Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Sounds of Science

What does climate change sound like?  

I would have guessed something like this:

According to the University of Minnesota, it sounds slightly different.  In an effort to make the reality of climate change data more accessible to people who can’t relate to charts or graphs or numbers or words, they’ve composed an unaccompanied cello piece, called “Song of Our Warming Planet”.   (Ed. Note - where were they when I needed them to perform this service for calculus, biology, history, geography, gym, lunch, etc.)  They’ve plotted temperature data as musical notes, and it sounds something like this:

Not sure if this data is bad science, but it is bad music.

If the temperature data translated as musical notes would have come out with the melody of “Burning Love” or “Disco Inferno” or something like that, then I might start to take this whole global warming thing seriously.  But a slowly rising, atonal scale?  Heh, nice try, “science”.

The commentary above was written by a non-scientist.  Not a science denier (for I rely on things such as the internal combustion engine and the Mr. Coffee thingamajiggy to sustain life on a daily basis) or a science hater (absolute favorite song of the 80’s – ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ by Thomas Dolby), but someone who doesn’t study or engage in rigorous scientific pursuits on a daily basis.  This puts me in league with about 99% of the rest of humanity.  Relatedly, about  99% of the arguments about the science of “climate change” are among non-scientists, both the defenders and the skeptics.  Those debates can be interesting, cathartic, amusing, and/or valuable.  But they rarely mean anything or get anywhere.  It’s the battle of whose received wisdom and talking points are better memorized.

John Derbyshire is a conservative, a scientific thinker, and a guy who believes that scientific consensus means something (it may turn out to be wrong, but it’s the way to bet).  But he also has this to say on how the complexity of the issue greatly complicates our ability to understand it, let alone do anything about it. 

I had a decent scientific education, and I spent most of my working life up to my elbows in data. I know science and scientists, and I know data, and what can be reasonably drawn from it.
Climate science belongs to the category of scientific topics that are profoundly complex, to a degree that progress in understanding is awfully slow. Other topics in that category are genetics and neuroscience. There is an element of chaos in these topics that puts actual limits on what we can hope to understand.
If you don't know about chaos, go to YouTube and put "double pendulum" into the search box. Probably the first clip that comes up is Steve Troy's movie of an actual double pendulum — a pendulum in two parts joined at a hinge. The motion of the lower pendulum is chaotic. It's determined by the laws of physics — there's nothing magical here — but it's not predictable.
That pendulum has just two moving parts. A population of some species evolving under the laws of genetics, or a brain processing information from inside and outside its parent organism, or a continental weather system, have billions of moving parts, or the equivalent. If the habitat of the species gets colder and drier, will the population evolve this way or that way? If I send a babble of high-pitched noises into its ear, will the organism respond by doing this, or that? If a forest fire dumps a load of smoke and CO2 into the air, will there be more or less rain next week? Lots of luck finding out. These are physical processes determined by laws, but not necessarily predictable.
So I'm cautious on climate change and a bit impatient with people who display certainty about it. Most of those people, in my experience, are fired up by ideology: they hate free-market capitalism, or they hate overbearing government, or they hate science itself.

This speaks to the layers of the climate change debate, and how things start a bit fuzzy and get fuzzier as we go from the question of ‘Is it getting warmer?’ to ‘what is causing the warming?’ to ‘what are the consequences of the warming’ to ‘what can we do to prevent this warming?’ to ‘do the costs of the prevention outweigh the costs of the warming?’  The scientific consensus weakens with each wrung on that ladder.  But climate change as a political issue takes a package approach.  It’s warming, it’s the fault of fossil fuel consumption, it’s catastrophic, and more taxes and regulation is the only cure which will save us. 

As Derbyshire notes:

A lot of the climate scientists, including Michael Mann, have made a political cause of their findings — a socialistic cause, demanding expansions of power for governments and globalist organizations, and huge expenditures of public money.
I part company with them on that. I think you can be opposed to the globalist-socialist solution without denying the problem. That's a minority view. Most conservatives part company with them on the politics, and assume the science must be wrong too — a logical error, but a natural one if you have no science. That's where the anti-Warmist fervor comes from.
So there's this anti-Warmist passion among conservatives, and it spills over into vituperation against the scientists, which is justifiable when they venture into politics, and against their results, which is not justifiable. Data is data; results are results; some things are true even though the Party says they are true. 

There are scientists, like Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer, who do take issue with the concept of an abnormally warming climate.  That debate is best held between them and their colleagues, with the rest of us acting as informed consumers of their findings.  It’s in the jump from the science to the political remedy that the 99% of us non-scientists can best advance the debate. 

In parting, here’s the video of the double pendulum.  Something to think about next time a politician assures you that they can stop the rise of the oceans if only you give them your vote.