Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The freedom to be wrong

Last night I attended an extraordinary event. A biography of Helen Suzman was launched in the ballroom of the Mount Nelson Hotel. Now a book launch is not normally something to write about, but this was some launch! 
First up to introduce the book was the author, Robin Renwick, or Lord Renwick of Clifton, to give him his full title. He had been British Ambassador to South Africa in the late 1980's, and had played a crucial role in facilitating the transition out of apartheid. He spoke briefly, because he had learned a long time ago that you couldn't keep people from the bar for too long! 
He was followed by Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape, who said some things about Suzman that I will talk about later. She was her usual trenchant self, firm, to the point, and quite brief. Next up was ex-President FW de Klerk, full of bonhomie and rueful of the many occasions when he had been bested in Parliament by Suzman. Then we had Mamphaela Ramphaela, newly welcomed to the DA ranks as Presidential candidate, who was wise and nostalgic in her praise of Suzman. And to round off the list of luminaries, none other than Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who also remembered Suzman warmly. 
But Zille said something which grabbed my attention. She quoted Suzman as saying that she had lived through three ideologies, Nazi Fascism, Communism and Apartheid. Each of them was dominated by its own ideological 'truth'. In every case they fell because the 'truth' carried the seeds of its own destruction, when reality eventually forced its way past the misconceptions. 
She - Suzman - was a liberal, which was not an ideology because no liberal ever lays claim to be the holder of the 'truth'. In a liberal democracy you are allowed to make mistakes, but mistakes get picked up and corrected because there is no perceived 'truth'. Instead there is open debate about what is best for society, and that debate is fostered by freedom of speech and the rule of law. 
I knew Suzman quite well, but I had never heard her advance this. Yet it has a ring of veracity about it. Something gave her the will to fight. For 17 years she was the lone voice of reason. Then, in 1974, Gordon Waddell became the first progressive to join her in Parliament. 
 I remember that night well, because at long last a tiny crack had opened in the rigid facade of the apartheid government. Waddell was no light-weight, and I and another tall bloke were only too keen to put him down when we were so foolish as to raise him up in triumph. There was a car close at hand, and Waddell stood on the roof to make his victory speech - which was interrupted by the officer in charge of voting shrieking "Get off my blerry car!" We had to pay for the repairs to the dented roof. 
 So I leave you with the thought that none of us can lay claim to be right. We can have views, and as long as we have the freedom to express those views, then what is right and just will emerge. But attempts to shut down the debate, by declaring that there is 'consensus' or that is is wrong to publish 'falsehoods' miss the point - today's consensus is tomorrow's mistake. That is one of the things that makes life worth living.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


In the debate about climate change/global warming, there is a lingering question – how can many apparently sensible people question the findings of the IPCC?  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is one of the shining lights in the UN’s collection of bodies. Does it not represent the consensus views of many scientists from around the world?

Sadly, it does not.  But this leads to the question - how do you determine 'consensus'? It is difficult to go round asking people if they agree - you don't know if they are telling the truth, or they may give you misleading answers.  You may slant the question or fudge the answers to get the 'consensus' you desire - which has happened in this sphere recently, as shown by the flaws in the so-called '97% consensus' story.

 I think a good way to test consensus is to see what happen if you keep asking the same question.  Ask a question, see what the response is; ask it again, and see what the response is; ask it a third time, and then compare the responses.  Are there differences over time?  If not, then you have true consensus.

This should be one way in which the IPCC finds consensus.  The drafts of it's Assessment Reports go through three drafts before being published.  Each of those drafts is reviewed by hundreds of reviewers from all over the world.  Comments are carefully logged, and summarised by review editors.  Changes are made in texts and figures. The end result is supposed to represent the consensus view.

The latest IPCC Assessment Report went through the requisite three rounds of drafting. In September 2013, the report was published in final draft, “accepted by Working Group I of the IPCC but not approved in detail.”There was a key diagram in each of the first three drafts.  It showed how the most recent measurements of the global temperatures were diverging from predictions made in earlier Assessment Reports. 

In the first two rounds of drafting, the figure appeared with other figures comparing predictions to reality.  The First Order Draft, Technical Summary, TFE 3 Figure 1, p79 has it thus:-

The black dots represent the different estimates of global temperatures, the various coloured bands represent the predictions, and the grey band is supposed to represent the range of the various predictions.

The AR4 predictions were made in 2007, so by 2012 when the 2011 data was available, everyone was concerned that the measurements were well below the lower range of a prediction made only five years before. There were comments to the effect that this was an important finding, and in the third draft of AR5, the figure was moved up in importance and shown separately as Second Order Draft, Figure 1.4:-

 By time of the Third Draft, the full data for 2011 were available, and most of the data for 2012. When shown on this graph, they confirmed that the AR4 predictions were high.  So you would think consensus had been achieved.  The question as to whether this was a valid representation of the state of the science had been asked repeatedly, and the diagram had been accepted unchanged.  I and many other scientists accepted that there was a gap between what we had thought in 2007 would happen, and what by 2013 had actually happened, and were girding our loins to try to find the source of the problem.

Then September 2013 arrived, and with it the final draft:-:

The Final Draft Figure 1.4 was totally different - the scales had changed; the measurements had been slightly shifted, the predictions had been rebased,and the critical data, the comparison between reality and model, had been buried under a mound of spaghetti, being the output of a whole lot of models.  Now you could no longer see that there was a difference between model and reality, or that the earlier predictions were high. The simple message of the first three rounds of drafting had been lost. Instead somebody somewhere in the IPCC hierarchy had decided that the simple message was unacceptable, and what the scientists had shown with perfect clarity should instead be buried in a diagram of total incomprehensibility.

Governments everywhere had hoped the IPCC would provide them with sound advice. Slowly the truth is coming out - the IPCC would rather bury a simple message with sleight-of-hand than admit to an obvious shortcoming.  Tricky IPICCY indeed!



Thursday, January 9, 2014

The great Mawson boondoggle

At Christmas came the news that an Australian expedition, aimed at following the footsteps of an explorer called Mawson one hundred years earlier, had become trapped in the ice in Commonwealth Bay. When Mawson was there, the Bay had been ice-free.  So, the expedition evidently argued, with 'Global Warming' under way, there would be no chance of ice.  Surprise, surprise! There was enough to freeze the Akademik Shokalskij hard and fast.

Of course, the Russian captain saw it coming, but the intrepid explorers were ashore, and doing vital scientific work counting penguins. When the weather changed, and they received the message to return to ship urgently, they finished counting before they returned, and by then the ship was stuck.

At that, they panicked.  Not for them a few years locked in the ice.  Nansen and his Fram could have taught them a thing or two about waiting for the ice to take you where it will, but their sense of history did not extend more than 100 years, apparently.  So from around the world, ships were diverted to try to rescue the team. Before long, a Chinese and an Australian ship were also trapped. So much for global warming and mid-summer!

But the team was connected.  The internet is indeed everywhere.  And slowly it all came out.  The 'team' was not just scientists, and not just scientists with the basic sciences needed to study climate change.  Mawson's wife and daughter were aboard, and a Green Party Australian senator.  There were reporters from The Guardian and the BBC.  There were educationists and sociologists (expect a paper on "The dynamics of penguin colonies").  It was a taxpayer-funded Christmas party with a bit of science as an excuse.  After only a few days of being locked in the ice, the Guardian reporter was missing his banana milk shake and his girl-friend. The intrepid spirit of Mawson was conspicuously absent.

Incredibly, they did not even have weather prediction capabilities. Ocean racing yachts worry about the winds for the next week, and an antarctic expedition didn't.  So the farce continued when the ice-bound team sought help, and got it from weatherman Anthony Watts, who runs the worlds largest anti-climate-change blog Watts Up With That. He told them that the weather would probably change for the better after about a week.

Could they wait? No way.  The moment the blizzard was over, and the Chinese helicopter could land, they were off, leaving the 22 crew members to their fate.  The rescued party was duly transferred to the Australian vessel, now almost free of the ice, and began their trip back to Melbourne. A week later, the weather changed as expected and the Akademik Sholalskij sailed off under its own steam.

The leader of this abortive junket, Prof Turney, could not wait to get his side of the story before the public.  Nature ran a letter from him in which he tried to justify the disaster.  Interestingly, the comments Nature ran below his letter were almost universally negative.  Nature has a reputation for being so pro-global-warming that it will never run a contrary view, but on this occasion it changed its policy. 

I sincerely hope that the days when pseudo-science could drum up huge financial support merely by mentioning the words "climate change" are coming to an end. For the sake of real science, it cannot happen too soon.