What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Personal note: the author, Steven Koonin, and I overlapped at Caltech. We were both undergrad physics majors. He was a year ahead of me… and I don't remember him at all. Our career paths diverged, to put it mildly.

He went on to become a well-known researcher, on the faculty and in the administration at Caltech. He was Undersecretary of Science in President Obama's Department of Energy. He was BP's Chief Scientist for a time. He's currently at NYU.

I did not do anything comparable.

So he's not some wacky crank peddling fake science. But he's unhappy and disappointed with the state of climate science today, especially as it pertains to influencing public policy. He distinguishes lowercase-s science from "The Science": many things claimed to be Settled Science, are—well, see the title—not settled at all, and may be off. Which wouldn't be unusual for science, of course. But (unfortunately) there are trillions of dollars and billions of lives at stake. A lot less was riding on the theory of phlogiston or the luminiferous ether.

Like all good Caltech grads, Koonin is a Feynman fanboy. And he pointedly quotes Feynman's famous 1974 commencement address on "Cargo Cult Science". His implication is pretty clear: there's way too much cargo-cultism in today's Science.

(Okay, one more personal note: Graduating in 1973, I missed Feynman's address by one year. You know who our commencement speaker was? Harold Brown. He was Caltech President at the time. And he was—sorry—so boring.)

To be clear, Koonin is not a "denialist": there's no question that the Earth is warming up, and there's no question that human activity, specifically greenhouse gas emission, has something to do with that. But much else is (heh) up in the air. It is, for example, not the fact that hurricanes have gotten worse. Sea level rise will almost certainly be manageable. Neither existing climate models nor data are solid enough to predict the likely future course of the climate, let alone act as guides to optimal policies.

And (probably worst) the media, government figures, and (even) some scientists who should know better routinely predict doom unless "something is done" right now. (Greta Thunberg has a good excuse: she's a kid. John Holdren, what's your excuse?)

The book's prose is clear, full of personal anecdotes. At times Koonin's frustration shows a little bit. For example, he once proposed a "Red Team/Blue Team" exercise, where an independent group of scientists (the Red Team) would subject a proposed document (written by the Blue Team) to a no-holds-barred critique, highlighting uncertainties, dubious analysis, unwarranted conclusions. The Blue team would defend as best it could, either solidifying its positions, or backing them off.

Good idea! Except it was considered to be wolfsbane by many. To the extent that legislation was proposed in the U. S. Senate to forbid federal funding for any activity that might "challenge the scientific consensus on climate change". And as a local note: both my state's current senators, Shaheen and Hassan, were co-sponsors.

You gotta ask: what are they afraid of?

URLs du Jour


[And good kids are compliant kids] Our Eye Candy du Jour is (allegedly) street art from Washington D. C. Seen in the Conspiracy subreddit, which probably means you shouldn't click over and look around, lest you start toting your AR-15 into your local pizza joint.

  • My favorite morons are oxymorons. And here's one of the best, as Robert E. Wright reports: The Government Scientific Agency Oxymoron.

    If the Covid policy crisis has done anything, it is to make clear that “government scientific agency” is as much of an oxymoron as military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, or Marxist economist. Government bureaucracies cannot “do” science because their incentives are all wrong. Science flourishes only in a competitive environment.

    In fact, science properly understood pits against each other competing hypotheses formulated to explain as many real world observations (RWOs) as possible. Scientists worthy of the name prefer the hypothesis that gives them the best chance of predicting the future, be it the structural integrity of a new bridge design or the course of a pandemic or inflationary spiral.

    Since I have just finished reading Unsettled by Steven E. Koonin, I'd kick in "climate change" as another bit of evidence that government has perverted the scientific process.

  • For this cynical conservative/libertarian, Biden's speech is the gift that keeps on giving. David Harsanyi wrotes at the Daily Signal on Biden's Big Elections Lie.

    Biden’s argument is predicated on the idea that anyone who continues to support the legislative filibuster—a Senate rule the president defended for nearly 50 years—or voter ID laws, or time restrictions on mail-in ballots, or consistent hours for early voting, or bans on ballot harvesting, is no better than Bull Connor. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” was the false choice offered by a man who repeatedly praised Wallace, and other segregationists, early in his career.

    The president suggested that anyone opposing the Democrats’ voting rights bill was not only a bigot but a seditious “domestic” enemy of the United States—a designation that now probably includes six Democratic senators, if not more. The president pronounced the Senate a “shell of its former self,” lamenting that the GOP had used the filibuster over 100 times in the past year, skipping the inconvenient fact that Democrats had done so over 300 times the preceding four years. Biden, “the institutionalist,” then unloaded a litany of completely misleading contentions about voting laws to justify his abandonment of principle.

    And the reason Biden is compelled to lie about virtually every aspect of the Georgia voting law is that the specifics are actually quite popular and do not inhibit a citizen from casting a ballot. Most of the requirements Biden contends are now compulsory for democracy to properly function had only been instituted in the past few years — many of them only during the last election. Biden’s comparing Jim Crow to contemporary voter integrity laws is detestable. One was a violent suppression of the minority vote; the other was giving voters only 11 weeks before an election to request a ballot and declining to keep expanding voting into the weekend.

    The phrase "mendacious ravings of a demagogue" also appears, so you'll want to check that out.

  • In case you need an overall summary… Jim Geraghty has an (admittedly incomplete) list of the myriad ways that Joe Biden Is in over His Head.

    I don’t want to write versions of the same column over and over again, but every day, there is some new example of, “Wow, Joe Biden is just completely screwing this up.” There’s an off-color meme that begins, “Our expectations for you were low, but . . .”

    Just look at his wreckage, er, his record:

    • Biden promised that he was going to “shut down the virus.” But he hasn’t.
    • Biden promised that, “This winter, you’ll be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have some peace of mind.” But you couldn’t.
    • Biden promised that he was going to make Covid treatments widely available. But he hasn’t.

    Friends, those are just the first three items on an 11-item list. And the next paragraph contains "… this isn’t even counting …". But at some point you just have to stop typing.

    To (blasphemously) adapt John 21:25: "Joe screwed up many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

  • A little talk.politics.theory. That's a USENET newsgroup I used to frequent. In a perfect world devoid of trolls and idiots, Jonah Goldberg's G-File would be right at home there: Rites About Rights

    It's a long (and I think pretty close to correct) discussion about where our rights come from. And since this seems to be dump-on-Joe day here at Pun Salad, Jonah quotes a recent speech…

    Biden said that “the fundamental right to vote is the right from which all other rights flow.” This is a common view, and one that Biden has subscribed to for a while. As vice president in 2015, he issued a statement on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act: “Voting is the engine that drives all civil rights, all human rights, and all economic rights in this country. It’s the right from which all other rights flow.” Robert Kennedy said the same thing a half-century ago.

    So that's a common (but incorrect) view that Jonah goes on to demolish. But then he goes on to resurrect a snippet from a Biden speech from only a few months back:

    On May 28, he told American service members: “None of you get your rights from your government; you get your rights merely because you’re a child of God. The government is there to protect those God-given rights. No other government has been based on that notion. No one can defeat us except us.”

    Close to correct, although I'd be somewhat more secular about it.

    But the important point is: these two quotes are blatantly contradictory.

    Could there be any clearer evidence that Biden simply reads whatever is plopped up on his teleprompter? Saying whatever he—or his speechwriters—think will sway his audience? And has no deeply-held principles, other than acquiring and maintaining his own political power?

  • The country's in jeopardy! And Jeopardy! is also in jeopardy! Tom Nichols did very well as a Jeopardy! contestant a few years back. But now, he notes, the show has changed significantly, and It Might Be Time to Retire 'Jeopardy'.

    But Jeopardy has lost the spirit that made it an American institution. I am not the first to notice that the show, like other formerly amateur pursuits in America, has become professionalized and mostly closed to the casual player. It is no longer a show that celebrates the smarts of the average citizen; it is now a showcase for people who prep and practice, who enter the studio determined not to shine for a day or even a week but to beat the game itself.

    This, combined with the abolition back in 2003 of the long-standing rule that you must retire after five wins, has created long streaks where a few players over time crush the daylights out of the sacrificial lambs who have no real chance of beating the reigning champ without either a dash of luck or an unforced error.

    I'll keep watching until either the show ends or (gulp) I do. But Tom makes some excellent points, and if you didn't know about the clickers the contestants use to ring in, he'll tell you more than you may want to know.

  • This just in. KDW has a Muppet News Flash at the NR Corner, and I usually excerpt, but here's the Whole Thing:

    The Democratic Agenda May Be Dead,” reads the Slate headline.

    In other news, the pope is rumored to be Catholic (though some conservative sources dispute this), and you don’t even want to know what bears do in the woods.

    Here's hopin'.

Last Modified 2022-01-18 4:11 AM EDT