Monday, 7 December 2009

Climategate

I cannot resist but the temptation is too great. The University of East Anglia - 'East where?', I hear you asking, has hit the international headlines. Now UEA is a 'good' British University - it is ranked number 28= in the Times University League table - true it's not an Oxford or a Cambridge but it is very respectable. Sadly, its good name will not save it from the threat of global warming. It lies as a misbuilt architectural disaster near the city of Norwich in Norfolk which, like most of Holland lies perilously close to sea level. Unlike the Dutch who had the wisdom to build substantial sea defences, Norwich and its university's only protection are several miles of wet soggy fenland. I mention this because naturally enough the worthy academics at UEA have become very interested in the prospect of rising sea levels and the risk it poses to their university rankings. So they have established one of the 'most influential' centres for climate research - The Climate Research Unit or CRU.

Nothing wrong with that - until what appears to be some rather dodgy science emerges through a series of hacked emails between academics at the Centre and colleagues of a similar academic leaning elsewhere. It would appear that there has been some massaging of temperature data so that it does not mislead anyone into thinking that their scientific judgments about the causes of global warming are not as soundly based as they would have us believe. However, polishing data is not their worst crime. There is good evidence in the emails that they have attempted to lock out of the literature anyone who dissents from the 'consensus' view that global warming is man made and that CO2 emissions are the culprit.

Now this blog is not to be about global warming - enough hot air gets ejected on that topic to be a major environmental disaster in its own right - it's about finance. But there are some very interesting parallels with finance and a salutary lesson for those who are convinced that the MMGW thesis is correct. In order to understand what is at issue here it is worth noting that both climate science and finance rely extensively upon historical data. They also rely upon building and testing expectations models of future outcomes. These models are computer based in both cases and both rely upon inputs from the historical data as well as underpinning theories connecting causes with effects. Neither are experimental sciences like (say) nuclear physics or chemistry. There are no laboratories - just data records and computer programmes. As we know from finance and the early research on financial markets in the 1960's and 1970's it is very easy with this mode of doing science to oversimplify and to get it wrong. It is also very easy for overzealous scholars to become so convinced of the rectitude of their position that they lapse from the very high standards that good science demands.

In the 1970's the efficient markets/rational expectations paradigm became so dominant in finance that the editor of one of the world's most prestigious finance journals went public and declared that papers that did not support the EMH would be very unlikely to be published. Now, most of you who have followed this blog would say, correctly, that Bob is an efficient markets man. I am - and in a later blog I will provide some philosophical justification for that. But, those who disagree have got a real and substantial point. Reality is far more nuanced than any single theoretical construct would suggest. Locking out financial dissenters - or if you like 'EMH deniers' was a terrible mistake which put back the development of empirical finance by 20 years. So it is with global warming. Climate science - a very young science, pressured by political forces beyond its control, has made the same mistake. The gatekeepers of the subject - the journal editors - appear to be colluding to lock out criticism of the dominant paradigm.

The damage a lock out could cause is beyond count. An expanding world population needs energy, alternatives to fossil fuels are unlikely to do little to ameliorate the demand, and the sort of sacrifices that would be required to return atmospheric CO2 to 1990 levels threaten to tip even more of the world's population into destitution and poverty. However, if the dominant consensus is broadly correct then we need to know the extent of the problem and have a rational debate about what can be done about it.

Climate scientists and their environmental groupies are very fond of saying that all of the evidence supports their case and that little has been published which contradicts the consensus view. I wonder why? Knowing that you cannot get published is a major disincentive to doing the hard work that contrary science demands. Its much harder swimming against the curent than with it and the real issue arising from the ClimateGate scandal is what has been missed? What has been rejected by the journal editors and their toadies as unpublishable?

Sadly the only real voices against the MMGW consensus are a few brave scientists whose reputations and motives have been traduced and older academics in tangential disciplines who do not mind being condemned as 'out of touch' or put on a par with holocaust deniers. But to me the lesson is clear. As Karl Popper taught us, good scientists devote all of their energy to trying to refute their theories and this is what the sceptics are doing. This is where we need the very best of the scientific method and this is why I am on the side of the sceptics - not because I necessarily agree with their position because I don't know enough about it - but because the world needs them.

5 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Holland is actually under sea level. Norwich isn't. I can't read past that elementary mistake.

Professor Bob Ryan said...

Two issues follow this comment - it is a principle of natural language reasoning that if an error is made which is obvious, correct it (the Charity Principle) and proceed with the analysis. However, you need to read more carefully because all the blog says is that Norwich and Holland lie near sea level, it does not say that Holland lies above or below sea level so no error has been made. I suggest you get on and read the rest!

Anonymous said...

By the way - have you ever been to Norwich and the Norfolk Broads? Absolutely beautiful with the migrating sea birds. However, I can assure you if there was a significant rise in sea level much of that part of the world would be at risk. Around the East Anglia Coast, down Essex and into Kent there are areas of very low lying land. Indeed, Sandwich is rather interesting because its history as a port goes back to early medieval times. The only problem is that it now a small village lying some 10 miles inland. There are other examples along the East coast of England. Interesting?