Generalist

by Dr. Tim Ball on February 7, 2011

in Data,Theory

For an Italian documentary on climate I was asked, “Why do you think we don’t all share the same theory about global warming, particularly so far as concerns its causes?” The simple answer is because there is no general climate theory.

As usual the proper answer is complicated. It is a very good question because it speaks directly to a major issue in the public and scientific debate about climate. It was the subject of my recent speech for the in Calgary. The topic was “Recent Theoretical and Observational Evidence for a Cooling Atmosphere.” This was not my choice because it is too esoteric for a general audience. I spoke to the issue, but in the much broader context of the significance of the new evidence and current cooling. It helps to understand how proponents of global warming due to human CO2 hypothesis are able to move the goalposts so easily from global warming to climate change to climate chaos and climate catastrophe.

History records Alexander von Humboldt as the last ‘universal’ person. Significantly, he died in 1859, the same year Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. A renaissance person is one with extensive knowledge in many areas – a diverse scholar. A universal person is one who knows essentially everything there is to know. Von Humboldt knew all the physics, chemistry, biology and other disciplines of his time. He traveled to, and was knowledgeable about, all the continents except Antarctica.

Since then proliferation and complexity of knowledge means no person can encompass it all. This caused increasing specialization, especially in academia. Departments divided into new departments but also into divisions within each. These divisions spread into our view of knowledge, creating isolationism and tunnel vision.

Before the change, there were general rules with exceptions to the rule and individual studies had to fit into the larger picture. Now studies are published often without context or reference to where it fits in the larger progression of knowledge. Now the dictum claims specialization is the mark of genius, generalization the mark of a fool. Sadly, this confirms the adage of not seeing the forest for the trees. At some point the individual pieces have to be put together to recreate the real world.

Specialization caused serious problems for generalist disciplines like history. It meant generalist and pervasive subjects became increasingly difficult to understand. Water is one of these. There is no section for water in the library, but it is in all sections. The same is true of climate. Climate is a generalist study in an age of specialization. This compartmentalizing likely is part of the problem in the ability to cheat, as in the Madoff situation, and raises questions about who is qualified to provide oversight. It certainly is a factor in the deceptions carried out in climate science. The infamous “hockey stick” is a good example.

By the 1980s continued specialization was causing problems, especially in areas with direct application to the real world. As a result interdisciplinary studies emerged. The specialists generally derided these, often justifiably, because they were too often faddish and didn’t require fundamental science training in physics or math. Environmental Studies was a classic example.

When you stand outside, you experience weather. It is the result of energy input from the sun and from within the earth (geothermal) that is then modified by a multitude of factors. Science calls the weather white noise and the individual components that create the weather red noise. There are specialists for many of the red noises but they rarely overlap in their research. Climatology is the study of how the white noise of weather varies over time or in a region. You have to bring all the red noises together but also understand how they interact.

Systems diagram of weather complexities

Figure 1
Systems diagram of weather complexities
Source: After Briggs, Smithson and Ball

The diagram shows a very simple schematic of various components of the weather system and the lines indicate some fundamental interactions.

Consider the range of specialties encompassed including Solar Physics, Meteorology, Hydrology, Oceanography, Glaciology, Geology and Geomorphology. Then add the special areas that measure or recreate historic data, such as Palynology and Dendrology, among others.

The interactions are even more difficult if not impossible to determine. The 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report that governments accept as certain predictions of future weather says, “In climate research and modeling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.”

Essex and McKitrick say we are stuck halfway up “Mount Climate Theory”. They spend an entire chapter of their book Taken by Storm explaining why. The chapter, indeed, the entire book underscores another dilemma with climate studies that involves other disciplines namely the importance of understanding physics, mathematics and statistics. They identify the main problem as the application of physics from the atomic level to the macro world, especially when turbulence is involved, as it is in a fluid. By the time you get to climate you are using linear equations for non-linear situations.

All these problems are built into the computer climate models, which are a patchwork of little black boxes representing each discipline. Connection between the boxes are little understood in nature and yet essential to accuracy of the final output.

Exploitation of the lack of a general climate theory takes two forms. One is the standard ploy of focusing on one small factor to the exclusion of all else. With climate it is CO2. This is so successful that even the so-called skeptics spend most of their time on it. The other is when problems with CO2 are raised and they don’t have an answer they divert to a completely unrelated issue. For example, if you say temperature increase precedes CO2 increase not as assumed they will say, “Yes, but what about arctic ice melting?”

Every day, the media is reporting some apparently new climate-related phenomenon. The source is usually an expert in just one very small piece of the climate puzzle. In some cases it is directly linked to global warming and CO2 but more often it is by implication. All the events reported are natural events and well within natural variability, but most of the public doesn’t know. The bigger problem is most of the time the scientist doesn’t know either because they don’t know the climate or climate change through time.

Another difficulty is caused because climate change occurs at different rates in different regions. For example, there is always a difference between the two hemispheres mostly caused by the different amounts of land and water. Recently, the Southern Hemisphere has cooled for 20 years but the Northern Hemisphere and therefore global cooling it is since 2000. People arguing for human-caused global warming use these differences to select a record that supports their position, and that is what the mainstream media reports. Responses exposing the ‘cherry-picking’ rarely appear. A good example is the report of glaciers retreating. We only monitor 10 percent of the world’s mountain glaciers and half are retreating and half advancing, but only the former get the sensational headlines.

Essex and McKitrick point out that climate models are a misplaced substitute for theory. They cannot be a substitute when they leave out even small parts of the complexity that is climate. For example, “Ocean Flux” is identified in the bottom right corner of the diagram. Much was made about the thermohaline current in the Atlantic, a deep water current assumed to exist and built into all computer models. Data now indicates this is not correct. Change that assumption and it causes cascading changes throughout the entire system.

Lack of data is a serious problem because, as Alexis Carrel said, “A few observations and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning to truth.” However, complicate that with lack of a general theory on which to hang the observations, and you understand why we don’t appear to share the same theory.