Bolt’s climate comedy

Any appearance of Andrew Bolt on the ABC’s Insiders programme is bound to result in at least one deranged pronouncement on the conspiracy that is climate change. (This is something of a shame, because on other issues discussed on Insiders he does often approach sanity.)

In the closing comments, Bolt had this contribution to make:

The latest results just in a couple of days ago: the world has… the planet has warm… cooled for the last 8 years to normal levels; the land surface measurements cooled for the last 8 years; and sea levels – good heavens, Penny Wong was wrong in that too – that too has cooled over 5 years.

To put this into some perspective, NASA offers the following global temperature data:

NASA global temperature graph

“Normal levels” indeed. Bolt gave no indication of where his particular data comes from, and a more comprehensive denial of climate reality (complete with what could be a Freudian slip) would be hard to pack into such a small window of time.

Note – Bolt says that sea “levels” have “cooled”. Either cooling or dropping would be a neat trick, since the data shows quite unambiguously that the sea levels are rising, with about half the rise due to thermal expansion. Bolt himself posted a graph on his blog showing the changes to sea levels just days ago, though with the reality-defying annotation “FLAT” (in comic sans, no less) plastered across the last three years (in much the same way you might expect a bright red sign to be cheerfully labelled “blue”). Bolt himself didn’t add the annotation; that honour goes to former meteorologist Anthony Watts. Now, because one must always strive for betterment, Bolt has apparently decided that “FLAT” = “cooling”, and that 3 years = 5 years. He was reading from notes, so if it was a slip-up it was a very well planned one.

Annotated sea level graph

As you can see, the above graph quite handily refutes its own annotation (which was not on the original, just in case you’re wondering). One despairs at the futility of debating people who not only fail to notice such an astoundingly obvious trend, but manage to perceive precisely the opposite of what is staring them in the face.

I was also struck by the time frames Bolt was using. The normal denialist claim is that there has been no warming since 1998. Though that one is easily refuted (in no small part because 1998 recorded a temperature spike due to El Niño), it’s still a stronger case than for the last 8 years. After all, 2001 looks to have recorded some of the coldest temperatures in the last decade (though it’s still in the top 10 warmest years on record).

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Bolt simply printed off some three-year old (because then 1998 would be 8 years ago) piece of denialist propaganda and regurgitated it on-air as “the latest results”. That’s mere speculation, of course.


I’m beginning to think I should have approached this maths modelling stuff from an engineering point of view: with a requirements document, version control and unit testing. Constructing a reasonably complicated mathematical model seems to have enough in common with software development that such things could be quite useful.

I’m calling this “meta-engineering”, because I’d be engineering the development of a model which itself describes (part of) the software engineering process.

The only problem is that formal maths notation can’t just be compiled and executed like source code, and source code is far too verbose (and lacking in variety of symbols) to give you a decent view of the maths.

Fortunately, Bayesian networks provide a kind of high-level design notation; perhaps the UML of probability analysis. Mine look like some sort of demented public transport system. However, drawing them in LaTeX using TikZ/PGF gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

What am I doing?

Over the past few weeks I’ve had numerous questions of the form: “how’s your work going?” I find I can only ever answer this with banalities like “good” or “meh”.

It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing. At any given point in time, I have a list of minor challenges written up on the whiteboard (which accumulate with monotonous regularity). However, my first problem is that I never remember what these are when I’m not actually working on them. I write them down so that I don’t have to remember, of course.

My second problem is that, even if I did remember what I was supposed to be doing, there just isn’t any short explanation. Currently I have on the whiteboard such startling conversation pieces as “Express CI in terms of S and U”. This may or may not tickle your curiosity (depending on how much of a nerd you are), but explaining what it means – and granted, I’ll have to do that eventually anyway – demands as much mental energy as solving the problem itself.

My third problem is  that I regularly shuffle around the meaning of the letters, to ensure I don’t run out of them and also to resolve inconsistencies. I’m currently using the entire English alphabet in my equations and a large proportion of the Greek one, so naming variables is a minor headache in itself. For instance, since I wrote the todo item “Express CI in terms of S and U”, I’ve decided to rename the variable “CI” to “CS“. Also, “S” used to be “T”, and “U” used to be two separate variables. This is mostly cosmetic, but I recoil at the prospect of explaining something so obviously in flux.

I choose to believe that I’ll be able to explain everything once I’ve written my thesis… and hopefully as I’m writing my thesis.

Reality fails to sway Fielding

From our adorably naïve Family First Senator, via the ABC:

When I put forward the question ‘isn’t it true that carbon emissions have been going up and global temperature hasn’t?’, they wanted to rephrase my question and not answer it.

Of course they did you fool – it’s a loaded question. Technically the answer is “yes”, but that has nothing to do with the validity of climate change. If you’d wanted a straight answer you’d have asked a question related to climate (e.g. regarding the global temperature trend) and not merely weather.

There’s some irony in the ABC’s use of the phrase “fact finding mission” to describe what Fielding was doing in the US. He was at the Heartland Institute’s so-called “International Conference on Climate Change”, which, considering the denialist preconceptions that pervade the website, might not be the first place you would think to look for actual facts. Unless, of course, you’re an elected member of parliament.

Science fail

Apparently one of the world’s foremost experts on global warming – as far as the denialist camp is concerned – is Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. The sum total of his qualifications appear to be his propensity to comment on the subject. A google search turned up the Heartland Institute’s take on Monckton.

Observe the ad on the left of the page: “Why Does Gore Refuse To Debate His Critics? CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT A CRISIS”. It looks like something straight out of a political campaign, which ought to be enough to toss it aside without further contemplation. But let’s contemplate for a second. The ad shows Al Gore’s face above four people who – we presume – are “his critics” (one of whom is our esteemed Viscount Monckton). How much tomfoolery can you squeeze into something so small?

  1. The one-versus-four theme makes Al Gore look like he’s on his own, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
  2. The ad conjures up images of public debates of the sort that have nothing to do with science. One does not resolve anything, least of all matters of scientific enquiry and public policy, by having proponents of each view point stand up on a stage and hurl sound bites at each other.
  3. If anyone did need to be involved in a debate, it would be the hundreds of scientists who contribute to the IPCC’s reports, not Al Gore, who is after all just the messenger.

Science. We’ve heard of it.

Artificial intelligence

A thought occurs, spurred on by my use of Bayesian networks. They’re used in AI (so I’m led to believe), though I’m using them to model the comprehension process in humans. However, I do also work in a building filled with other people applying AI techniques.

My question is this: how long until Sarah Connor arrives and blows up level 4? And if she doesn’t, does that mean that the machines have already won? Or does it simply mean that we’re all horrible failures and that nothing will ever come of AI?

A good friend (you know who you are) is working with and discovering things about ferrofluids. In my naivety, I now find myself wondering if you could incorporate some kind of neural structure into it, and get it to reform itself at will…

The Bayesian rabbit hole

You may recall previous rants about my theoretical framework. The recent evolution of my thought processes (much like all other times) has been something like this: hurrah, done… except… [ponder]… I should see if I can fix this little problem… [ponder]… How the hell is this supposed to work?… [ponder]… Damn, the library doesn’t have any books on that… [ponder]…  Gah, I’ll never finish this.

This all concerns the enormous equation slowly materialising in Chapter 7 of my thesis – the one that calculates the “cost effectiveness” of a software inspection. It used to be finished. I distinctly recall finishing it several times, in fact.

The equation was always long, but it used to contain relatively simple concepts like no. defects detected × average defect cost. Then I decided in a state of mild insanity that it would be much better if I had matrix multiplication in there. Then I decided that this wasn’t good enough either, and that what I really needed were some good solid Bayesian networks (often discussed in the context of artificial intelligence). I only just talked myself down from using continuous-time Bayesian networks, because – though I like learning about these things – at some point I’d like to finish my thesis and have a life.

(Put simply, Bayesian networks are a great way of working out probabilities when there are complex causal relationships, and you have limited knowledge. They also allow you to insert pretty diagrams into an otherwise swampy expanse of hard maths.)

On the up side, I’ve learnt what 2S means, where S is a set, and that there’s such a thing as product integration (as opposed to the normal area-under-the-curve “summation” integration). It’s all happening here.

Bike helmet laws

According to New Scientist, an Australian academic has determined (using a mathematical model) that the costs of mandatory bike helmet laws may outweigh the benefits. This relies on the notion that fewer people cycle if forced to wear a helmet, and so do not receive the health benefits of cycling. However, there is some debate about the numbers used in the model.

As a cyclist, the helmet requirement has never entered my mind as an inconvenience. It’s just something you do, like putting on a seat belt.

I imagine some people might be put off cycling in the short term, when helmet laws are introduced, because they can’t be bothered to go out and buy a helmet. However, I can’t really imagine that these laws would reduce number of people on bikes in the long run. For anyone considering purchasing a bike once the laws are in place, a helmet is not an onerous requirement. (Bike accessories are often thrown in for free, at least around here.)

Keeping score

It seems 300 names have been added to the original list of 400 “prominent scientists” who dispute things about climate change. If you follow that link there are a couple of good examples of the calibre of debate on the issue. I posted a few days ago about attempts to rubbish the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I can’t help myself, however, so I’ve been looking at the “highlights” of the 2009 update.

Needless to say, there’s no remotely valid methodology behind this whole exercise. The people on the list were not asked in a standardised fashion (say, via a questionnaire or interview) whether they believe AGW to be real or not. It appears that their quotes were simply harvested opportunistically from myriad sources of unknown reliability, while the reader is left to ponder (or ignore) the total absence of any argument for the existence of AGW. This is clearly not a survey, but nor does it attempt to paint any coherent picture of what the evidence itself tells us. It’s simply an exercise in industrial cherry-picking. Now, since the whole sordid result is in one convenient compilation, it has been endlessly regurgitated in blogs, forums and pseudo-news sites across the web. Grassroots climate change denialism* thrives on copy-and-paste.

Now for some of the people quoted.

First up there’s Ivar Giaever, a Nobel laureate. This is fantastic, but his Nobel Prize winning research was in superconducting, and it was half a century ago. You might recall that just two years ago the IPCC and Al Gore jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”. If Giaever’s Nobel Prize is a mark of authority, then what does that make Al Gore?

Second, we have  Dr. Joanne Simpson, whose heavily edited quote makes it sound like there’s a conspiracy going on in the research community. She is represented as a climate sceptic, but consider an excerpt from her full statement:

What should we as a nation do? Decisions have to be made on incomplete information. In this case, we must act on the recommendations 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.

Of the above excerpt, the report quotes only the highlighted part. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for a scientist to say, but quoting such a remark without context is clearly very misleading, if not an act of deliberate deception. Scepticism means very different things in science and politics. How can a scientist who explicitly states that “we must act” on the IPCC’s recommendations be tagged as a dissenter from the consensus?

Third, there’s a  Dr. Kiminori Itoh, who describes himself as “physical chemist familiar with environmental sciences, and not particularly specialized in climate science. He is described in the list as a “UN IPCC scientist”, which is somewhat misleading because Itoh was a reviewer for the IPCC report, not a contributor to it. His quote, that “Warming fears are the ‘worst scientific scandal in the history…When people come to know what the truth is, they will feel deceived by science and scientists,'” is clearly mangled, and the second part isn’t actually his.

I’m selecting a small sample of quotes because it helps illustrate how the deception works. I clearly don’t have the time and energy to go through them all, but I shouldn’t have to because the methodology is rubbish to begin with. The introduction on page 2 is farcical enough. Consider the point being made – that there is no consensus on climate change. Now consider that throughout the entire document, virtually no attention is drawn to disagreements between those actually quoted. The report states that “The over 700 dissenting scientists are more than 13 times the number of UN scientists (52)”. If that ratio reflected the general balance of opinion, there would be a consensus – a consensus against the notion of AGW. However, nobody argues this, because it would imply that a large part of the world’s media, many of the world’s governments and most of its scientific institutions are part of a vast conspiracy. That’s the point where most people would – quite rightly – stop listening.

Even if we accept the legitimacy of the entire list of AGW sceptics, the 700:52 ratio is still complete nonsense. If someone had the patience to draft a list of “prominent scientists” who believe AGW to be real, by similarly harvesting every available quote, that list could easily run into many tens of thousands. But we don’t need to. More than ten years ago, when we were far less certain about AGW than we are now, a group of more than 1500 scientists actively urged “action at Kyoto”. The IPCC itself is a forum for hundreds of scientists actively contributing to fields relevant to AGW (not just the 52 who summarised the report). Its reports are endorsed by numerous other organisations, including the science academies of the G8+5 nations in a joint statement.

But that’s all irrelevant, because we have luminaries like Chris Allen, who assures us that AGW is wrong primarily because “it completely takes God out of the picture.”

* I don’t usually like using concocted terms like “denialism”, but there has to be a label for the kind of grossly dishonest, politically charged make-believe that goes far beyond scepticism and even cynicism. Scientists are right to keep an open mind about climate change – and for the most part that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. Denialism, by contrast, is something quite different. It seems to be broadly interested only in accumulating sound bites, treating the acquisition of quotes like a point-scoring system and stripping away all context and nuance.

Climate control

For someone who rails so vehemently against global warming “alarmism”*, Andrew Bolt sure seems to be alarmed about hypothetical fatalities attributed to air conditioning failure during blackouts. Bolt states: “Just how many died because power blackouts knocked out their airconditioning is not known.” It’s not known, of course, because nobody has reported it happening, not because there’s some sort of shadowy government conspiracy. By contrast, the World Heath Organisation estimates that about 150,000 excess deaths are already occurring annually in “low-income countries” as a result of climate change. But then that’s based on actual research, so we can safely ignore it.

Indeed, the scientific consensus on global warming has been ignored and disputed by any number of media and political hacks. There are lists of the scientific battalions that supposedly dispute anthropogenic global warming (AGW), but most of the people on them are (a) connected to the fossil-fuel industry or funded by some like-minded “think tank”, (b) not connected to climate science in any significant fashion, or (c) not actually in denial of AGW at all. For instance, Dr Olafur Ingolfsson (whose credentials I have no particular reason to doubt) merely reassures us that the polar bear may not be in danger of extinction. For that he made it into the US Republicans’ list of “Over 400 Prominent Scientists [who] Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007“. The Heartland Institute’s list of “500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares” doesn’t give any reasoning at all for the inclusion of any given name, and many of those listed have expressed their outrage.

Al Gore, who in the US now seems to be a piñata for the cynics (as though discrediting him is equivalent to discrediting the entire field), tried to point out that the consensus on AGW is real. In An Inconvenient Truth he cited a metastudy on the subject, which found that none of a sample of 928 climate-related papers had argued against AGW. A newer, more direct survey has since found that 96% of climatologists (actively publishing) agree that temperatures have risen, and 97% believe that human activity is a significant contributing factor. Moreover, the closer you are to the science, the more likely you are to agree with this view. Only 58% of the general public believes that human factors are influencing the climate. However, to argue that there is no scientific consensus is risible. Such claims seem to be based on the views of a few outspoken individuals, amplified by political and corporate interests and parroted by ideologues in the media (who, of course, complain loudly that it’s the other way around).

Needless to say, air conditioning failure is a lot more likely if more people are relying on air conditioning.

* Can one accept that anthropogenic global warming is occurring without being contemptibly tagged as an “alarmist”?