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Scientific consensus does mean something 

RealClimate sorts out those who might be swayed by Michael Crichton’s State of Fear into disregarding climate change (via McGee’s Musings).

  At the end of the book, Crichton gives us an author’s message. In it, he re-iterates the main points of his thesis, that there are some who go too far to drum up support (and I have some sympathy with this), and that because we don’t know everything, we actually know nothing (here, I beg to differ). He also gives us his estimate, ~0.8 C for the global warming that will occur over the next century and claims that, since models differ by 400% in their estimates, his guess is as good as theirs. This is not true. The current batch of models have a mean climate sensitivity of about 3 C to doubled CO2 (and range between 2.5 and 4.0 degrees) (Paris meeting of IPCC, July 2004) , i.e an uncertainty of about 30%. As discussed above, the biggest uncertainties about the future are the economics, technology and rate of development going forward. The main cause of the spread in the widely quoted 1.5 to 5.8 C range of temperature projections for 2100 in IPCC is actually the different scenarios used. For lack of better information, if we (incorrectly) assume all the scenarios are equally probable, the error around the mean of 3.6 degrees is about 60%, not 400%. Crichton also suggests that most of his 0.8 C warming will be due to land use changes. That is actually extremely unlikely since land use change globally is a cooling effect (as discussed above). Physically-based simulations are actually better than just guessing.
  Finally, in an appendix, Crichton uses a rather curious train of logic to compare global warming to the 19th Century eugenics movement. He argues, that since eugenics was studied in prestigious universities and supported by charitable foundations, and now, so is global warming, they must somehow be related. Presumably, the author doesn’t actually believe that foundation-supported academic research ipso facto is evil and mis-guided, but that is an impression that is left.
  In summary, I am a little disappointed, not least because while researching this book, Crichton actually visited our lab and discussed some of these issues with me and a few of my colleagues. I guess we didn’t do a very good job. Judging from his reading list, the rather dry prose of the IPCC reports did not match up to the some of the racier contrarian texts. Had RealClimate been up and running a few years back, maybe it would’ve all worked out differently…

The Guardian, astonishingly to me, gave most of its page 3 on Saturday to Crichton’s fictional account. In it, Crichton calls the scientific consensus on climate change “creepy”. “Science has nothing to do with consensus. Politics is about consensus.” No, scientific consensus comes about because of the overwhelming weight of data, experiment and analysis. If credible scientists can support an alternative hypothesis, then consensus can shift. That’s hardly creepy.

Calculate this 

Brad DeLong rightly skewers Donald McNeil of The New York Times, who reckoned there was no point in learning any mathematics:

  An accountant who relies on a tax-shelter spreadsheet that he or she doesn’t understand is a lousy accountant who will someday go catastrophically wrong. An architect who doesn’t understand the strength of materials and the speed of the wind is a lousy architect who will someday design something that simply doesn’t work. A New York TImes reporter who finds that the toughest math he tackles is tip-calculating is almost surely doing a very lousy job at his own retirement planning and general financial management. After all, the most important of math skills is knowing when the machine is giving you the wrong answer, and McNeil can’t know that.
  I think that we as a country do a lousy job at teaching people math–and that is one reason why a large component of America’s upper and upper-middle classes in the next couple of generations will be composed of the “thousands of math whizzes” whom we “successfully import… each year” because “jobs await them,” rather than of the children of New York Times writers.

Another failed state?  

There’s been plenty of evidence in recent years on the problems of failed states. Think Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan. Failed states breed violence and tragedy, which sometimes spills into neighbouring states and — when the failed state is a harbour for terrorists — the rest of the world.

So is Papua New Guinea a new failed state? That seems to be the message of a new report from an Australian think tank. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute reckons the chronically weak government in PNG has allowed a raft of criminal gangs to relocate from southeast Asia. Here’s the BBC summary:

  The report, by a think tank funded by the Australian government, warned that if PNG’s weaknesses were allowed to continue, the country could fall “off a cliff into full-scale state failure” within the next 15 years.
  The central government’s authority could collapse and criminals would dominate the economy, it said, resulting in “half a dozen lawless and unviable mini states”.

As usually seems to be the case with proto-failed states, hardly anyone talks about or knows about PNG. That’s not the case in Australia, where geography has meant that awareness of a near northern neighbour is important. Problems in PNG will certainly be Australia’s problems, but the ripples from failed states can reach much further than that.

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