Writings of a techie wizard
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Fri, 26 Sep 2014

Courtesy of Watts Up With That, I came across a blog post by Kate Marvel, a climate scientist who says she is "so bored with the hiatus". The WUWT article makes some good criticisms, though in fairness to Marvel, it appears to take her post's title a bit too literally--she isn't bored with the fact of the hiatus, but with all the media attention it gets, which is not quite the same thing. But here I want to focus on another aspect of Marvel's post: it's another good illustration of something I've blogged about before, namely, why the public finds it hard to trust what scientists say.

First, I want to quote a particular paragraph from Marvel's post in full, so that when I start to parody its style, as I am about to do, it will be clear that I am not exaggerating:

Look, sometimes the ocean takes up more heat, and sometimes the atmosphere does. This is because the climate system is complex--so complex that people literally do nothing all day but study how the air and water on Earth slosh around and interact with each other. These pitiable people are called scientists, and despite their questionable life choices they are really pretty sharp. While they no doubt appreciate being reminded of the hiatus by you, WSJ writer/internet commenter/angry uncle, you may rest assured that they are aware of it, perhaps even more so than you! The question they are interested in is not, "how come surface temperatures are rising so slowly?" but rather, "why is the ocean doing so much of the work right now, and how long will this last"?

Wow, that sounds really cool! So what you're saying is, there are these really awesome people who are studying the climate, and they came up with this graph that shows how the ocean is absorbing a whole lot of heat. And, from what I can tell, the question they are asking is why the ocean is absorbing more heat now that it used to, right? That's what "doing so much of the work right now" means, yes?

The problem is, you see, that if I look at this graph you gave, that's not what I get from it. First of all, it's hard to tell what it's saying, because you didn't actually give any data to back it up. So I can't check any real numbers; all I can do is eyeball this graph to try and pick out trends. For example, I can try to figure out how much heat the ocean absorbed from, say, 2000 to 2008 (which appears to be the end of the graph), and compare that with how much it absorbed in previous time periods of the same length.

And when I do that, I come up with something like this: about 70 units of heat absorbed from 2000-2008 (the units are 1021 J, according to the graph); about 20 units absorbed from 1992-2000; about 60 units from 1984-1992; about 50 units from 1976-1984; and about 30 units from 1968-1976. Now, if I were asking questions about this, the question I would be interested in is not "why is the ocean doing so much of the work right now?", because it doesn't look like it's doing significantly more work now than it did in the 1970s or 1980s. The question I would be interested in is "why did the ocean do so little work in the 1990s?", because that is the time period that seems to be so different from the ones before and after it. But from what you say, these "sharp" climate scientists, of which you yourself are one, are not even asking that question at all.

(If I were really sharp, I might ask about the 1960s and early 1970s too, and I might even hypothesize that there was some sort of natural cycle in the way the oceans absorb heat, and that this might affect the climate. I might also ask, though, how reliable this ocean heat data is back that far in the first place, since we didn't even start trying to cover the ocean systematically with temperature measurements until the ARGO buoy project started in 2003, and that didn't give us reasonably complete coverage until about 2010. But maybe that's too much for a single post.)

In other words, your graph does not tell me that the ocean is masking warming now by absorbing more heat than usual. It tells me that, during the 1990s, the ocean caused warming by absorbing less heat than usual. So the story you are trying to tell me with this graph is not the story that the graph itself tells me. That does not inspire my confidence, and it probably does not inspire the confidence of other members of the public either (to say nothing of media outlets like the Wall Street Journal).

We do appear to agree on one thing, though:

my biggest problem with the hiatus is that it's really so tedious.

The only difference is that what I find tedious is not the "hiatus" or the general reporting about it, but the fact that scientists like you trot out data and graphs and so forth and claim they say one thing, when they really say something else.

Posted at 21:57   |   Category: opinions   |   Tags: science   |   Permalink
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