Falsifying theories

Climate denialists are fond of arguments regarding the falsifying of hypotheses. There are two main thrusts they use here, (ironically enough mutually exclusive thrusts**). The first is that global warming is an “unfalsifiable” theory and therefore not a true scientific construct. I don’t recall any good example essays making this point to link to (maybe someone can post a link in the comments?), but I believe the idea comes mostly from the all too common conflation of the actual science and the mainstream reporting of the science. They say that the IPCC claims that extreme warmth and extreme cold, floods and droughts, more storms and fewer storms, and shrinking ice and growing ice are all the result of anthropogenic global warming and therefore no matter what happens, the theory is confirmed.

Of course, this is not true and illustrates a variety of misconceptions.

Extreme warmth is certainly on the agenda, but I don’t believe extreme cold is. This canard is most likely derived from the very unlikely hypothetical collapse of the Gulf Stream current which brings much milder winters to northwestern Europe than they would otherwise have. Aside from sensational newspaper articles, no one talks about this as coming to pass in the foreseeable short term (2100ish) future.

Both floods and droughts are predicted, but this is not the contradiction denialists would have us believe. On the one hand, less frequent but more intense rainfall can mean cycles of floods and droughts in the same regions, and on the other hand regional responses to global warming vary. Here is an IPCC summary paragraph:

The response of the hydrological cycle is controlled in part by fundamental consequences of warmer temperatures and the increase in water vapour in the atmosphere (Chapter 3). Water is transported horizontally by the atmosphere from regions of moisture divergence (particularly in the subtropics) to regions of convergence. Even if the circulation does not change, these transports will increase due to the increase in water vapour. The consequences of this increased moisture transport can be seen in the global response of precipitation, described in Chapter 10, where, on average, precipitation increases in the inter-tropical convergence zones, decreases in the subtropics, and increases in subpolar and polar regions. Over North America and Europe, the pattern of subpolar moistening and subtropical drying dominates the 21st-century projections.

The “more storms and fewer storms” bit could come from the still controversial projections of tropical cyclone behaviour. I say controversial, but when it comes to projections, the best word would be uncertain. The controversy is really around the existence of an already observable effect on storms, I don’t think there is much of a scientific case for warming oceans resulting in less severe storms. The actual projection at the moment is for stronger tropical cyclones, but also fewer tropical cyclones. Clearly this is a distinction designed to confuse the already sorry state of science journalism around global warming issues.

Ice sheet and glacier response to a warming climate is another area where real life just is not as simple as we might like and yes actually, ice sheets and glaciers can grow in response to a warming climate. This is simply because the the formula for growing land ice is snow accumulation minus ice loss and warmer temperatures in a cold climate can result in more snowfall. As in the case of the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the increased snowfall outpaces the melting and ablation so the interior of Greenland is gaining mass (even as it loses mass overall due to dramatically increased melting and faster calving at the edges.) Another datapoint that is spun on its head is the marginally growing sea ice in the antarctic. The fact is that modeling does not lead us to expect any significant changes in antarctic sea ice for a while yet. So ~2% growth over the last few decades does not contradict climate change theory, but nor does it confirm it and I challenge readers to find a credible source making any such claim.

The second “falsification” angle taken by the denalists is that real world observations have contradicted AGW theories, pour me a glass of heavy crude, it is a hoax, check and mate!

Sorry, they are wrong again. The global cooling meme has been debunked over and over and over again, nothing new to say there. The next favorite meme is the “missing hotspot.” The reason this does not mean what they say it means is that such a pronounced region of warming in the tropical troposphere is a prediction of warming driven by many means, including the favorite solar driven warming, and its possible absence does not let CO2 off the hook by any means. This also begs the question of whether it is not in fact there, but we haven’t detected it yet, though it seems hard for some reason for denialists to question this particular subset of the temperature data. At best, it reveals a problem in the details of atmosperic circulation, but as we all live at the surface where warming proceeds as forewarned, one has to wonder how significant it is that the upper troposphere remains enigmatic.

But what I really wanted to highlight with this post is how this emphasis on falsification simply vanishes when it comes to the sceptical blog scientists’ claims that come and go and come yet again. Anthony Watts devotes tremendous time and energy to the (reasonable) hypothesis that the very complicated and extensive adjustments CRU makes to raw temperature station data may have introduced a bias in the global trend. He highlights cherry pick after cherry pick of stations where the adjusted data diverges dramatically upward from the raw data, the clear implication being that warming is an artifact, if not an out and out fraud.

Here is an hypothesis dead easy to falsify, just take a fair sample of the stations (not one cherry at a time) and compare the raw to the adjusted data. Why hasn’t he done that? (That’s a rhetorical question). Never mind, others have and lo and behold, the adjustments do very little to the overall trend except to reduce uncertainties. Another great way to check out this (reasonable) hypothesis is look at the average direction and magnitude of all the adjustments. Watts picks on the stations he can find with upwards adjustments, but what do we find if we look at them all? Here is your answer, almost exactly equal amounts of upwards adjustments as downwards adjustments. Seems very consistent with honest and diligent scientists trying to remove errors and equipment biases and very inconsistent with a false warming trend introduced through conspiracy or incompetence.

In a very similar vein, Tamino has taken to task another of Watts’ deceptions theories. You see, sometime around 1990 the number of stations included in the GHCN database was dramatically reduced. Watts has noted that the majority of stations that were dropped were in high altitude and high latitude locations which tend to be colder. Now, incredibly, it is taken as a given that this must cause a warming bias in the temperature trend because, well, if you take away cold you get warm, right? Um, no, actually. We are talking about trends here, not absolute temperature, so it hardly matters if a location is colder or warmer, it only matters if it has changed. And actually, high latitudes are predicted to and have been observed to warm faster than mid and low latitudes, so if anything we could expect dropping more high latitude stations would reduce the trend. But yet again that is only if the scientists doing the analysis are idiots and don’t weight the data according to the density of stations in any given grid area.

Anyway, tamino took the time to compare trends of dropped stations with those kept and, wait for it, found no difference. One can hardly imagine a more compelling falsification of that particular canard.

Where are the champions of Karl Popper now?


** Skeptical Science has an editable web page devoted to pairing upcontradictory denialist claims. I encourage all with interest and time to go add in their favorite example of contrarian cognitive dissonance.

119 thoughts on “Falsifying theories

  1. There we have it, indeed. I think, Skip, our brief exchange of views captures the sublime pointlessness of the argument.

    ‘Look at what the scientists are telling us,’ you insist. ‘What absurd arrogance to believe you know more than those who have devoted their professional careers to this topic.’

    I reply that, in any other branch of science, I would happily concede the point. I would scarcely be foolish enough to begin a debate with quantum physicists or organic chemists. But this is different.

    It is different because the subject has becoming fatally politicized. It is different because of the moral blackmail and tribalism that has corrupted independent inquiry (and if Climategate showed us nothing else, it showed us this).

    It is different because for all the billions that have been spent on research, climate scientists are still unable to demonstrate that the modest warming of recent decades is unprecedented, and are unable to point persuasively to the human signal in any warming that has taken place. Hovering over the whole debate, of course, is the nagging and unresolved question of feedbacks.

    A few months ago I had an interesting conversation with a friend who is a member of the arts faculty at a leading university. Speaking of the politically correct pressures that so shockingly inhibit intellectual freedom, he said that no one can have a future in the English department of any western university if they are interested only in the established canon – Shakespeare, Milton et al. No, they must at least pretend to be interested in gender studies, ethnic writing, and the rest.

    ‘It’s a bit like people in the science faculties,’ he went on. ‘They at least have to pretend to believe in man-made global warming if they want to have an academic future.’

    Well, for obvious reasons I can’t name names, and you have no way of knowing if I have made the story up. I can only assure you that I haven’t, and leave it at that.

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  2. I think, Skip, our brief exchange of views captures the sublime pointlessness of the argument.

    With someone who dances desparately around direct, clear questions, such as yourself, it is pointless in terms of your capacity for understanding the truth of the matter. However watching your squirm might do some good so I’ll keep asking and watching as you cringe from direct, honest debate.

    [AGW] is different . . . because the subject has becoming fatally politicized. It is different because of the moral blackmail and tribalism that has corrupted independent inquiry (and if Climategate showed us nothing else, it showed us this).

    I will now ask my question for the *third* time, and watch again as you recoil from answering it, because of course of you have no answer, because you’ve never read the emails, have no idea what they do or do not say, have no idea what the participants have said in defense of themselves. But I’ll repeat the question anyway; again, watching you dance and duck and cringe might do some good:

    Have you read *any* climategate emails–not just *snippets* reprinted on a blog?

    Have you read *any* of the defenses of the CRU emailers?

    It is different because for all the billions that have been spent on research, climate scientists are still unable to demonstrate that the modest warming of recent decades is unprecedented, and are unable to point persuasively to the human signal in any warming that has taken place.

    How would *you* know, since you’ve already conceded you don’t even understand the science?

    Hovering over the whole debate, of course, is the nagging and unresolved question of feedbacks.

    I know. There are a number of them (methane reserves, low-level cloud cover, loss of carbon absorbing foliage and light-reflecting glaciation) that are potentially *horrible*. Of course you know nothing of any of this.

    So . . . you had a conversation with a guy who knows nothing of AGW and makes no claims about it, but he’s your proof that the science is fraudulent. Beautiful, Snow.

    So, anyway . . . answers to the questions?

    You’ll never answer will you, Snow? You know you can’t. This is your shame and the crux of the difference between those like myself who accept a scientific consensus as the best available evidence, and those such as yourself, who think a conversation over a gin and tonic about language arts curriculum can refute it.

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  3. There is little doubt that you’re as impenetrable to insult as you are to reason–I’ll grant you that, and I can assure you it is not my purpose.

    Still waiting for answers which of course will never come . . .

    You serve a purpose Snowman; in actually glad you’re back. You are another archetypal dogmatic climate denier and your public refusal to answer direct questions and engage in reasoned debate has at least potential heuristic value.

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  4. Look, Skip, these delusions of intellectual superiority may go down well in your own little milieu, but I would save them for the students of that academic powerhouse of yours out in the desert.

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  5. Snowman @ 89,

    After reading the last 20 posts i believe what i said in post 88 needs repeating “Nothings changed here snowman”.

    In regards to your query of Oz politics, if you had asked this question 2 weeks ago i would have said Labor will not see out the year. Of course Mandas would beg to differ, in fact if he was not off killing native…sorry introduced dingoes i am sure he would.

    The government is a collection of misfits and opportunists, we have 72 Labor, 1 green and 3 independants making up the required 76 seat majority therefore if one MP crosses the floor Labor loses its majority. So one would think there is no way Labor can keep it all together and still govern, hence the end of year prediction.

    However it now appears that Labor are not in power, for example 80% of Oz voters voted for a party (Labor and Liberal)that promised with hand on heart that there would not be a CO2 tax or some type of ETS scheme in the next term but yet here we are now forming a committee to discuss what type of tax or ETS would be introduced within 12 months. A requirement to sit on this committee is that you MUST beleive in AGW and you MUST want a TAX or ETS if not you will not be allowed to participate, hows that for democracy!!!!!

    How can this be i hear you ask, well its simple the greens want a TAX/ETS and we are now going to get one. Of course Gillard (labor leader) was hammered in the media because this policy back flip was the quickest back flip on record, she defended herself by saying a minority government needs to be flexible and therefore she cannot guarantee any of her pre election promises will be adhered to.

    Apparently Oz companies need certainty on the TAX/ETS issue so she feels we need one but i beg to differ. Both Labor and Liberal went into the election saying they will not introduce one so if they both stick to their pre election promises then we wont get one in fact it will be a certainty just what OZ companies want. So we have ONE green MP in the house of reps dictating Oz policy when it comes to a TAX/ETS to fight AGW.

    What happens when one of the three independants does not like a labor policy? If labor dont change the policy then it wont get through parliament so this time ONE independant will be dictating policy for the nation.

    So you see Snowman Labor are not in power so i suspect this minority gov to last for quite some time and the longer it lasts the poorer Oz will become.

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  6. Crakar, you left out one of the more important aspects of this committee. The only reason there are no Liberals or Nationals sitting is that Mr Abbott has said no-one from the Coalition will take up the seats offered.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/09/27/3023007.htm

    ” The Coalition has also been invited to put two of its MPs on the committee despite Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s insistence that no Coalition MP would be doing so.”

    So they’ve abandoned the chance to put a point of view, and opted out of direct access to the material that will be discussed. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!

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  7. Ho, ho, how droll, Coby – glad to see that the strains of fatherhood and late nights haven’t dented your sense of humour.

    Incidentally, perhaps I could clear up a slight misunderstanding evidenced in one of Skip’s remarks (a wide field to be sure). I quoted my academic friend who declared that members of his university’s science faculty at least had to pretend to believe in man-made global warming. I did not make it clear that this was not his own conclusion; he was passing on the comments of his science colleagues.

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  8. Since I am delusional and affiliated with an institution worthy of only sarcastic mention, it should be easy to discredit my arguments, now shouldn’t it Snow?

    Except you can’t answer my questions. Your refusal to answer them and reliance on diversion is again, the most potent argument against you.

    Interaction on this forum has taught me that the Crakars and Snowmans of the world do exist, and are impervious to factual arguments. That’s sad enough but I’ve made my peace. The next best thing would be that any lurker on the edge of the debate would look at your strategy of avoidance and think, “Well, shit. Whatever I end up believing I certainly don’t want to be like *that* guy.”

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  9. “Though I rather suspect they’ll be back …”

    It’s taken a while but dhogaza’s words finally came true.

    I went back & read crakar & snowman’s original goodbyes at the narratives post linked to below & I was struck by post #11 throuh to #23. Particularly the line “but apparently believer friendly sites have found it”

    What need for debate when you have stubborness hey.

    http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2009/10/narratives_or_the_anatomy_of_a.php

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  10. Thanks, Chris.

    I was also reading over their You-gentlemen-won’t-have-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore posts but I don’t know how to link directly to the thread. Whats the command syntax in html?

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  11. Now that you mention it, Chris, whatever happened to good old dhogaza? He often made observations – not all of them positive – on my character and intelligence. But at least he didn’t go off in pouting sulks when I responded, unlike some I could mention.

    But enough of that. I had intended to look in only to say hello, and have already dallied too long – others things to do and commissions to undertake. But before you start imploring me to change my mind, let me say that I will be back in another year to see how you are getting on.

    By then, of course, we will have seen a further bitter winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the coldest for decades. And by then, too, the Republicans will have gained control of the House, and perhaps even, God willing, the Senate. That really would be the beginning of the end of climate legislation around the world, for which we can only give thanks.

    But it is probably presumptuous of me to comment on US politics when we are fortunate to have with us Skip, who is not only an American but is the possessor, by his own admission, of a mighty intellect – something that will doubtless guide and comfort you all in the months ahead.

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  12. Running again.

    Prophesying about the coming year?

    Actually Republican control of both houses is a slight possibility. A split chamber is more likely. And it is absolutely possible that we could have an exceptionally cold winter.

    The fact you think either of these issues is relevant to the truth or falsity of AGW is telling, Snowman, but I will make one very bold prediction about the coming year that will mark your absence before any return to the forum:

    You will never answer my questions. You can’t.

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  13. Come now snowman, you’re not going to leave us again before divulging which university your academic friend was referring to? You wouldn’t be MSU by any chance would you?

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  14. Spambots have brought this post back to the top of the pile and what do I see? Unanswered questions to snowman!

    These bots really have it in for you don’t they snow?

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