Sack all those scientists? yeah, right!

Well, some of our local climate change denier bloggers have got it sussed! As a country we could solve all our problems. Just sack the scientists!

Now that would make all this talk about climate change and global warming go away, wouldn’t it?  And we would no longer have to worry about greenhouse gas emissions.

But who would do the science?

No problem – just hire a few school children (what are they learning in school anyway -they don’t need that reading/writing/maths/science rubbish).

This is the message currently being promoted by the local blogs Gotcha! (CLIMATEGATE – A better study than NIWA, by an 11 year old!) and Say Hello to my Little Friend* (Kid and his dad: 1, Global Warming: 0). They reproduce a video from What’s up with that?  (Picking out the UHI in climatic temperature records – so easy a 6th grader can do it!). Here an 11 year old demonstrates he can get rid of global warming. He’s discovered a few tricks those ignorant climate scientists just couldn’t see for looking (the effect of “urban warming”). He really exposed their stupidity.

This was also the attitude behind the “research paper” produced by thy NZ Climate science Coalition and Climate Discussion Group (who both deny global warming). Their great discoveries are described in New Zealand’s denier-gate. They certainly showed those idiot scientist at NIWA up, didn’t they?

While we are at it let’s get rid of some other expensive specialists – the brain surgeons, physicians, plumbers, builders, etc. Why should we be paying their high wages and financing their education when we can safely employ 11 year olds to do the jobs for us? Much cheaper.

What’s wrong with the government? Why should they employ experts for specialist advice.


Seriously, though. Isn’t it interesting that some people get  a hint of the complexity of an issue and automatically assume the experts are unaware of this. That they know better than the experts. Perhaps this is the arrogance that comes from ignorance.

The issue of climate change seems to bring out such attitudes. The possibility of urban growth contributing to climate warming is an old one, often resorted to by climate change deniers.

Climate scientists are well aware of the issues and use a variety of methods to eliminate effects of heat islands from their data. These can include population data and satellite observation of night-time light to identify data sets for removal. However, Thomas Peterson of the US National Climate Data Center has commented: “We need to update out understanding of urban heat islands. This phenomenon is more complex than widely believed by those not immersed in the field.”

Perhaps naive bloggers should ponder this comment before lauding the “research” of 11-year olds above that of more mature, and experienced, scientists.

No sensible government would take these bloggers’ advice.


*Weird because the next post from Say Hello to my Little friend was Lord Winston: New Zealand doesn’t value its intellectuals. This criticises anti-intellectual attitudes. But perhaps this blogger doesn’t see scientists as intellectuals?

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31 responses to “Sack all those scientists? yeah, right!

  1. Regarding the arrogance of non experts, I fully agree.

    I have worked for over 20 years now as a software developer, building all sorts of different software systems.

    A large part of my role is to learn, often at a very detailed level, parts of other peoples jobs. To design and build a system in a particular business area, the more I know about the why, what and how of that business area, the better my design/system can be. These business areas can be something as simple and everyday as how a bank account works, to something a bit more exotic, like a mathematical model that is attempting to predict trending behavior in a financial market.

    I pride (& sell) myself on my ability to quickly learn what I need to learn to build any system. A lesson that I have learnt early on though, is that no matter how smart I am (?), or how quickly I can pick things up, there is a huge difference between my knowledge of this new subject area, and that of somebody who has deep experience in that area. For one thing, they will probably have developed an intuition for their subject that allows them to steer their efforts. I believe that it is not possible to form these intuitions without deep experience.

    Unfortunately, there appears to be a minority that don’t learn this lesson. I imagine that they extrapolate their success or knowledge in one area across to another. Yeah, there are some transferable skills for sure, but a general ability in mathematics or statistics does not automatically give you an ability to analyse a particular set of statistics. As Ken has pointed out, you also need to have a deep knowledge of the subject area to do this successfully. Without this, you are prone to falling into beginners traps, and not only wasting everyone elses time, but also making yourself look pretty stupid in the process.

    This brings us back to the central problem here. How do we as a society, handle issues/knowledge like this? How can we have a successful democratic system when issues must be decided on that require the knowledge of a life time’s specialist expertise to evaluate the options?

    It seems to me that creditability is absolutely vital here. How can someone, without the relevant deep expertise, participate fully in the democratic process with regards to these complex issues. I would say, by trying to find/establish the credibility of the sources of data/analysis/recommendations.

    This seems to be a lesson that the spin doctors intrinsically know. All of these cynical attacks on the motivations of climate scientists seem to be attempts to attack the credibility of scientists.

    But, c’mon, where are the credible alternatives? It’s not just the credibility of the people that is important, but also the credibility of the processes. The scientific method in all its forms is essentially the body of processes/techniques that have proven and demonstrable credibility in gaining knowledge. This is the whole point. If someone manages to come up with a new technique or procedure that they can prove assists in gaining credible knowledge, then sooner or later, it will be added to the scientific method.

    What are the deniers suggesting as an alternative to this? 11 year olds? Or perhaps, divine knowledge sourced from the bible? Show us something with a track record, and it will be added to science.

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  2. Well said Nick, a thoughtful comment.

    Unfortunately politics is about power, and about encapsulating a message in a few seconds of sound bite to wind up the troops.

    Politics it is a science of its own. It may be practised by apparent morons, but they are crazy like foxes.

    Scientists underestimate these people at their peril. The worst way to treat them is with a supercilious brush-off. Some of these comments have come home to roost.

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  3. Can anybody tell me which wavelengths of the CO2 absorption spectrum cause the greenhouse effect? I’m having trouble finding it.

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  4. The IR region, Scott.

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  5. Red Rosa – I agree that scientists have, and shouldn’t, underestimate politicians. It’s got a lot to do with our failures in public communication.

    But not all is bleak. Even in NZ we are starting to see scientists get more involved (eg the launch of Sciblogs).

    Of course, this criticism of scientists could also be applied to other specialist groups as well. However, from my perspective, I think science is so integral to the future of humanity that we do have to be more actively involved – especially in countering anti-scientific attitudes.

    Mind you – on this question people’s interests, prejudices, ideologies and attitudes are so intimately involved it was always inevitable that there was going to be a hugely emotional response to the issue. I am not at all surprised how irrational much of the arguments are.

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  6. Ken, I’m looking at the infrared absorption spectrum–but it looks like a relatively small amount of CO2 will absorb everything in those specific wavelengths. Increasing the amount of CO2 doesn’t increase the amount of absorption in those wavelengths, any more than putting four coats of paint on a window absorbs twice as much light as two coats of paint.

    Which wavelengths are NOT completely absorbed by the CO2 already in the system, but are soaking up more infrared as you add more CO2?

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  7. Scott – having seen lots of IR absorption spectra I can visualize what you are probably looking at. These spectra result from instruments which are tweaked to show the important details and don’t apply directly to real life atmospheric situations. There you would actually have to use absorbance coefficient data. etc., in a model.

    I don’t know how you are wishing to use the spectra. But if you are trying to claim that the atmosphere would be completely opaque to IR radiation – well surely you know from experience that is not the case.

    If you are wishing to claim that the atmosphere has absorbed all the IR it can and therefore will be transparent you are ignoring the fact that there will be a dynamic system of absorption and radiation. That CO2 and other IR absorbing gases are only a small part of the total atmospheric composition, And that absorption of IR will change with altitude, and atmospheric temperature.

    Apparently a result of increasing levels of CO2 is that the average height from which IR radiation is emitted into space actually increases. In other words, the atmosphere, as a whole, retains more energy and heats up.

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  8. So, any explanation on why the data on urban areas across US do not show warming trend?

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  9. And, Dean, when are you going to stop beating your wife?

    Sent from my iPod

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  10. Oops, I mean non-warming trend in rural areas, not urban.

    From your article:

    “Climate scientists are well aware of the issues and use a variety of methods to eliminate effects of heat islands from their data.”

    Yes, but why the rural areas don’t show any warming trend?

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  11. Ken, if I understand what you’re saying about CO2 absorption of IR–I envision the CO2 in the atmosphere being essentially “opaque” at certain wavelengths. If I follow your reasoning, a CO2 molecule would absorb an IR photon, bump up to a higher energy state, and then emit it later. That IR photon would head off in any direction (possibly towards space, possibly towards earth) and be absorbed by another CO2 molecule as it traveled. Eventually, all IR photons (in the relevant wavelengths) would either hit the ground or be lost to space.

    Does CO2 increase in temperature when you beam IR through it? I can see how the individual molecules would move up to a higher energy state, but does that also change the kinetic energy of the molecules?

    If the CO2 doesn’t gain any kinetic energy, I don’t see how it matters whether there is a one-mile thick “blanket” of energized CO2 or a ten-mile thick “blanket.” All the IR goes into the CO2 blanket and eventually must travel UP or DOWN. Does the “thickness” of the blanket change the percentage of emitted IR radiation?

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  12. Nick, very well said.

    You ask a key question: How do we as a society, handle issues/knowledge like this?

    The responsible answer is: Err on the side of caution.

    If a majority of scientists think we need to address something, then we should do it for no other reason than to be cautious because they may well be right. If they turn out to be wrong, then what’s the harm? How does the harm from the implementation of some advice measure up against the potential harm from not implementing some advice? Again, the responsible position is to err on the side of caution.

    When those who refuse to admit that there may be a significant environmental problem with emitting greenhouse gas and its effects on climate, then I think they are being irresponsible. And that’s what I see and hear and read these days after the email fiasco: far too many people urging the rest of us to be irresponsible. We have to push back.

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  13. I’m all for action ASAP. Let’s build nuclear power plants in every appropriate country, with international guarantees that investments in infrastructure won’t be nationalized and expropriated by less-developed nations. Let’s pool a few hundred billion dollars to find a really good site for nuclear waste disposal.

    Building nukes now will start weaning this planet off fossil fuels, with countless benefits. We’ll be MUCH safer if aggressive, oil-rich regimes can’t blackmail the planet by threatening the oil supply.

    This, in my opinion, is the most obvious scientific solution to our present energy problem. I can’t BELIEVE that Earth has been held hostage by anti-nuclear activists for the last 30 years.

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  14. All out nuclear, yep, that could work…. I think that there are a few security, build/cleanup cost/timeline and supply cost issues to work through on this one, but in principle this could be a good alternative.

    But…. when it is proving extremely difficult to get even market based solutions such as CO2 emission caps/trading, what makes you think this is at all politically feasible? Especially in the USA. Or is it ok for the government to finance big energy?

    Don’t get me wrong here, the company I work for actually owns & operates (if they weren’t shut down at the moment due to safety concerns ;-)) a couple of nuclear power stations.

    In terms of being held hostage by anti nuclear activism, perhaps? In modern times, though this is not what is holding back nuclear power, at least in countries like the UK. In the UK, the government has been keen on nuclear for quite some time, but in a privatized electricity supply market, no private sector companies seem to be willing to take on the financial risks of building a power station, without subsidies. A bit ironic really.

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  15. Dean, stop avoiding the qestion.

    Why do you keep beating your wife?

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  16. Nick, it seems like the barriers to nuclear energy are a LOT lower than the barriers to a command-and-control solution to the AGW challenge.

    To get nuclear power up and running in the US, we’d need something like a specialized court system that could expedite the legal challenges. If we could resolve environmental and other lawsuits in a matter of weeks instead of years, we could build nuclear power plants in ten years instead of twenty. Without such courts, it would probably take 40 years to build a nuclear power plant in the US.

    However… the US could finance the new court system and ALL the power plants it needs by selling tax-free bonds, payable by 10% of the gross once the plants go online. Given our unemployment numbers right now, we could probably get a bill like this passed this year–if Obama wants to challenge the anti-nuclear nuts on the American left.

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  17. @Scott. I think nuclear power is part of the solution, but I don’t think it is all of the solution.

    What you are advocating here, is a command & control solution to AGW. A market based solution is one that leaves the mechanisms to the market. Such as emission caps/trading.

    I don’t know how you could get something like that passed at all quickly in the US. I don’t live there, but from what I read, it seems that your political system is almost paralysed with fear of government debt at the moment. So much so, that any further attempts to address your burgeoning unemployment problem seem to be off the table. I can’t see that issuing a whole load more government debt to finance nuclear power stations will be any more successful.

    In terms of the build time of the plants, again not the US, but I have heard quite a lot of speculation that one of the biggest limitations to the construction time of the plants will be sourcing the required personnel to undertake the build. With a large number of simultaneous construction efforts, the worldwide market for the appropriately experienced talent would be tapped out. Of course, this could be improved through increased education etc… but… in the UK, the funds for nuclear science seem to have dried up. I read a letter to the editor from the well known physicist Jim Al-Khalili in the Guardian the other day. He was warning of the imminent demise of nuclear science in the UK. This seems to be hardly an environment conducive to producing a vastly increased number of nuclear scientists/engineers.

    Again, it would be a great solution to CO2 if feasible, but it seems to me a very big uncertain risk to put all of our eggs in the nuclear power basket. I am not an expert in this, or even deeply read, so I would not expect anyone to listen to me, but I would have thought that a mix of solutions would be the best approach. I.e. emission caps/trading, mandatory feed in subsidies for distributed green power (see micro generation), increased funding for energy research, regulation to increase efficiency standards like household insulation;smart electricity metering;Automobile emissions etc…

    In economic terms, introduce some smart measures to re balance the economic incentives to price in an externality e.g. CO2 pollution.

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  18. Hi Ken, I don’t understand why you enjoy beating your wife.

    I think building nuclear plants is better than giving billions dollars money to those developing countries. Anyone who thinks the like of Mugabe will use the money for dealing with climate change is fooling him/herself.

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  19. I imagine that the nuclear power solution will actually involve a lot of money going to developing countries – because of the technology requirements, training, and control issues related to non-proliferation.

    I agree it’s faulty to concentrate on any one solution. I have seen calculations showing nuclear power alone can’t solve the problems – the plants just can’t be built fast enough even under ideal conditions.

    Putting all eggs in one basket invites big problems. We have to use a multi-pronged approach. This will (already is) include nuclear but will also includes lots of other solutions. It will also include research into new technology.

    Ironically, those deniers doing their best to discredit science at the moment are actually trying to destroy the very thing that can save humanity from these problems.

    Sent my iPod

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  20. I don’t think most of the so called ‘deniers’ are doing their best to discredit science. That is too generalizing accusation.

    I for one turned skeptical of AGW and Copenhagen from the moment I was made aware of the CRUgate emails.

    Just now I read news that Phil Jones finally stepped down and investigation by independent party is to begin. A bit late though, had he step down earlier, and investigation started earlier, I think a lot of people including me would not have been suspicious.

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  21. I don’t accept the “putting all the eggs in one basket” characterization of a pro-nuclear policy. It will take 20 years to get a significant number of new plants online, and we’re going to need to do a LOT of things in the meantime.

    Having said that, however, nuclear power is NOT a “command and control” solution. It is anything but!

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  22. @Scott. It is exactly that. If the government is choosing what sort of generating capacity is being built and also financing it, what else can you call it.

    You might want to check your definitions there Scott.

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  23. Nick, all I want the government to do is get OUT OF THE WAY. In the US, there are corporations that would love to build power plants. They can’t build those plants without TONS of permits. The government is the only thing that stands between them and cheap, clean power.

    I’m not saying I oppose government regulation of anything as potentially dangerous as a nuclear power plant. I believe in safety, and I think the government MUST protect the public from what any individual or corporation might do at the public’s expense. (The economic term for this is “externalities.” I won’t go into it here, but it’s fun and interesting stuff.)

    If it weren’t for the sense of urgency about CO2 emissions, I would NOT want the government to “choose what sort of generating capacity is being built” and I would NOT want the government to finance it. My strong preference would be to have the government stay out of the way.

    I think there are reasons to make an exception to the pure free-market theory in the case of fossil fuels. In my opinion, the US is at risk because of its dependence of foreign sources of power. The whole world is at risk when a nuclear-armed superpower subjects itself to the possibility of energy blackmail.

    If I were drafting US foreign policy, I would effectively “declare war” on “energy dependence” and set a short-term goal of achieving full energy independence in ten years or so (like John F. Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon in ten years.) This MIGHT give me the constitutional authority I would need to set aside a few of the state and local barriers that would otherwise prohibit me from getting the job done.

    What I would NOT do is make the US energy supply dependent on an “international consensus” or any form of quasi-government like what I see in Copenhagen. From a legal and political standpoint, it’s like trying to build an upside-down pyramid: it puts TOO MUCH WEIGHT on a tiny point (a binding vote from a bunch of self-interested sovereigns).

    From my perspective as a lawyer, it just seems like we’ve picked the sociological model that is LEAST likely to produce the results we want. The free market can deliver cheap, clean energy to six billion people. The Copenhagen staff can’t get taxis to the hotels. Which one are we going to rely on to save the planet?

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  24. I don’t know about the US, but in the UK, where I have at least a little knowledge, the private sector is perfectly able to build nuclear power plants, but they don’t. The reason: As far as I can tell, the economics don’t add up to make the investment. In fact, the energy companies have stated that they will not make the investment without government subsidy. I mean, compare the cost/risk profile of a coal, or even a gas plant vs nuclear. I would be surprised if the economics are any different in the US, even if the government GETS OUT OF THE WAY, as zoo say, I doubt that the private sector would build anything. This is not to say that there aren’t other barriers in the US. I will take your word for it that there are.

    My essential point though is: Why have an explicit preference for nuclear over any other low CO2 producing generation technology. I would say a market based CO2 emissions cap/trading scheme (or even a carbon tax) has a big advantage here as it would assist in the funding of any low CO2 generation technologies. i.e, let the market decide. This should not be the only action of course, I have already suggested that increases in investment in research into different forms of energy production, and tightening regulations regarding efficiency and pollution would be good. Perhaps we could add to this list, as sensible loosening of regulation regarding nuclear power. Like I said, I don’t think that this is a problem in every country.

    I think you might be a bit confused about what is going on in Copenhagen though Scott. This is not some sort of attempt to enact a world government. It is an attempt to try and get sufficient action from all the CO2 producing countries to try and cap the growth in C02. Any agreement here does not proscribe the US from achieving energy independence in ten years or at all. In fact, the US could go hell for leather building nuclear power plants as you suggest, and surpass agreed upon reductions in CO2 production, I am sure the rest of the world would love that.

    The problem is that the free market will not provide cheap and clean energy by itself. The problem with CO2 pollution is almost the definition of a market failure. And this is where the problems start. I can’t see why the government intervening to support nuclear is any less threatening to the “anti government” sorts in the US than something much more market oriented such as a cap & trade system. If anything does come out of Copenhagen, I would be surprised if it is other than cap & trade.

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  25. In the US, the costs of building a nuclear power plant are overwhelmingly social/legal. The US government builds nukes all the time (how many ships in the US navy still run on fossil fuels?), but the private sector has to factor in the costs of compliance with regulations and the costs of fighting environmental lawsuits.

    Actually BUILDING a nuclear power plant is not that expensive.

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  26. This article documents why US nuclear plants cost so much. Short explanation: plants cost $170M in the 1970s and cost $1.7B in the 1980s. The difference was NOT inflation, but regulation.

    http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/chapter9.html

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  27. Like I said Scott, I am perfectly willing to take your argument on face value. Go for it, nuclear, hell yeah.

    I still however think you might be a bit confused about what actually is market vs government driven. As your have just said, the government builds nukes all time. This is not supporting your argument.

    In fact, a general comment as an outside observer about your country. The level of the political debate about such issues seems abysmal, really really abysmal. Health care etal. What is that all about? I admit that I don’t understand it, but it seems to me that anti intellectualism is the dominant popular feeling in your country.

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  28. By the way, even as a disinterested observer, that link that you posted seems massively partisan.

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  29. Pingback: Lynch mob mentality « Open Parachute

  30. Well, it costs more to mine coal AND have reasonable safeguards for miners too. Yep, businesses hate regulations and such. We could mine coal (or build nuke plants, or any number of other things) if we were unconcerned about peoples’ lives or the environment. We could certainly save a lot of money that way. The monetary cost would, of course, be replaced with human life costs instead, but from a CEO’s perspective, that’s probably okay. As long as you don’t mind the side effect of generating corpses then regulations could be chucked entirely.

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  31. As long as you don’t mind the side effect of generating corpses then regulations could be chucked entirely.

    There’s a lot of money to be saved by not employing meat inspectors, for example.
    😉

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