WunderBlog Archive » Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Category 6 has moved! See the latest from Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson here.

Dotting the i's and crossing the t's: Bring Me a Rock

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 11:06 PM GMT on July 12, 2015

Dotting the i's and crossing the t's: Bring Me a Rock

Back when I worked for NASA, I was involved in some large science projects. I was also responsible for framing and advocating for initiatives and new projects to help set strategic directions. There were many layers of presentations and review. These reviews were part of a competitive process, and review panels of colleagues and managers would challenge the new projects. These challenges were to address questions, often weaknesses, and sent our teams back to do more work. That work, the vast majority of times, answered questions, addressed weakness, and improved the projects. As one competition followed another, worthy projects would, ultimately, be selected. This process of review and challenge is a fundamental aspect of science and engineering. More generally, review and challenge is basic to planning and implementation of solutions to complex problems; it is a part of development of policy.

Occasionally, a project enters into this back-and-forth process that, for one reason or another, people do not want it to go forward. It might not fit into the strategic priorities, be too risky, cost too much, or the person and the team proposing the project is viewed as not the right person or team. In cases like this, the back-and-forth can evolve to what is known as bring me a rock:

“Bring me a rock.”
“OK, here’s a rock.”
“No, not that rock. A different rock.”
“OK, here’s another rock.”
“No, not that one either…”

In the case of a science project, that rock can be, “Answer this question,” “How can we be sure?” – a whole list of questions that, many times, lead to more research, some of it interesting and notable, some of it answering obvious questions, some of it addressing questions that are diversionary and, perhaps even, ill-posed. The bring-me-a-rock strategy is well enough established that in business consulting it is described, as are methods to recognize and disrupt it.

Back in January, I wrote a couple of blogs about headlines and the perils of communicating climate science in the public forum. That was the first (and this is the second) of my attempt to wander into some new thinking about communicating climate change, and in fact, the scientific investigation of any complex system. One general communication strategy is to try to find meaningful metaphors that are broadly communicative; one of the most successful of these metaphors is Jerry Meehl’s use of baseball and steroids. Another general strategy is to try to find the simple figure or the single fact that serves as a general communication. A fundamental shortcoming of these strategies is that climate-change is complex; that we heat the Earth might be simple physics, however, where that heat goes, how the Earth responds is complex beyond our ability to provide a complete, quantitative description. There is always uncertainty; there are always omissions in single figures and the communicative facts.

The quest for simplicity in communication is necessary in climate science. However, we need to always remember that the system is complex. And if there are those who want to keep the knowledge from climate science from contributing to policy or legislated responses, the complexity offers a rich field of rocks for playing Bring Me a Rock.

Perhaps, only, implicit in those earlier entries, a point of my blogs Changing the Headlines: Riffing on Revkin, The Whole Silly Warming Pause, Warming Hiatus Thing, and the article Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather was that we needed to be aware of the role of scientists in contributing to the back-and-forth of Bring Me a Rock. We might have to play Bring Me a Rock, but we need to know that we are playing.

In the past few weeks there have been a couple of excellent papers that have received much attention that address the warming hiatus. The warming hiatus was manufactured and named in the press, with climate-science skeptics extracting a simple figure designed for communication, shredding that figure’s inability to represent the complexity of climate science, and posing those fragments of shredded simplicity as deficiencies of knowledge and, indeed, as flaws of character and integrity. The scientific community has responded to those questions, answering them with increasingly more quantitative and accurate answers. Perhaps, the scientists have brought some exquisite rocks, gems.

The paper by Karl and others, Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus looks at the quality of data, improved data coverage, and the reconciliation of biases. They state: “These results do not support the notion of a “slowdown” in the increase of global surface temperature.”

One of the tactics used in building the hiatus distraction was to rely on a short number of years of observations, and to pose and perpetuate the idea that if the Earth was warming due to carbon dioxide increase, then it had to increase each and every year. This ignores several aspects of science and the scientific method, and specifically, ignores the role of heat exchanges in the different heat reservoirs of the Earth – ocean, ice, land, life, and atmosphere. Credible scientists know that using short records to calculate and substantiate trends is uncertain, dubious, and, perhaps, ill-posed. A statement from Karl et al. is, “In other words, changing the start and end date by 2 years does in fact have a notable impact on the assessment of the rate of warming, but less compared with the impact of new time-dependent bias corrections.” This is important because, it points not just at the science-based results, but points out the spurious building blocks of the warming-hiatus controversy; a fact that should be used as the conversation is carried forward.

There have been several other papers that dot the i's and cross the t’s about how the Earth is warming and responding to the increased heating that follows from the increase of carbon dioxide. Another recent paper is “Recent hiatus caused by decadal shift in Indo-Pacific heating, by Nieves and others.” Their last sentence is that, consistent with other studies, “the decade long hiatus that began in 2003 is the result of a redistribution of heat within the ocean, rather than a change in the net heating rate.”

These papers are important in several ways. They increase the quantitative account of the heat budget and how the heat is being distributed in the Earth. This alerts us to consequences that need to be more thoroughly investigated. They improve the quality of data and data consistency; they re-affirm the robustness of the scientific method. They are, also, a part of a conversation, parts of which, are not seeking a knowledge-based conclusion about climate change – though they might couch questions in that way. These science-based investigations reveal the techniques and motives of science denial, a result that is as important as their science-based results. This influence on rhetoric and argument also needs to be an explicit part of the conversation.

Climate Change News Climate Change Politics

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.