Tuesday, March 15, 2005

What Elvis can teach us about climate change.



A while ago I wrote a post suggesting that popular science has become a religion and how much of the science that reaches the newspapers isn’t scientific at all.

Someone took the bait and engaged with me in an exchange of comments at the end of the post. The anonymous commentator made some reasonable points but I think most of the time the two of us were talking at cross-purposes. During the exchange, the subject of scientific models came up. I maintained that many scientific models, particularly those associated with ‘hot’ topics such as global warming, are based on so many uncertain assumptions that they are effectively meaningless. My correspondent argued that scientific models should be viewed as ‘work in progress’ and that the assumptions and data that go into them will be constantly reviewed in the light of new discoveries.

After this debate, I thought I’d try a practical example of scientific modelling for myself. I decided to create a model that predicts the next time an Elvis Presley single makes it to the top of the UK singles chart...

And yes, I have designed such a model. Based on an intensive review of the average time between Elvis’ nineteen UK Number Ones to date, I can predict that he will score his next chart topper some time in September 2007. I can also conclude that there is a 25% chance that the song title will have the word ‘you’ in it. Given that the shortest time between Elvis Number Ones has been one month and the longest time was 302 months, the margin of error for my prediction lies between April 2005 and December 2029.

Which gives me 24 years before my model can be proved wrong. Of course, during that time there will undoubtedly be more data to feed into my model and it will probably need updating as a consequence. If I play my cards right I can spin this puppy out for a lifetime.

The only wee fly in the ointment is that my model is rubbish. Utter rubbish. If modelling complicated natural systems was possible with any degree of reliability, tomorrow’s weather forecast would be accurate and nobody would lose money on the stock market.

Models, in themselves, are not a bad thing. The problem is that they are subject to the prejudices and expectations of the people creating them. Even with the best will in the World it is perfectly possible to innocently construct a model that says anything you want it to.

Prior to discovery that the Sun, not the Earth, was the centre of the Solar System, astronomers had constructed vastly complicated tables and charts that explained the movement of the heavens from an Earth centric point of view. These charts actually worked, sort of, but the solar system they described existed only in the minds of the scientists who constructed them. There are many, many other examples.

In addition to stupid models, another great friend of bullshit science is the trusty line:

'Well, nothing has happened because the measures we put in place prevented anything happening.'

Tony Blair loves that one.

From Mad Cow Disease to Y2K, the prophets of Doom cannot fail. If something horrible happens, well, they told us so. If something horrible doesn’t happen it's because their warnings prevented it.

In many respects, bullshit science has an awful lot in common with bullshit politics. So, when British government ministers are asked to explain why there have been no major terrorists incident in the UK since 1997 they respond by saying that’s as a direct result of the excellent work they have been doing to protect us.

Well, in that case, I'd like to announce that there's a planet-eating space hamster orbiting the Earth planning to consume us all. His name is Desmond. The only thing standing between Desmond and us is the power of my Will. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to explain the exact psychic defence techniques I am employing to save the Earth or give any evidence to support my announcement; Desmond might use this information to develop countermeasures. Just take my word for it, you should be scared sh*tless. And if I'm not given more money and more power soon all of you, and everyone you love, will all end up being just so much hamster poop.

Intriguingly, if you compare many headline scientific predictions, with religious prophecies you can’t help noticing that many religious prophecies are a lot more specific and testable than the scientific models...

The World is going to end in 2000! Sorry, no cigar.

The World was created in 4004BC! Maybe, maybe not.

The Halle Bop comet is actually a huge alien mother ship coming to make contact with Planet Earth! Nope.

OK, the guys who believed this stuff were demonstrably wrong but at least they laid themselves open to be proven wrong; well those who hadn’t topped themselves beforehand anyway. No media-savvy 21st century scientist would ever be so foolish.

Contrast these unscientific beliefs with a couple of supposedly scientific predictions that have hit the headlines over the last few weeks:

‘Leading scientist claims that two million Britons could die from Bird Flu’

‘Global warming to have a significant impact within the next 20 - 100 years’

Neither of which is any more scientific than my fear of vicious Space Hamsters.

I have a big problem in particular with the entire global warming issue. I have an especially large problem with climate models that stretch out for 50 or 100 years; partly because we will have run out of oil long before then, partly because they cannot possibly factor the impact of new technology but mostly because they are totally irrelevant.

Climate change is a fact. Nothing in nature is constant and we have clear evidence that climate has changed significantly, during and before recorded human history. My gut feel is that this is due to periodic variations in the Earth's orbit, not atmospheric CO2, but the key point is climate change is inevitable and it is arrogant and foolish to spend time pretending otherwise.

The weather is going to change. Sea levels will rise and fall. This will happen in spite of Kyoto, in spite of scientists and their silly models, in spite of what anyone does to stop it.

Human population has risen drastically over the last 50 years and many of those new people are living along coastlines. Those people, or their children, or their grandchildren stand a very real and genuine chance of getting a pasting at some point. We should be doing something about that now; encouraging development away from coastlines, building flood defences, ensuring food production is resilient enough to withstand climate change, that sort of thing.

But none of that is going to happen, partly because it is too expensive, partly because politicians can’t use that message to suit their agendas and partly because there’s no research money in it for scientists.

Besides, even if people believed that disaster was inevitable and just a matter of time, they still wouldn’t do anything about it. We live in a World where huge cities are built along fault-lines and on the slopes of volcanoes, holiday homes are constructed in hurricane zones and on the edges of cliffs. We’re mad for it we are. Never underestimate the power of mañana.

And all the time Desmond is up there, watching, waiting...

1 comment:

Northun Munki in Oxford Circus said...

The climate has seen some drastic changes before we got our mitts on it I agree - that's why we don't see hairy elephants or oversized lizards wandering around anymore.

It does have its plus sides though - checkout Britain's most Northerly vineyard - Leventhorpe Vineyard, near leeds - http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/yorkslincs/series7/weather.shtml

If I was a betting man I'd stick a few hundred into their shares. Actually if they had any for sale I damn well would, having had the pleasure of sampling their wine - the nicest, crispest and fruitiest white wine I've ever had.

Magic.

Now where did I leave that deckchair?