Sunday, February 23, 2014

How wrong is Krauthammer?

Photo by Michael Temchine, New York Times.
Charles Krauthammer cited in the Daily Caller:
“The president pretends that this is all settled science,” he began. “Newton’s laws were considered settled for 200 years until a patent clerk [Albert Einstein] in Switzerland turned them over with a single paper in 1903 — and that was pretty settled science. The idea that this is all settled is absurd."
Thanks, Daily Caller, for identifying that mysterious patent clerk. (By the way, I really hate the way semi-sophisticates like Krauthammer love to refer to Einstein as "a patent clerk" as if any old civil servant might have come up with the theory of relativity, like Lana Turner [jump]
getting discovered in a drugstore, the way Rosa Parks is often referred to as "a seamstress". Parks was a dynamic and dedicated activist leader who was doing sewing for a department store in 1955 to pay the bills. Einstein was a brilliant and dedicated theoretical physicist who was working in the Bern patent office while he completed his doctoral studies. Not that there's anything wrong with having a humble job, but calling Parks or Einstein "a seamstress" or "a patent clerk" is a way of dismissing the work involved in their respective great achievements; of treating the breakthrough as a lucky break, and thus indirectly buttressing the claims of a Krauthammer to be an expert witness on the basis of no particular effort in questions of climate science—"If a simple patent clerk can speak with authority on the mysteries of the universe, why shouldn't I with my Harvard MD?")

I just want to point out here, if I may, that Einstein's 1903 paper did not overturn Newton's laws in any way. Nor did the four papers of 1905 that Krauthammer probably should have cited instead (the paper of 1903 was apparently outstanding, but not revolutionary, in that its results had already been established by Josiah Gibbs in 1902).

This is because Newtonian classical mechanics is entirely valid for the realm of phenomena to which Newton applied it (he didn't know about atoms) and has not been overturned at all; it continues to be learned by all physics students and applied by all engineers.

Moreover, to the extent that it failed at the edges, it was not settled science at the time when Einstein did his revolutionary work, not since Kirchhoff initiated the study of black-body radiation in the 1860s and Michelson and Morley performed their famous experiments on the detection of aether in the 1880s. The physics of tiny bodies and massless waves, far from settled, had been in serious crisis for decades, and everybody knew it.

The principles of climate physics, in contrast, are extremely well understood and unchallenged. There's really not going to be any climate Einstein turning up to show us that the greenhouse effect is just some kind of optical illusion masking forces we don't as yet suspect. What's hard is the situation, extraordinarily complex—the technical term for it is chaotic—and difficult to model, and progress in this aspect will be evolution, not revolution; the kind of gradual improvement that has been noted over the past 15 years and allows ever more confidence and precision in the account of rapid change.
Young Einstein, via LowDensityLifestyle.
A more relevant example of unsettled science raised by Krauthammer in the Washington Post (the Daily Caller and the Heritage Foundation only watched the Fox News version) might be that of breast cancer screening:
It was long assumed that mammograms help reduce breast cancer deaths. This fact was so settled that Obamacare requires every insurance plan to offer mammograms (for free, no less) or be subject to termination.

Now we learn from a massive randomized study — 90,000 women followed for 25 years — that mammograms may have no effect on breast cancer deaths. Indeed, one out of five of those diagnosed by mammogram receives unnecessary radiation, chemo or surgery. So much for settledness. And climate is less well understood than breast cancer.
(The mammograms are of course not for free, though you don't have to make a copay; the price is calculated into the premium structure for the group, and being a woman is no longer regarded as a dangerous pre-existing condition.)

If this huge Canadian study turns out to be as authoritative as it seems, which is by no means certain, it will not be because all the previous studies showing a benefit from mammograms (including a fascinating one published just last September that seems to show the benefits concentrated on younger women, a variable the Canadian study didn't test) were wrong. It will show that those results aren't as important as they used to be, because improved therapy means there is less and less reason to detect breast cancer early. The science of mammography is exactly the same as it was last year, but the outcomes are happily different. And the American Cancer Society isn't ready to stop recommending annual mammograms yet, either:
Dr. Richard C. Wender, chief of cancer control for the American Cancer Society, said the society had convened an expert panel that was reviewing all studies on mammography, including the Canadian one, and would issue revised guidelines later this year. He added that combined data from clinical trials of mammography showed it reduces the death rate from breast cancer by at least 15 percent for women in their 40s and by at least 20 percent for older women.
So give it a few months before you make sneering at Obamacare part of the argument. Asshole.
Freeman Dyson. Via Academy of Achievement.
But doesn't the eminent 90-year-old physicist Freeman Dyson think the theorists of anthropogenic climate change are exaggerating?
They deal with the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere and oceans, argues Dyson, ignoring the effect of biology, i.e., vegetation and topsoil. Further, their predictions rest on models they fall in love with: “You sit in front of a computer screen for 10 years and you start to think of your model as being real.”
Indeed he does, and has been thinking so ever since at least 2009, when he was only 85.
I don’t claim to be an expert. I never did. I simply find that a lot of these claims that experts are making are absurd. Not that I know better, but I know a few things.... It’s a problem of very complicated ecology, and to isolate the atmosphere and the ocean just as a hydrodynamics problem makes no sense.....
I have a lot of friends who think the same way I do. But I am sorry to say that most of them are old, and most of them are not experts. My views are very widely shared.
However, what Dyson objects to has been dealt with, starting long ago: General Circulation Models constantly improved since the 1960s (right on Dyson's own Princeton campus!) take into account the role of vegetation and soil as well as ocean and atmosphere, and they certainly demonstrate that the warming phenomenon is not limited to the Arctic, as Dyson insists it is. And the global rise in sea levels since around 1950 is certainly drastically greater, pace Dyson, than at any time over the previous 12,000 years. And when Dyson argues that it doesn't matter anyway, since we all like warm weather better—
First of all, the people in Greenland love it. They tell you it’s made their lives a lot easier. They hope it continues. I am not saying none of these consequences are happening. I am just questioning whether they are harmful. There’s a lot made out of the people who died in heat waves. And there is no doubt that we have heat waves and people die. What they don’t say is actually five times as many people die of cold in winters as die of heat in summer
—he is imitating the defense attorney who said, "My client was a thousand miles away on the night of the murder, and besides he was only defending himself." He's really just being silly, I'm afraid, an elderly enfant terrible.
England. Via English Studies Online.
Even Britain’s national weather service concedes there’s been no change — delicately called a “pause” — in global temperature in 15 years. If even the raw data is recalcitrant, let alone the assumptions and underlying models, how settled is the science?
That "pause" is in a measurement that does exactly what Freeman Dyson was decrying, considering only global mean surface temperatures in isolation, especially, from ocean temperature. If you follow the link Krauthammer provides to the UK Met Office and read to the bottom, as Krauthammer apparently didn't, you will find links to three papers from the Met Office demonstrating that global warming is not over, pause or no pause:
The first paper shows that a wide range of observed climate indicators continue to show changes that are consistent with a globally warming world, and our understanding of how the climate system works.

The second suggests that it is not possible to explain the recent lack of surface warming solely by reductions in the total energy received by the planet, i.e. the balance between the total solar energy entering the system and the thermal energy leaving it. Changes in the exchange of heat between the upper and deep ocean appear to have caused at least part of the pause in surface warming, and observations suggest that the Pacific Ocean may play a key role.

The final paper shows that the recent pause in global surface temperature rise does not materially alter the risks of substantial warming of the Earth by the end of this century. Nor does it invalidate the fundamental physics of global warming, the scientific basis of climate models and their estimates of climate sensitivity.
And is President Obama a fool or a liar for suggesting that global climate change plays a role in California's ongoing drought crisis?
Accordingly, Obama ostentatiously visited drought-stricken California last Friday. Surprise! He blamed climate change. Here even the New York Times gagged, pointing out that far from being supported by the evidence, “the most recent computer projections suggest that as the world warms, California should get wetter, not drier, in the winter.”
But here I think Krauthammer himself crosses over from stupidity into outright vicious mendacity, since the Times immediately added
What may be different about this drought is that, whatever the cause, the effects appear to have been made worse by climatic warming. And in making that case last week, scientists said, the administration was on solid ground.
The "wetter winters" hypothesis is a canard, since regardless of how much it precipitates, higher temperatures prevent a buildup of the necessary snowpack to assure a good summer water supply. And there's plenty of evidence suggesting the importance of the anthropogenic factor in explaining California's drought. Not to mention Brazil's!

How wrong is Krauthammer? I'm not sure there's a limit.
Sweater model Lana Turner in undated photo via CelebrityDoctor.

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