Friday, June 01, 2007

Science and Belief

No, not science and religion, I'm not going there again. This is a follow-up to Sniggering at Greens. One of the points I was trying to make there was that opinion - especially lay-opinion - is usually meaningless in these kind of debates other than as a political force. This may surprise people, but I have never attacked science itself (or if I have I take it back) - that would be absurd. I have attacked the institution. I have, often, detected faulty logic in the reasoning of scientists, sometimes in their science, but, more often, in their attempts to discuss the meaning and implications of their discoveries - especially when I detect evidence of the illiterate cult of scientism. But plainly, as a lay person, I can't argue with, for example, Pa Annoyed's second comment on my sniggering post. All I can say is that global warming sceptics seems to represent a small minority of the world's scientists and that there appears to be increasing evidence of a rapid climate change. But as the Samizdata post which inspired mine demonstrates, many people seem to take scientific insight and speculation as an occasion for opinion. Of course, this is true of both sides of this debate - the prig who finds solace in green hectoring is the correlative of the scientist who predicts doom because of his own depression or because he simply wanted to belong to the body of received opinion and, thereby, to hold on to his job. This symmetry might suggest that the lay sceptic and the lay believer are on the same footing. But this is an illusion. A rational lay man, looking at the state of scientific opinion on global warming, would have to conclude there is a serious problem. This would not be a matter of belief or opinion but of assessment. That is my position. (Though, I confess it might be influenced by a longing for true wilderness, the prose of E.O.Wilson, my admiration of Jim Lovelock and a loathing of contemporary vanity.) In that context, lay sceptics have a problem. Of course, we should all be generally sceptical for the reasons I suggest in Sniggering, but, to be specifically sceptical about climate change, you would have to deliberately decide to choose the minority's rather than the majority's scientific interpretation. This is not necessary for anybody accepting global warming because that simply involves the assessment I describe. What is obvious is that people are adopting the sceptical position solely because of pre-formed opinions, because, in essence, they don't like the science. This also happens on the other side, usually because of the greenery-priggery nexus, but the sceptical position is now the more risky. In both cases, because of the nature of politics, it is the opinions rather than the science that tend to form the debate. Politicians are thus inclined to be sceptical for no good reason or to adopt green schemes for very bad reasons. To have an opinion on the nitty-gritty of science - whether this is true or that - is obviously to be ignorant of the nature of science. What matters is that we have a healthily sceptical view of our rationality and, more importantly, of our true place in the world as tenants not owners.

42 comments:

  1. I'll read the above piece in a bit but it better be good to make up for giving me a look at that dog thing creature whatsit little shit.

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  2. Bryan: I dug all that until the last phrase:our true place in the world as tenants not owners.

    This is the kind of language that worries me, since it is probably meaningless, and where it is not meaningless it is dangerous.

    Who is 'we' and who or what are they the 'tenants' of? If you mean that the current generation of policy-makers on the planet owes it to future generations and to the rest of the world to make their lives as comfortable, affluent and pain-free as possible, then I can agree.

    My fear is that you mean 'humanity' and 'Gaia'.

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  3. I don't see your problem, Brit. I have often made the point about our absolute dependence on the living systems of the world - that was where I disagreed with Duck's notion that we controlled nature - and the ability of those systems to carry on without us or to flick us aside. Hence we are tenants not freeholders. Gaia was a brilliant simile/thought experiment devised by Lovelock and it now rouintely accepted by earth scientists, though they may not use the name. feeling it is too New Agey. But there's nothing new agey about Lovelock. Initially he regarded Gaia as a simile - the world is LIKE a single organism - now he is not so sure. Maybe it IS a single organism. The objection to this is that it does not reproduce, but Jim argues anything that is one third as old as the universe does not need to reproduce.

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  4. Interesting post, Bryan. I now have a good argument for justifying my not having an opinion, as such, on climate change. Nowadays, it seems, if you don't have an opinion on something, anything, you're considered a bit odd. At least now, using your analysis, I can sit on the fence comfortably and merely point to the growing body of scientific evidence, offer the view that, let's face it, it does seem likely, and leave it up to my interlocutors to make up their own minds - for a change.

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  5. Well, maybe it makes sense when he says it. The concept just leaves me cold. If Gaia can just flick us aside, what are we beating ourselves up about?

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  6. But surely it is relatively obvious that the universe itself is something like a single organism...an organism that exists in consciousness which exists in the universe.

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  7. I cannot agree that a scientific question can be resolved by a majority vote and especially because global warming is an issue of such huge moral dimensions, this is not the time to be abandoning science's fundamental principles. Even as lay people we should strive to get underneath the rhetoric and examine the quality of the scientific evidence and make judgements.

    My view, as I expressed yesterday, is that the evidence is far from conclusive that there is a causative relationship between CO2 and global temperature. Notwithstanding that there may be much I don’t know and my selection of the evidence could be one-sided, this would not negate my central point that our main responsibility, even as lay people, is to listen to the evidence collected by the actual scientists in the relevant field, not count heads.

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  8. Nige, the atom bomb. And, Ade, of course scientific questions cannot be resolved by a head count and, of course, we should seek to go beneath the rhetoric. My point is that lay people cannot resolve scientific questions as such. Where the head count comes in - and I don't actually mean that, I am a more sopshiticated assessment - is in looking at the accumulated evidence from the outside. Furthermore, as Gordon pointed out yesterday, if warming has been found to precede raised carbon levels, this does not prove that carbon does not contribute to warming - indeed, it may be evidence of a positive feedback loop of the kind we may now be experiencing. My point was precisely that the whole carbon argument may now be beside the point - if warming is happening for whatever reason, we have to consider the possibility of disastrous consequences.

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  9. Good luck getting anyone to be sceptical about their own rationality. Nietzsche, correctly i think, pointed out that all philosophies proceed from the kind of person you are - that we only catch what our cognitive nets are emotionally rigged for - and everyone (even people who've read N) still goes about as if their biased & partisan conclusions are objective & irrefutable.

    One can only bellow out Cromwell's words, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you be mistaken."

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  10. by the way, on the subject of vanishing wildernesses, if global warming & pollution continue apace, we can all look forward to the ultimate wilderness of death, so it's not all bad news.

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  11. I'd consider myself to have an utterly uneducated view on global warming; a view which is highly unlikely to become a truly educated one, if such a one exists. However, I think it is pretty self-evident that regardless of global warming, pollution does us no favours.
    However regarding climate change itself I started to hear alarm bells when Al Gore started playing the proselytising prophet card. Then I think it obligatory in the efforts to be other than a stooge for intellectual pointers from an elite above, to wonder about agendas at play, and it virtually axiomatic not to trust the intentions of our politicians. With the War on Terror the sinister 'Give up your civil liberties to protect your freedom' policy has been and is being very heavily pushed. Is it feasible, for example, that a different front can be opened up on individual liberties in a supposedly desperate attempt to prevent catastrophic climate change? Which doesn't necessitate climate change being true or false- that either way it can be a continuation of the massive centralisations of power that are the opposite of democratic principles.

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  12. If we're talking human nature, as opposed to attempting to understand the science, then to me the interesting point is that pessimism seems to grow in direct correlation to the growth of affluence and comfort.

    Andrew Marr's current History of Modern Britain programme opened with the observation that the Britons of 1945 were immeasurably poorer, hungrier, unhealthier and more optimistic than we are.

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  13. Paranoid pessimism also grows in relation to the growth of the media industry. When it virtually the duty of a good citizen to be bombarded with bad news on the hour every hour, interspersed with shallow entertainments, then such results are inevitable.

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  14. I reckon it's because we feel guilty, Brit - guilty to the point that we're now willing either our own destruction or massive punishment as a way of averting it. Never mind the science, spilt religion is at work here, surely. And Elberry, Nietzsche was dead right there - which is why all these discussions never get anywhere. We'd be better off talking about the footie - but unfortunately I have nothing to say about that...

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  15. Hi Bryan: Here is something Freeman Dyson said in a commencement address he gave at the Universoity of Michigan toward end of 2005:
    The first of my heresies says that all the fluff about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of twilight model experts and the crowd of diluted citizens that believe the numbers predicted by their models. Of course they say I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak.

    But I have studied their climate models and know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics and do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.

    The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That's why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

    There's no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. The warming happens in places and times where it is cold, in the arctic more than the tropics, in the winter more than the summer, at night more than the daytime.

    I'm not saying the warming doesn't cause problems, obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it. I'm saying that the problems are being grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are much more urgent and important. Poverty, infectious diseases, public education and public health. Not to mention the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans.

    As I understand it, when you get down to the relatively small number of specialists whose expertise in this matter really counts - climatologists who do actual field work - there is nowhere near the consensus we hear about otherwise. As I suggested, but didn't exactly say yesterday, there is no branch of science devoted to predicting the future. The future cannot be predicted. In this scientistic age of ours we seem to be attenmpting to return science to its magical origins (yes, Professor Dawkins, science and religion have that in common).

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  16. I suppose what I am saying - pleading - is that I would like a substantive, unemotive discussion about the evidence, just to advance my knowledge if nothing else. What you appear to be saying, Bryan, is that we can't have that, as lay people, and instead should take a Pascal's Wager approach to the subject.

    I feel that's an abdication of scientific intellectual responsibility, just as I believe Pascal's Wager to be an abdication of theological intellectual responsibility (and I am a Catholic).

    Final point and then I'll shut up: if there is a positive feedback loop between CO2 and global warming, don't you think that rather begs the question how the earth managed to stabilise its temperature at current levels?

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  17. Yes, Bryan, laymen should give science the deference it deserves, but in calling for us to simply go with the majority you are asking us to assume the overall accuracy of a stereotype scientists themselves like to believe is accurate--the modest, diffident seeker of objective truth impervious to self-interest, celebrity, authority, tradition or prejudice. Quite apart from all the corruptions stemming from the politics of science, those of us old enough to remember the Club of Rome, the apocalyptic population explosion, the Bruntland Commission on sustainable development, the "we're running out of resources" crowd and, oh yes, the imminent Ice Age of the seventies can perhaps be forgiven for holding on to our wallets when science predicts the future so assuredly and tells us we must turn our lives upside down to avoid catastrophe.

    There were times when the majority of scientists believed in the ptolemic universe, the theory of the four humours, the promise of alchemy, the accuracy of astrology and lots of other discredited ideas. Frank did a terrific job of pointing out how this whole schtick rests on highly questionable computer models. The problem is simply that it is not testable and I'm not sure majority opinion among experts asserting knowledge inaccessible to the rest of us should carry the weight you suggest. People have eyes and ears as well as experts to guide them and their eyes and ears are telling them the catastrophe seems to keep getting downgraded or postponed in the short term and more dramatic in the long. They have good grounds to be suspicious. People believe in germ theory, not because the majority of doctors and scientists believe in it, but because their antibiotics work. As far as accessible evidence goes, the only folks who I know of who have suffered so far are Alpine skiers (not Rocky Montain skiers) and that is balanced by lots of very happy North Sea fishermen. (BTW, have you ever noticed how the areas alleged to be most under threat are mainly the favourite exotic vacation destinations of wealthy Westerners? That alone makes me very suspicious someone is trying to get me on a political roll, not a scientific one)

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  18. BTW again, did you know that some experts are reporting global warming is occurring on Mars? There are no people or greenhouse gases on Mars.

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  19. Great post, Peter, but I think Bryan's main point is a fair one: it makes no sense for laypeople who don't know one way or the other to plump for a minority scientific opinion just because we don't like what the majority opinion tells us (and despite the dismal track record of scientific consensus, which you so eloquently catalogue.)

    But where we should be deeply sceptical, even in the face of a majority consensus, is when we come to consider any action the politicians urge us to take, especially when the rationale behind this action is so obviously anti-prosperity, anti-American, anti-human.

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  20. What a lot of hot air generated by discussion on global warming! In the end, what does it matter who is right about the theory? I believe all sides can see and feel that it is actually hotter out there than before.

    And, what we can do about this matters. It mattrs a lot. I have just come back from my birthplace in Balkans - boy, it was so hot and sticky. The sort of weather I can remember happening very rarely in July. So, what did I do, shame on me I know, I put on airconditioning so I can sleep. And, I saw lots of homes equiped with airconditioners. Progress or need, make your mind.

    To make the mattrs worse, on tuesday the place was suddenly struck by true monsoon rain, and I mean literally within of ten minutes of firts clouds showing up it was dark in the mid-afternoon and pelting down at great rate. And then , just as suddenly, within half an hour, it was finished. Rivers of water ran down the streets, people were drenched,later I heard on TV that fields were under water and crops damaged by hale. I was luckily in the taxi as it went on, so did not feel it.

    Do I believe that global warming is happening? Quite likely. Do I know tht specific places are getting warmer and tht climate is changing - for sure.

    As a scientist and an engineer (continental Dipl.Ing) by training, I say that while models may not be accurate - and which one really is fully encompsing - they appear to capture most of the climate behaviour accurately. Hence, the majority agreement on what they seem to indicate to be the causes. Is ther more we can learn? Absolutely. However, I do not see from those who object any concrete proposals. And, that is just not good enough. Plain fatalism does not wash with me.

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  21. Oops, lots of typos above, sorry!

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  22. Fair enough, Brit, but the problem with this issue, and perhaps modern times generally, is that the line between scientists and politicians has become completely blurred. Similarly with other popular causes like AIDS activism.

    We seem to be awash in scientists bored by the discipline of science who want to be put in charge of our lives. They remind me of talented editors who spend too much time dreaming of singing before sellout crowds with Amy Winehouse. :-)

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  23. I apologize for the multiple posts, but Brit/Bryan, from a lay perspective, there is a big difference between being unconvinced by majority scientific opinion and "voting" with the minority. Likewise a huge difference between positing that the earth is getting warmer and telling us why or what we can/must/should do about it.

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  24. You could not naturally grow a Hydrangea in your garden since the eighties. This is a fact, real and absolute. There is no amount of chitchat that will change it. That there is more CO2 in the atmosphere is also a fact, not the wishy-washy valid/invalid sort of fact, a more old fashioned sort of fact. Now, what the hell to do about the situation. The answer is, whatever one can. If you can afford to install solar collectors or a bird chopper do so. Why, because it makes sense, real financial sense.
    If not, then those odd little bulb things, its amazing the saving on the electric bills. Install insulation, no point warming the birds. But and here is the but, if you drive a 1950 jaguar, go for it. Why, because it is a thing of beauty. Something that should have the stamp on its arse 'so-and-so made me'.
    I am not in to this lay opinion thing of yours, it absorbs the science priest, and that just annoys me. And science does not have a nature, only a belief. The jag, now that has a nature.

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  25. Bryan: In your experience, who takes better care of the property, tenants or freeholders?

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  26. my thoughts exactly, David - sign me up for the symbiotic organisms simile. but we don't have to be parasitic!

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  27. I have often made the point about our absolute dependence on the living systems of the world - that was where I disagreed with Duck's notion that we controlled nature - and the ability of those systems to carry on without us or to flick us aside.

    You may be taking my comments a little beyond where I meant. As I recall, I was reacting to your contention that taking a gun on a nature stroll was idiotic. My comment was to the effect that any "nature" that you could stroll through without need for a gun was no nature at all, but a manicured garden. We obviously don't control all of nature, but we do control many parts of it that have an impact on us, like the presence of large carnivorous predators in areas frequented by bloggers on their daily stroll. Gouns are only out of place in nature once nature has been defanged. Your peaceful daily stroll is the legacy of past guns now silent.

    I think there's another fallacy with what you say, and that is the idea that we are completely dependent on nature to the point that any change to nature that we cause will come back to us with disastrous consequences. This is the fragile nature fallacy, also known as the static nature fallacy. Nature is an adaptive mechanism, and change is a constant with the conditions that nature adapts to and the form that nature takes in adapting. Nature is no less natural when a species becomes extinct. Nature has a very hefty butcher's bill of past extinctions which put our own meager crimes to shame. Nature will exist in hot conditions and cold. Global warming as we are currently experiencing is not going to threaten it. And we will continue to be able to exploit it for our own survival as it adapts to new conditions. We just have to adapt along with it.

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  28. I'd like to say I agree absolutely regarding the difficulty a lay person has with science. I think being an AGW believer by default is a perfectly reasonable position to take, and have no objection to laymen doing so. Even for scientists it's a standard default position to accept what the specialists say, until you've had a closer look.

    What disturbs me about this case is not the scientific pros and cons, but the attitude taken to scepticism - it has been compared to Holocaust denial or worse, and that's scary.

    I've seen TV programmes presenting JFK assassination conspiracies, UFOs, hunts for the Loch Ness monster, and ghost hunts as fact. And nobody bats an eye - it's just entertainment. But one single documentary doubting global warming comes out, and we have major high level condemnation from politicians, journalists, and scientists.

    Even if sceptics truly are as kooky as the astrologists and psychics, the lay public should still be allowed to decide that for themselves. It's the ad hominems about oil funding, the absence of coverage of exactly why sceptics doubt, the violent reactions to expressed disbelief that I see as the problem. The high stakes are even more reason to bring all the arguments out into the open so as to be sure we have the answer right, not to shut down the debate in case people are fooled into taking the wrong path. People have to be trusted to choose for themselves. We have free speech precisely to ensure any view gets its chance to make its case, even wrong ones.

    And what if the sceptics turn out to have a point?

    I agree the layman cannot easily comment on the science - but they can comment on and judge the politics and the tactics. They can also have a look at the history of past environmental science-based scares, and their subsequently discovered inaccuracy. It makes interesting reading when you pile it all up.

    There are some recognisable symptoms of politically-driven junk science that the general public needs to be educated in, even if they can't follow the science itself. And it's not just AGW that you need it for - this isn't the only enviro-scare being pushed today based on poor science.

    Oh, and the stuff I was talking about is given in much more detail here:
    http://int-res.com/articles/cr/10//c010p069.pdf
    It's quite readable even for a (numerate) layman. Whether you believe it is another matter, but at least you might believe that the sceptic arguments need serious attention to dismiss - they're not simplistic denials in the teeth of the facts - and the debate is worth having. That's all we ask.

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  29. River of DeceitJune 01, 2007 8:26 pm

    If this is as serious as they say it is- that civilisation will be scorched and have to travel north and live out a miserable stone-age type existance. Then we might as well start making plans.(building flood barriers, nuclear power stations,trams and so on)
    If this is going to happen then there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. We might as well start emigrating to Greenland.
    The damage is done. Lets at least enjoy the warm weather before we're toast.

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  30. I can only go on what I see with my own eyes and the ash trees hereabouts have only come into leaf this week (last week in May) and some of them are still bare today. This is the latest I can ever remember in 45 years observing them.
    What do the global warmists say about this?

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  31. I can only go on what I see with my own eyes and the ash trees hereabouts have only come into leaf this week (last week in May) and some of them are still bare today. This is the latest I can ever remember in 45 years observing them.
    What do the global warmists say about this?

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  32. I can only go on what I see with my own eyes and the ash trees hereabouts have only come into leaf this week (last week in May) and some of them are still bare today. This is the latest I can ever remember in 45 years observing them.
    What do the global warmists say about this?

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  33. But science does in certain areas predict the future. An eclipse of the moon or sun will occur at a certain time. Or if I exhaust the soil using certain unwise methods, draining it of certain nutrients, then such and such a result will occur. Or if a farmer removes trees on certain kinds of sloped territory, then certain problems will ensue.

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  34. i imagine humanity will adapt & survive. People live in deserts, after all. Of course probably most of the human race will die, and a lot of that will not be down to hunger or heatstroke, but at the hand of other people. It's fair to say that cannibalism & slavery will become common practice (c.f. Cormac McCarthy's The Road).

    If you love anyone, it'd be best to kill them yourself, in their sleep - at least that way you can give them a clean death, a soldier's death. The alternative is pretty grim. i'm told there's a choke that cuts off the blood flow to the brain and kills fairly painlessly - apparently it feels like falling asleep. Better that than being tortured, raped and eaten by woad-dyed chavs.

    i'm mainly annoyed that, being 31, if i don't get killed, i'll have to put up with another few decades of hot weather and Mad Max-style gang warfare. If i'd wanted that i'd have moved to Australia long ago.

    Also, Venice will presumably go under the waves at last, which will be a great pity.

    Future generations will curse us all.

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  35. elberry

    Future generations will say "Venice? What's that?"

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  36. or possibly "hggghugggghhh!!! smash your skull, eat your brain become Big God!!!"

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  37. It's fair to say that we're uncertain about anthropogenic global warming, and, in the face of uncertainty, the rational course of action is to hedge your bets.

    However, I'm intrinsically fascinated by the science of global climate modelling, irrespective of the political implications. Freeman Dyson (as quoted by Frank) is spot-on when we states that "The [global climate] models solve the equations of fluid dynamics and do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in."

    In fact, these models suffer further inadequacies, including the fact that they are incapable of reproducing the temperature history of the 20th century.

    Simulation methodology requires that one validates a simulation by testing that it is capable of reproducing known data as output, hence our global climate models fail to pass the validation stage. We shouldn't be trusting the predictions of simulations which have failed validation.

    But, as I say, in the face of uncertainty...

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  38. If this is as serious as they say it is - that civilisation will be scorched and have to travel north and live out a miserable stone-age type existance.

    No need to worry about that scenario, it's idiocy of the highest order. That prediction might as well have been prefaced by "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

    The most that humanity has to worry about is a rise in sea levels, and the Netherlands shows us how to cope with that.

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  39. "The most that humanity has to worry about is a rise in sea levels," at a rate of about 23 centimetres per century, according to the IPCC. Although their confidence interval encompasses disaster scenarios ranging from 18cm to a terrifying 59cm per century!!!

    How could humanity possibly out-run such a deluge? It is surely not without reason that the Greens are building a new Ark on Mount Ararat. But will they be able to fit all the polar bears on board?

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  40. so do ducks. You polar bears and ducks will be laughing when the rest of us fools are being ate by crabs.

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