It’s OK to HOLD STRONG OPINIONS! Just respect other’s rights to do so also.


I’m very concerned about a trend among smart people.   I’m very fortunate to have many sharp friends and family members, but there seems to be a tendency to think that holding strong opinions is somehow unreasonable or unwise.  Most absurdly some seem to think this reflects a lack of understanding – ie the notion that an informed mind is by necessity … ambivalent.

Discussing your opinions passionately and in an assertive fashion IS NOT A CRIME.   Of course you need to respect the opinions of others and, perhaps more importantly, LISTEN to them and see if your views may be wrong or too narrowly focused (I know my views often need modification to fit better with the facts, and sometimes I need to … OMG … completely change my mind.    

HOWEVER I’m proud to have opinions even as I’m very interested in those that are different from mine.   Without the vibrant discussion that opinions can spawn we risk ceding too much of the territory to weak thinking and foolish ideas.

Challenge people on their ideas.  Stupid ideas need to be shut down and smart ideas need the refinement that comes from intelligent conversation.

 

Is Climate Science on trial again?


The climate debate is entering a new state of confusion that will at least bring some of the fascinating technical issues into the popular press.     The first time this happened was during the congressional hearings featuring the “Hockey Stick” debates where critics suggested that some key math and research supporting “unprecedented global warming” was seriously flawed.   Although leading statisticians agreed with the critics the situation is probably best characterized as a stalemate with both sides claiming vindication and little change in the way others have addressed the issues at hand.

The technical issues sound obscure but they impact every man, woman, and child on earth in almost incalculable ways because many nations are preparing to forego a lot of GDP in the interests of climate mitigation, and this has substantial economic consequences.

I do believe in warming and believe it’s human caused.  However  I  don’t think we can afford to do all that much about it and also don’t think the consequences are nearly as severe as advertised.    Therefore I’m not reasonably called a “climate skeptic” .

Many bright people are skeptics however and everyone should resent that they are called “climate denialists”, a bizarre term used to conjure up images of  the ignorance and malice of  holocaust denial.

I am concerned that climate science, especially with respect to mathematical modelling and long term temperature reconstructions, has been compromised by egos and cognitive biases.    I don’t think climate science has been compromised enough to reasonably suggest that human caused warming is “unlikely”, but it’s been compromised enough to suggest climate alarmists, rather than the unfairly branded “denialists”, are the ones often standing on thin ice.

Here’s a comment I tried to post at RealClimate.org but it appears to have been rejected:

It’s unfortunate to see so many insults and tired talking points rather than *key issues* such as:

Is Yamal robust?

Why does proxy selection in papers like Yamal, Kaufman seem to include more proxies with stronger GW signals than a randomized proxy selection process?

Why isn’t there a randomized proxy selection process or at least a well structured one as was suggested (but appears not implemented) in the Kaufman Arctic lakes study?

Why does it take so long to properly archive data and why is there a single shred of resistance to totally transparent archiving of source code and data?

To what degree is observed global warming the product of human activity?

To what degree is the modern warming trend unprecedented?

Role of the Medieval Warming Period and why is there so much disagreement about temps at that time? (another proxy selection issue!) Simply asserting that these questions “have been answered many times” isn’t only wrong and insulting, it’s counterproductive if you sincerely want to challenge the growing mainstream view that climate science has been compromised by cognitive biases and ego. I’m staying open to your insistence that the science has not been compromised at all and McKintyre is just a slinging mathematical mud, but posts like this don’t provide much support for that idea.

Ask Yourself: What Would Prove me WRONG?


An excellent comment I heard recently suggested how we are primed to look for the data that supports what we are already believe rather than challenge our own visions of the world by asking what arguably is the most important question you can ask about your own beliefs:   “What Would Prove Me WRONG?”.     We see this all the time in politics where advocates present only information that supports their position and only review comments from the opposition that make them look bad.   Where objective people look at “all the facts”, advocates only look in one direction.

As a science person the importance of the “What Would Prove Me Wrong” approach  is pretty obvious  – though I sometimes fail my own test and forget to ask this question rather than the more common and misguided “what data will prove my idea correct?”.

At first glance you might say “hey, it’s important and justifiable to look mostly for the data that will prove my idea right!”.    But you’d be … WRONG.. to think that.    More importantly you’d be *irrational* if you think that approach will get you closer to the truth.   It will simply reinforce your existing perception.   You may be right or wrong, but since it’s easy to find support for even completely faulty ideas by “cherry picking”, truth demands you look at *all* the data or when that is not possible work hard to sample the data you do review in unbiased ways.

In science this inappropriate focus  is often called “Cherry Picking” and it’s the practice of focusing too narrowly on supporting data in such a way that it creates a biased observation.      An extreme example would be for somebody to suggest that an unusually hot summer “proves”  global warming, or that an unusually cold winter “disproves” it.     Contrary to what you’d think if you get your science from common journalistic misinterpretations, few of the events cited in the news tell you much of anything about how to evaluate the complex climate models and observations that frame the complex global warming issues such as the role of human factors vs natural variation, the costs of mitigation, and the significance of the warming trends themselves in terms of our global future well-being.

Science relies heavily on a wonderful principle called skepticism.   Unfortunately that wondeful notion of “skepticism” has been seriously damaged during the massive global warming debates where “skeptics” of the “anthropogenic global warming hypothesis”, also called “AGW”  are disparaged as “deniers” who have no interest in science or truth.     While it is true that many “global warming skeptics” are simply parroting nonsense talking points and never asking themselves “What Would Prove me WRONG?”,  many defective forms of rational inquiry are now commonplace in the scientific community as well.      This is unfortunate and more importantly has created within science a new “advocacy model” where many scientists no longer see their primary role as that of unbiased, objective researcher – they also want to become spokespeople for policy changes they feel are the logical extension of their research.    This scientist/ advocate model has combined with our natural human egos in very undesireable ways.

An excellent example is the defense by no less than several NASA climate scientists of the misleading and scientifically unjustified claims in the film “An Inconvenient Truth”.     Debating the merits of that film at the RealClimate.org blog quickly taught me that my old school ideas about science and scientists as “profoundly skeptical seekers of truth” have been replaced by the new idea that scientists are not only entitled to be advocates, they are pretty much obligated to be advocates.      I’d argue that this single factor is the most alarming trend in science right now because advocates don’t see or think nearly as clearly as researchers (formerly proudly called skeptics).   If there is one thing we need moving forward it is clear thinking and skepticism rather than an almost blind adherence to complex models attempting to describe the world.

Update on this meme:  http://joeduck.com/2009/11/20/climate-science-scandal-will-paleo-dendrochronology-survive/

Fox News Alert: Universe Still Expanding at Speed of Light


Despite a fair amount of college physics and math, and the insights that come from being a living conscious being on planet earth which you’d think would give some insight into the nature of the reality we experience on a daily basis all around us, I remain confused.

How can the *physical universe* have no center?    Almost all theories of cosmology and all of the extensive and available data is said to support this idea, but it still completely baffles me.   Earth has a center, the Galaxy has a center, and our Galactic Cluster has a center.    But at cosmic universe scales you cannot talk about “centers” anymore – ie the point where the big bang happened.    My understanding is there is no point of origin – almost all cosmologies that are consistent with the (huge amount) of physical data say the universe sprung into being but did NOT spring from any particular spot.

Now, one way this *does* make sense to me is to assume that the basis of reality is tiny bits of information rather than tiny bits of matter and energy.    ie matter and energy are a great way to model things down to a certain level, but at the very heart of everything we’ve just got some sort of binary information thing – zero or one, yes or no, on or off, “something or nothing”, etc.

This is appealing at one level because it seems to simplify some of the ultimate questions to about the simplest dynamic concept you can imagine which allows only two conditions – ie something or nothing.    A concept that allows only ONE condition would be totally static – I don’t see how you could have change or thought in a system that is defined with only a single contruct, but clearly if you add only one more condition, giving you the “on or off” 1 or 0, etc, you can get an infinite number of variations.

cmb_timeline75

Meteors and You


Thanks to Glenn for this story suggesting a new study making a possible connection between early life and meteors.  

I’ve always been comfortable with the idea that life as we know it could emerge in slow and steady steps from the primordial soup that certainly existed on the millions of years ago, but it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that meteor material may have played a role as well, back when it was more common to have stuff raining down on the earth before our atmosphere formed which (thankfully) burns up most of that sh** before it crashes into the planet and ruins our sunny days.

The Language of God by Francis Collins. Book review


I enjoyed The Language of God, by Francis Collins, the head of the US government’s part of Genome project that unravelled the genetic blueprint of humanity. But I’m afraid I did not like the book for the reasons Collins seemed to be hoping for. He was encouraging those with mechanistic and scientific perspectives to consider his “Theistic Evolution” as a way to reconcile scientific fact and a belief in God. As philosophy / theology I think the book was pretty weak – it was a thoughtful and heartfelt personal journey to a belief in God, but little more than that.

The subtitle promises evidence for belief but Collins offers anecdotes, personal feelings, and CS Lewis quotes. Fine, but for the reasons I go into below I want some gosh darn burning bushes, thank you, and think that without them his argument is very weak.

Collins does do an excellent job as scientist. First, he very effectively demolishes “young earth creationism” where proponents maintain the earth is less than 10,000 years old, as a very naive view. Next he tackles “Intelligent Design” and actually made me less sympathetic to this approach than I’d been before, suggesting it’s a “god of the gaps” hypothesis that is already wearing down in the face of increasing understanding of the Darwinian evolutionary processes it claims to challenge . To Collins the scientific evidence is overwhelming and clear – basic chemistry and physics plus Darwinian style evolution explain pretty much all the organisms on the planet. I’m comfortable with that view because I think it springs from a combination of common sense observations and reason.

Much of the book is summarized in Collins’ key notions of Theistic Evolution. I’m comfortable with the science stuff but I simply don’t understand two things that seem to resonate so strongly with him, and I think with many thoughtful people of faith. The first is that morality is a sign of God rather than a product of evolutionary and social forces over time. The second is that God has a personal relationship with humans and cares about us. Here are my concerns about those two ideas:

Problem idea number 1: Morality has not and could not have evolved in our species from the same sorts of natural forces that evolved arms and legs and brains and babies.

The concepts of morality that are so often cited as evidence of God seem to me instead to be pretty good evidence of social evolution, especially when viewed over time since the ideas about personal freedoms and responsibility and what constitutes immoral acts have changed so much.

The biological structures in humans are very, very complex and required millions of years of natural selection. Rather than pushing us to perfection they pushed us *away* from failure. Once we had the power to reason and think we started to approach our evolutionary survival battles using social relationships and rule systems which evolved into current codes of conduct aka “morality”. Sometimes these battles required a loser and this leads to the selfish motivations so prevalent in humanity. But it’s also reasonable to assume that wanting to “win” would lead us to look for “win win” situations rather than “lose lose” or even “I win you lose”. Economists call this “optimizing” and I think a rational being is going to logically seek “optimal” relationships even if selfishness is the primary driver.

These optimal relations = morality are characterized by many of the principles we claim to hold dear like life, liberty, happiness, do unto others, no adultery, etc. However, as with biological evolution I think one suggestion that morality has evolved rather than been “handed down” to us from above is how defectively and subjectively we observe morality in our daily lives. If it was an objective truth from the mind of God it seems we’d have fewer moral disputes and transgressions.

We fail in many basic tests such as human kindness, but more importantly those of us in affluent societies don’t do much to share our resources or (more importantly) train others to implement systems that would better their lives on their own. But even this morality is subjective. For example well-meaning people can’t even agree on how to improve the standard of living in sub Saharan Africa. Some say it’s immoral not to fight global warming and work for less corporate involvement in poor countries. I’d say we need more corporate stuff to raise the standards. For many the corporate systems are an immoral form of organization, yet I’d argue that corporations are a good and moral way to organize business activity.

Most agree that we all have a moral imperative to take action on some things, but we would not agree in many cases about what things need the action. And this happens when people share a lot of ultimate objectives. When we bring in fundamentally different moral systems the objective morality argument seems to break down even further.

Bring in the sociopathic types of “morality” such as militant violence in the name of religion and you have our fellow humans suggesting that killing is fine if it leads to certain forms of governments. It’s not reasonable (maybe I should say it’s not “enough”) to simply discard those views as defective products of God’s free will experiments. They are moral codes just like yours or mine, yet they are very, very different.

Clearly morality is most adequately explained as a somewhat subjective thing. Even those few things that we overwhelmingly agree about seem to me to fall into categories that would be powerful selection forces over time. Preserving children and human rights, for example. Yet even those simple moral precepts seem to break down quickly. Taliban morality says it’s wrong to educate a female child, Cheney thinks torture is OK in several circumstances. If morality is objective then where is the rule book? The Bible, Koran, Torah don’t offer consistent guidance by any stretch of the imagination, so we are left with human interpretations of morality.

Problem idea number 2: God has a personal relationship with all of us, cares about our well being, and wants us to know him.

First, I don’t think one can reasonably challenge the idea that there *may be a God* outside of the physical world we observe – a prime mover or passive observer God. I’m even OK if you say God is out there all over the place as a manifesation of physical laws that govern things but he is very *passive* about things and not really a “conscious” God, just an all powerful collection of forces. I also won’t challenge that maybe God started off the show and then cut us loose and now has other business to attend to so he’s not around much if at all. HOWEVER what I think is *not* supportable is the assertion that God “cares” about us in the personal sort of way we understand from human to human interactions. Not supportable is the idea that God wants us to know he’s out there, and cares about us, but provides no clear and powerful scientific evidence for his existence. Where is God’s upside in this approach if he really wants us to know him and believe in him?

If God *cares* about us, and wants us to believe in him, and wants us to thrive, why is he such an invisible parent? I’m somewhat familiar with arguments that suggest God felt free will was important, and Jesus and other prophets have been sent as “proof” of God, presumably because they could relate to humans better than God could if he appeared himself. But these really all beg the key question. Why aren’t there more burning bushes? Why in this world of God’s creation and love, if God *cares* about us and *cares* whether we believe in him, would he not make the evidence so overwhelming as to be “obvious” to Richard Dawkins and millions of other doubters? Agnostics and atheists are not bad people, and are not blind to evidence, and most would welcome even a modest presentation by God that would settle the issue powerfully in God’s favor. Some would suggest “hey, the evidence is everywhere – you just need to open your eyes to it!”, but this is not reasonable, because the things we observe every day are overwhelmingly within the province of scientific explanation. If God wants us to know him he’ll need to do a bit more than just show us the world we can already explain and see without reference to God. Again, what is the downside here? What is the *problem* that happens if God makes his presence known clearly by scientific means? Why is God so shy?

Much has been written explaining scenarios that contain a caring God but in which God’s presence is not made overwhelmingly clear with burning bushes and such. Very few seem to tackle what I think is a key question – why is God such an absent and even abusive parent? We would call it child abuse if a parent sat on the sidelines and let their children fend for themselves in a hostile world, never identifying themselves clearly and providing no more guidance to their children than to the kids down the street. I’ve heard that you can attribute all of the sufferering in the world to humans and their free will, which I’m told God values. Yet those same people say God values and desires us to know him in a personal way, and he does provide us with plenty of evidence of his existence. God is either OK providing us with evidence or he is not. Why, if God so cares about us and wants us to know him does he not simply make a great cosmic presentation which clearly articulates those things he thinks are important? Many would then use their free will to conclude the evidence favored God. A few would not, but on balance God’s objectives of more global harmony and more morality would be better preserved and free will would be left intact. I think some would suggest “Hey, God wants you to come to know him without all that fanfare!”. But that’s actually nonsensical because it’s basically saying that there is enough information put out there by God for *some people* to come to terms with God on a personal level, but there is not enough information for those who want clean scientific evidence for belief. What’s the downside of a few burning bushes?

To me the answer seems clear – if there is a God, his personal relationship to us is very passive.

Charlie Rose Interview:

http://www.charlierose.com/guests/francis-collins