ATTP on Lomborg’s Australian Funding

Blogger …and then there’s physics (ATTP) joins in the hullabaloo about Bjorn Lomberg’s Lomborg’s Consensus Centre is getting A$4m of funding to set up a branch at the University of Western Australia. He says

However, ignoring that Lomborg appears to have a rather tenuous grasp on the basics of climate science, my main issue with what he says is its simplicity. Take all the problems in the world, determine some kind of priority ordering, and then start at the top and work your way down – climate change, obviously, being well down the list. It’s as if Lomborg doesn’t realise that the world is a complex place and that many of the problems we face are related. We can’t necessarily solve something if we don’t also try to address many of the other issues at the same time. It’s this kind of simplistic linear thinking – and that some seem to take it seriously – that irritates me most.

The comment about climatology is just a lead in. ATTP is expressing a normative view about the interrelationship of problems, along with beliefs about the solution. What he is rejecting as simplistic is the method of identifying the interrelated issues separately, understanding the relative size of the problems along with the effectiveness and availability of possible solutions and then prioritizing them.

This errant notion is exacerbated when ATTP implies that Lomborg has received the funding. Lomborg heads up the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and it is they who have received the funding to set up a branch in Australia. This description is from their website

We work with some of the world’s top economists (including 7 Nobel Laureates) to research and publish the smartest solutions to global challenges. Through social, economic and environmental benefit-cost research, we show policymakers and philanthropists how to do the most good for each dollar spent.

It is about bringing together some of the best minds available to understand the problems of the world. It is then to persuade those who are able to do something about the issues. It is not Lomborg’s personal views that are present here, but people with different views and from different specialisms coming together to argue and debate. Anyone who has properly studied economics will soon learn that there are a whole range of different views, many of them plausible. Some glimpse that economic systems are highly interrelated in ways that cannot be remotely specified, leading to the conclusion that any attempt to create a computer model of an economic system will be a highly distorted simplification. At a more basic level they will have learnt that in the real world there are 200 separate countries, all with different priorities. In many there is a whole range of different voiced opinions about what the priorities should be at national, regional and local levels. To address all these interrelated issues together would require the modeller of be omniscient and omnipresent. To actually enact the modeller’s preferred policies over seven billion people would require a level of omnipotence that Stalin could only dream of.

This lack of understanding of economics and policy making is symptomatic of those who believe in climate science. They fail to realize that models are only an attempted abstraction of the real world. Academic economists have long recognized the abstract nature of the subject along with the presence of strong beliefs about the subject. As a result, in the last century many drew upon the rapidly developing philosophy of science to distinguish whether theories were imparting knowledge about the world or confirming beliefs. The most influential by some distance was Milton Friedman. In his seminal essay The Methodology of Positive Economics he suggested the way round this problem was to develop bold yet simple predictions from the theory that, despite being unlikely, are nevertheless come true. I would suggest that you do not need to be too dogmatic in the application. The bold predictions do not need to be right 100% of the time, but an entire research programme should be establishing a good track record over a sustained period. In climatology the bold predictions, that would show a large and increasing problem, have been almost uniformly wrong. For instance:-

  • The rate of melting of the polar ice caps has not accelerated.
  • The rate of sea level rise has not accelerated in the era of satellite measurements.
  • Arctic sea ice did not disappear in the summer of 2013.
  • Hurricanes did not get worse following Katrina. Instead there followed the quietest period on record.
  • Snow has not become a thing of the past in England, nor in Germany.

Other examples have been compiled by Pierre Gosselin at Notrickszone, as part of his list of climate scandals.

Maybe it is different in climatology. The standard response is that the reliability of the models is based on the strength of the consensus in support. This view is not proclaimed by ATTP. Instead from the name it would appear he believes the reliability can be obtained from the basic physics. I have not done any physics since high school and have forgotten most of what I learnt. So in discerning what is reality in that area I have to rely on the opinions of physicists themselves. One of the greatest physicists since Einstein was Richard Feynman. He said fifty years ago in a lecture on the Scientific Method

You cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and the method you have for computing the consequences is a little vague then ….. you see that the theory is good as it can’t be proved wrong. If the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill any experimental result can be made to look like an expected consequence.

Climate models, like economic models, will always be vague. This is not due to being poorly expressed (though they often are) but due to the nature of the subject. Short of rejecting climate models as utter nonsense, I would suggest the major way of evaluating whether they say something distinctive about the real world is on the predictive ability. But a consequence of theories always being vague in both economics and climate is you will not be able to use the models as a forecasting tool. As Freeman Dyson (who narrowly missed sharing a Nobel Prize with Feynman) recently said of climate models:-

These climate models are excellent tools for understanding climate, but that they are very bad tools for predicting climate. The reason is simple – that they are models which have very few of the factors that may be important, so you can vary one thing at a time ……. to see what happens – particularly carbon dioxide. But there are a whole lot of things that they leave out. ….. The real world is far more complicated than the models.

This implies that when ATTP is criticizing somebody else’s work with a simple model, or a third person’s work, he is likely criticizing them for looking at a highly complex issue in another way. Whether his way is better, worse or just different we have no way of knowing. All we can infer from his total rejection of ideas of experts in a field to which he lacks even a basic understanding, is that he has no basis of knowing either.

To be fair, I have not looked at the earlier part of ATTP’s article. For instance he says:-

If you want to read a defense of Lomborg, you could read Roger Pielke Jr’s. Roger’s article makes the perfectly reasonable suggestion that we shouldn’t demonise academics, but fails to acknowledge that Lomborg is not an academic by any standard definition…….

The place to look for a “standard definition” of a word is a dictionary. The noun definitions are

noun

8. a student or teacher at a college or university.

9. a person who is academic in background, attitudes, methods, etc.:

He was by temperament an academic, concerned with books and the arts.

10. (initial capital letter) a person who supports or advocates the Platonic school of philosophy.

This is Bjorn Lomborg’s biography from the Copenhagen Consensus website:-

Dr. Bjorn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and Adjunct Professor at University of Western Australia and Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School. He researches the smartest ways to help the world, for which he was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. His numerous books include The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place and The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030.

Lomborg meets both definitions 8 & 9, which seem to be pretty standard. Like with John Cook and William Connolley defining the word sceptic, it would appear that ATTP rejects the authority of those who write the dictionary. Or more accurately does not even to bother to look. Like with rejecting the authority of those who understand economics it suggests ATTP uses the authority of his own dogmatic beliefs as the standard by which to evaluate others.

Kevin Marshall

Freeman Dyson on Climate Models

One of the leading physicists on the planet, Freeman Dyson, has given a video interview to the Vancouver Sun. Whilst the paper emphasizes Dyson’s statements about the impact of more CO2 greening the Earth, there is something more fundamental that can be gleaned.

Referring to a friend who constructed the first climate models, Dyson says at about 10.45

These climate models are excellent tools for understanding climate, but that they are very bad tools for predicting climate. The reason is simple – that they are models which have very few of the factors that may be important, so you can vary one thing at a time ……. to see what happens – particularly carbon dioxide. But there are a whole lot of things that they leave out. ….. The real world is far more complicated than the models.

I believe that Climate Science has lost sight of what this understanding of what their climate models actually are literally attempts to understand the real world, but are not the real world at all. It reminds me of something another physicist spoke about fifty years ago. Richard Feynman, a contemporary that Dyson got to know well in the late 1940s and early 1950s said of theories:-

You cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and the method you have for computing the consequences is a little vague then ….. you see that the theory is good as it can’t be proved wrong. If the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill any experimental result can be made to look like an expected consequence.

Complex mathematical models suffer from this vagueness in abundance. When I see supporters of climate arguing the critics of the models are wrong by stating some simple model, and using selective data they are doing what lesser scientists and pseudo-scientists have been doing for decades. How do you confront this problem? Climate is hugely complex, so simple models will always fail on the predictive front. However, unlike Dyson I do not think that all is lost. The climate models have had a very bad track record due to climatologists not being able to relate their models to the real world. There are a number of ways they could do this. A good starting point is to learn from others. Climatologists could draw upon the insights from varied sources. With respect to the complexity of the subject matter, the lack of detailed, accurate data and the problems of prediction, climate science has much in common with economics. There are insights that can be drawn on prediction. One of the first empirical methodologists was the preeminent (or notorious) economist of the late twentieth century – Milton Friedman. Even without his monetarism and free-market economics, he would be known for his 1953 Essay “The Methodology of Positive Economics”. Whilst not agreeing with the entirety of the views expressed (there is no satisfactory methodology of economics) Friedman does lay emphasis on making simple, precise and bold predictions. It is the exact opposite of the Cook et al. survey which claims a 97% consensus on climate, implying that it relates to a massive and strong relationship between greenhouse gases and catastrophic global warming when in fact it relates to circumstantial evidence for a minimal belief in (or assumption of) the most trivial form of human-caused global warming. In relation to climate science, Friedman would say that it does not matter about consistency with the basic physics, nor how elegantly the physics is stated. It could be you believe that the cause of warming comes from the hot air produced by the political classes. What matters that you make bold predictions based on the models that despite being simple and improbable to the non-expert, nevertheless turn out to be true. However, where bold predictions have been made that appear to be improbable (such as worsening hurricanes after Katrina or the effective disappearance of Arctic Sea ice in late 2013) they have turned out to be false.

Climatologists could also draw upon another insight, held by Friedman, but first clearly stated by John Neville Keynes (father of John Maynard Keynes). That is on the need to clearly distinguish between the positive (what is) and the normative (what ought to be). But that distinction was alienate the funders and political hangers-on. It would also mean a clear split of the science and policy.

Hattips to Hilary Ostrov, Bishop Hill, and Watts up with that.

 

Kevin Marshall