Saturday, July 16, 2011

Occam’s Razor and Global Climate Change

William of Occam
            Occam’s Razor is an epistemology  based on the philosophies of William of Ockham. Occam was a friar and a philosopher from Oakham, a small village in Surrey, England. William is best known for his philosophic problem-solving style, which has come to be known as Occam’s razor. This methodology applies when choosing between competing ideas or theories that explain a phenomenon with similar explanatory power.  In such cases, William's philosophy states the theory with the fewest assumptions is the more reliable, and favorable, theory.

            This methodology is logical because it favors facts a day parchment over assumptions and convolution.  Thus aids in weeding out possible confirmation bias and unfounded postulations. If one finds themselves making a lot of assumptions to justify a belief, it is an indicator their belief is unscientific, and illogical. This does not mean it is wrong, but only that it is less reliable in the scientific world view.

            Children tend to see the world through black and white goggles, often seeing good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, as cut-and-dry concepts. Children are seemingly constrained by sharp deep lines that separate our perceptions of reality and truth. As children grow older, these lines often blur and the previous sharp contrast of black and white explode into a million shades of grey; rarely, if ever, do we deal with absolutes.

Flat Earth Society Map
            As I perceive the debate on global climate change there are big questions that need to be answered. How do we know what to believe? What is black, and what is white? Will we ever come to unanimity in belief? This is very unlikely to happen on any subject. Today there are those who dispute just about any scientific theory. The Flat Earth Society is a good example of this. The Flat Earth Society believes that the earth is not a globe but rather a flat circular disc. This movement has intellectual and educated people in it. I use this example because it helps demonstrate that even well established and seemingly logical ideas have critics and skeptics.

            We do not and cannot know with full certainty that anthropogenic climate change is occurring nor can we know for certain that the world is spherical. As we learn from the reasoning of French philosopher Rene Descartes, if we take skepticism to the extreme we cannot believe anything in this world except that we ourselves think and are thus existent. When it comes down to it, all that we believe can be doubted.

Greg Craven
             Thus as we examine the information and ideas in relation to anthropogenic climate change, we should not require absolute proof or seek for an uncontended consensus but rather we should adopt the mantra of Greg Craven that,
 “[We] don’t need to determine who is right to make a decent bet.”

             This situation provides a need for critical thinking and analysis skills such as the principle of Occam’s razor. I wish to apply Occam’s razor to the driving question in the global climate debate discussion: Why is the earth getting warmer? I will attempt to briefly examine the most popular claims from both sides of the discussion. Then, both sides will be examined with the question, “Which side assumes less?”

            We will start by explaining the Warmers’ position. The position is fairly universal among Warmers and the default position in the scientific community.

            Through direct temperature measurements from the mid 1860’s until 2000, there has been a rise in the global average temperature by 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 Fahrenheit). These recent measurements correlate well, in most regards, with that of proxy measurements used to determine past temperatures.

            This rise in temperature is attributed to the increase in concentration of Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses are gasses which can absorb and radiate infrared waves. The most efficacious greenhouse gasses are water vapor (60 – 70 % of total greenhouse gas effects), carbon dioxide (9 – 26 %), methane (4-9%), and ozone (3-7%). These greenhouse gasses absorb and radiate infrared light coming from the earth back towards the earth causing a blanket-like effect. This causes the earth to retain more of the heat received from the sun and thus raises the temperature of the earth. The greenhouse effect is the Warmers’ explanation why the earth is getting warmer.

            Skeptics, here defined by myself for the purpose of this article, are those who disbelieve anthropogenic climate change. They have two main explanations as to why the globe is apparently warming:

Fred Singer
            The first response is simply that the world is not warming. Skeptics claim that the temperature records are subject to large errors and that the coverage for direct measurements has been patchy therefore producing inaccurate global temperatures. They cite the urban heat island effect as a cause. Fred Singer, a prominent skeptic, stated that it is difficult to believe anthropogenic climate change when some predictions of climate models for the future have been inaccurate:
“…until the observations and the models agree, or until one or the other is resolved, it's very difficult…to believe in the predictive power of the current models.”

            I believe that Occam’s razor would dictate that we favor the Warmers’ position. The skeptics’ position an acceptable theory, but it relies on assumed uncertain and unscientifically-founded errors. It does not seem to provide better alternative information or data to explain the apparent increase in temperature.

           While their claim of inaccuracy of direct measurements was generally valid, the scientists have conducted studies and have made corrections in relation to these criticisms to the best scientific knowledge we have. However, the results still indicate an increasing global temperature which cannot be explained by the heat island effect; further NASA studies have examined the heat island effect and found that is it not a significant factor in the direct measurements.

           As for the supposed failure in models, models are not perfect and cannot account for all the potential changes in the climate due to variations. It cannot completely project future conditions as the variables are not all known nor are models primarily intended to project future conditions thus errors are inevitable in the scientific process and more more often call for refining rather than abandonment.

            An additional issue when claiming the globe is not warming is the fact that proxy measurements generally agree with the direct measurements. Further we can see ice melting at an increased rate. Ice that has persisted for hundreds of years is melting, and thus sea levels are rising. These indicate an overall change in temperature of the globe.

            If we look at the carbon dioxide concentrations in regards to global temperature throughout history we see that there is a heavy correlation. We see this on our earth through direct and proxy measurements. We also see it in planets such as Venus which has a higher concentration of greenhouse gasses. Although Venus is much further from the sun than Mercury, it is much warmer. It takes more of a leap of faith to say that the apparent correlation of carbon concentrations, temperature, direct measurements, and proxy measurements is result from anomalies and inaccuracies than it is to say that the measurements are generally accurate. There seems to be more assumptions made by the Skeptics in this view than by the Warmers.

Khabibullo Abdusamatov
            A second skeptical view is that global warming is occurring but that it is natural and not caused by humans. Skeptic Khabibullo Abdusamatov claims:
“Global warming results not from the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but from an unusually high level of solar radiation and a lengthy – almost throughout the last century – growth in its intensity.”
Tim Patterson

            Likewise, Tim Patterson testified to the Commons Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development stating,
“There is no meaningful correlation between CO2 levels and Earth's temperature over this [geologic] time frame. In fact, when CO2 levels were over ten times higher than they are now, about 450 million years ago, the planet was in the depths of the absolute coldest period in the last half billion years...how could anyone still believe that the recent relatively small increase in CO2 levels would be the major cause of the past century's modest warming?”
            It is pointed out frequently that the earth goes through cycles; it has been hotter, and it has been cooler. As is shown by Patterson, there have been periods in history where there have been high greenhouse gasses concentrations in the air while having lower temperatures. Recently, many skeptics have pointed out that the earth has not significantly risen in temperature since 2002 despite the fact that CO2 emissions have continued to increase.

            Warmers would respond that while the models do not have 100% accuracy they have been shown to be very accurate over long term patterns. Short term predictions are very difficult to accurately make because of so many unknown variables. Anomalies in the pattern have been and are to be expected. However, as we look at the long-term results that the models predicted, they match current records.

            Due to the apparent accuracy of models we currently have I believe it would be more of an assumption to believe that the correlation between carbon dioxide and global temperature is a coincidence than to believe that the discrepancies in the short-term predictions are due to natural short-term variations and anomalies that were unaccounted for. I believe that Occam’s razor would again support the warmers’ position.
CO2 Hockey Stick Graph

            The last issue I would like to examine with Occam’s razor is the issue of scientific consensus. Why do most climatologists believe in anthropogenic climate change? Is it because they do not understand? Do they purposefully tout information they believe it untrue? Or is it that it makes sense to them, and thus the majority of people believe in it? I would say the simplest, less assuming answer would be the latter. Let us assume that the scientists trained in this area of expertise are honestly working their best to further humanity.

            Occam’s razor does not necessitate truth, but it does help make decisions for individuals. It has 

helped me to accept the tenants of anthropogenic climate change as I feel that it is less assuming than climate skepticism. I do not feel that I have determined what is right or wrong, but I do feel that with the information I have I can make a decent bet.

Works Cited

"BBC News - The Arguments Made by Climate Change Sceptics." BBC News - Home. Web. 14 July 2011. .

"Changes in Arctic Land Ice and Impacts on Sea Level - Barry." NOAA Arctic Theme Page - A Comprehensive Arctic Resource. Web. 14 July 2011. .

Craven, Greg. What's the Worst That Could Happen?: a Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate. New York: Perigee, 2009. Print.

Descartes, René, Elizabeth Sanderson Haldane, David Eugene Smith, William Hale White, René Descartes, René Descartes, René Descartes, and Benedictus De Spinoza. Rules for the Direction of the Mind. Discourse on the Method. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1955. Print.

"Does CO2 Always Correlate with Temperature (and If Not, Why Not?)." Global Warming and Climate Change Skepticism Examined. Web. 15 July 2011. .

"ESA Portal - Greenhouse Effects... Also on Other Planets." ESA Communications Portal. Web. 15 July 2011. .

The Flat Earth Society. Web. 14 July 2011. .

"Global Warming." Global Warming. Web. 14 July 2011. .

Gray, Vincent. The Greenhouse Delusion: a Critique of "climate Change 2001" Brentwood: Multi-Science, 2002. Print.

Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, M. Imhoff, W. Lawrence, D. Easterling, T. Peterson, and T. Karl. "A Closer Look at United States and Global Surface Temperature Change." Journal of Geophysical Research 106.D20 (2001): 23947-3963. Print.

Harris, Tom. "Global Warming, Scientists, Al Gore Climate Change." Canada Free Press: Online Conservative Newspaper, News, Politics, Editorials. Web. 15 July 2011. .

Leff, Gordon. William of Ockham: the Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1975. Print.

Media Construction of Global Warming. Ithaca, NY: Project Look Sharp, 2010. Print.

"Russian Academic Says CO2 Not to Blame for Global Warming." Russian Information Agency. Web. 14 July 2011.

"Temperature Change and Carbon Dioxide Change." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Web. 15 July 2011. ."What's up with the Weather: the Debate: Dr. S. Fred Singer." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 14 July 2011.

1 comment:

Dave said...

This was a thoughtful application of Occam's Razor - I enjoyed the reading.

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