30 January 2008

Is Climatology Pseudoscience?

Not exactly a pseudoscience. Climate statistician William Briggs, specializing in forecast evaluation, explains why climatology deserves our respect, until--until it doesn't.
The short answer, I will disappoint many of you by saying, is no. Like I wrote before, climatologists are generally nice people genuinely struggling with understanding the immense complexities of the oceanic-atmospheric (and space!) system. It might be that many of them are misleading themselves by custom tailoring models to show them what they expect (or desire?) to see, but this has not reached a level where it is done with intent. Most mistakes that are made are honest ones. And it is also true that much has been learned while examining climate models. Still, while scientists are in general noble creatures, there does exists the possibility of them sliding into the abyss.

So suppose, if you are able, that significant man-made climate change is false; further, that it cannot happen, and that all changes to the climate system are due to external forcings, such as those caused by changes in solar output. Just suppose all this is true for the sake of argument.

Now put yourself in the place of a climatologist, one of the many hundreds, in fact, who was involved with the IPCC and so shared in that great validator, the Nobel Peace Prize*. You have spent a career devoted to showing that mankind, through various forms of naughtiness, has significantly influenced the climate, and has caused temperatures to grow out of control. Your team, at a major university, has built and contributed to various global climate models. Graduate students have worked on these models. Team members have traveled the world and lectured on their results. Many, many papers were written about their output, and so forth.

But something has gone wrong. The actual temperature, predicted to go up and up, has not cooperated and has instead stayed the same and even has gone down. What do to? Let’s take a “What would a scientist do” quiz and find out.

Your model has predicted that temperatures will go up because CO2 has, but unfortunately temperatures have gone down. Do you:

  1. Abandon the model and seek a new career
  2. Discover where the model went wrong; publish results admitting why and how you were wrong
  3. Sit and wait: after all, the temperature is bound to increase sooner or later, hence validating your model
  4. Believe that the model cannot be wrong, else so many people wouldn’t believe it, and so posit some new source that is “holding back” warming, and only if that new source weren’t there, your model would be perfect.
____William M. Briggs, Statistician

And that is where the scientist co-authors of the IPCC reports find themselves currently. The scientific approach would be to choose number 2. But statistician Briggs goes on to explain the actual choices being made by different climatologists--mostly 3 and 4.

Of course, the ongoing divergence of temperatures from IPCC and NASA models does not disprove a long-term warming trend. All it does is to call into question the current models being used by the IPCC. So what does a real scientist do, when his models--his hypotheses--fail to prove true?
H/T Green Watch
Image tip Icecap

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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