Monthly Archives: January 2012


Over at Dr Curry’s Climate, Etc. there is an post about Is It Necessary to Lie to Win a Controversial Public Debate?, with Dr Curry’s comments on an article by Sociophysics scientist Serge Galam.

I was actually rather impressed by the five questions Galam asks.

I’ll get right to them. . . Continue reading

Complex Systems ~10, Western Science 0

Hamilton at WUWT commented:

It really does get up my nose that the media and governments think the people can only cope with a simple cause and effect situation – one factor causing one effect. So, more CO2 = hotter and less CO2 = colder has become a simple mantra which all can understand; it fits well with this patronizing view of general intelligence. Daniel’s piece on cloud seeding, suggesting that both atmospheric chemistry and cosmic rays are influential is probably closer to the truth. But of course there are now two influences which may well work in tandem. Far too difficult for the simple masses to cope with so let’s just stick with CO2 – it’s also got a better tax raising potential too.

It isn’t just the general populace.  I’ve been underwhelmed by the inability of scientists to handle more than one variable.  That is what reductionism is all about from what I know:  Break everything into the simplest components and then analyze all of those, and Viola! you’ve got a whole scientific reality.

But the whole system breaks down when they can’t handle more than a simple cause-and-effect situation, like you say.  But these are scientists, not just Joe Main Street.  They can handle compound, to some extent, just by separating out all the pieces.  But dealing with complexity is another story.  Then it is just handled by creating reductionist models and letting the code do all the hard work.  But they don’t seem to understand that it is still not a system – just a bunch of pieces – pieces that will act differently in tandem than they will by themselves.  (Ask any pharmacist about that some time.)

I would imagine the next really big thing in science will be when someone comes up with math that will deal with complexity and do it well.  I don’t think Chaos Theory or Catastrophe Theory are it, because we’d have seen an explosion in understanding by now.

It is all over my head, so I don’t know the answers, either.  But reductionism never made sense for trying to understand complex systems.  I don’t think we’ve gotten to first base yet.  And climate is perhaps the canary in the mineshaft about that.  Research on understanding the beginnings of life have been spinning their wheels for 60 years.  (Freeman Dyson – a climate skeptic – was a young man palling around with Albert Einstein at Princeton when a solution to that seemed right around the corner; that was the early 1950s.  Dyson is now the old man of science, with the accent on old.)  Hot fusion is the same story.  And don’t even ask about Quantum Theory; Physics has gone basically nowhere since that dead end took over, looking at smaller and smaller pieces, thinking if we find enough of them it will explain reality.

Really complex phenomena just seem to be over our heads so far.  We go into them assuming simplistic things, and go off in reductionist directions, thinking it will eventually turn the tide, and then full careers (or two consecutive) go by and nothing is accomplished.

It doesn’t help that the reductionists dominate in so many sciences.  It produces a lot of general use products for the consumer marketplace, so it has its place.  But for understanding some of the bigger issues, it is failing in the marketplace of knowledge.  Hopefully there is a Newton out there somewhere to take the first step toward really tackling complex systems.

So far the score is Complex Systems ~10, Western Science 0 (…I don’t know about Eastern Science).

Dawdlers and Barriers

The above is an article recommended at Judith Curry’s Climate, Etc site and WUWT.

I don’t expect you to have the time to read this article about scientific knowledge having created so much data that we may never be able to catch up and understand any of it.

But one passage made me want to share it.  Here is the passage:

We therefore stared at tables of numbers until their simple patterns became obvious to us. Johannes Kepler examined the star charts carefully constructed by his boss, Tycho Brahe, until he realized in 1605 that if the planets orbit the Sun in ellipses rather than perfect circles, it all makes simple sense. Three hundred fifty years later, James Watson and Francis Crick stared at x-rays of DNA until they realized that if the molecule were a double helix, the data about the distances among its atoms made simple sense. With these discoveries, the data went from being confoundingly random to revealing an order that we understand: Oh, the orbits are elliptical! Oh, the molecule is a double helix!

With the new database-based science, there is often no moment when the complex becomes simple enough for us to understand it. The model does not reduce to an equation that lets us then throw away the model. You have to run the simulation to see what emerges. For example, a computer model of the movement of people within a confined space who are fleeing from a threat–they are in a panic–shows that putting a column about one meter in front of an exit door, slightly to either side, actually increases the flow of people out the door. Why? There may be a theory or it may simply be an emergent property. We can climb the ladder of complexity from party games to humans with the single intent of getting outside of a burning building, to phenomena with many more people with much more diverse and changing motivations, such as markets. We can model these and perhaps know how they work without understanding them. They are so complex that only our artificial brains can manage the amount of data and the number of interactions involved. [emphasis added]

The bold passage immediately took my brain to traffic.

Traffic?” You are probably asking, right?

In occasional discussions about driving and traffic (a big deal in the Chicago area, I assure you) I have probably heard twenty or thirty people rag on about when there is a barrier in one lane ahead, and “everyone” is getting in the non-barriered lane, forming one long line of courteous people, but then there is one discourteous “bastard” who drives up the almost totally open OTHER lane.  These people get really LIVID about that guy “cheating” by not getting in line like everybody else.  There is more to it even than, “Who does he think he is, anyway?”

Me?  I grew up in an area where people didn’t all get at the back of one line, they formed two roughly equal-length lines, and merged when they got up to the front of each line, up at the barrier.

Which way is best?  I don’t know.

Who is right and who is wrong?  I don’t know.

But let’s discuss it a bit…
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The Monkey Trial, Global Warming version…




Someone today made the claim I’ve heard from time to time that the climate skeptics, of whom I am one, shouldn’t be allowed to get away with picking holes in someone else’s hypothesis without having some hypothesis of their/our own to replace it.  Now while on the surface that may sound reasonable, let us look at it another way – by looking at what would happen in our court system if that was the case.

What an interesting court system that would be, that in order to find someone Not Guilty, the defense in a criminal trial was required to prove that someone else – someone specific – perpetrated the crime instead.  Of course, we would never consider such a thing, in this our enlightened age.  A criminal charge is either found sufficient or insufficient to convict the defendant, solely on the merits of the case against him.  Not on his ability to put the blame on someone else.

Though it is the defendant whose liberty is at stake, when a trial is held, it is the prosecution’s case that is really being judged. Many a case never  even goes to court, even when the prosecutor is certain that his suspect has perpetrated the crime, because the prosecutors recognize that they do not have sufficient evidence to convict. After all, in our system, if a defendant is found not guilty once, he may never be tried for that crime again.  Double jeopardy.  The prosecution gets only one shot, once it goes into the criminal courts.  So, rather than fail to convict, the prosecutor holds back, presumably hoping that more evidence will show up that will allow a successful conviction later on.

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