make her wear a brass bikini. It wouldn't provide the dignity that the office demands.

UPDATE 15 February 2010 22:28: Boy, I picked a bad day to toss out a post and then head out for 8 hours in the car and 4 hours at the range (not that it's ever bad to spend 4 hours at the range). Welcome visitors from View From The Porch! Thanks, Tam, and the beer is on me. Anyone interested in a somewhat long-ish overview of the science of AGW might want to start here.

UPDATE 15 February 2010 23:43: This is another interesting comparison.

15 comments:

BobG said...

I'm curious to see how this pans out.

Firehand said...

Maybe not dignified, but it would make the meetings a lot more pleasant.

hpcc19 said...

Eisenhower, two paragraphs later, "Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

Anonymous said...

Science is Not Self-Correcting (1 of 2)

Forgive me: science is not self-correcting.

I appreciate your blogging very much. I offer the following as a suggestion. I can imagine certain scientists, among them the now-deceased but famous 'guide' to a PBS series, long ago, on the glories of 'science', that 'guide' since exposed as a shameless politicizer of 'science', exemplified by his press-canny advocacy of his, as it emerged, scientifically-dubious but politically-salient theory of 'nuclear winter', who might rather strenuously disagree with any idea that science is not the name of a narrative whose eventual complete success we already know in advance. And I know working scientists who also have already worked the matter out to their satisfaction. How stupid could I be, to imagine that science is not self-correcting?

Nevertheless, there is a different way to view the phrase, "science is self-correcting." That is, the phrase, "science is self-correcting," is not precisely incorrect. It's even worse than incorrect. The phrase instead might be seen as literally uninterpretable; that is, the phrase could be seen to possess no actual content, so that its meaning can not be ascertained.

For there is no such thing as 'science'. There is no 'self' to 'science' that can render science 'self-correcting.' There are only -- ever -- the judgments and actions of scientists. 'Science' is a term that is a reification of what in reality are personal, and thus fundamentally moral, acts by human beings.

There is no mechanism, called 'science' or otherwise, that will allow a further apprehension of reality even despite the immoral or misguided personal acts of men. There is no 'marketplace', no social process, statistical or otherwise, that will always, or 'in time', 'self-correct', because such putative mechanisms not only make unthinkable, inconsiderable, the death of science as an enterprise, but also and far more importantly, completely, if perhaps unthinkingly, remove man as a personal moral agent from the very heart of scientific inquiry.

Put differently, there is no magic thing, whether 'Out There', or Deep Inside Ourselves, that will keep reality close to us, even when we quite deliberately walk away from it. And we can always walk away, individually, to be sure, but also collectively. Life is much, much deadlier, and riskier, and requires far more bravery, than any possible interpretation of the phrase, "science is self-correcting" could ever encompass.

Substitute "democracy is self-correcting" for the above; there is no difference in what the phrase leaves out, what it makes unthinkable. Note the same substitution of false reassurance for the ceaseless need for skepticism and for the personal moral acts -- in time, not in some ideal and eternal realm -- of real human beings.

(1 of 2)

Anonymous said...

Science is Not Self-Correcting (2 of 2)

To say that 'science' "tends" to "self-correct" is thus not a prediction of what Will Be, but an assessment, wrong or right, of a current enterprise of men: that the enterprise is, at the moment, or has been at certain specified moments previously, in relatively good moral order. Some of us were weak; some were confused, even delusional; none of us were insanely smart; but slowly, our desire for reality, our love of it beyond ourselves, slowly taught us, bolstered our weakness, removed our confusion, made us smarter. That, and not 'self-correction', is what occurred.

But to make such a phrase a prediction about the future, to repeat, inevitably is to make 'science' a mechanism that operates outside of human personal moral acts, and, we again warn, the price of this false reassurance that "science will be OK, no matter what" is the disintegration of even the thought that men can, and must, make personal moral judgments that can have real consequences, for both good and ill. It is the abdication of human freedom for a false refuge from the terror of truly screwing it up so much that even Daddy can't fix it.

If this be so -- since this be so -- then that puts the future of science forever in the hands of mere men, who are free, not merely to be mistaken or weak, but to be immoral with their acts, and not once, but repeatedly, and, at least in principle, without surcease.

'Science' is a much freer and more remarkable activity than we sometimes imagine. It is certainly not a machine, social or otherwise, 'out there', that we can set and forget. And it is not the mechanism by which we can successfully remove ourselves from the terror of our freedom. It is not precisely about understanding, nor can it be entirely subsumed into our drive for power and control. It requires bravery, and free moral acts, in which the scientist in the end allows reality to matter more than himself, more than his theories, more than his status.

Every time that a human being fails to say, "Let reality matter more than I," at that very moment, all 'science' in him vanishes from the face of the earth. And we can all do this. Repeatedly. We can instruct ourselves, individually, but also en masse, to forget that science involves bravery, moral acts, the risk of personal self-sacrifice. We can tell ourselves that science is instead the effective means by which we seek 'understanding' -- by which we will mean power and control. And we can tell ourselves, as we have so often, that therefore, every move toward power and control shall be interpreted as 'science'.

And 'science' will, in that domain certainly, but in principle in every domain, once again vanish from the face of the earth.

Therefore, the activity that we currently call 'science', being ultimately free and moral, grounded not peripherally but fundamentally in personal moral acts of flesh-and-blood human beings, is ever precarious. Your own post here that I am commenting upon, shows this. Your post does not show that 'science' is 'self-correcting.' It shows both the underlying staggering nobility, and the terrible unremitting precariousness, of all scientific activity.

This fundamental twin nobility and precariousness of science, we may hope, will persist in equal measure at the very least until Gabriel's trumpet blows that one last time. For the alternative to facing that science is not unkillable, that it can truly die, and we can truly kill it; that is, the alternative to the simultaneous nobility and precariousness of science, is the dissolution of man, and all his freedom, and of every single actual good thing man has ever done or dreamed.

Science is not self-correcting. We can kill it dead, and walk away, and think ourselves fine fellows. Always.

NMM1AFan said...

There was an article in Sky & Telescope a few years back that theorized that Lowell was actually seeing his own retinal blood vessels when he observed the canals of Mars.

Talk about blinding yourself to the facts.

radar said...

Oh man! I am putting you on my blogroll and copying this article to it. I will point out your blog and attribute so people will come back to your site. This is a brilliant and pointed post and I am impressed!

Radar

Anonymous said...

I guess this is what happens when politicians and scientists get confused about what each is doing.

Jim

JC said...

On a more serious note: those brass bikini could get pretty damn cold due to this Global Warming we've been seeing!

Six said...

That was a good old fashioned ass kicking and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I've posted a link to it and added you to my blog roll.

Barsoom and AGW. Dude, you rock!

Anonymous said...

I am a scientist, in the alternative energy field. Every conference I go to, people are afraid to speak about AGW - except in their papers and presentations, which invariably use AGW as justification for their research.

Nobody believes in it, everybody knows it's a lie, but that's where all the money is coming from. If a scientist publishes a paper that doesn't affirm AGW, not only is that paper less likely to get published but any other future papers are in question as well. And he can forget about grants, forever.

Who controls the textbooks owns the next generation, and who controls the science funding gets to dictate what "science" says.

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