Areas of expertise and climate modelling

Someone (I forget who) yesterday tweeted a link to a paper called Climate models, Calibration and Confirmation by Katie Steele and Charlotte Werndl. I haven’t read the paper in detail and this post isn’t really about this paper specifically. As far as I could tell from what I did read, the paper essentially discusses the issue of using the same data/evidence to both calibrate and confirm/verify climate models – what is called double counting. The basic conclusion seems to be that although there may be issues with the calibration and confirmation of climate models, it is not clear that double counting is necessarily a particular problem.

Anyway, what surprised me is that both authors are academic staff members in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The reason I was surprised is that, naively maybe, I would have assumed that neither would have been particularly qualified to discuss specific aspects of climate modelling. I may be wrong, of course, and looking at Charlotte Werndl’s other publications, she has clearly written about aspects of other science areas before. She clearly seems to have expertise in mathematics and probability theory, but this stills seems slightly outside the skill set needed to delve into the complexities of climate modelling (although that hasn’t stopped me, so maybe I should acknowledge an element of irony at this point).

Certainly, I’ve never encountered this type of thing before. I’ve never been involved in a scientific field where people – who many would accept are not in the same general area – are writing journal papers addressing fairly specific issues in the field. Let me make it clear though that I don’t think it’s wrong and I’m not really judging this in any way. The beauty of academia (or one of them) is that you have the freedom to explore whatever academic field that you like (with the risk that you could damage future career prospects if you end up not having any impact). I’m simply surprised that two people who appear to have no formal training in this general area are addressing what seems to be quite a specific aspect of climate modelling.

Of course, global warming and climate change are clearly interesting and relevant topics (I guess I’ve chosen to write about them) so maybe it’s not surprising that many different disciplines are engaging in academic activities related to them. Clearly the two authors of the paper above are interested in the philosophy of science and so why not get involved in aspects of climate change and global warming. However, what I was interested in knowing (if anyone has any insights) is how such papers are received in the climate science community.

Are climate scientists pleased that others are taking an interest and do they have a “the more the merrier” attitude? It’s certainly true that people from outside can often see things that those engrossed in a subject are overlooking. Do climate scientists simply ignore such work because the authors maybe (and I’m not suggesting that this is the case here) really don’t have sufficient understanding of the complexities involved to make much of a contribution? Or, do they find it damaging? It seems possible that someone with an idealistic, philosophical view of how data should be handled or models verified might not recognise the realities of working in certain scientific disciplines. For example, we really only have data from one global climate (our own) and so a certain amount of double counting seems unavoidable. Certainly there are elements of the debate around climate modelling that appear to based on a flawed understanding of how one should judge the results of climate models.

So, I’m genuinely interested in this topic and am only using the paper I discussed earlier as an illustration of something that I haven’t encountered before – people involved, academically, in something that appears to be well outside their area of expertise. If anyone has any insights, feel free to make them. I will make one other comment though. Although the authors of the paper I discuss here are not – strictly speaking – economists, it does seem as though there are quite a large number of economists (or those associated with economics) involved in the climate science “debate” and involved in aspects that appear well outside their formal area of expertise. Again, I’m not judging whether or not this is “good” or “bad”, simply making an observation which, admittedly, I haven’t tested in any great detail. Maybe that’s something I’ll write about at a later stage, but my views may not go down well with some, so I may have to give it a bit more thought before doing so.

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11 Responses to Areas of expertise and climate modelling

  1. I would say, the more the merrier. If only because I was trained as a physicist myself and would otherwise not be “allowed” to study the climate. Contrary to what the climate ostriches claim, there are many physicists, statisticians and mathematicians working with climate data.

    This study may well not be noticed as it was not published in a climatological journal. This could be compensated if the authors have a good network in climatology or advertise their work at many conferences.

    Furthermore, because of the journal the review could have been insufficient. If I were not an expert on the exact topic, I would not read or use such a paper.

    In general, I would advice outsiders to collaborate with insiders, especially in the beginning. Papers by outsiders, statisticians, hydrologists, economists, often contain (rooky) errors. That is a pity, with a little more collaboration, such works would be much more valuable.

    For example, a well-known and very skilled statistician recently wrote a paper on a new homogenization method using Bayesian techniques. His assumption on the expected properties of the real inhomogeneities (non-climatic changes in climate data) were, however, based on his information of the detected inhomogeneities. This is wrong, as small inhomogeneities are more difficult to detect and two break inhomogeneities that happened shortly after another will mostly be detected as one break. The math was beautiful, I hope there will be an second version.

  2. Thanks, Victor. In general I would agree, the more the merrier and – certainly – no rules. Work on whatever you like. I was, however, a little surprised that the authors didn’t seem to have collaborated with climate modellers. This could be seen as objective, but could also lead to them misunderstanding something quite fundamental as your example illustrates.

  3. You can select the climatologist you would like to work with yourself. Surely everyone can find climatologist that is objective in their own biased view. From Pielke to Hansen, there is sufficient variability.

  4. Indeed, I probably worded that badly. I was simply meaning that some may see this as objective rather than it actually being objective. I think trying to do something quite detailed in a complex field that you may not be particularly expert in is unwise if you’re not collaborating, and working with, people who are experts.

  5. Rachel says:

    Can I make fun of economists?

    Q: How many conservative economists does it take to change a light bulb?
    A1: None. If the government would just leave it alone, it would screw itself in.
    A2: None, because, look! It’s getting brighter! It’s definitely getting brighter!
    A3: None, they’re all waiting for the unseen hand of the market to correct the lighting disequilibrium.
    Source: http://www3.nd.edu/~jstiver/jokes.htm

    And one of my all-time favourites:
    An economist is someone who sees something working in practice and asks whether it would work in principle.
    Source: http://www.bartel.org/jokec/

    In relation to your post, I think cross-specialty collaboration is a great thing and should be encouraged as much as possible, except where economists are concerned ;-).

  6. I think having a few jokes at a discipline’s expense should pass moderation 🙂 I’ve been trying to find a good physicist joke just to provide balance, but they all seem a bit lame. Maybe we’re just not very funny 🙂

  7. Rachel says:

    I saw a good cartoon recently about physicists with their children – http://blog.grammarly.com/post/33424865143/physicists-with-their-children

  8. Marco says:

    Your last comment reminds me of the McShane and Wyner paper, of which Eduardo Zorita wrote:
    “In summary, admittedly climate scientist have produced in the past bad papers for not consulting professional statisticians. The McShane and Wyner paper is an example of the reverse situation. What we need is an open and honest collaboration between both groups.”

    Essentially the two authors complained about poor statistics by paleoclimatologists…and then produced a paper with not only bad paleoclimatology, but also possibly improper statistical methodology (as in: not suited for the problem).

  9. As maybe has been mentioned before, the climate science debate appears to be full of people who don’t understand the terms “ironic” or “hypocritical” 🙂

  10. Two atoms were walking down the street.
    One atom says to the other one, “I’ve lost an electron!
    The 2nd atom replies, “Are you sure?”
    Says the 1st atom, “I’m positive.”

  11. Pingback: Empirical models and decadal forecasts | Wotts Up With That Blog

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