March 22, 2010

Skeptical self-criticism?

In the twilight years of my Navy service, I was an Emergency Preparedness Officer assigned as Naval Liaison Officer to the State of South Dakota. Each of the armed forces assigned one “EPLO” (Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer) to the staff of the Adjutant General. We routinely received a publication known as the Observer from the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colorado, dealing with earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. It was an interesting assignment, but global warming wasn’t on our list of concerns.

Nearly two decades later, I still receive the Observer, and climate change has skyrocketed as a hot topic item.

The March 2010 Observer offered several reviews of books about climate change. I found their review of Kerry Emanuel’s What We Know About Climate Change to be particularly interesting. Perhaps the brevity of the book was a subliminal response to its title. We may not know as much as we think, hence the brevity.

The reviewer said, “Emanuel’s book is even shorter than its advertised 85 pages, because it’s in a small format with wide margins.” In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I’ve not read the book, but the reviewer gives it high marks for its “unflinching look at the strengths and weaknesses of climate modeling.”

And that brings us to our motivation for this posting. Pioneer meteorologist Dr. Joanne Simpson died earlier this month (3/4/10) at the age of 86. Until I saw her obituary, I had never heard of Mrs. Simpson, but she was extremely well known in the scientific community – once described by the Associated Press as “one of the top five meteorologists in the world” – and one of the foremost hurricane experts of the 20th century. She was Chief Scientist Emeritus for Meteorology at the NASA Goddard Space Center and was a Fellow of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences.

In February 2008, Dr. Simpson wrote about the “climate controversy” in vivid terms that – I believe – accurately describe the continuing donnybrook between believers and non-believers alike. She was a proponent for tracking data and measuring climate models against that data, a seemingly straightforward and scientific approach.

She reminded us of the frailty of climate models, and wisely observed that all we need do is watch the weather forecasts to appreciate the shortcomings of such models. Dr. Simpson bemoaned the fact that scientists on both sides in the global warming controversy “are now hurling personal epithets at each other, a very bad development in Earth sciences.”

So who to believe and what to do?

Despite her apprehensions, Dr. Simpson acknowledged that “decisions have to be made on incomplete information. In this case, we must act on the recommendation of Gore and the IPCC because if we do not reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and the climate models are right, the planet as we know it will in this century become unsustainable. But as a scientist I remain skeptical.” She observed, too, that the term “global warming” is very vague.

The media are complicit in adding fuel to the fires that rage between the increasingly radical scientists on both sides of the global warming issue.

“Few of these people seem to have any skeptical self-criticism left, although virtually all of the claims are derived from either flawed data sets or imperfect models or both,” she wrote.

With the death of Dr. Simpson, there is now one less scientist possessing those healthy scientific attributes, and we are the poorer for it.


climacs said...

After stumbling across this post I was motivated to write a couple posts myself - one trying a dimestore evaluation of the opinion on climate change underlying the post and one addressing some apparent misconceptions about climate models.

If anyone is interested in that, the links are given. And if on the odd chance it was requested I would be glad to try to answer any questions, respond to any curiosities, suggest good sources of info on climate science, etc.

Realistically though all I am hoping for here is explanation of how the author developed the stance on climate change expressed through the post, at least assuming I have it close to figured out. In brief it appears the author is not fully convinced when it comes to anthropogenic climate change but believes enough to think we should play it safe and address the issue.

On the rounds I make on the web that is not a commonly stated view, something in-between like that. I think a lot of people hold such a view but do not bother to talk about it. So, again assuming I am not far off base, from what did that stance develop? What info led to that view? Was there greater skepticism before that was tempered? Was there greater confidence in the science that was weakened? It may not apply to anyone else, but I am curious at least about this one particular particular path.

Larry Miller said...

climacs desires an explanation of how I arrived at my views on climate change. Since I'm on the road, this abbreviated response will have to do until we return home: a variety of life experiences, not the least of which is a curiosity about what it is that polarizes well-meaning and intelligent people who gravitate to a level of certitude that I find a bit unrealistic. In the instance of climate change, a few radical believers from both sides score high in this regard. At least that's this author's humble opinion; I'll elaborate later. I would caution climacs not to get too comfortable with the "military" and "Wall Street Journal" assumptions about how I arrived at my posting. I may surprise him. Or not. In any event, I appreciate his rather thoughtful, if cursory, examination.