The Unextricable Incompleteness Of Nature

Unless and until the “Nature” editors will find the courage the publish correspondence such as the below, outside of the usual echo-chambers of close-minded, mantra-repeating, conformist half-thinkers, the most we can expect from the somewhat prestigious journal is incomplete columns: because in order to complete them, they need to involve the world they don’t want to listen to…

Dear Sir or Madam

I was somewhat surprised at the abrupt ending of Colin Macilwain’s latest Nature column (“World view: Disaster, unmitigated”, published online 19 May 2010 | Nature 465, 287 (2010) | doi:10.1038/465287a).

As a way for the environmental movement to re-engage the public, Mr. Macilwain suggests “those researchers who do feel comfortable with advocacy need to spend more time on the ground, talking to real people about why their work matters”. Scientists doubling up as street preachers? Unlikely. And yet, there could be a hint of a way out of the “disaster”.

How to talk “to real people”? Scientists that build for themselves a name as scientists, often misunderstand it as a free pass to provide the world with the “Given Truth”. But very few manage to be an Einstein or a Feynman: with no reputation in a social and/or political context, the most solid scientific ideas become only somebody’s opinion in an ocean of opinions. With a long history of misguided scientific claims in the media (as recently highlighted in The Guardian), emission trading and the plight of Mexican lizards achieve the same status of dieting fads and miracle cancer cures, just a notch above Nostradamus.

The result is the wholescale political hijacking of the climate debate (mainly in the USA), very little progress, noise all over the place: the “disaster” mentioned by Mr. Macilwain.

The obvious first step out of such a situation involves building social and political reputation, by reducing the cacophony: acquiring allies instead of enemies; making do without grandstanding claims about impending dooms; relying less on a change in human nature and the reinvention of civilisation; opening up to the society-wide consequences of each particular solution. And telling “climate change” like it is, a matter of risk management instead of hubris, projections not predictions, stewardship not dictatorship.

There are many out there like me, politically active, environmentally conscious, scientifically trained, ferociously on the side of Reason in the tradition of Carl Sagan and James Randi and on this basis aware of the potential dangers of climate change, unconvinced about the reality of upcoming catastrophes and worried about the future of society and of civil liberties. But as long as the prevailing attitude among climate scientists and especially activists-researchers will involve lèse majesté and ad-hominems against “deniers”, really, there will be nobody, least of all “real people”, for them to talk to.

Dodgy NASA Pages Undermines Scientific Education

The educational troubles at NOAA are well known. Now I have stumbled by accident into one set of misleading NASA-hosted pages allegedly set up in order to help teachers and students understand the greenhouse effect.

The starting page of the set “Measuring the Temperature of the Sky and Clouds” by a Forrest M. Mims III and part of teacher-focused “My NASA Data” website, claims to describe a project where “you will learn about the greenhouse effect by measuring the temperature of the sky and clouds far overhead with an infrared thermometer“.

The project is described across four pages and it might be easily misinterpreted as showing that clouds are warmer than the cloudless atmosphere because of the greenhouse properties of water vapor (one needs to read the text very carefully). But that’s not the real problem.

The real problem is that it is claimed that:

The temperature in outer space approaches absolute zero, which is -273 degrees Celsius. But you will measure a much warmer temperature if you point an infrared thermometer at the sky directly overhead (the zenith).  Depending on the season and your location, the temperature will likely be near or below zero degrees Celsius. While this is very chilly, it’s far from being as cold as absolute zero. The difference is caused mainly by water vapor in the sky that has become warm by absorbing infrared radiation emitted by the Earth below. The warmed water vapor returns some of the infrared back to the Earth, and this helps keep the Earth warmer than space.

The statement above is wrong. Says who? Says mainstream scientific consensus on the behavior of atmospheres. Here’s an excerpt from a University of Texas page explaining it all:

Of course, we know that the atmosphere is not isothermal. In fact, air temperature falls quite noticeably with increasing altitude. In ski resorts, you are told to expect the temperature to drop by about 1 degree per 100 meters you go upwards. Many people cannot understand why the atmosphere gets colder the higher up you go. They reason that as higher altitudes are closer to the Sun they ought to be hotter. In fact, the explanation is quite simple. It depends on three important properties of air. The first important property is that air is transparent to most, but by no means all, of the electromagnetic spectrum. In particular, most infrared radiation, which carries heat energy, passes straight through the lower atmosphere and heats the ground. In other words, the lower atmosphere is heated from below, not from above. The second important property of air is that it is constantly in motion. In fact, the lower 20 kilometers of the atmosphere (the so called troposphere) are fairly thoroughly mixed. You might think that this would imply that the atmosphere is isothermal. However, this is not the case because of the final important properly of air: i.e., it is a very poor conductor of heat.

Note that there is not a single mention of any greenhouse property of anything. Later on the UTexas text contains a reference to water vapor but for different reasons than the greenhouse effect:

As air rises, expands, and cools, water vapour condenses out releasing latent heat which prevents the temperature from falling as rapidly with height as the adiabatic lapse rate would indicate

So if the ground is at whatsoever temperature and you point a thermometer to the sky, you’ll read “the temperature through a cone-shaped column of the troposphere“, as determined by the properties of air and water vapor. The value you will read will be far above absolute zero independently from the greenhouse effect.

It is rather worrying to see such a poorly-designed experiment getting NASA approval (well, that might explain a few things…) and who knows how many pupils have now got it all wrong. Hopefully, there’s two or twenty science teachers out there capable to use critical reasoning.

Defending Science At the BA Blog (Of All Places!)

Life in various aspects means I can’t post as much as I wish, even if there’s quite a few loose threads that will surface here soon.

Anyway, in the meanwhile there are some signs of hope and despair in the comments section at this Bad Astronomer’s blog, where I am making a couple of points: (a) does Phil Plait believe people like astronaut / moonwalker / geologist / climate skeptic Harrison Schmitt is a “denier” and if so why doesn’t Phil tell the world about it and (b) how unscientific it is to call people “deniers” only because they don’t reach your exact conclusions (given the fact that science is a process, not a quiz show).

I have been said things and called names as usual, but that’s alright. As Gerry Spence would say, those unfortunate souls’ opinions would only matter if I cared. And I don’t 8-)

Does Harrison "Jack" Schmitt Exist?

A few hours have passed since my first comment in Plait’s n-th tired “you’re all deniers!” blog, and not a single word on how would Phil or any AGW believer handle any debate with Harrison Schmitt, geologist, Astronaut, Moonwalker, and a skeptic of AGW.

Harrison "Jack" Schmitt

Harrison "Jack" Schmitt

I think we can safely assume that Schmitt, like Phil, has examined the claims, the science, and the techniques. However, Schmitt has come to the conclusion that

(see Wikipedia)

“[t]he CO2 scare is a red herring”, the “global warming scare is being used as a political tool to increase government control over American lives, incomes and decision-making,” and scientists who might otherwise challenge prevailing views on climate change dare not do so for fear of losing funding.

I find the very existence of somebody like Schmitt incompatible with Phil’s simplistic climate change view where everybody that disagrees on anything, is a rabid anti-science ignorant denier or worse.

Te Lo Do’ Io Il PR…

C’e’ un po’ di discussione riguardo un blog abbastanza ingenuo di Ugo Bardi (fa parte della mai troppo vituperabile serie dove divide il mondo in Buoni e Cattivi), blog dove si vuole passare per buona l’idea che dietro lo scetticismo climatico ci sia la mano cattivona di Big Oil. In particolare vi si puo’ leggere un allegro scambio di idee riguardo la traduzione in italiano dell’About del noto blog cambioclimatista RealClimate.

Pubblico (anche) qui un paio di precisazioni.

Ho scritto “RealClimate e’ stato messo in piedi da una ditta di public relations“. Infatti su RC, in tutta onesta’ ma facendo pieno uso delle sfumature e degli eufemismi tipici del mondo anglosassone ma che evidentemente sfuggono a chi non ci e’ abituato, parlano dello “INITIAL planning” (“pianificazione INIZIALE“, l’enfasi e’ mia).

Se poi qualcuno vuole credere su RC siano ospitati dallo “Science Communications Network” (“dedicated to encouraging environmental public health scientists and medical practitioners to contribute to public discussions about their work through the media“) senza che per mettere su il sito quell'”encouraging” abbia avuto alcuna importanza, e senza che abbiano fatto uso del fior fiore dei professionisti del PR ambientalista, insomma, a questa persona ho un Colosseo da vendere…

Senza SCN/EMS, e senza Fenton, RealClimate sarebbe un’altra cosa (un blog dei tanti che non fanno uso di professionisti del PR, come i miei). E quindi, come ho detto nel mio commento iniziale a Bardi, lamentarsi che nel discorso climatico siano coinvolte organizzazioni di PR, presentando poi il tutto come se il PR fosse solo quello di Big Oil, non mi sembra una cosa molto saggia.

Faccio anche notare come sia in corso la un po’ imbarazzante conferenza Heartland (da cui, come ripeto da anni, mi tengo ben lontano). Qualcuno sa dove sono questi maghi del PR, o quali risultati abbiano ottenuto? Ci sono star del cinema o della TV, o personaggi famosi per qualcos’altro che la loro viscontita’? (domanda)

Infine…sondaggio di questi giorni…il 41% dei britannici e’ scettico “integrale” (non pensano che il riscaldamento sia di origine antropica in nessun modo). Qualcuno conosce quali iniziative di PR di Big Oil o Big Coal abbiano ottenuto cotanto risultato? Anche perche’ io, che in UK ci vivo, non me ne sono accorto.