Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Alarmism in a math-phys department

Last Wednesday and Thursday, I visited the capital of Slovakia. It was a nice trip and we didn't physically fight with Alexander or with the other participant in the debate, Prof Milan Lapin.

And Alexander's father was, in fact, the warmest and the most hospitable person in Slovakia I met - a fact that can't be diminished by his speaking Czech. ;-) Alexander moderated the debate fairly. Just like I expected, about 50% of the audience that joined us in the question period were skeptics, despite attempts of several people I won't name ;-) to invite as many "green" guests as possible.

The discussion never became "content-free". However, as the relevant replies were building upon each other, we could only cover 20% of Alexander's prepared topics. Many of the exchanges were sharp: general rules of politeness were not crossed.

So none of the debaters - your humble correspondent or Prof Milan Lapin - could really use any of their prepared material. About 90% of my preparations turned out to be useless - be sure that I have studied many topics (about impacts etc.) that we normally don't discuss or study too often (such as the frequency of fires, droughts etc.) but I have only used the "basic knowledge" and the figures that have been hardwired in my ROM for years.

Several viewers that are closer to me, including Czech viewers over the web (and, indirectly, some green participants in the audience) told me that I won - aced it - but I can't quite promise you that Prof Lapin is not hearing similar compliments. ;-)

The disagreements are fundamental and unfixable

I was surprised and disappointed that we couldn't agree about almost any of the basic methodological (and ethical) principles of science and almost any of the current technical data.

The reason why I incorrectly expected our disagreements to be mostly in the form, and not the actual content and principles, is that I still think that all members of the math-phys community (I mean of the MFF UK, my alma mater) share certain rational approaches and knowledge and are also able to search for certain up-to-date technical data on the Internet. I have simply never had such a radical disagreement about the scientific method back at my alma mater - and I was assuming the equally named MFF UK department in Bratislava to be its Slovak counterpart.

Let me tell you a few examples of our viewpoints that simply couldn't be reconciliated.

First, emotions, fear, and cultural backgrounds. At some moment, Prof Lapin began to blame AGW for thousands of victims of a heat wave. Also, he said that AGW will displace many people. Because those "conventional" tens of millions that are often said to be "forced to migrate" by the AGW were not enough, he chose billions. In fact, 6.8 billion people who are alive today were equally insufficient, so he has "improved" the argument and argued that AGW is soon gonna displace 10 billion people who will soon live on the Earth.

Now, I was able to stay mostly serious, and produce lots of verifiable numbers about the victims of freezing weather vs heat wave (be sure that in countries such as the U.K., the freezing people dominate) and the actual statistics about the number of moving people (including my uncles-emigrants on both sides) and the small percentage that does so because of the climate (and not because of economics). But yes, I couldn't resist to make a light comment - or a joke - about those 10 billion homeless casualties because that comment of Prof Lapin was simply a tragicomedy.

So I was instantly chastised, together with all the skeptical webs, for making fun out of such serious things. We were supposed to feel as killers of 10 billion people. ;-) You know, these things are not serious at all and it is simply not acceptable to create the atmosphere in which certain "scary" combinations of words, such as 10 billion homeless people, are able to scare everybody and stop any rational discussion or prevent people from being skeptics (as a wise scholar, a former boss of many institutions, essentially said after the debate: skepticism is essential for science). 10 billion homeless people may sound scary and it may be unpopular to oppose someone who claims to want to save these billions of people, and so on.

But what's still much more important is that the thought experiment about 10 billion homeless people is just dumb beyond imagination (I didn't use this or similar adjective in Bratislava). Making the number in the silly proposition larger may make the potential scary impact scarier but it diminishes or destroys the argument because it makes it more laughable. The threat is dumb and it must be clearly displayed and humiliated as dumb, much like the first scientists who couldn't be afraid to humiliate similarly (but not equally) dumb propositions of the Church that were also trying to silence any doubts by similarly brutal emotional intimidation. Heliocentrism also opposed God, thousands of wise priests, and threatened the human civilization, didn't it?

The amount of completely unsubstantiated fearmongering we've heard during those two hours or so was very large, and I frankly don't believe that any professor of meteorology at the corresponding department in (MFF UK) Prague would say the same things as Prof Lapin did. So if you want to interpret my statement as an indirect indication that the school in Bratislava is measurably inferior to its counterpart in Prague, please feel free to do so. I tried to debunk every single of them but we were still limited by a finite time.

Another scary argument Prof Lapin did was that 2 °C of warming would so rapidly change the amount of evaporation, circulation, supercooled vapors, or whatever the strange mixture of effects was supposed to be (his description seemed to describe the interior of stars, not a temperate climate after a 2-degree warming) that it would make life almost unbearable. On the other hand, I said that there was an easy way to solve the difficult physics problem and figure out how much evaporation and other things you get if the temperature jumps by 2 °C: simply cross the Danube and check how the things work in Hungary. Life exists - and you will be almost unable to see any difference.

While the wrong emotions promoted by Prof Lapin, if left unchallenged, would be seriously hurting the impartial atmosphere of the scientific research (and be sure that many people are literally scared by these "thermonuclear" arguments that use millions or billions of possible casualties, without giving a rational mechanism), there were many other attitudes that would do a similar job.

Ignorance in science exists

Prof Lapin and I agreed that we should avoid vague comments about possible phenomena that can't be described by well-defined physical words, and I have avoided them, enumerating lots of particular numbers about the cooling effects of clouds etc. instead. But what Prof Lapin also implicitly said was that the desire to say strict, well-defined things about the system is sufficient to learn the right theory of it.

That's, of course, complete nonsense. Even when we want to know the truth, we're not guaranteed to know it, and the first hypothesis we create to explain an effect doesn't have to be valid. It's my understanding that Prof Lapin disagreed with this simple obvious fact - something that I find unimaginable, and truth to be said, I still don't think that a sensible person can disagree with that.

Timescales, weather, and climate

The difference between the weather and the climate was also discussed. Someone asked about the 10 years of no warming, and 30 years of warming etc. So Prof Lapin was laughing out loud about any effect that can be seen at the 10-year timescale while those 30 years were the ultimate period that can be arbitrarily extrapolated because no slower variations exist in the climate, he argued.

So I listed lots of phenomena that take 1-4 years (ENSO), 20-60 years (regimes of PDO), centuries (slow solar variations, little ice age, perhaps the temporary effects of burning fossil fuels), millenia (deep ocean circulation), tens of thousands of years (Milankovitch cycles). There's simply no "gap". The threshold of 30 years separating the "climate" from the "weather" is a social convention - and it is not quite a coincidence that this length is comparable to the length of the human adulthood.

People simply think that if they watch the atmospheric phenomena for half of their life, they can already determine the "general" statistical conclusions which can be called the climate. There's clearly no sharp physics. There's no phase transition that occurs exactly at 30 years. It's not true that 30 years is the timescale at which the statistical test of any possible climate effect becomes statistically significant. How many years of observations are needed to separate noise from trends or cycles clearly depends on the effect we want to observe. The idea of a universal gap at the 30-year-long intervals is just childish.

Incredibly enough, Prof Lapin disagreed with all these things. Did he provide us with rational arguments why the infrared physics of the atmosphere truncates at 30 years? Of course he didn't. He couldn't. There's no such argument. There can't be any such argument because the statement is demonstrably false. In fact, PDO loves 30-year-long regimes so as far as the PDO contribution to the global temperature goes (and it is not negligible), trends in the following 30 years are likely to be negatively, not positively, correlated with the trends in the previous 30 years. Infinite linear extrapolations from 30-year intervals are as wrong as extrapolations from any other intervals.

So how did Prof Lapin support the statement about the 30 years where all observations of the climate become sharp? Well, he mentioned our wise ancestors who cleverly defined this borderline forever. Let me admit, I had to regulate myself a lot because I just can't believe that a professor of a math-and-physics department could think in this way. Why don't we also say that our wise ancestors decided that the world was created in 7 days? Or is he saying these things, too? What's the difference? Are we really supposed to consider worshiping of ancestors to be a scientific arguments?

The scientific method has just the opposite purpose - to increase our knowledge and to show, increasingly more efficiently, accurately, and comprehensively, that our ancestors were ignorant about many things. It doesn't seem that Prof Lapin agrees even with this point.

When he kind of realized that his presented argument in favor of the 30-year gap (the wise ancestors) wasn't enough, he added one more: what he just said is also being taught in the course he is teaching. ;-) Well, that must be a proof that it is correct! (Or a proof that the Slovak students are unfortunately being taught unscientific boulderdash.)

Trends and analyzing the observed data

Prof Lapin also said that whenever we remove the year 1998, we "obviously and clearly" get a recent global warming, e.g. from 2001. Well, this is just a demonstrably false assertion. When we use e.g. UAH MSU, even the 101 months in 2001-2009 (up to May) give a cooling trend by linear regression, by -1.34 °C per century.

I had an unprovable feeling that he knew that this was the case with the satellite data and he was caught saying another untrue proposition. So he said that the weather stations were much more accurate than the satellites.

Obviously, I discussed the advantages of the satellites (the global reach), the urban heat island effects and the barbecue/asphalt anomalies (or "standard features"?) that Anthony Watts became famous for. With a little bit of exaggeration, the surface records quantify how much the stations' managers enjoy barbecue parties. Prof Lapin argued that only 100 stations are being used for the weather stations records, and they're being perfectly checked etc. Well, even if it were true, and it is not, covering the globe with merely 100 stations would give a highly distorted picture of the "global" temperature.

I said that the global sea ice anomaly is just slightly above zero right now - I happen to observe these Cryosphere datasets a few times a week. Other teams actually show that the amount of ice is even higher than Cryosphere. Prof Lapin was talking about the "ongoing" -3 million squared kilometers (huge negative) anomaly. When I explained that the Southern Hemisphere anomaly was as positive as the Northern Hemisphere anomaly was negative, he argued that the Northern data show the "global climate" while the Southern data show a laughable local circulation of the oceans.

Wow. The last comic statement - that two hemispheres follow different laws of physics, exactly in the right way that Prof Lapin needs for his arguments - is even funnier if you realize that the circulation of the ocean near the South Pole is much harder than in the Arctic because there's actually a continent over there. ;-)

I actually had all these relevant pictures (like the sea ice graphs) with me and I could show them within a minute, but we didn't have time.

Similar disagreements occurred pretty much about every other piece of the global climate data. Concerning ENSO, I said that the Pacific sea surface temperatures are just transitioning to an El Nino episode, saying that the indicators are already positive enough for El Nino conditions. Incredibly, Prof Lapin argued that he had 1-day-old data and we were still inside a La Nina.

The first reason why it's not possible is that these indicators are being published on Mondays. One click is enough for you to check that my information was 100% accurate and Prof Lapin's information was 100% inaccurate. In this file from June 15th or June 22nd (page 1/30), page 3/30 talks about warmer-than-average SSTs and the likely transitioning to El Nino during Summer 2009. Page 4/30 already shows the yellow spot at the bottom and page 5/30 shows the anomalies to be +0.5, +0.5, +0.7, +0.5 in the Nino 4, 3.4, 3, 1+2 regions, respectively for June 15th and +0.6, +0.7, +0.8, +0.9 for June 22nd.

Predictions of models

So while I unfortunately got the feeling that Prof Lapin didn't have the slightest clue about the recent observational data, his knowledge about the theory of the greenhouse effect turned out to be equally non-existent. He correctly observed that the warming trend was getting smaller as a function of the altitude.

So I agreed that this was the case observationally and mentioned that according to the greenhouse-dominated models, it shouldn't be true at all. The theory predicts a hot spot 10 km above the equator, see the wrong fingerprint. This hot spot is not seen at all.

Prof Lapin has made it clear that he had never heard about the hot spot. That's surprising - more precisely inconsistent - because he had also said that he has read the whole IPCC report, being the only person in the room. To see the inconsistency, open the page 675 of the 2007 IPCC report (13/84 in the file). Figure 9.1 c,f shows the modeled hot spot from the greenhouse gases and from all the effects combined, respectively.

Prof Lapin defended his incorrect proposition - that the greenhouse effect must be faster near the surface - by an incorrect ad hoc argument, namely that the warming trend only depends on the CO2 concentration. Well, it doesn't. What mostly matters is the difference between emission and absorption (and convection), and for this quantity, the lapse rate and the tropopause are very important. His oversimplified argument clearly gives a theoretically wrong altitude profile.

So Prof Lapin is one of Slovakia's most famous climatologists but I may unfortunately have to give him an F from the subject.

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