The Frontal Cortex

Modeling the Future

I’m glad Al Gore won the Oscar. Personally, I found his film a little dry and pedantic, but it has clearly played an essential role in shifting the public debate on global warming. (Or are we now supposed to call global warming “the climate crisis,” pace Gore?)

But it’s worth remembering that our scientific models of global warming, although they seem accurate and are backed by an iron clad scientific consensus, will no doubt turn out to be wrong, at least in the details. This is just the nature of scientific models. As the respected scientific authors of Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future point out, nature is more complex than we can begin to imagine. It “depends on too many processes that are poorly understood or little monitored”. We are overconfident in our predictions at our own peril.

This doesn’t mean we should lapse into a false sense of security. In fact, just the opposite might be true. Marine biologists constructed intricate population models of Atlantic fish stocks, but the stocks collapsed anyways. Nobody expected open pit mining to create such toxic pools at the bottom of the pits. Climate scientists didn’t expect the ozone hole to widen again, and nobody understands what’s happening with the Greenland glaciers.

So I read stories like this with a real sense of dread:

Oysterman Jim Aguiar had never had to deal with the bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus in his 25 years working the frigid waters of Prince William Sound.

The dangerous microbe infected seafood in warmer waters, like the Gulf of Mexico. Alaska was way too cold.

But the sound was gradually warming. By summer 2004, the temperature had risen just enough to poke above the crucial 59-degree mark. Cruise ship passengers who had eaten local oysters were soon coming down with diarrhea, cramping and vomiting — the first cases of Vibrio food poisoning in Alaska that anyone could remember.

“We were slapped from left field,” said Aguiar, who shut down his oyster farm that year along with a few others.

As scientists later determined, the culprit was not just the bacterium, but the warming that allowed it to proliferate.

“This was probably the best example to date of how global climate change is changing the importation of infectious diseases,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, acting chief of epidemiology at the Alaska Division of Public Health, who published a study on the outbreak.

Here’s the scary moral: we might not even know about the worst side-effects of global warming yet.


  1. #1 Brett
    February 26, 2007

    Nice post. It appears that a lot of people have access to articles that claim warming, but articles about record cold temps in the midwest or the freeze in California that killed fruit crops are always underplayed. The problem with global warming is that everything has been so politicized that its hard for the average person to know whats really going on. I just read an article the other day about a meteorologist who wouldnt speak critically against global warming because it was politically incorrect to do so. Is this how science works now? He mentioned that he knows of many other TV meteorologists who were far from 100% certain that its man-made. I know that there is evidence that its happening, but i personally dont know the exact cause because its been so skewed that people are stuck believing whoever has the best “ad” campaign either for or against it. This is unfortunate. Hopefully someday soon it will fall out of the political agenda so that real scientists can openly and honestly analyze and discuss it without the threat of having their certification revoked (Yes, the weather channel expert wants certifcations revoked if meteorologists question that global warming is man made. Just Google: “Weather Channel Climate Expert Calls for Decertifying Global Warming Skeptics” ).


  2. #2 Margot
    February 26, 2007

    Brett, unfortunately for much of science it is a matter of doing what one must for funding and peer-review. Nowhere is that more true than in climate science.

    Politics seems to have taken over much of the funding in that relatively young and untried branch of science. Eventually it will all be sorted out, and we can all have a good laugh–we hope. Don’t we?

  3. #3 Magnus W
    February 26, 2007

    How it works now it that research is settled by the researchers not by Tv Meteorologists… From Sweden I must say it have bean really painful to se the ID and global warming debate in what is the leading research country in the world.

    Iím a Ph-D student myself and is some what involved in Geochemical modelling (PHREEQC for example) painfully aware of the weakness of models but in many cases they are just so much better then any thing ells we have. We canít wait to se if global warming is happening another 50 years and we have no other way to predict the safety of our nuclear waste deposits then trying to model the future. One big problem is when politics comes in and demands answers science canít give. Iím acutely quite confident in the global warming modelling but not 100% sure they got it right so say that Iím 90- 80 % sure, and the model is 90 % sure humans are the major contributors and the politician is 70 % confident in me oh well he might say that humans might or might not be part of the problem and getting it all wrong. The models might be wrong, but itís our best guess… But I never would give up field observations, but we canít wait much longer before we act.

  4. #4 michael
    February 26, 2007

    Margot – what you and many others consistently fail to mention is that one of the largest obstacles to objectivity in climate science is human reluctance to change. I am so tired of hearing the overplayed argument that politics has taken over the peer review funding process, and the ‘real’ scientists are shut out. Recall just a few months ago that the head climate scientist at NASA was repeatedly silenced from presenting the results of his research, and he had his memorandums edited so as to make the findings seem benign. This scientist was forced to travel with personal funds to publicly present his work.

    As for being a ‘young and untried science’, you once again could not be more wrong. I assume that you are referring to climate modeling, and if so, there are many other branches of science whose namesakes were not even words (ie. genomics, systems biology, astrobiology to name a few) when climate modeling was going through peer review; further, they are not subject to the same set of standards when it comes to public acceptance. If anything, because of the politicization of climate science, the peer review standards need to be even more stringent. Even a TV meteorologist should be able to report that.

  5. #5 Brett
    February 27, 2007

    >> settled by the researchers not by Tv Meteorologists

    >> Even a TV meteorologist should be able

    Wow… I didnt realize that TV meteorologist was such a derogatory thing. The point i was trying to make was that a TV meterologist has a college education in an area that would make them more knowledgable than the average lay person. I didnt mean that they should run the entire show. My point is, if someone with more education in that area is unsure then how can someone who has no education in that area possible be confident?

    Magnus W said:
    >> painfully aware of the weakness of models but in many cases they are just so much better then any thing ells we have

    >> The models might be wrong, but itís our best guess..

    >> but we canít wait much longer before we act.

    Well said Magnus. That is one of the most straight forward answers i have ever heard on this subject. Instead of pretending that you’re 100% absolutely confident with irrefutable proof, you are admitting that the best knowledge we have highly suggests that something needs to be done. Your statements are something that i believe the average layman could connect with.


  6. #6 Mark
    February 27, 2007

    TV meterologists are almost uniformly not climatologists. They are barely more qualified to speak about climate science than the news anchors smiling idiotically at them.

    It should no longer be necessary to point out the difference between weather and climate. It’s the difference between taking your temperature after you have sat in a sauna for 30 minutes and averaging your temperature over many successive measurements. It’s the difference between calculating the position or velocity of a single molecule of gas versus predicting the gross gas temperature. it’s the difference between predicting that the temperature will be 65F the day after tomorrow and predicting that the summer will be warmer than the winter. Climate is not weather. A freeze in California in the winter has essentially no significance with respect to global climate.

  7. #7 Mr. Jan Hearthstone
    May 26, 2008

    One of the major reasons that we are not making any great improvements in making this planet a better place to live is that we have so many different ideas about what such a better world should look like.

    We set out to push our own agenda and the differences in our opinions sort themselves out in real life, not infrequently with disastrous consequences.

    What should, perhaps, be helpful would be to sort out our differences harmlessly in models, in round-table style debates, and such.

    If we collectively don’t know what we, collectively, really want, we’ll never get it–it is hard to get something that we don’t even know what it is.

    I have some thoughts on the subject at http://www.ModelEarth.Org .

    Thank you, Hearthstone.

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