Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The PDOOMA Series

     [Owing to the return of the global warming evangelists and their claims that President Trump has doomed us all by pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords, I’ve decided to reissue these four essays, which first appeared at Eternity Road in late 2009 and 2010. Some of the links are dead, but as they were links to other Eternity Road essays, you shouldn’t let it trouble you. -- FWP]


     The government is extremely fond of amassing great quantities of statistics. These are raised to the nth degree, the cube roots are extracted, and the results are arranged into elaborate and impressive displays. What must be kept ever in mind, however, is that in every case, the figures are first put down by a village watchman, and he puts down anything he damn well pleases. -- Sir Josiah Stamp
     If it cannot be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion. -- Robert A. Heinlein
     43.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot. – Author unknown

     Among the eternal verities of the engineering trade is this:

What matters most about any figure injected into a technical discussion is its error bar.

     The size of the error bar -- in layman’s terms, the amount by which the figure cited could be high or low -- determines whether the figure is worthy of consideration, as evidence or as support for some proposed solution to a problem.

  • A small error bar, which indicates high confidence in the figure, enhances the authority of the figure.
  • A large error bar, which indicates low confidence in the figure, renders the figure suspect and unreliable.
  • An unknown or undisclosed error bar indicates that the figure is a PDOOMA.

     PDOOMA, one of engineering’s most beloved acronyms, stands for “Pulled Directly Out Of My Ass.” The figure is almost certainly guesswork or worse -- in extreme cases, pure fiction. The best giveaway to a PDOOMA figure is the absence of an error bar.

     The PDOOMA figure is becoming a major player in political rhetoric. Conservatives have had to cope with quite a few of them in recent years. Because we prefer not to fight too many duels -- ammunition has gotten quite expensive, y’know -- we usually refrain from calling the PDOOMA's proponent a liar. The usual conservative response to a PDOOMA from a left-liberal is simply to dispute the figure's accuracy, or perhaps its relevance. But the unprecedented proliferation of political PDOOMAs has made that approach counterproductive. As Ann Coulter said in her book Slander: Liberal Lies About The American Right, we find ourselves passing over quite a lot of leftist fiction so we can concentrate on the lies of earth-shaking magnitude.

     Here are a few PDOOMAs of recent vintage:

  • Al Gore's claim that, if nothing is done about "global warming," Earth will experience a sea level rise of twenty feet.
  • Marian Wright Edelman's claim that every extra dollar devoted to Head Start funding would ultimately save $3.35 in federal and state welfare expenditures.
  • Congressional Democrats claim that $500 billion can be squeezed out of Medicare expenditures over the next ten years by "eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse."
  • Barack Hussein Obama's "47 million Americans can't get health insurance."
  • Barack Hussein Obama's "650,000 jobs created or saved" by the $787 billion stimulus bill.

     ...and not an error bar in the lot.

     The most annoying aspect of these PDOOMAs is how hard it is to get their promulgators to stand their ground and defend it. When challenged, they immediately change the subject, or attack the objector -- and subsequently act as if the PDOOMA went unchallenged, and should be taken as authoritative and trustworthy. But left-liberalism being inherently fraudulent and treacherous, perhaps this is only to be expected.

     The proliferation of PDOOMAs on the subject of health care has slowed down somewhat in recent weeks, but there remain a couple that animate the Democrats' drive for the nationalization of American medicine. One is the "47 million uninsured" canard. No responsible analyst would propound such a figure without also stating how he'd arrived at it, what the error bar is, and whether factors other than the politically potent implication of unaffordability play a part in a significant fraction of the total. The last of those is a particularly important question at a time when among America's most important social ills is our problem with illegal immigration.

     But no field beats "global warming / climate change" for reliance on the PDOOMA. The whole "discipline" is PDOOMAs from first to last. Global temperature assessment is inherently fraught with major uncertainties. Measurements of global temperature have error bars of several Centigrade degrees. The recent revelations of wholesale distortion and data-dredging at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit, apparently carried on shamelessly by hundreds, if not thousands, of the best known "global warming" flacksters in the world, should be a lesson to us about the probity of "scientific measurements" advanced to serve a political cause. Self-nominated "scientists" are just as capable of deception, including self-deception, as any other human being...especially when vast quantities of money are at stake.

     If there's an irony over this originating from the Right, it would be that, since left-liberals are generally aware that their own "statistics" and "projections" are PDOOMAs, they instinctively reject figures that countervail their contentions. For example, it will do you no good in a conversation with a gun-control advocate to cite Florida's impressive decrease in violent crimes after it became a shall-issue state -- very nearly 80% over the first two years. He'll assume you made it up. Nor will he bother to check it for himself; it violates Holy Leftist Writ about the evil of firearms, and that's all he needs to know. Neither can you make any headway with a rabid welfarist by pointing out that the Reagan-era tax rate cuts correlated with federal revenue increases of over $390 billion per year by 1989. "Tax cut" is profanity to a statist of any stripe; you simply have to be lying.

     In other words, you can't persuade a left-liberal by using facts.

     Indeed, it might not be possible to persuade a left-liberal by any means available to Man. Left-liberal Causes, being quasi-religious in nature, receive devotion of religious intensity from their devotees. That's why they're unabashed about their use of PDOOMAs. The end justifies the means; no deception is out of bounds if it serves Ultimate Truth.

     Depressing, especially to one who respects the connection between numbers and reality.

2. PDOOMA! Part 2: The Trouble With Temperature

     There's already been a lot of discussion of the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit document leak. The documents have been authenticated by persons at the institution and pored over by thousands of readers. The implications of the statements therein are utterly damning for the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) thesis. Perhaps worst of all is the annotated FORTRAN 90 source code for one of the CRU's key climate models, which clearly attempts to turn sow's-ear temperature data into a silk purse of AGW confirmation by a range of manipulations too sordid for a serious scientist to bear. Though we cannot expect AGW's political backers to run up a white flag just yet -- there's too much money and power at stake -- nevertheless, it's clear that we have the warmistas on the run.

     Yet, in all the Sturm und Drang that's flown over the AGW issue, there's a question your Curmudgeon has been waiting for someone to ask, but which has unaccountably never been raised in any forum:

What is the current temperature of the Earth?

     "Global warming" must surely refer to the temperature of the globe, no? Or at least, to the temperature of that part of the globe that's relevant to its resident organisms: the upper crust, the oceans, and the atmosphere. So what is it? If the Earth is getting warmer, then its temperature today must be higher than what it was at some relevant past moment, right? Right?

     The Earth doesn't have a convenient orifice into which to stick a thermometer, does it? Worse, if it did, it wouldn't tell us anything particularly useful.

     Of course, a dedicated warmista would wave the question aside as "naive," no doubt with a considerable display of irritation. He'd be equally likely to dismiss its reductionist versions: what's the current temperature of the Earth's atmosphere, or of the Atlantic Ocean, or of the Gulf of Mexico, et cetera. But that doesn't mean that the questions are meaningless or irrelevant to the subject. Indeed, they're the most important questions of all.

     Their importance lies in this: They cannot be answered satisfactorily, now or ever.

     The temperature of a large body is inherently unknowable. Temperature, like simultaneity, is a local phenomenon: the larger the locale, the less certain one's determinations will be. Your Curmudgeon could fairly assume that the air temperature over the Fortress of Crankitude will be about the same as that over its next-door neighbor at any given instant, but he'd guarantee that it will differ from the temperature over a house a mile or two away. Since the two key thermal aspects of life on Earth, the atmosphere and the oceans, are chaotic systems characterized by continuous fluctuations of unknown magnitude, their temperatures are as unknowable as the length of the coastline of Norway.

     The situation is actually worse than that. Temperature is supposed to correspond to the average kinetic energy of the molecules in the substance whose temperature one is taking. It's an empirical sort of metric, since we can't actually measure the kinetic energy of all those little particles and take their average; instead, we use a correlation to the expansion of some substance, such as mercury or alcohol. If, when exposed to the thing whose temperature is to be taken, a fixed mass of our chosen metrical substance expands by so much, we say its temperature is thus-and-such...which completely ignores the prior mechanical and thermodynamic state of the metrical substance itself.

     In short, the state variable called temperature is one of the least precise of all the measures known to physics, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Any good physicist will tell you this, Sunday-supplement gee-whiz references to such things as the temperature of the Earth's core or the surface of the Sun notwithstanding.

     This makes "investigations" such as AGW a fool's errand.

     We have a natural sense, direct from our nerve endings, for "hotter" and "cooler" as those conceptions apply to small objects and local conditions. That shouldn't be allowed to fool us into thinking we can know the temperature of a large region or a large body with arbitrary precision -- and the precision required to invest any credibility in the representations of the warmistas is unbelievably fine, measured in tenths of a Centigrade degree. But that level of precision is what the warmistas have sought to sell us.

     The AGW thesis has been a con job from first to last, a castle of power-seeking lies built on a foundation of fantasy-precision sand. That it should have come tumbling down at the slightest of temblors was only to be expected. As we in the software trade like to say:

Garbage In, Garbage Out.

     Perhaps we don't say it often enough.

3. PDOOMA! Part 3: Clarity About "The Environment"

     The East Anglia CRU document leak and its sequels are proving to be everything a freedom-minded man could have wished. The entire edifice of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) promoters has collapsed as its leading lights proffer ever less credible explanations for the materials revealed. The FORTRAN 90 source code to the CRU's principal climate model is particularly valuable for the embedded comments, which make it plain that massive data fudging was performed to produce even a semblance of AGW hazard.

     Which makes this a nearly perfect time to talk about environmental issues in general.


     Back in the Sixties, Americans became receptive to suggestions that air pollution was a problem to be addressed. The air in our major cities was admittedly less than pleasant, owing in part to industrial emissions, in part to automobile exhaust, and in part to the unavoidable consequences of packing large numbers of people into a small space. Political will was marshaled; Washington emitted laws and regulations concerning effluent control, of which the best known are those pertaining to car exhausts. Automakers and manufacturers resisted at first, but eventually submitted to the new dictates.

     Urban air got steadily cleaner and clearer. At least some of the credit does belong to the pollution control laws. In particular, what comes out of a modern car's exhaust pipe is far less noxious than the emissions of its Sixties forebears. That the cost of these measures was considerable is undeniable. That a federal solution was optimal is open to dispute.

     A "vertical" city with a high population density, such as New York or Chicago, has a number of alternative approaches to the problem of automobile-generated air pollution. Granted that one of these is literally forbidding cars to emit noxious fumes. But there are others, some of which address the air-quality problem simultaneously with other matters that are arguably as important: taxing industrial effluents by weight; closing the core of the city to personal motor vehicles; instituting high-quality mass transit. All of those approaches, being localized, could be locally adjusted to changes in the situation without involving the federal government.

     A "horizontal" city, such as Milwaukee or Indianapolis, will have a harder time instituting good, city-wide mass transit, but by the same token its geographical dispersion will render its air pollution problems less intense. If it has any Manhattan-like dense zones, those could be closed to personal vehicles, provided municipal transit is made available. The value of local control of the relevant ordinances is the same as it would be to a "vertical" town.

     Had America's cities adopted such local approaches to local air quality, in all probability they would have achieved as satisfactory a reduction of their air pollution problems as has federal intervention -- and without surrendering more control over their affairs to a federal government already well beyond its Constitutional sphere. But the era was excessively favorable to the federalization of just about everything.


     The other objective environmental problem of note is fresh-water pollution. There has never been much of a "personal" component to this; most pollution of fresh water sources is caused by industrial effluents and the rain-driven runoff of agrochemicals. Robert A. Heinlein noted in his book Expanded Universe that the easy way to deal with industrial effluents into fresh-water rivers and streams is to compel factories to put their water input immediately downstream from their effluent output. The negative feedback that would provide would be sufficient by itself -- and once again, the matter could be left to local ordinances, rather than having to federalize it.

     Agrochemicals present a stiffer problem, as they're vitally necessary to modern agriculture and no one can stop the rain from falling. Technological approaches are possible; for example, many important fertilizers and pesticides are susceptible to being "fixed" into the soil, or made mechanically adhesive to the leaves of plants. However, there doesn't seem to be a perfect answer, though perfection isn't something mere humans should expect to achieve, however hard we might strive toward it.

     The great chimera of the day is the pollution of subterranean fresh-water aquifers. Barring the excavation of deep-shaft mines in residential neighborhoods, this is flatly impossible. The soil is itself a cleansing mechanism; as water seeps through it, the soil leaches away virtually anything it might have carried on the surface. Indeed, Man has not yet produced a water-sanitizing system nearly as effective or efficient as a hundred feet of good old mother Earth.


     Thus we dispose of the two objective environmental problems of modern technological society. All else, regardless of the motivations or protests of the source, is froth and gas:

  • Clear-cutting the Amazon Basin? Not to worry; the world's oxygen supply is more than adequate, nor are the ocean plankton or the rest of the planet's green biomass about to go on strike.
  • Holes in the ozone layer? Another of the classic bug-bears. The holes over the poles have been there for centuries; they're an effect of the high-altitude radiation belts and their interaction with the Earth's magnetic field. They wax; they wane, and then they do it all over again.
  • Animal species disappearing? Which animals, please? Few of the world's macroscopic species are endangered by anything but superstition. None of the animals most prominently cited as endangered are critical to any aspect of any regional ecology. In addition, many of the claims are fraudulent, contrived by treating a local population of some species as an independent species in its own right. That's the case with the spotted owl, on whose behalf anti-lumber-industry agitators nearly shut down logging operations in the Pacific Northwest for several years.
  • Auto-immune disease induced by chemical exposure? This is rot. The various "experts" paid to testify to it by plaintiffs' lawyers are entirely unable to provide scientific support for their notions.
  • Loss of "wetlands?" "Wetland" is merely a more attractive word for "swamp." Draining swamps reduces communicable diseases and saves lives. There is no ecological requirement for the mosquito.

     There are other fashionable environmental causes, but none known to your Curmudgeon are any better grounded than those above. The above are sufficiently representative to assert that the point has been made.


     Needless to say, what your Curmudgeon has written here is blasphemy to the environmentally correct. But then, these "green bigots" (Thomas Sowell) put anything and everything ahead of human freedom and human flourishing. They disguise their true agendas well...until something like the East Anglia CRU document leak occurs, and we see them scramble for another justification for their demands.

     An incident from some years ago has much point. Your Curmudgeon was visiting a friend who lived at that time in the Mojave Desert, a large stretch of sand essentially devoid of life and useless for anything but dune-buggy racing and weapons testing. On one occasion when driving through the desert on the way to one of its few tourist attractions, we passed some obvious dune-buggy tracks, causing your Curmudgeon's friend's wife, a rather extreme environmentalist, to say that "when you scar the desert, it doesn't heal."

     Being a guest, your Curmudgeon forbore to comment, but he was thinking furiously. What "scar?" What would constitute "healing?" If disturbing the distribution of the sand in a barren stretch of desert should be forbidden, what human impacts on the environment should be permitted?

     In the view of the true-green environmentalist, that last question is too dangerous to answer candidly. It leads to places he wants no one to go who isn't already sworn to the cause.

     Food for thought.

4. PDOOMA! Part 4: The Masks Are Now ALL The Way Off!

     It has been said, and truly, that "three can keep a secret if two of them are dead." Well, there might be more than three up to their eyelashes in the anthropogenic-global-warming mire, but not a lot more:

     The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change misled the press and public into believing that thousands of scientists backed its claims on manmade global warming, according to Mike Hulme, a prominent climate scientist and IPCC insider. The actual number of scientists who backed that claim was“only a few dozen experts,” he states in a paper for Progress in Physical Geography, co-authored with student Martin Mahony.

     “Claims such as ‘2,500 of the world’s leading scientists have reached a consensus that human activities are having a significant influence on the climate’ are disingenuous,” the paper states unambiguously, adding that they rendered “the IPCC vulnerable to outside criticism.”

     Hulme, Professor of Climate Change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia – the university of Climategate fame — is the founding Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and one of the UK’s most prominent climate scientists. Among his many roles in the climate change establishment, Hulme was the IPCC’s co-ordinating Lead Author for its chapter on ‘Climate scenario development’ for its Third Assessment Report and a contributing author of several other chapters.

     Hulme’s depiction of IPCC’s exaggeration of the number of scientists who backed its claim about man-made climate change can be found on pages 10 and 11 of his paper, found here.

     So more than just the temperature data was faked, fudged, and massaged into a warm glow, eh? As a certain Vulcan second officer might say, "Fascinating."

     Not that the "research data" put forward in support of the AGW thesis was ever trustworthy or compelling. Various inherent difficulties about the matter from an analytical perspective alone would have guaranteed a great deal of skepticism from honest scientists even if we'd never learned of the East Anglia frauds. Now we know that it wasn't just us hoi polloi who smelled something corrupt in it. Given the amounts of money and pressure national governments and the UN have mobilized to get the scientific community onto the AGW bandwagon, there can be little doubt that many geophysicists were approached about signing on to the IPCC's deceits, and turned them down.

     We appear to have dodged a bullet. We must take care not to allow our political class to shove us back into its path.

1 comment:

John said...

This, of course, is compounded by the almost complete scientific and statistical illiteracy and innumeracy of the media. It's one of my largest peeves. After Trump pullled out of the Paris Accord, there was a video making the rounds of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying how bad this was and that air pollution killed 200,000 Americans every air. Ignoring, that the Paris Accords purpose was to control CO2, not air pollution, I wondered where the hell Arnold got this statistic about 200,000 people killed by air pollution in the US one of the countries with the cleanest air in the developed world and cleaner than anytime in the past 2 centuries. A quick google search revealed dozens of headlines from 2013 stating basically that "MIT study says air pollution kills 200,000/yr". An popular alternate headline from the same study was that "More auto deaths are caused by auto emissions than accidents".

On it's face, it's a ridiculous assertion, but apparently reporters are innumerate enough to not even be curious. There are about 2.8m deaths in the US each year from all causes, so the assertion that almost 7% of deaths are 'caused' by air pollution should have raised some alarm bells. So given a couple of hours of free time, I decided to do what apparently none of the reporters who wrote the stories could be bothered to do (assuming they were competent enough to do so) and go and look at the actual research.

The MIT study which was the source of all this wasn't even actually a 'study' per se. Basically they took CDC/WHO estimates of the increased relative risk of people with existing pulminary and cardiac conditions to increases of, specifically, fine particulate pollution, designated PM2.5 (particulate matter < 2.5 microns). They also included ozone, but I will ignore that here. They then took EPA estimates of levels of PM2.5 pollution and combined the two to get their final estimates. Now looking at a couple of the orignal WHO studies, the error bars around the health effects were large and most likely underestimated. (If I have lung cancer, trying to tease out how much my life is shortened by increased exposure to PM2.5 concentrations is a pretty difficult thing to separate from dozens of other possible causes. EG PM2.5 tends to be higher in cities, living in which usually have higher stress levels as well, so the increase could well be from the increased stress). Even accepting their error bands, which were wide, and the error bands from EPA estimates of the actual levels of PM2.5 in various locations and various sources (which also had wide error bands), it is still questionable whether the MIT study calculated the error bands from combining the two correctly. Even so, those error bands were wide. So at 90% (not 95% as normal) the actual number was not 200,000 but 90,000 to 360,000 people affected significantly by air pollution. I assume they chose the 90% level because it may not have been significantly different from zero at the 95% level.

But taking all of the above and accepting the MIT study at face value, what it actually said was that 200,000 people with pulminary and cardiac conditions experienced reductions in the estimated lifespan by something on the order of 3-5% (ie if someone with lung cancer living in the pristine mountains of Arizona had an estimated lifespan of 10 years and moved to the nasty city of Los Angeles, they might expect a reduction of their lifespan on the order of 5% or about 6 months).

From that numerous 'news' sources (papers, TV, etc...) reported and I'm sure numerous people (like Arnold) believe that air pollution kills 200,000 people a year in the US alone. Just imagine the death toll in Beijing!