Don’t Forget Climate Change: Chapter 11 Jo Nova gets confused about hot spots

At least this chapter is unwittingly funny at times.

Intro, Ch 1, Ch2, Ch3, An Aside, Ch4, Ch5, Ch6, Section 1, Ch7, Another Aside, Ch8, Ch9, Ch10, …

An Australian sceptic blogger, Nova has found herself trapped in the inevitable gyre of attempting to answer the question: if it isn’t CO2 then what is it? That question has led her and her husband to strange places (see this and this) but that isn’t what this chapter is about.

Instead, Nova is trying to declare that global warming is dead as a theory. Now, you may wonder that if she can do this why is her chapter (or half of it or a chapter with different emphasis) in the earlier science section? You may wonder if she has the found the killer evidence against the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis why the people the IPA are promoting as scientific experts (such as Lindzen or Michaels or Plimer) forget to mention it in their chapters? I guess they must have been busy.

Nova’s first approach is to take on the role of water vapour in climate science. She identifies, correctly, that it is the positive feedback from water vapour that really adds the extra wallop to global warming.

“Water vapour (aka humidity) is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Warmer air can hold more water vapour. What if CO2 warmed the world, which caused humidity to rise and amplified the warming?”

Well maybe not suggests Nova. Clouds might do something. Now we have actually seen a better treatment of the cloud issue in Lindzen’s chapter. Yet Nova is much more assertive about the issue than Lindzen.

Which takes us to the issue of the so-called ‘hot spot’. Models of temperature increases in the atmosphere imply that warming of the atmosphere isn’t uniform. Specifically, a section of the troposphere above the tropics should warm more than other areas creating a so-called ‘hotspot’. As Nova points out even if this hotspot exists it is not easy to observe. She then points out that the observational evidence doesn’t confirm that the hotspot is there.

Now rationally, noting that something would be difficult to observe followed by a claim that that thing hasn’t been observed, should (via Occam’s razor) be an unremarkable statement. Hard to observe things are less likely to be observed even if they exist.

Collecting observational data to confirm such a hot spot (whose importance to the actual hypothesis of global warming is not huge) is difficult. Satellite data, for example, needs to be corrected for orbital decay. Weather balloon data also needs to be corrected for other factors. Deniers tend to make a big deal about such things because it allows them to claim that statistics are being fudged or that there is a scary conspiracy going. However, even the few ‘sceptical’ scientists around are clear about the basic facts of collecting measurements – there is no simple pure measurement of anything. Any physical measure can/will have errors and biases from the process of measuring.

What Nova is actually doing is focusing on an area in which the science, both theoretical and observational, is still developing. This is a classic science-denial tactic that arises from the fractal-like way science creates new spaces of inquiry. This is easiest to see with the classic creationist attack on the fossil record and the ‘gaps’ in the evolutionary history of a given species.

For example, consider the fossil record of human evolution. Imagine we have a fossil of some hominid species and then a gap between it and the next fossil evidence of some more human-like ancestor. A creationist might point at this gap and say evolution cannot explain what happened in between or that there is a lack of evidence. But, now imagine a fossil is found from a time period BETWEEN these two fossils. Ah! Paradoxically (and anti-rationally) this is good news for the creationist because now there are TWO gaps they can point. For the denier, the lack of evidence just doubled!

Nova’s argument isn’t as unsubtle as that but it works in a similar way. Since the 1970s climate models have improved enormously both through improved theory and through improved computing power. At the same time, observational data has improved. Necessarily, as a kind of mathematical inevitability that means there will be more points of mismatch between models and observational data! Overall both the models and the data can improve and show more overall agreement and yet generate more and more places where an explanation or better data is needed. This actually just part of the iterative nature of science.

Back to Nova:

“There’s a shell game going on with evidence. Almost all of the pin-ups of climate change are irrelevant because there’s no cause and effect  link. It’s true the world is warming, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, and small fish are getting reckless. But the effects of all the causes of warming are largely the same. Whether it is the sun, cosmic rays or a Klingon plot, seas would rise, glaciers would melt, and heatwaves roll on.”

Safe to assume it isn’t a Klingon plot because it really isn’t their style. A Romulan plot maybe? Trek references aside this is an odd argument for Nova to make in the wake of her last argument. After all warming for some other reason should also produce the tropical tropospheric hotspot which she things isn’t there.

Nova goes on in much the same way. Examples of things that climate science is still investigating, which ignore the fact of how science works. Rather like pointing out the problem in theoretical physics with resolving general relativity and quantum mechanics as a reason for doubting that a vase fell off a table because you pushed it.

Nova runs out of steam around that point and changes tack. Having declared global warming dead on the grounds of people not finding something she already conceded would be hard to find, she feels she needs to explain why all us poor deluded souls carry on believing it. She offers 10 numbered points that mix general complaints about people who believe that the science is correct and specific complaints about research into the all-important (to Nova anyway) hotspot.

#1 Start with money
Is part of the general whinge category. Banks and governments and all sorts of people fund stuff to do with global warming. This is terribly unfair according to Nova because people complain when fossil fuel industry covertly funds climate change denial, FUD and propaganda. Which is just a simple case of false balance in action. There is a massive difference between funding an attempt to undermine scientific research and actually funding scientific research.

I really shouldn’t be flabbergasted by how often conservatives adopt a kind of post-modern moral relativism and yet somehow my last still gets flattered. But let’s move on.

#2 Wordsmith— leave no definition intact
Nova says “We think through our words, so clear logical thinking requires accurate English. But if your aim is marketing, not logic, accurate words are the enemy, and foggy text is your friend.” Yes indeed. I’ve been wading through 11 chapters of foggy text and verbal smog to get to this point already. Is this start of a confession? A section of the IPA’s style manual? No. According to Nova, it is everybody else doing that. The example she gives is an exercise in unintended irony:“Don’t ask anyone to define a climate denier, because literally it doesn’t exist: no one denies we have a climate.”

“Don’t ask anyone to define a climate denier, because literally it doesn’t exist: no one denies we have a climate.”Hmm. By the next

Hmm. By the next sentence, she has at least shifted to “climate change denier” which apparently also doesn’t exist. So much for accurate words because I seem to have read several chapters of a book in which people systematically deny that climate change is actually happening.

“It’s as if a Wimbledon finalist declared they won before the game even started— because the other guy is a ball-denier.”

Before the game even started? The ‘game’ in this analogy would be the discussion as to whether greenhouse gases from fossil fuel emissions will increase surface temperatures and change the climate. That ‘game’ started many, many decades ago and the result was ‘yes, they do’. The ‘denial’ term is because despite that result some people like Nova are still trying to find a way that it might not be true. To retain the Wimbledon analogy it is more like the losing finalist claiming that the winner didn’t win on the grounds that maybe the ball was actually a sparrow, that the umpire once wrote a rude email, that tennis was invented by communists and that nobody had ever established a causal connection between rackets and balls.

#3 Sell the ‘simplicity’— hide the unknowns.
There just isn’t enough science it seems. Remember that in point #1 Nova is complaining that too much money goes to research and explaining research into global warming. Never mind that the IPCC produces massive, multi-chapter reports on all aspects of global warming, this simply isn’t enough. Oh and also scientists trying to get funding to explain the science are somehow wrong to do so.

“Don’t mention the feedbacks. Don’t mention cloud microphysics either, and definitely don’t mention humidity.”

Huh? Who isn’t mentioning them? Certainly not the IPCC, certainly not any of the many scientific bodies and leading climate scientists trying to explain that global warming really is happening. We really are back to that #1 point again. Nova complains about money going to educating people about climate change, she then complains that people aren’t OK with Exxon et al. trying to miseducate people about climate change and not in #3 she is complaining about how people don’t know enough.

#4 Fingerprint? What fingerprint?
Nova rehashes her hotspot complaints from earlier in the chapter.

#5 Discover ‘uncertainty’ and rejoice!
Nova then complains about climate scientists conceding that they don’t know everything. Which, of course, contradicts her #3 but who cares? Any complaint will do – especially contradictory ones.

#6 Why not use wind speeds to measure temperatures?
Back to the hotspot. Nova then complains about researchers trying to estimate tropospheric temperature by using wind speeds as a proxy. This she dismisses despite having pointed out herself that it is fundamentally difficult to directly measure temperature in the troposphere. She says sarcastically:“Apparently things like radars, GPS-tracking and ways of measuring wind speeds are accidentally better at measuring temperatures than the thermometers. (If only we’d known. Think of all the money we wasted on all those thermometers … )”

“Apparently things like radars, GPS-tracking and ways of measuring wind speeds are accidentally better at measuring temperatures than the thermometers. (If only we’d known. Think of all the money we wasted on all those thermometers … )”

Apparently, she forgot where it is that we are trying to measure temperature. Perhaps Nova thinks a researcher can sit high up in the atmosphere with a thermometer?

#7 When yellow is red – which is a complaint about how people colour in temperature maps and diagrams. No seriously.

#8 Black belt graphs – which is a complaint about how some graphs are drawn.

#9 Pretend the hot-spot doesn’t matter – which is a complaint that climate scientists don’t take the hot spot issue as seriously as Nova does.

#10 Call your opponents crazy conspiracy thinkers
This one is both a general complaint and a specific complaint about research done on the connection between climate change denial and other conspiracy-theory style thinking. Note that in #1 Nova was blaming belief in the science of climate change on sinister bankers.

And that’s the end of Jo Nova’s chapter. Just one more chapter to go in this section.

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3 comments

  1. ligne

    “#3 Sell the ‘simplicity’— hide the unknowns.”

    Amusingly, deniers just luuuurve to “disprove” agw with grossly simplistic, wildly unphysical models.

    Like

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