03 December 2009

Climate change deniers: letter to the editor, AFR

In today’s (3 December) edition of The Australian Financial Review there is a letter to the editor, from a Mr Peter Haggstrom of Bondi Beach, that resonates strongly with me (that is physics-speak for I agree with him). The letters editor has captioned the letter Climate change deniers fail Dirty Harry test.

Mr Haggstrom writes:

In the mid-19th century the church and some very reputable scientists denied Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The theory was not some half-baked idea. It had been thought out in meticulous detail and it made sense at many levels even before modern genetic mechanisms were uncovered. Yet to this day some people do not believe it.

The mental processes of the visceral climate change deniers (despite what they say for political consumption), such as new Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin, amount to an amalgam of ignorance and arrogance. Neither is scientifically trained at undergraduate level, let alone at post-doctoral level where the nitty-gritty work is done, yet each has a conviction that manages to exist in an intellectual vacuum as profound as that of deep space.

I can derive the Schrodinger Wave Equation (www.gotohaggstrom.com has an explanation designed for high-school students and undergraduates) but what I know about the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere is light years away from what the experts know.

Unlike Abbott and Minchin, I took Dirty Harry’s advice: a man’s gotta know his limitations. I admit to going with the flow because there is no way I can develop a personally satisfying view on the detail. The whole process by which the view of anthropogenic global warming has been developed is immense and involves a large number of scientists across the world. The committee processes smooth out the extreme views.

People with far greater knowledge than I possess are worried and hence I am worried.

Abbott and Minchin wouldn’t take issue with the quantum physics behind magnetic resonance imaging or the Fourier Theory that underpins the nice pictures, yet the climate is clearly much more tractable to their minds. It really is late in the day when such pygmies cast shadows over the debate.

I have an honours degree in physics, and like Mr Haggstrom I can derive the Schrödinger Wave Equation.  I spent my last two years at the University of New England working in a team of world repute that researched the physics of the ionosphere (the atmosphere from about 50km above the earth and beyond). And like Mr Haggstrom, I would not feel equipped to challenge the climate scientists.

Up in the rarified reaches of the ionosphere it is pretty well all physics: charged particles, magnetic fields, high energy particles hitting the top of the atmosphere and that kind of thing.

Way down there where the weather happens the physics remains, but chemistry and thermodynamics become much more important. Down in the very low levels where living things are, a bewildering variety of biological processes becomes important, and once we reach sea-level, the complexities of the interchanges between the oceans and the atmosphere come into play. This is immensely complex stuff, and in order to get any kind of picture of how all these things play out, as distinct from the individual component processes, it is necessary to set up a mathematical model that binds all of the separate elements together in one framework that enables us to understand how they interact.

Mathematical models are not some kind of black art that enables the members of the international climate conspiracy to paint any picture they want; they are the only way to impose discipline on the analysis of a problem of such enormous complexity. They are of necessity a simplification of the real world, but for many purposes they give us a good feel for what is going on, and the relative scales of different effects.

I have read carefully the 55 page technical summary of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, and have read a couple of the individual chapters of the 1,000 page full report.  I think I have the scientific literacy to understand what I am reading, and in what I have read I have not seen anything that the extent of my scientific knowledge and understanding would lead me to challenge on methodological grounds.

So it stuns me that people with no scientific training whatsoever can be so sure of themselves. I guess absolute certainty requires something approaching absolute ignorance; if there is one benefit we should all gain from our tertiary education it is the understanding that we need to approach all intellectual problems with a certain humility.

1 comment:

Upandaway said...

It's not so much absolute certainty as absolute denial and wishful thinking. Climate change, like the evolution before it, ticks of a lot of otherwise quite sensible people because it points to unacceptable solutions and consequences that are totally alien to their world-view.

Evolution implied that Man was mere animal and no better than the cow he eats, calling into question the validity of christian religous belief (Hindus has no "beef" with it as far as I know). This was and is an unacceptable conclusion for a lot of people.

Climate change challenges the inherent Goodness of ideas such as material progress (growth-ism) and absolute individual autonomy (libertarianism). And so, for those so inclined, it is invalid as a starting point.

Instead, people dismiss it as there being "conflicing opinions" or listen the the comforting noise from dissenting third-rate intellectuals and paid shrills. Others simply dismiss it as lies, and the perpetrators a vast conspiracy Out To Get You.