I’m not a grumpy guy. I’m really not. There are, however, things which make me grumpy. You want to know what makes me grumpy? I’ll tell you what makes me grumpy.
Reading something dumb does not make me grumpy. I write dumb things all the time. Ok, it actually makes me a little grumpy when I write dumb things, but I’m pretty forgiving of the transgressions of others in this regard. However, when I read something that’s presented as authoritative and smart and it’s dumb, then I get a little grumpy. When people keep sending me this same dumb story over and over? I get grumpy.
This brings me to a letter from 2009 by a physicist named Howard Hayden. He wrote to the EPA with a “simple one-letter proof” that the science regarding CO2 and the climate was not “settled.” It is, perhaps, the wordiest one-letter proof in the history of one-letter proofs, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that his proof is dumb.
The problem with a one-letter proof is that it is very simple to state, but it takes a lot more effort to rebut. But hey, I’m not doing anything else, so let’s have a go. Here’s the “proof”:
The letter is s, the one that changes model into models. If the science were settled, there would be precisely one model, and it would be in agreement with measurements.
That sounds compelling. Why would there be multiple, very-close-but-not-exact models if we knew everything there is to know about how CO2 affects the climate, right?
Um, no. That’s not right at all. That’s so wrong that I feel like I have to choose between “he wrote something really dumb” and “he’s being dishonest” and I don’t like either of those options.
How can I know he’s wrong? Well, that takes more than a single letter. I’m not an expert on climatology, but I do know something about baseball. So let’s talk about baseball (and models). I am going to tell you that, in baseball, walks are more valuable than stolen bases and that this particular issue is settled.
How do I know this is settled? Neither of them necessarily lead directly to scoring a run, so you can’t do a direct qualitative comparison that way. Instead, you have to do a lot of analysis and build, yes, statistical models. Everyone who’s studied the issue has come to the same conclusion: walks are better than stolen bases. Literally every model arrives at the same conclusion.
Now, none of those models are perfect. None of them can predict, with 100% accuracy, the outcome of any game or season. In fact, sometimes, a stolen base can be more valuable than a walk. Baseball’s complicated. There are exceptions, there are things that we can’t model perfectly about it. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t derive conclusions from the data. Walks are more valuable than stolen bases. We know enough that we regard this issue as settled. The fact that there is no perfect model does not keep us from reaching this conclusion.
It turns out that the climate is waaaaay more complicated than baseball. There are a lot more factors and that data can’t be measured as precisely. There are, however, many very clever climatologists looking at the data and creating models based on it. They have almost all arrived at the same conclusion. The fact that they have approached it from different angles, using different data sets, and different methods, and still arrived at the same conclusion does not weaken the conclusion as Hayden would have you believe. The fact that, no matter how you approach the question, you get the same answer tends to stengthen the conclusion that CO2 in the atmosphere, from man-made sources, is causing the Earth to grow warmer at an alarming rate.
All of this just to discuss a one-letter proof. And really, all I’m giving you is the summary level stuff. The real data behind it, even on just the baseball stuff, would fill reams of digital paper. This doesn’t “prove” that global warming is real; all I’m doing is making the point that Hayden’s argument against it is bunk.
The rest of the letter is just as bad. He conflates single data points with vectors. He claims that climate change models make schoolboy errors of assumption when they very clearly don’t (at least he’s not trotting out the canard about climatologists not knowing about clouds). He points out that the Earth’s climate has always been changing and acts as if this proves that we are incapable of impacting this change. He acts as though temperature readings at one point somehow apply to entire ice caps.
It’s really bad. It’s one of the worst things I’ve read in a long time. But, like I said, it merely being dumb isn’t enough to make me grumpy. The fact that Howard Hayden speaks with the authority of a lecturer and he still says dumb things makes me a little grumpy. The fact that people keep sending this to me as though it were revelatory? Now that, my friends, make Uncle Pancakes very grumpy indeed.