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Global Warming: The Difference Between Correlation and Observation

Friday, October 10, 2014

Getty Images/Ikon Images from Wall Street Journal Op-Ed
The Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed today by Judith Curry, a professor and former chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the president of Climate Forecast Applications Network.  It is an excellent picture into conservative frustrations with the global warming debate:

The Difference between Correlation & Observation

In the main, Curry's Op-Ed notes hers and a number of other recent "observational" studies.  This is to be distinguished from computer model projections, and shows that the models are running "too hot," or making statistical assumptions unwarranted by the data.

The reason this is important is because it brings to the forefront the essential difference between data and statistics.  As I have noted before (my most read blog post), the volume of raw data in the datasets used by NOAA to make pronouncements about the "hottest years on record" has decreased by no less than 75 percent over the past twenty years or so.  This is odd because in science - which is an example of inductive reasoning - you simply do not go from less data to more 'certainty'.

Even the manner in which the projections are discussed is misleading.  We hear that the IPCC is 98 percent 'certain' about the warming climate, its man-made causes and the potential catastrophic consequences.  The problem is science does not traffic in 'certainties', but rather in 'probabilities'.  We will know - not for certain, but with a high degree of probability - that this so-called science is rife with political agendas when they go out and tell us they are '100 percent certain'.  The whole scientific enterprise rests on the premise that future observations might force us to change our views, thus we do not assert anything to be '100 percent certain', just highly probable.  It is thus misleading at best to stick a number like '98 percent' on a term like 'certain' when science will never claim to be 100 percent certain.

Curry's research, and the others she mentions in her Op-Ed, show us that when empirical data (actual observations rather than statistical models) is favored, the impact of greenhouse gases on the climate is not as stark as the models would have us believe.  The empirical data also corresponds well to the current 'pause' in global warming.

The question in the global warming debate then becomes one of what we expect from science in public policy debates.  The answer, I believe, is first and foremost a fundamental humility in the face of the complexities of the earth's climate.  These complexities render trying to mimic an open system with a computer model for predictions anything beyond a few days into the future a fool's errand.  It is this lack of humility which is most objectionable in the public policy debates surrounding the changing climate.

The Captivity of Public Policy Debates

In January of 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower shared a prescient concern:
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.
The context of Eisenhower's concern is partly what he saw as an emerging "military-industrial complex."  But as is clear when reading the whole speech, it was a trend beginning with the emergence of defense contracting and defense-funded research against which Eisenhower was warning.

We see that exact captivity of public policy to a "scientific-technological elite" in the global warming debate today.

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