I did think about starting this post by pasting in some unrelated yet incomprehensible maths that only a valiant few would recognize, and finish with:
And so, the theory is overturned
But that might have put off many readers from making it past the equations, which would have been a shame, even though the idea was amusing.
From time to time new theories relating to, and yet opposing, the “greenhouse” effect or something called AGW, get published in a science journal somewhere and make a lot of people happy.
What is the theory of AGW?
If we are going to consider a theory, then at the very least we need to understand what the theory claims. It’s also a plus to understand how it’s constructed, what it relies on and what evidence exists to support the theory. We also should understand what evidence would falsify the theory.
AGW usually stands for anthropogenic global warming or the idea the humans, through burning of fossil fuels and other activities have added to the CO2 in the atmosphere, thereby increased the “greenhouse” effect and warmed the planet. And the theory includes that the temperature rise over the last 100 years or so is largely explained by this effect, and further increases in CO2 will definitely lead to further significant temperature rises.
So far on this blog I haven’t really mentioned AGW, until now. A few allusions here and there. One very minor non-specific claim at the end of Part Seven.
And yet there is a whole series on CO2 – An Insignificant Trace Gas? where the answer is “no, it’s not insignificant”.
Doesn’t that support AGW? Isn’t the theory of “greenhouse” gases the same thing as AGW?
The concept that some gases in the atmosphere absorb and then re-radiate longwave radiation is an essential component of AGW. It is one foundation. But you can accept the “greenhouse gas” theory without accepting AGW. For example, John Christy, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen, and many more.
Suppose during the next 12 months the climate science community all start paying close attention to the very interesting theory of Svensmart & Friis-Christensen who propose that magnetic flux changes from the sun induce cloud formation and thereby changing the climate in much more significant ways than greenhouse gases. Perhaps the climate scientists all got bored with their current work, or perhaps some new evidence or re-analysis of the data showed that it was too strong a theory to ignore. Other explanations for the same data just didn’t hold up.
By the end of that 12 months, suppose that a large part of the climate science community were nodding thoughtfully and saying “this explains all the things we couldn’t explain before and in fact fits the data better than the models which use greenhouse gases plus aerosols etc“. (It’s a thought experiment..)
Well, the theory of AGW would be, if not dead, “on the ropes”. And yet, the theory that some gases in the atmosphere absorb and re-radiate longwave radiation would still be alive and well. The radiative transfer equations (RTE) as presented in the CO2 series would still hold up. And the explanations as to how much energy CO2 absorbed and re-radiated versus water vapor would not have changed a jot.
That’s because AGW is not “the greenhouse gas” theory. The “greenhouse gas” theory is an important and essential building block for AGW. It’s foundational atmospheric physics.
Many readers know this, of course, but some visitors may be confused over this point. Overturning the “greenhouse” theory would require a different approach. And in turn, that theory is based on a few elements each of which are very strong, but perhaps one could fall, or new phenomena could be found which affected the way these elements came together. It’s all possible.
So it is essential to understand what theory we are talking about. And to understand what that theory actually says, and what in turn, it depends on.
A Digression about the Oceans
Analogies prove nothing, they are illustrations. This analogy may be useful.
Working out the 3d path of the oceans around the planet is a complex task. You can read a little about some aspects of ocean currents in Predictability? With a Pinch of Salt please.. Computer models which attempt to calculate some aspects of the volume of warm water flowing northwards from the tropics to Northern Europe and then the cold water flowing southwards back down below struggle in some areas to get the simulated flow of water anywhere near close to the measured values (at least in the papers I was reading).
Why is that? The models use equations for conservation of momentum, conservation of angular momentum and density (from salinity and temperature). Plus a few other non-controversial theories.
Most people reading that there is a problem probably aren’t immediately thinking:
Oh, it’s got to be angular momentum, never believed in it!
Instead many readers might theorize about the challenges of getting the right starting conditions – temperature, salinity, flow at many points in the ocean. Then being able to apply the right wind-drag, how much melt-water flowing from Greenland, how cold that is.. And perhaps how well-defined the shape of the bottom of the oceans are in the models. How fine the “mesh” is..
We don’t expect momentum and density equations to be wrong. Of course, they are just theories, someone might publish a paper which picks a hole in conservation of momentum.. and angular momentum, well, never really believed in that!
The New Paper that Proves “The Theory” Wrong!
Let’s pick a theory. Let’s pick – solving the radiative transfer equations in a standard atmosphere. In laymans terms this would include absorption and re-radiation of longwave radiation by various trace gases and the effect on the temperature profile through the atmosphere – we could call it the “greenhouse theory”.
Ok.. so a physicist has a theory that he claims falsifies our theory. Has he proven our “greenhouse theory” wrong?
We establish that, yes, he is a physicist and has done some great work in a related or similar field. That’s a good start. We might ask next?
Has the physicist published the theory anywhere?
So what we are asking is, has anyone of standing checked the paper? Perhaps the physicist has a good idea but just made a mistake. Used the wrong equation somewhere, used a minus sign where a plus sign should have been, or just made a hash of re-arranging some important equation..
Great, we find out that a journal has published the paper.
So this proves the theory is right?
Not really. It just proves that the editor accepted it for publication. There might be a few reasons why:
- the editor is also convinced that an important theory has been overturned by the new work and is equally excited by the possibilities
- the editor thought that it was interesting new approach to a problem that should see the light of day, even though he thinks it’s unlikely to survive close scrutiny
- the editor is fed up with being underpaid and overworked and there aren’t enough papers being submitted
- the editor thinks it will really wind up Gavin Schmidt and this will get him to the front of the queue quicker
Well, people are people. All we know is one more person probably thinks it is a decent approach to a problem. Or was having an off day.
For a theory to become “an accepted theory” (because even the theory of gravity is “a theory” not “a fact”) it usually takes some time to be accepted by the people who understand that field.
Sheer Stubbornness and How to be Right
The fact that it’s not accepted by the community of scientists in that discipline doesn’t mean it’s wrong. People who have put their life’s work behind a theory are not going to be particularly accepting. They might die first!
How scientific theories get overturned is a fascinating subject. Those who don’t mind reading quite turgid work describing a fascinating subject might enjoy The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. No doubt there are more fun books that others can recommend.
The new theory might be right and it might be wrong. The fact that it’s been published somewhere is only the first step on a journey. If being published was sufficient then what to make of opposing papers that both get published?
Why Papers which Prove “it’s all wrong” are Celebrated
Many people are skeptical of the AGW theory.
Some are skeptical of “greenhouse gas” theory. Some accept that theory in essence but are skeptical of the amount that CO2 contributes to the “greenhouse” gas effect.
Some didn’t realize there was a difference..
If you are skeptical about something and someone with credentials agrees with you, it’s a breath of fresh air! Of course, it’s natural to celebrate.
But it’s also important to be clear.
If, for example, you celebrate Richard Lindzen’s concept as put forward in Lindzen & Choi (2009) then you probably shouldn’t be celebrating Miskolczi’s paper. And if you celebrated either of those, you shouldn’t be celebrating Gerlich & Tscheuschner because they will be at odds with the previous ones (as far as I can tell). And if you like Roy Spencer’s work, he is at odds this all of these.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to attack anyone’s work. Lindzen and Choi’s paper is very interesting although I had a lot of questions about it and maybe will get an opportunity at some stage to explain my thoughts. And of course, Professor Lindzen is a superstar physicist.
Miskolczi’s paper confused me and I put it aside to try and read it again – update April 2011, some major problems as explained in The Mystery of Tau – Miskolczi and the following two parts. And I thought it might be easier to understand the evidence that would falsify that theory (and then look for it) than lots of equations. Someone just pointed me to Gerlich & Tscheuschner so I’m not far into it. Perhaps it’s the holy grail – update, full of huge errors as explained in On the Miseducation of the Uninformed by Gerlich and Tscheuschner (2009).
And Lindzen and Choi’s is in a totally different category which is why I introduced it. Widely celebrated as proving the death of AGW beyond a shadow of doubt by the illustrious and always amusing debater Christopher Monckton, they aren’t at odds with “greenhouse gas” theory. They are at odds with the feedback resulting from an increase in “radiative forcing” from CO2 and other gases. They are measuring climate sensitivity. And as many know and understand, the feedback or sensitivity is the key issue.
So, if New Theory Proves AGW Wrong is an exciting subject, you will continue to enjoy the subject for many years, because I’m sure there will be many more papers from physicists “proving” the theory wrong.
However, it’s likely that if they are papers “falsifying” the foundational “greenhouse” gas effect – or radiative-convective model of the atmosphere – then probably each paper will also contradict the ones that came before and the ones that follow after.
Well, predictions are hard to make, especially about the future. Perhaps there will be a new series on this blog Why CO2 Really is Insignificant. Watch out for it.