November 23, 2011

Worth reading...

Mike Plaiss sent me a link to a great essay by Matt Ridley, Scientific Heresy. I've seen it mentioned in the past, but somehow never got around to reading it...

...I was not always such a 'lukewarmer'. In the mid 2000s one image in particular played a big role in making me abandon my doubts about dangerous man-made climate change: the hockey stick. It clearly showed that something unprecedented was happening. I can remember where I first saw it at a conference and how I thought: aha, now there at last is some really clear data showing that today's temperatures are unprecedented in both magnitude and rate of change — and it has been published in Nature magazine.

Yet it has been utterly debunked by the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. I urge you to read Andrew Montford's careful and highly readable book The Hockey Stick Illusion. Here is not the place to go into detail, but briefly the problem is both mathematical and empirical. The graph relies heavily on some flawed data — strip-bark tree rings from bristlecone pines — and on a particular method of principal component analysis, called short centering, that heavily weights any hockey-stick shaped sample at the expense of any other sample. When I say heavily — I mean 390 times.

This had a big impact on me. This was the moment somebody told me they had made the crop circle the night before. For, apart from the hockey stick, there is no evidence that climate is changing dangerously or faster than in the past, when it changed naturally. It was warmer in the Middle Ages and medieval climate change in Greenland was much faster...

I would make a couple of very minor quibbles. I don't think the theory that Edmund DeVere, 15th Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays is pseudo-science. I thought so for most of my life, since there are abundant documentary references to William Shakespeare. But I was jolted when it was pointed out to me that none of them refer to him as a playwright! I haven't pursued the matter, but a hasty scan showed me that there are some good arguments for that theory.

And alchemy was not pseudo-science when Newton studied it. To a considerable extant it was the stunning success of Newton's other work that established what we now call "science" as... science. And thus showed alchemy up as an effort that was going nowhere.

WORD NOTE: I would argue that our use of the word "science" to refer to the natural sciences is a misnomer that has poisoned our thinking. A science is, to quote my American Heritage Dictionary: 3. A systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject: the science of criminology. That's the original meaning of the word, which has been almost driven out of discourse. To the great impoverishment of thought. [A bit more here.]
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Posted by John Weidner at November 23, 2011 8:39 AM
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