Friday, April 26, 2013

Unreasonably "Reasonable" - Uncertainty is No Monster - Live with It or Die by It

Sou | 6:00 PM Feel free to comment!

Or ... Why Judith Curry is Wrong

A major bushfire is heading straight for your home, getting bigger and faster and fiercer by the minute, fueled by wind and dry vegetation. The fire front is about 900 meters away. You can hear the roar, it's creating its own wind. You can see the glow through the thick pall of smoke that's covered the sky. The daylight is a weird colour, orange-pink - almost peach-coloured. You can't breathe properly, it smells of burning leaves. You can see the embers falling ahead of the fire. You can hear the loud bangs as trees explode in the heat and flames. You know from past fires something of what to expect, including the unexpected.

Your sister from a city a thousand miles away phones you and says, "It's not certain the fire will hit you, is it?"  Sis has always had a Pollyanna streak.  She is afraid for us and is seeking reassurance.

The weather bureau reports a 30% probability of a change in wind direction but not until some time later in the day, with a 10% probability of light rain.

Which of these responses would you regard as 'sensible'?
  1. Dump tonnes of kerosene in the fire's path, leaving a trail of kerosene leading straight to your back door?
  2. Don't take any action at all.  Wait until you have more information?
  3. Send out helicopters, fire trucks with fire retardant to try to contain the blaze and pack up your car with family members, pets and whatever you can grab and get the hell out of there?
Too many people argue for the first response.  Keep adding fuel to the fire.  Keep pouring CO2 into the atmosphere.  Wait until it's 100% certain that the wind won't change in time and stop the fire's momentum.  Continuing to add fuel to the fire is the way to go until we can better 'scope' the uncertainty, they will argue.

A few people will argue for number two.  Don't add any more fuel to the fire but otherwise don't do anything until you know more.  Close all coal-fired power stations immediately.  Shut down the oil refineries.  But don't go building wind turbines or electric vehicles.  Don't plan for higher sea levels. Don't go changing building codes.  Don't shore up water storage for future droughts.

Others will argue for the third option.  Change the source of energy away from fossil fuels and adapt to what climate change will bring.  Minus the "getting the hell out of there".  (People who live in the bush will have their fire plan ready each summer, their valuables and pet cages at hand, their fire retardant clothes in their emergency kit along with a mask and water, and their fire escape route planned out.)  

What do you think about that?  What path would you recommend?

Nowhere else to go

Where I live there's a new classification of Code Red = Catastrophic fire warning.  Code Red is beyond Extreme.  When this is announced people are supposed to leave the area (not mandatory).  Problem is, there's usually nowhere within 500 km that isn't in the Catastrophic fire zone.  Just like with global warming.  We've only got one earth.

Seeking reassurance

Many climate science deniers appear to reject the evidence because they react like Sis did.  They want reassurance.  So much so that they seek it out.  They lap up disinformation and hoard it like gold.  They avoid or dismiss unpalatable facts as "alarmist".  They can't cope with 'alarm'.  Studies suggest the conservative brain is more responsive to fear.  Although this confers some advantages it can also impede reason, resulting in poor judgement and 'wrong' decisions.

There is always uncertainty

As anyone who's done any planning will tell you, there is always uncertainty. Uncertainty is not a monster.  There is almost never only one "right answer".  When facing something like a bushfire or climate change, the "wrongest" answer is to not act at all.  Societal paralysis while climate change continues unabated.  Geological history gives us insight into what to expect, including the unexpected.  If we waited for 100% certainty about everything in the future, we'd never get out of bed in the morning.

The "wrong" answer

To not act is as deliberate a decision as acting based on information at hand.  It is the wrong response.

Quit Shooting the Messenger!  Demand Leadership from Leaders!

This post was inspired by reactions to Judith Curry's recent written and oral testimony to a US House of Reps subcommittee.  For example:
Shifting goal post alert: The real question that must be settled before any policy actions are taken to address the postulated threat from human-induced global warming is ....(insert shifting goal posts here)
Strawman construction 1:...suggesting (to me) a much more cautious approach to emissions reduction than has been adopted in Australia and elsewhere....Of course, I regard “cautious” as not taking extensive and costly action without more convincing evidence as to the merits of such action, others might interpret it as pre-emptive large-scale precautionary reductions.
Strawman 2: ...Those who posit that there is one (a problem), which requires remedial action, have to show empirical evidence that they know what the hell they are talking about – BEFORE they request any action be taken.

And Curry herself, IMO misrepresenting scientific uncertainty, its nature, how it is scoped and quantified, and the relative importance of different aspects of science and the relevance of different aspects to government policy development - and building her own strawmen.  Even though she states clearly up front that humans are causing global warming, she later implies that scientists are wrong to assert that humans are causing global warming, which is the scientific consensus, writing instead:
Given these uncertainties, there would seem to be plenty of scope for disagreement among scientists. Nevertheless, the consensus about dangerous anthropogenic climate change is portrayed as nearly total among climate scientists. Further, the consensus has been endorsed by all of the relevant national and international science academies and scientific societies.
I have been trying to understand how there can be such a strong consensus given these uncertainties....
...When uncertainty is not well characterized and there is concern about ‘unknown unknowns,’ there is increasing danger of getting the wrong answer and optimizing for the wrong thing.
And her over-simplification of decision-making pitfalls mixed with a bright red herring.  No, Judith, neither of these hits the nail on the head:
There are two situations to avoid: i) acting on the basis of a highly confident statement about the future that turns out to be wrong; and ii) missing the possibility of an extreme, catastrophic outcome. Avoiding both of these situations requires much deeper and better assessment of uncertainties and areas of ignorance, as well as creating a broader range of future scenarios than is currently provided by climate models.
I strongly disagree with Curry.  The main situation to avoid is that of waiting till it is too late.  Waiting until options are reduced to all but a few.  Waiting until atmospheric CO2 gets so high that there are no choices left to humanity.  Waiting until climate change wreaks havoc and destabilises economies such that we can no longer afford to take action.  Or worse, waiting until there are no longer coherent societies or stable governments that can see actions through to completion.  There are a myriad of actions that can be taken now, which won't be "wrong" in any sense of the word.

Leaders, take responsibility! Certain science, uncertain policy response

The biggest sin Curry commits is that of pointing her finger at science, rather than at the leaders, the rule-makers, the legislators.  The uncertainty is in the policy response, not the science.  The science is settled more than adequately to inform policy decisions.  Legislators' efforts need to go towards determining what paths to follow, what suite of policy responses and programs to implement.  It's not the science that's uncertain in this context.

Businesses wants a consistent policy direction.  The science is settled but the policy response, where it exists, is fragmented.  The corporate sector hates a policy vacuum.  Investors look for clear guidance.  The community elects leaders to lead, not fiddle while the bush burns. 

Curry confirms that there is a raging bushfire, that we run the risk of it burning down the house.  She can see the fire bearing down.  Everyone else can see the fire raging and heading in their direction.  But instead of calling for a plan of action to deal with the very real fire, she turns around and says:- "Well, maybe that bushfire we can all see bearing down on us isn't real.  It's red and it's hot and it's got flames and lots of white and black and yellow smoke, and it's leaving burnt forests and grasslands in its wake.  Just the same, I think it needs more analysis.  We need more measurements.  We need more temperature readings, to examine the smoke, analyse the smoke particles, confirm that those flames are really flames.  Build another model. We need to make sure it really is a bushfire before we start to think about getting out of its path or putting it out!  Meanwhile, let's add more kerosene."

IMO Judith confirms her adopted role as that of 'delayer', who wants to keep the bushfire burning by pouring tonnes kerosene onto it, under the guise of "waiting for certainty" about what is already certain.

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