One of the best podcasts that you will find is The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. I link to their podcast feed over on the right side of my blog page under GREAT PODCASTS and I highly recommend it. I have learned a lot from their discussions of science-related current events and they are even funny while they do it. Steve Novella, the main guy, is simply sharp as a tack. Having said all of that, they really disappointed me with their response to the ongoing scandal that has been dubbed “ClimateGate”.
Additionally, I was absolutely stunned to discover that none of the Big Three networks have covered the scandal and the leaked information and ramifications at all on television. Seriously – this is a blatant news blackout. I simply cannot believe that they would be so obvious. Someone on Twitter humorously suggested that we should accuse Tiger Woods of involvement to get some coverage, but I digress…
I will admit up front that I have always been a skeptic when it comes to anthropogenic climate change (what used to be called Global Warming before cold spells undercut that mantra). My pre-ClimateGate reasons for this skepticism include things like the pre-industrial Medieval Warm Period, the outright silliness of trying to consider the Little Ice Age to be a baseline for normal temperatures, the discredited Hockey Stick graph, James Hanson’s deceitful attempt to use September temperatures to make October look inordinately hot, it goes on and on. Additionally, part of my reluctance to get on board is the stink of a social/political agenda on the part of the high priests of the church of man-made climate change. Additionally, though believers love to dismiss any non-believers who receive research money from energy concerns they do not use that same standard for these scientists who get massive grants for coming up with the “approved” results, nor do they talk much about Al Gore cashing in on it. They simply [naively] assume altruism in those people.
Having said that, ClimateGate is a huge scandal, and while I can understand people like Michael Mann (the huckster who created the discredited hockey stick graph) and Phil Jones circling the wagons to protect themselves and their [well-funded] alarmist industry, I cannot understand why the SGU rogues and their friend-of-the-SGU Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer) seem to be willing to throw aside their alleged skepticism in order to stick to their story. In doing so they embarrass themselves and have seriously undercut their well earned credibility, particularly with those of us in the sub-group that Steve once dubbed their “libertarian listeners”.
I listened to the SGU podcast #227 to see how they would respond to the damning information that has come to light from the leaked (or hacked) data pulled from the UK’s Climate Research Unit. Did they mention the scientists conspiring to use tricks to hide the decline in recent global temperatures (“Mike’s trick”)? Nope. Did they mention the scientists discussing illegal schemes to hide their data from Freedom of Information (FOIA) Requests? Nope. Did they talk about the fact that these scientists claim that all of the raw, unadjusted data has been lost, with only the “corrected” (i.e. “tricked”) data left available? No, they did not. They simply circled the wagons and took the typical [shout-down fascism] tactic of calling us anthropogenic climate change skeptics “deniers”, a well-known reference equating us to holocaust deniers.
Bottom line? Yawn. Get back to me when you have equally overwhelming evidence that global warming is not happening, or if it is it’s not anthropogenic. Then we can talk.
One could argue that his statement is an example of the logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance, “in which it is claimed that a premise is true only because it has not been proven false”.
When the data is called into question you cannot dismiss skeptics based upon your unwavering faith in that same questionable data. Perhaps in such a situation one should check one’s premises.
These so-called scientists have been using tricks to arrive at their pre-determined conclusion, have talked of avoiding FOIA requests, and have “lost” the raw data, but the skeptics at SGU continue to declare that it is settled science… based upon the very people and data that have now been shown fairly convincingly to be lies, half-truths, manipulations, and obfuscations. I am trying to find a good analogy here to describe what they are doing in defending the ClimateGate offenders. Maybe the way football fans will let a player get away with egregious crimes because they feel like they are on the same team? Perhaps a better analogy is the way that people who naively supported vacuous candidate Obama still refuse to admit that they were hoodwinked by his platitudes. Those analogies are not exactly right but I am getting close. I will have to put more thought into that. Maybe they have simply gotten so used to defending against “deniers” that they are just doing the thoughtless knee-jerk reaction.
Perhaps most importantly, the computer models on which a lot of this theory is based did not predict our current cooling trend. Why is that? Because as analysis of the source code is now revealing, they coded the software with a conclusion in mind, fudging things to make them work. Poor Harry, whoever that is, but I will get to that in a minute.
If you believe in anthropogenic global warming completely independent of their computer models then the rest of this post may not impress you. But if those oft-mentioned models play a role in your acceptance of the theory then please keep reading.
I understand that Steve Novella probably knows as much about programming as I know about neurology and that Bob Novella probably knows about as much about software development as I know about nanotechnology. I could likely make the same statement about Plait’s knowledge of programming compared to my knowledge of astronomy, but my understanding is that Jay Novella is a professional computer programmer like me. Perhaps he should take a look at the criticisms of the software that I have read and share that data and his expertise with his fellow rogues on the SGU podcast team.
Writing over at the ChicagoBoyz blog, Shannon Love has some programmer insights on this aspect of the ClimateGate scandal:
No, the real shocking revelation lies in the computer code and data that were dumped along with the emails. Arguably, these are the most important computer programs in the world. These programs generate the data that is used to create the climate models which purport to show an inevitable catastrophic warming caused by human activity. It is on the basis of these programs that we are supposed to massively reengineer the entire planetary economy and technology base.
The dumped files revealed that those critical programs are complete and utter train wrecks.
It’s hard to explain to non-programmers just how bad the code is but I will try. Suppose the code was a motorcycle. Based on the repeated statements that Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming was “settled science” you would expect that the computer code that helped settle the science would look like this…
…when in reality it looks like this:
After a brief discussion of professional large-scale software management and development techniques, Love concludes:
Clearly, nothing like these established procedures was used at CRU. Indeed, the code seems to have been written overwhelmingly by just two people (one at a time) over the past 30 years. Neither of these individuals was a formally trained programmer and there appears to have been no project planning or even formal documentation. Indeed, the comments of the second programmer, the hapless “Harry”, as he struggled to understand the work of his predecessor are now being read as a kind of programmer’s Icelandic saga describing a death march through an inexplicable maze of ineptitude and boobytraps.
Describing one hack among many, Love draws a damning picture of the quality of this immensely important software:
A lot of the CRU code is clearly composed of hacks. Hacks are informal, off-the-cuff solutions that programmers think up on the spur of the moment to fix some little problem. Sometimes they are so elegant as to be awe inspiring and they enter programming lore. More often, however, they are crude, sloppy and dangerously unreliable. Programmers usually use hacks as a temporary quick solution to a bottleneck problem. The intention is always to come back later and replace the hack with a more well-thought-out and reliable solution, but with no formal project management and time constraints it’s easy to forget to do so. After a time, more code evolves that depends on the existence of the hack, so replacing it becomes a much bigger task than just replacing the initial hack would have been.
(One hack in the CRU software will no doubt become famous. The programmer needed to calculate the distance and overlapping effect between weather monitoring stations. The non-hack way to do so would be to break out the trigonometry and write a planned piece of code to calculate the spatial relationships. Instead, the CRU programmer noticed that that the visualization software that displayed the program’s results already plotted the station’s locations so he sampled individual pixels on the screen and used the color of the pixels between the stations to determine their location and overlap! This is a fragile hack because if the visualization changes the colors it uses, the components that depend on the hack will fail silently.)
Interestingly, Love makes a critical point in another post that is giving the True Believers a dose of their own medicine: No one peer reviews scientific software!
The practical inability of peer reviewers to verify scientific software doesn’t mean much in reality, because scientific institutions never even developed the standard that experimenters had to make the code for their software available to reviewers in the first place!
This raises a troubling question: When scientists tell the public that a scientific study that used a large, custom-written piece of software has been “peer reviewed” does that mean the study faced the same level of peer scrutiny as did a study that used more traditional hardware instruments and procedures?
Scientists have let a massive flaw slowly creep into the scientific review system as they have ignored the gradually increasing significance and complexity of computer software. Standards created to deal with relatively simple and standardized scientific hardware no longer work to double-check much more complex and nonstandard scientific software.
From my perspective, the bottom line in this whole debate with respect to wagon-circlers like the SGU team is that they dismiss the ClimateGate scandal by referring to the irrefutability of the same science, software, and now quite arguably deceitful conclusions that have been exposed as flawed (at best) by the now-available data, email communications, and software analysis.
The SGU is displaying a circular dis-logic that is decidedly not skepticism.
I still highly recommend the podcast, and I will admit that calling these SGU rogues out on this is more than a little daunting given their intellect and large audience, but they have some splainin’ to do.