This weekend someone mentioned in passing that the Farmers’ Almanac was so successful at predicting this winter’s cold weather that he wondered what was the use of the expensive climate scientists and their pathetic models. So I looked this idea up and found site after site repeating the same story nearly verbatim. Definite signs of a disinformation meme.
My first impulse was to cry but then I asked myself:
What would Neil DeGrasse Tyson do?
Better: What would Bill Nye say?
Best: How would my friend L.G. (who likes to knit but is also a scientist though not nearly as famous as Neil or Bill) approach the tangle of this kind of thinking?
She would take a deep breath, find a promising bit of yarn and patiently work it out of the mess a little at a time.
One Thread at a Time
1. The Farmers’ Almanac got lucky this year but they were dead wrong in 2009. Do we only remember the times they guess correctly? I have looked through almanacs before. More times than not their predictions are vague enough that they can be both correct and wrong at the same time. A vague forecast is like a horoscope … most people will overlook a landfill of dross if even one tiny bit looks interesting or sparkly.
2. It isn’t reasonable to ask a climate model to do unintended work. Every dad will tell you: always use the right tool for the job. Have you ever used a butter knife as a screwdriver? I tried once and got an earful. Butter knives might work in a pinch but I doubt many carpenters would replace their flat-head screwdrivers with them because butter knives make pathetic screwdrivers over the long term.
Climate models (and they are plural) are useful tools for understanding various processes involved in the phenomenon of climate. Climate models have predicted (reliably but conservatively) broad patterns and tendencies but they are not weather prediction devices. They have serious limitations in trying to describe short term or local weather events. Climate models describe the forest; weather forecasts describe trees.
3. Climate models are not pathetic at describing climate. The models in conjunction with other evidence have created a scientific consensus that the globe has already warmed, continues to warm and that human behaviors have contributed to the trend. How we interpret that information or what we decide to do with it is a separate issue.
4. Models have limitations but that does not mean we should give up on using them to understand the world around us. Just as a map is not the terrain, a model is only a representation built by people with limited understanding. All of our scientific and mathematical understanding of the world is a kind of bricolage but sometimes it actually works and when it does it can provide a strong platform for continued learning and informed decision making.
The models so far have explained that the world is getting warmer and they have identified some explanations for the change. But this would be a bad time to stop our investigations. Work still needs to be done on some of the great climate mysteries such as the variables and synergies causing droughts. Too little is known about the contribution of clouds to climate.
Unfortunately, the Farmers’ Almanac meme seems to be resulting in people simply mocking and dismissing climate science just when we need to be looking deeper into the mysteries.
For more info: The Royal Society has a nice collection of “The Basics of Climate Change” which can be found here.