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Fri, 10 Apr 2009

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Controvertialism


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Rahul Basu pointed out an article by the eminent scientist Freeman Dyson.

In the past Dyson has raised a number of interesting questions and has been thought-provoking, but it is difficult to read him when he writes like this.

I have re-phrased what he has said (debunking climatologists) and turned it into an argument against the Large Hadron Collider so that we can see how obnoxious it sounds.1

My first heresy says that all the fuss about the Higgs particle is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of high energy physicists and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe that the world is predicted by the standard model. Of course, they say, I have no degree in physics and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the standard model and I know what it can do. The model solves the equations of gauge theory in the simplest cases, and it does a very good job of describing the interactions of the known particles. It does a very poor job of describing how mass arises and the chemistry and the biology of phenomena we see everyday. It does 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 a lab coat and measure what is really happening in the complex phenomena of compounds and materials. That is why the high enery physicists end up believing their own models.

The rest of the article can then be similarly re-phrased but I will just summarise it as:

There is no reason for the rest of the world to believe the high energy physicists and squander billions of dollars into following their proposed unique solution to the questions of physics.

Of course, there is a good chance that Dyson will agree with the above point of view as well! The problem with ``controversialists'' like Dyson is that they believe that taking extreme positions helps clarify issues. Unfortunately, extremists are a-dime-a-dozen in today's world.

I suppose I should clarify that I accept neither the extreme position on climatology nor the one on the LHC!


  1. My friend is a high energy physics theorist!

comment bubble Rahul Siddharthan, Fri Apr 10 20:32:45 2009 permanent link

Analogies can be useful but this one isn't.  High energy physicists do not claim to explain biology.  The difficulty is a practical one, not a conceptual one.  We have no reason to believe their models are wrong, since whatever can be calculated with those models is correct, and the hope is that LHC will expose limitations of the standard model, but it may well not do so.  Climate science models are not correct in that sense and no climate scientist claims that they are.  The goal of climate scientists is not to solve fluid dynamics equations in some ideal setting, but to predict the actual behaviour of the world's climate.  I doubt a single reputable climate scientist in the world will agree with your analogy, even if they don't agree with Dyson's assessment.

comment bubble Rahul Basu, Sat Apr 11 10:38:28 2009 permanent link

Your analogy with the LHC and HEP is unfortunately full of holes and Rsidd has summarised most of it. However

1. The SM of HEP does not (cannot with present techniques) even explain how quarks bind into protons or neutrons, let alone how atoms and molecules and galaxies are formed. It can only, as of now, predict the behaviour of fundamental particles in a perturbative domain. You have probably been misled by some grandiose statements made by my fellow HE physicists who claim that it will answer the most fundamental questions of the universe. Well, you should know some of that bombast has to do with convincing the funding agencies and indirectly the tax paying public. In fact there are separate Standard Cosmological Models (not so standard according to some cosmologists), the Standard Solar Model and so on which are not in any sense derivable from the SM of HEP. Clearly the SM of HEP is far from describing complex systems like large chemical reactions or biological systems. Nobody claims that, even the most chauvinistic HE physicist!

Dyson's claims are nowhere as trivial as your analogy. He merely points out the inadequacies in the climate models and hence the  need to be careful in interpreting their conclusions. As Shankar's detailed response shows, there is actually much in common with Dyson's claims and Shankar's enumeration of the lacunae in the climate models. I think the IPCC and other serious climatologists are aware of this. I think the difference between them and Dyson lies in the extent to which they are willing to make predictions in the short term (10-20 years) given those lacunae. Climatologists worried about global warming are willing to stick their necks out and caution the world of the dangers of continuing along the present path. Dyson I suspect is willing to 'wait and watch' for a while.

My personal view, for whatever it is worth, is that in the matter of global warming it is better to be safe than sorry. Particularly if it also helps to wean humanity away (mostly the developed world, but increasingly the developing world) from the mindless consumerism of the last few decades.

Finally, I really do not think that at 82 Dyson has any need to appear 'clever'. His views are worth pondering over - they are not trivial, unlike your HEP analogy.

comment bubble R. Shankar, Mon Apr 13 11:43:40 2009 permanent link

Here is my detailed response to Dyson's article.

Dyson starts of with a critique of climate scientists.

"But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The
models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they 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 and 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 is why the
climate model experts end up believing their own models." -Dyson-

Somewhat unkind. All earth scientists I have talked to are acutely aware
of the limitations of the models. The discussion in the IPCC report also
reflects this. Eg to quote from their latest report (AR4, pp 113)

  "A parallel evolution toward increased complexity and
resolution has occurred in the domain of numerical weather
prediction, and has resulted in a large and verifiable improvement
in operational weather forecast quality. This example alone
shows that present models are more realistic than were those of
a decade ago. There is also, however, a continuing awareness
that models do not provide a perfect simulation of reality,
because resolving all important spatial or time scales remains
far beyond current capabilities, and also because the behaviour
of such a complex nonlinear system may in general be chaotic"
-IPCC report-

Much of the effort in climate sciences is in observation and data
collection. I would put the number who "sit in airconditioned offices and
run computer models" as a very small fraction of the total.
The IPCC report is based on a huge amount of field observations and data.

Next he makes a statement:

"There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming
is not global. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems.
Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it
better." -Dyson-

When people say global warming, what is meant is that the average
global temperature has increased by about 1 degree C in the past
century. This is based on instrumental observations which have been
taken by Met stations all over the world. Nobody says that it is
uniform in all parts of the globe.

The reason to worry about this one degree per 100 years is that the
"natural" rate of temperature change (due to the glacial cycles which
Dyson also discusses) is about 10 degrees in 100,000 years i.e 1 degree
in 10,000 years. This is concluded from the ice-core data which goes back
to 800,000 years. Even during the sharp rises and falls the rate never
exceeded about 1 degree per 1000 years. So the current rate of increase
is abnormally high.

Coincident with this rise is the rise of C02 levels. It is 380 ppm today
and has never exceeded 300 ppm in the past 800,000 years.

He then says:
" I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away
money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more
important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education
and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and
in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely
construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans."

While development and conservation efforts could definitely be much
more, I dont think that the hype about climate change is a significant
cause for them being less that what they should be.

He then talks about what are called "geo-engineering solutions" (there
are many such in the market) but without mentioning if any serious research
has been done to back his statements.

He then says:
"When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am
impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our
observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic
processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be
better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the
present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a
planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases
must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and
measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on
computer models."

There are of course huge gaps in our knowledge (which is why one should
be cautious about implementing geo-engineering solutions) but again he
gives the impression that the the entire case of climate change is based
on simulations. Even a cursory reading of the IPCC reports should
convince anyone that this is not true.

The statements of the recent past (\approx 100 years) are based on
observation. The climate models do reproduce average quantities like
global average temperature of the recent past (100 years) reasonably well.
These models are then used to project for the immediate future (next 100)
years. They predict temperature rises that are sensitive to the carbon
emission levels with a worst case of about 4 degrees rise in the next century.

As Dyson points out, the carbon cyle is indeed not well understood and a
lot of fudge factors must be going into the models to make them fit the
past data. One has to therefore use one's judgement to decide how reliable
they are. But rejecting them completely, in my opinion, is very bad
judgement. A doctor has to make a diagnosis based on whatever
observations and tests he/she has conducted and however incomplete
his/her knowledge of the processes in the human body may be.

In my opinion, the model predictions should be reasonably reliable for
the immediate future where the validity of the fudge factors may not breakdown.
What will happen over time scales of thousands of years is indeed
unpredictable and the IPCC report says nothing about it. The worry is
more about the immediate future (2000-2100). So even if the rise in CO2
levels and temperature is a transient phenomenon of a few hundred years,
we have to worry about it and think about corrective action. Controlling
emissions seems to be the most reliable way.

The details of how the average temperature rise will affect details
of climate is still open (again for the immediate future). eg. I feel that
the questions most relevent to India are how it will affect (i) Agriculture
(ii) Monsoon (iii) Disease. All of them seem to be very open questions.

The next part of his article talks about time scales of thousands of
years where it is really anybodys guess.

The final part is philosophical and I do not think classifying all the
opinion on this issue into 2 classes is correct (smells of the attitude
"you are either with us or against us"). People have all types
of permutations and combinations of extreme opinions. Nevertheless,
apart from a few fringe elements nobody would deny that ideally we
should aim for a pattern of sustainable development. Of course the devil
is in the details of what is meant by sustainable development but I do
not see any major ethical conflict here.

comment bubble Kapil, Mon Apr 13 14:41:32 2009 permanent link

As I said before, Dyson has done and said many admirable things in the
past and he is certainly not "trivial". The analogy was not meant to
say that HEP is "trivial" either.

There are substantive points which Dyson makes in the article but
the examination of these does not seem to be his intent.

My analogy was meant to point out that Dyson has adopted a debating
style (in this article) which makes it difficult to take him in good
faith. Here are some select quotes which indicate that he wants to
annoy climatologists rather than offer objective criticism:

> 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 is why the climate model experts end up believing their
> own models.

... and later ...

> We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere,
> rather than relying on computer models.

This suggests that climatologists are merely making computer models
and not making any measurements.

> They take away money and attention from other problems that are more
> urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease
> and public education and public health, and the preservation of
> living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy
> problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around
> the city of New Orleans.

This suggests that climatologists are taking food out of the mouth of
poor people in order to generate employment for themselves.

> The disagreement about values may be described in an over-simplified
> way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists
> believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to
> respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of
> the natural environment is evil.

> Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will
> only bring trouble.

This gross over-simplification which clubs climatologists (who
believe their models are correct) along with sciento-phobes and
"Gaia-theorists" is one that reeks of high-school debating rather
than scientific discourse.

I am duly impressed that Shankar has answered him so objectively
in spite of the provocation.

It is indeed true that Dyson is one of the living legends of
science. It is also true that many of us (and I include myself) grew
up reading his writings on physics and the world around us.

Luckily, as scientists we have the freedom to choose when we follow
what our leaders say and when we "call them out" for their bluff and
bluster.

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