Thursday, June 16, 2011

What do Occam's Razor, Sunspots, Climate, and Ernst Mach have in common?

Lots of folks are commenting on the recent blockbuster announcement that solar activity is dropping off a cliff and we may be headed into a little Ice Age.  Basically, some of the most prestigious solar scientists have published a study saying that sunspot activity has dropped so low that the next 11 year solar cycle (Cycle 21) may not even happen.  The last time that this happened was the Dalton Minimum - a period of unprecedentedly cold winters around 1800 AD that included "The Year Without A Summer".

This would be very bad news - many more people die in cold events than in hot ones.  Most of those deaths have historically been from starvation, and there's really nothing to suggest that anything is fundamentally different today.  Sure, world wide transport is easy, but world food stocks are the lowest they've been in decades.  So it is much to be hoped that the American Astronomical Society is wrong.

They're probably not.  William of Occam tells us why.  Occam's Razor tells us that if you have two theories that both explain the same thing, the simpler of the two is almost certainly correct.  The classical lesson in scientific reasoning here involves the Ptolemaic Earth-centered view of the Solar System vs. the Copernican Sun-centered view.  The Ptolemaic theory had to resort to ever more rococo ad hoc tweaks like epicycles to explain the orbits of the planets.  Johann Kepler explained the Copernican system simply and elegantly with his mathematical laws.

Occam's Razor says that simple and elegant beats complicated and crufty 999 times out of 1000.

And so to sun spots and climate.  We have quite good records of sunspot activity going back to 1700 A.D.  We have decent records of the price of wheat going back much further - pretty good ones to 1500 A.D., and sporadic records all the way back to 1250 A.D. (!).  The reason is that bread is the staff of life - no bread, and people starved.

In short, grain prices are a pretty good proxy for climate, in the days before thermometers.  Certainly better than, say, bristle cone pine tree rings.  This is important for two reasons, and the combination is very bad news indeed for people who cling to the "Carbon Dioxide is killing Mother Gaia" theory.

First, the price of grain and the number of sunspots have been known to be very closely correlated for hundreds of years.  William Herschel (who discovered the planet Uranus) first published this, back around 1800.  When there are a lot of sun spots, he said, the price of grain is low - harvests are good.  When there are few sun spots, harvests fail and the price of grain soars.

Remember, we have records on this that are so old that this has been known for literally hundreds of years.  You might say that, err, the Science is Settled.

Second, there's a theoretical foundation that explains why these two are linked.  Henrik Svensmark has proposed that Cosmic Rays are linked to clouds.  Specifically, the very high energy (ionizing radiation) rays generate aerosols when they strike high altitude molecules in the atmosphere, and that these aerosols form the nucleation points for high altitude clouds.  These clouds reflect incoming solar radiation back into space, cooling the earth.

Everybody knows that when the Sun's magnetic field is strong, fewer Cosmic Rays reach Earth.  And when the magnetic field is strong, we see lots of sun spots.

The Svenmark Hypothesis was recently experimentally confirmed at CERN, where artificial Cosmic Rays were crashed into an atmosphere.  And aerosols were born.  Pretty cool when a scientific prediction is confirmed.

To understand why this is so incredibly bad for the warmist crowd, you need to compare and contrast with the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (Carbon Dioxide heating the planet).  The theoretical underpinning of AGW predicts a warm zone in the mid-Troposphere (say, 8 miles up or so) in the tropics.  Essentially, this is a heat pump that cycles captured heat from the increased Greenhouse effect down to lower atmospheric levels (rather than radiating out to space).

The only problem is that with maybe a million weather balloons looking for the hot spot, nobody's found it.  Let's call this Epicycle #1.  But the plot thickens.  We're told that the correlation between CO2 and warming is clear.  It's not:
If I adopt this 10:1 ratio by looking at the last 100 years worth of data I find 1910-1940 temperatures rising while CO2 was not. 1940 to 1975 temperatures falling while CO2 rising, 1975 to 1998 temperatures rising while CO2 rising and 1998 to 2009 temperatures falling while CO2 rising. Three quarters of the period shows no correlation or negative correlation with CO2 and only one quarter shows positive correlation. I do not understand how one can claim a hypothesis proven when ¾ of the data set disagrees with it. To me it is the clearest proof that the hypothesis is wrong.
That's Epicycle #2.  But wait - we're not done yet.  CO2 is a very weak greenhouse gas.  There are a lot of GHGs, the most powerful of which is Methane, at 1400 times more powerful than CO2.  But the real action is with water vapor, which makes up 90% of all greenhouse warming.  So what's with all the focus on CO2?

We're told that it's positive forcings, where some CO2 leads to increased temperature, which creates more moisture in the air, which makes more greenhouse warming, which makes more moisture, and so on.

So why didn't we see this out of control increase in past warm periods, like the Medieval Warm Period which was at least as warm as now and likely warmer.  Why didn't it spin out of control into Thermageddon, instead of crashing into the Little Ice Age?

Epicycle #3, right there.  And the temperatures are diverging pretty spectacularly from the Climate Models' predictions:

We'll just call Epicycle #4 the Hide The Decline Memorial Epicycle.

At this point, you should hear William of Occam whispering in the back of your head.  The simpler explanation is better.

Or it could be shouted at you.  The most famous failed scientific experiment of all time was the Michaelson-Morley Experiment, which tried to measure the Luminiferous Aether.  The problem of the day was that light was known to be a wave, but space was known to be a vacuum.  A wave needs a medium to propagate through, like waves through water.  Obviously, there was no water in space (or air, for that matter), and so the Luminiferous Aether was proposed.  It was a mathematical formulation, and its properties were derived from the observed properties of light.  Those properties meant that it had to be an exceptionally rigid vacuum.

Ernst Mach (of supersonic fame) was contemptuous of the whole idea.  The whole edifice was constructed from cardboard and tape (err, or nineteenth century words to that effect), and anyone could see that it was wrong.  Michaelson and Morley set out to directly measure the Aether, and failed.  Completely.

Because Mach was right: there is no Aether.  Looking back, this is obvious, and scientists of the day should have thought that a simpler explanation would be forthcoming, as indeed it was (the photon).

And so back to the matter at hand.  William of Occam politely (as befits a church man) suggests that AGW is overly complex.  Ernst Mach sneers that it's plain as the nose on your face.  CERN shows aerosol formation.

Of course, I'm one of those Deniers (Epicycle #5) who don't recognize that the Science Is Settled® (Epicycle #6), and who should be locked up as an Enemy Of The State™ (Epicycle #7). 

Or perhaps e pur si muove: and yet it moves. Instead of a bunch of epicycles, you can look at an elegant hypothesis backed up by experimental confirmation and 300 years of correlated observations.

The house of cards is only held together with tape after all.

UPDATE 19 December 2017 09:42: Updated model vs. temperature diagram and link due to Internet bit rot devouring the original version.


Bob said...

Good post, you explain it well.

Mulligan said...

I think we're gonna need lots and lots of tape...

TOTWTYTR said...

Yeah, that's what I said in my post. Only, uh, not.

Nice post.

DirtCrashr said...

Kickass dude!

kdzu said...

It is certainly a good time to look carefully at where you are... where you are going to be... How good is your food storage plans, and how good is your plans for resupply when your storage gets a little short.

Might not be a bad idea to have a few fish hooks, a little extra ammo, and maybe even a few items that will hold value for many people in case you need (and you will) to trade.

Dave H said...

A slight correction, boss. We're currently in Solar Cycle 24. Cycle 25 is the one expected to go AWOL:

Joshkie said...

Maybe I'll get to live through one of my favorite books.

Fallen Angels

Copyright 1991 by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn.

Wouldn't that be great.


Quizikle said...

No, no, no...You missed the most simple explanation of all.

This is God's Revenge on America for tolerating Gays.

No, wait...
It's because of America's imperialistic take-over of the World.

It's high-mileage vehicles
It's not supporting Green Energy It's For the Children
It's proof Al Gore's correct
It's from not supporting ObamaCare

It.. it.. it's gotta be something due to Evil Americans ... Not Nature!

Graybeard said...

Very well put together, BP.

Last night I was watching a panel on Hannity out of the corner of consciousness while doing some weightlifting. The obligatory "left side" voice was a college prof I've seen before, and when they got to AGW, I almost popped an eyeball out of my head due to the pressure. Maybe blew out a cerebral blood vessel or two.

The sloppiness of her logic was so bad, it physically hurt. She would be building epicycles on epicycles.

Borepatch said...

Quizikle wins the Internets!

Six said...

Dude, you are a scary smart man. Remind me to always be nice to you.

Borepatch said...

Well, scary at least, Six. A face made for blogging ...


Michael said...

It's amazing how when the data doesn't support the environmental nut jobs agenda it gets dumped, tweaked, or just plain ignored.

People are part of the ecosystem and need to be preserved along with the habitat of the spotted owl. Ok, ok, there are a quite a few we could live without .... :)

Excellent article, I am a big fan of Occam and he has helped me ferret out many a false hypothesis over the years.

Keep your oars in the water and your chinstrap buckled folks, this next stretch of water is going to be a rough ride.