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Archive for the ‘Environmentalism’ Category

Visualising the Remote Sensing Satellite data

Posted by softestpawn on March 5, 2011

To practice getting back into coding again, I wrote a quick visualiser for the global temperature satellite measurements, and it’s quite pretty so seems worth presenting.

The RSS data is already presented as graphs and outlines here, but I thought it would be interesting to see what happened across the globe over time.

The data files for the TLT (near surface ‘brightness’) from here:

I plotted these using Java into four panels:

  • top left simply shows brightness corresponding to the absolute temperature
  • top right is the anomaly according to the average data set. ie, each pixel was averaged over the time series, then for each time step the difference is shown. Negatives are blue, positives red.
  • Bottom left is the anomaly averaged over 12 months to remove seasonal effects. ie, each pixel was averaged as above across the whole series, then again for 6 months previous and subsequent to the time step, and the difference shown. Negatives are blue, positives red.
  • Bottom right is as above but over 24 months.

A typical frame looks like this:

Lots of not rights here: I’m not quite sure which months correspond to exactly which year, I’ve not got the colour distributions right so there are occasional wierd pixels, and the shape isn’t right.

It’s still quite pretty; you can see the seasonal shifts from north to south hemisphere, and the outline of the continents on the absolute temperature frame top left. The bottom two show the changing patterns of local weather over the medium term.

I assembled a subselection into an animated gif; every 3rd month and about half (1994-2007ish) the full time range (1985-2011) . This is a subset as my GIF animator only handles something like 70 frames (which is fair enough, should really find out how to do this as a proper video) which hopefully will show here, though it’s an 11MB file:

Code is available if you want it.

Used a trial version of A4Video (looks useful) to assemble this video for most of the time range (it’s top-and-tailed a bit):


Posted in Environmentalism, Global Warming | Leave a Comment »

Hydrogen: not as clean as petrol

Posted by softestpawn on March 3, 2010

Hydrogen fuel is sometimes given as a clean, sustainable alternative to petrol and other fossil fuels.

For background, fossil fuels such as oil, petrol and coal mostly consist of hydrocarbons; they are basically made of hydrogen and carbon. These burn – combine with oxygen – to produce water from the hydrogen combining with the oxygen, and carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide from the carbon combining with the oxygen. Plus some energy, that is used to make the car go or the water heat or the fire burn merrily.

Burning hydrogen is, unsurprisingly, like burning a hydrocarbon but without the carbon; you get water and energy. Nice one. No carbon monoxide human poison, no carbon dioxide planet poison, just water and energy.

However there are two issues: There is no hydrogen lying around for us to burn, and it’s not all that easy to move around from where we make it to where we use it. And once we’ve considered the whole lifecycle, from finding an energy source to using it, then hydrogen is by no means the cleanest.

Making a fuel

Hydrogen can be a fuel, in the sense that we can use it to fuel an engine, but it’s not an energy source. There’s no hydrogen gas lying around on the planet. It’s very light, so it tends to to float off up the atmosphere and into space, where there is quite a lot of it but it’s very spread out.

So we need energy in order to make the hydrogen gas, the fuel.

At the moment it’s usually made by splitting oil hydrocarbon molecules to get hydrogen and a smaller hydrocarbon, methane, a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This splitting takes energy, whether that comes from burning fossil fuels or wind farms or nuclear power.

You can also make it from water by electrolysis as you might have done at school; using electrical energy you can break the water molecule into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas. Water molecules are quite ‘strong’, and tearing it apart takes more energy than breaking up oil molecules, though people are working on how to make it easier.

So to make hydrogen you need energy. That energy needs to come from somewhere; and it’s whether that source is clean and sustainable that defines whether your energy system is clean and sustainable.

If you’re making hydrogen out of water by using electricity from a petrol generator for example, you’re even less ‘clean’ than putting that petrol into your car engine directly, because of the extra losses in making the hydrogen gas and moving it around:

Transporting a fuel

Hydrogen acts very much like electricity: that is, it acts as a medium for moving energy about. You can make some in one place and move it somewhere else to use. This means, for example, that you can use it in a car where you want to be moving while using it.

The energy density of hydrogen is pretty good by weight – it’s very light for the amount of energy you can get from it. But it’s pretty poor by volume – it takes up three or four times more space than petrol for example.

Gas is much harder to move around than liquid. To make it liquid you need to either pressurise it or cool it, and that means either strong special containers or more energy for the cooling. This is already routinely done for natural gas, but as hydrogen is a very small molecule, it gradually leaks through container walls. So there are losses in using hydrogen as an energy transport medium: it takes energy to cool it, to make and to move the containers, and you expect to lose some before it gets used.

And it’s a lot less convenient for general use. You can’t just pour some out from a jerry can.

Still, the pressurised containers are much stronger than the thin plastics currently used to hold petrol in a car, and so are less likely to break in an accident. And hydrogen gas escaping from a fuel line would generally disperse upwards rather than lie around near the ground waiting to go bang as petrol does. On the other hand, an airburst of highly flammable gas might not be that much better than a somewhat manageable ground fire.

The whole lifecycle

Once we separate out the concept of transporting energy from the concept of the energy source, we have far more options available.

Ideally, we want a sustainable, cheap energy source, and a convenient, easily transportable, safe fuel.  At least, as safe as something that stores a lot of readily available energy can be.

Sometimes these are the same; petrol is (for general purposes) an energy source because we can just dig out of the ground,  and it can be conveniently carried around in tankers, pipes, and small tins for dodgy old camping stoves.

Where they are not the same, in principle we can pick the best of both. After all, if we have a clean and sustainable energy source, we don’t just have to settle for hydrogen;  we can make ethanol, or methanol, or bigger hydrocarbons such as petrol from water and carbon dioxide, like wot plants do eventually.

Artificially making diesel would keep the overall impact of carbon dioxide neutral, as all the CO2 released when the fuel is burned matches the CO2 broken into hydrocarbons during manufacture. Biofuels are an example of this, using solar power to manufacture hydrocarbons.

So hydrogen offers very little if anything over petrol even as a way of transporting energy, and the advantage of making and transporting petrol instead is that we can continue to use our existing oil infrastructure, our existing cars and car technology, and our old dodgy camping stoves.

All we need to do is build clean sustainable energy sources. Just as soon as we run out of oil.

Addendum Update Thing

We don’t have to limit ourselves to a single energy transport.  We might use nuclear power or solar power as energy sources, then transport the energy as electricity over generally safe, fixed power lines to our homes.

There we plug in our new slimy algae farm to generate diesel from electricity, so that we can use convenient diesel to fuel a car.

Posted in Environmentalism, Politics, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Rigourless Research Revealed

Posted by softestpawn on December 15, 2009

The argument seems to go like this: Scientists work by carefully testing their hypothesis with experiments. They test other Scientists’ work by replicating it.  This careful analysis of the Real World against theory ensures that theory is modified to fit the facts, not the other way around. They examine each others work in an open and professional and largely ego-free environment, welcoming criticism to build a better model, where those who introduce new paradigms will boost their careers.  And so we have a continuous pressure to improve theories, to adjust them and tweak them, and those changes are celebrated as progress towards a better, more detailed understanding of the World.

With this, it’s fairly obvious that Scientists in their specialist fields are very probably more right than the enthusiastic amateur layman, who does not and can not do these things without the same access to resources. And so it is right that we trust Scientists; they may be wrong, but they are more likely to be more right more of the time.

This is all fine.

Well, nearly fine

It’s fine when that definition of how Scientists work is fine.

When work cannot be tested, or is not independently replicated, then all we’re left with is the empty assertion that the particular Scientists involved are better than anyone else. In fact we know they could even be worse, since they have a motive to carry on directing results to encourage funding.

In case you forget, scientists working for tobacco companies did this not too long ago. There’s no evidence that government-funded scientists would be any different, and there is recent famous evidence that they are not. Scientists are humans too shock horror.

It also fails when the Scientist is opinionating outside their field. ‘We’ the public tend to lump ‘them’ together when we hear that ‘scientists proclaim this, that or the other’, but a medical doctor making claims about the veracity of climate has as much authority as a climatologist making claims about medicine.

Even the famous scourge of the anti-science homepath, Ben Goldacre, has forgotten the basic requirements of Good Science. He seems to simply assume, in a public newspaper, outwith his own field of expertise, that some vague concept of ‘global warming’ is true, and that the more frothy arguments from the disbelievers somehow means he can forget all his previous enthusiasm for rigour, testing, and demonstrated repeatability.

Some ‘zombie arguments’ keep resurrecting because there’s been no decent argument against them. Some (“the planet is too big for us to affect”) are just a bit wierd

So what’s wrong with that CRU research?

It’s simply not trustworthy. That doesn’t mean the people are unusually untrustworthy, or corrupt, or evil. Or even particularly incompetent, at the science at least.

There is plenty of ‘juicy gossip’ in the released emails (searchable access here), but most of it is simply that. Motivation and emotion and everyday mistakes are simply human.

There’s more than that though; there are specific examples of why we simply can’t trust the results.

Harry’s infamous readme shows just how poor the archiving of methods and data and adjustments to that data are. Where do the adjustments come from? Are they still valid? Have they been applied too often? To what? Even they don’t know.

Then there’s the approach to inconvenient results. To immediately look for reasons why the data doesn’t fit the theory, and to look for things to remove (such as ENSO, which according to that email might not even be a valid thing to remove anyway). Or indeed to hide those inconvenient results in the IPCC reports, despite protests from the data producer Keith Briffa, who protests that working to prove a consensus is not a Good Thing.

Now if there’s a mismatch between a well established theory and the data, it is natural to look for what is wrong with the data rather than the theory. You’ve measured the acceleration of your free-falling piano at more than 10m/s²? You’d better go and check your accelerometer.

But there’s a difference between checking your measurements, and adjusting your data to fit or simply ignoring the mismatches.

This is known as ‘confirmation bias‘; it’s recognised, understood, and methods for mitigating it are applied in any truly reputable working environment. There’s no evidence of such mitigation at CRU, and that’s after looking.

There are no properly independant replications. The data and some methods are shared with the GISS team (it’s not clear how much, they probably don’t either if they can’t keep their own data in order), and the satellites are calibrated from the ground station measurements. This is not some deliberate conspiracy, this is the nature of the problem, but it still means there are no properly independent replications.

The small-p political power plays –  to lean on editors to refuse publication to rivals – are not directly to do with rigour, but show quite how hard the group intends to defend their theory rather than the validity of their data.  Their vested interests (the old page listing funders has gone now, but the google cache is here) includes acknowledgements to funders including Greenpeace and WWF and many others who are quite open about their ‘vested green interests’.

It’s not just the ‘deniers’

Judy Curry, a ‘proper’ establishment climatologist,  writes on climatologist credibalityEduardo Zorita, a ‘proper’ establishment climatologist, declared the CRU researchers unfit and their work not credible (the original page has moved probably to his new blog somewhere, there’s a copy here with a rather enthusiastic skeptic).

Even George Monbiot, a keen alarmist, feels quite rightly that if the alarmists are to have a case they must make sure they ‘uphold the highest standards of science’, though he obviously isn’t ready to face the consequences of what it means if they haven’t.

So where does this leave us?

There is no sensible room for deliberate worldwide conspiracies of hoaxes or scams, but only the more frothy deluders claim that. That’s a convenient “He’s a twonk, so you must be all be twonks, therefore I’m right” argument by alarmists (just as it’s raised by deniers over, say, the affiliation of Al Gore).

Incompetent Systems™ still apply: incentives to encourage behaviour that doesn’t manufacture data, but tweaks it just a little, adjusts it a little more, finds plausible factors to remove. No checks to ensure that rigour is applied, well, rigorously. There is plenty of hard work directed towards proving a theory, not testing it; but as long as we assume general professional honesty, then it will all be within fairly limited boundaries.

It’s unlikely we’re going to get a very different result when – eventually, one day – it’s properly and thoroughly analysed.

Even so, results that, say, indicate there was a medieval warming period that is warmer than today would cause the alarmists some trouble getting their point across. Since they’ve sold their cause as ‘unprecedented’ global warming, a large part of their point would disappear. Which isn’t at all helpful if they’ve got enough of the science accidentally right and the world is in significant peril.

That’s a reason to go back and do the science properly right, as soon as possible, much sooner rather than a bit later, and definitely not let the researchers back into their holes crying “It’s not fair that you caught me this time! I’m right anyway, everyone I know says so!”

Posted in Environmentalism, Global Warming, Science | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Barriers to Open Research

Posted by softestpawn on December 7, 2009

One of the many so-called ‘requirements’ of good scientific research is openness, and the mythical welcoming of criticism that will result.

Humans don’t like doing this and tend to have to be forced to, through rigorous process, reams of paperwork and checks, and evil picky enforcers who come around and badger you to follow the process that not only means you have cleaned out the rotating cell-nutrienting widget breeder, but that shows that you have done so.

Full disclosure is a basic requirement of openness. Such disclosure is not necessarily public; it just means you have to show your working – all your working – so that other people can come along and check it.

Importantly, it also means showing it to people who will criticise it. That’s the point. If you just show it to your mates, there’s all sorts of social conventions that get in the way of proper criticism.

You need to show it to your rivals. To those who really will take it apart piece by piece. Otherwise you’re not really subjecting it to proper scrutiny. You ready for that? You want to do it? eh? eh? Then you’re a Proper Scientist, doing Proper Science. You Urban Spaceman you.

Thoroughness takes time

Because by making it ready for your competition to look at, you will run it through every possible check you can think of, that your mates can think of, your colleagues, boss, drinking companions, any handy six year old child. That’s a lot of work. It’s effort that takes you away from ‘real’ research. And it’s not fun – who likes writing up?

The Reputation

And you might even find stuff that’s wrong, with all the implications that has for your reputation and career and funding, let alone the extra work to fix it. It’s so much easier to just publish the results and ‘lose’ the rest of it… maybe no-one will notice… …perhaps for years …maybe not until you move on.

The Confusion

And besides which, if you publish it people might misread it. Misrepresent it. Those who aren’t experts like you might get ‘confused’ about your conclusions. They might ‘confuse’ others.

As an aside I do find the bandying about of ‘misinformation’ and ‘confusion’ by the more extreme climatologists quite ironic. All information can of course also be misinformation, and any complex subject is likely to be confusing. That they feel they can declare what is information and clear while denying open scrutiny is hubris not expertise.

It’s spectactularly ironic given the repeated use of the term ‘consensus’ – a piece of “misinformation” as it’s badly defined, not properly measured, and “confusing” as it’s not even relevant. 

The Education

A mostly sensible comment via  stoat’s blog brings out another problem with publishing more than you have to: the more you publish, and the more publically, the wider the potential audience of less expert people who will want to poke at your data and ask about it.

Though to use that as an excuse to deny FOI requests for data and code, rather than lessons, is ‘misleading’ to put it mildly.

And to complain that you’re receiving lots of requests for the evidence for something you claim is globally vital for the survival of the human race, seems a little, well, disconnected.

The Conclusion

So there are no real incentives to be open and thorough, and plenty against it. In some industries the long term benefits (ie, showing you’ve got it right) have been recognised and are forced onto unwilling staff, to a greater or lesser extent.

We have seen the effects of not having this imposed on the CRU team; the comments in Harry’s Readme (if it’s real) demonstrate quite how poor the work is understood even internally.  If these had to be prepared for external release, just think of all the extra work required to check everything rigorously. Of course, if it already had been openly published (even not publically), we wouldn’t see comments like Harry’s. Poor chap.

So what does this tell us about other climate research? Nothing really. That’s the point.

Posted in Environmentalism, Global Warming, Science | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Elitism & Science

Posted by softestpawn on November 22, 2009

As the he-said-so-he-must-have-meant pop-psychology goes on over the unexpectedly published EA CRU data, some of the discussion turns to how scientists (or, to be more specific, academic researchers) involved should behave professionally.

We’re all – even most academic researchers – human. We can expect Phil Jones and his team to be angry, to scorn those who question his theories, especially when he sees those theories as vital to the future of humanity. And so he does. So would most of us, though we may be a little more careful about committing those things to email.

Dr Spencer, a well known skeptic, has quite a lot to say about such ‘elitist’ behaviour

Good -isms

But there’s nothing wrong with being elite, with being amongst the best at doing a job. And being able to discriminate on merit – on the ability to do things well – is a vital part of any society that intends to improve its lot.

We similarly must discriminate between ages if we want to avoid sharing a wing with Sidney Cook. We discriminate between religions to book holidays, and when providing meals to guests. We discriminate between sexes if we’re heterosexual, or homosexual. We discriminate between sexual preferences to ensure that those that can’t discriminate between ages get to share a wing with Sidney Cooke. We discriminate again between ages to allow certain ages to get away with not making that discrimination.

And this is all good, if a bit Sir Humphrey.

Bad -isms

But if we consider ‘elitism’ as we consider ‘racism’ (discriminating for differences in behaviour or ability that don’t exist), then we’ve got a much more unpleasant attitude. Then we get people who think that their superior expertise gives them remit to protect that expertise by denying evidence to others, remit to use political or organisation clout to deny them access to publish, or remit to disregard any work by anyone else purely because they are not also ‘officially’ elite.

I’m not convinced however by Spencer’s claim that the CRU team are elitist in that way. Yes they believe themselves right, they believe Spencer and McIntyre and McKintrick and all the other hundreds of skeptical scientists are wrong, and they act as the mini tribe that most of us act when we consider ourselves ‘us’ and others ‘them’. There’s nothing particularly unusual with showing they despise people they think are very wrong and are undermining their hard efforts. Even when it’s rather callous.

And there’s nothing particularly evil about abusive comments from experts about other people’s competence. These are arguments over merit, based on their opinions of each other’s work.

Ordinary tribal -ism.

Declaring that those opinions matter only when they are part of the community is not so good. Apparently they are only worth considering when published in approved journals. Journals that publish them are not approved of, and should be ousted from the community. By somewhat underhand means. Which makes for a nice, comfortable, insular, self-reinforcing community, or ‘ivory tower’ as it is usually known.

So they appear to ‘discriminate against’ McIntyre for example because he’s not part of their community, rather than because he’s not ‘elite’. His theories are ‘discredited’ because they are not published in the community journals, rather than because they are wrong.

He certainly doesn’t fit the community: he publishes openly, on t’interweb, where anyone can and does criticise his work (of course, the CRU community is also now doing this, inadvertantly, and they don’t like it). He has a background in statistics, not environment, and he generally sticks to statistical analysis. And while he’s definitely not an enthusiast for The Cause, he’s careful to remain neutral on what the final conclusion will be.

That Science Thang Agiin.

More importantly than disregarding opinion outside the community (we’re all busy anyway, how much time have we got to consider every criticism everywhere?) or the ordinary abuse and wishful thinking, there are the fairly deliberate discussions about (mis)interpreting the data to fit the cause (eg Bishop Hill, Delingpole – these include some rather dubious criticisms of the emails, but some are very telling).

The complete opposite of the much-vaunted stereotyped scientist that is curious about the differences between theory and observation, and investigates them.

Even so, if these particular twonks demonstrate poor professionalism, bordering and perhaps crossing to deliberate manipulation, misrepresentation and destruction of the data, that only means some of these folks do (some are much better behaved). It would be poor science to infer that’s the case for all climatologists, or reflects on the conclusions of the climatology community as a whole.

Though we might want to check that the wider community is more professional – more scientific – in the same way that we might want to check any other organisation for systematic incompetence when we uncover some in a core part of it.

Anyhow, a few paragraphs from Spencer’s article make much better points about how we outside these academic research communities should view the work that they do:

One of the biggest misconceptions the public has about science is that research is a straightforward process of making measurements, and then seeing whether the data support hypothesis A or B. The truth is that the interpretation of data is seldom that simple.

There are all kinds of subjective decisions that must be made along the way, and the scientist must remain vigilant that he or she is not making those decisions based upon preconceived notions. Data are almost always dirty, with errors of various kinds. Which data will be ignored? Which data will be emphasized? How will the data be processed to tease out the signal we think we see?

Hopefully, the scientist is more interested in discovering how nature really works, rather than twisting the data to support some other agenda. It took me years to develop the discipline to question every research result I got. It is really easy to be wrong in this business, and very difficult to be right.

We can see that we need to do better than ‘hope’, if we are to get any reliable science to inform our votes, lobbying and ‘lifestyles’ on this matter.

Update: Judith Curry (I think this Real Establishment Climate Researcher), talks about tribalism and the duty of public release here. And Eduardo Zorito (another Real Establishment Climate Researcher) says a few things a little more strongly.

Posted in Global Warming, Politics, Science | Leave a Comment »