October 8, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

When Data Doesn't Fit the Consensus

Like evolutionists, climate scientists have ways of oversimplifying or neglecting inputs that could challenge their paradigm.

Models for climate change must deal with numerous factors, some independent, some overlapping with other factors in complex feedback loops. It’s impossible to get everything in line for a political sound bite, as the examples below illustrate. Major input estimates can be way off. Whether the factors listed here help or hurt the consensus view on anthropogenic climate change is less important than the question: what other factors are being overlooked or wrongly estimated? What are the unknown unknowns? (See also 9/19/16, “Climate is not clear for change”).

Estimates on glacial erosion rates were biased. Science Magazine reports that systematic biases are calling into question estimates of erosion rates in glaciated environments:

Deciphering erosion rates over geologic time is fundamental for understanding the interplay between climate, tectonic, and erosional processes. Existing techniques integrate erosion over different time scales, and direct comparison of such rates is routinely done in earth science. On the basis of a global compilation, we show that erosion rate estimates in glaciated landscapes may be affected by a systematic averaging bias that produces higher estimated erosion rates toward the present, which do not reflect straightforward changes in erosion rates through time.

Don’t forget the aerosols. Small particles affect cloud condensation, which in turn affect climate by “substantially” influencing the reflectivity of the earth. Scientists reporting in PNAS that researchers may have wrongly estimated the contribution of multiphase dimethyl sulfide (DMS) on cloud formation.

Climate models indicate the importance of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) oxidation in new aerosol particle formation and the activation of cloud condensation nuclei over oceans. These effects contribute to strong natural negative radiative forcing and substantially influence the Earth’s climate. However, the DMS oxidation pathway is not well-represented, because earlier model studies only parameterized gas-phase DMS oxidation and neglected multiphase chemistry. Here, we performed the most comprehensive current mechanistic studies on multiphase DMS oxidation. The studies imply that neglecting multiphase chemistry leads to significant overestimation of SO2 production and subsequent new particle formation. These findings show that an advanced treatment of multiphase DMS chemistry is necessary to improve marine atmospheric chemistry and climate model predictions.

How much carbon can the soil hold? Another input is being revised. Estimates of soil carbon sequestration are in need of revision, a paper in Science Magazine says:

Soil is the largest terrestrial carbon reservoir and may influence the sign and magnitude of carbon cycle–climate feedbacks. Many Earth system models (ESMs) estimate a significant soil carbon sink by 2100, yet the underlying carbon dynamics determining this response have not been systematically tested against observations. We used 14C data from 157 globally distributed soil profiles sampled to 1-meter depth to show that ESMs underestimated the mean age of soil carbon by a factor of more than six (430 ± 50 years versus 3100 ± 1800 years). Consequently, ESMs overestimated the carbon sequestration potential of soils by a factor of nearly two (40 ± 27%). These inconsistencies suggest that ESMs must better represent carbon stabilization processes and the turnover time of slow and passive reservoirs when simulating future atmospheric carbon dioxide dynamics.

An editorial in Nature takes a peek into the sociology of climate science. Are political conclusions rushing ahead of good observational science? The editors advise, “The maximum climate ambition needs a firm research backing,” implying that firm research backing is lacking. The editors discuss how the fix on the 2-degree target overlooks a different, lower target that may or may not be practical. “We need to know what the 1.5 °C warming target will involve — even if we don’t reach it,” they say. Deadlines, meetings, and conferences put pressure on these arbitrary targets, showing that scientists do not necessarily calmly assess data in a dispassionate manner. They have to meet the IPCC deadlines. Could this reduce the reliability of their published results? You can’t always rush a conclusion requiring lots of data, measurement, and analysis.

Unless the politics swirling around energy and climate policy change dramatically, the targets are clearly out of reach, but that does not mean that the IPCC’s latest research exercise is a waste of time. Regardless of any particular political target, the work can shed light on what deep decarbonization might mean for both human societies and the natural environment. That is information that policy­makers — particularly those pushing for aggressive action — can use. Each solution comes with its own challenges: technical, ethical, social and political.

So much for disinterested science. This is a hotbed of social and political forces that apparently want data that supports their own talking points.

Geoff Cumming explains one reason so many scientific studies may be wrong: misuse of statistics. Writing for The Conversation, he discusses p-hacking and other errors that have put science into a “reproducibility crisis” invading even the top research journals. While not specifically addressing climate science, he gives this humorous caution that applies to all research: “Statisticians have a saying: if you torture the data enough, they will confess.

Science cannot be understood outside of its social, historical and worldview context. Some areas of science, being apolitical, are less vulnerable to those forces than others: who cares how many electrons are found to exist in a particular element’s inner shell? You can repeat some experiments over and over. But climate science is very political, very complex, and non-repeatable. So is evolutionary theory. That makes both of them hotbeds of social, political and worldview influences on the way the members of the guild behave. The more a science becomes political, the more citizens should be wary of its advocates’ strong pronouncements.

You can tell when a consensus is weak. They call their opponents crazy. Science Daily reports on psychologists who think they have figured out “The psychology behind climate change denial.” We retort with, “The theology behind calling others crazy.” It’s also known as the fallenness of human nature.

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