08 May 2008

No data? No theory!

There are two highly related concepts to come from the science fiction field, although they were both present in the general society far before the rise of SF, and these two forms would hinge upon the basis for science itself: information.

Scientific information has value in that it is put into a regularized formulation of conceptions usually expressed via mathematics, but often through other means when good and rigorous mathematics cannot properly be applied. A field that has experienced much in the 'trial and error' mode is biochemistry, particularly that of longer chain structures in living organisms. The math is, actually, well defined, but the calculation amounts necessary to tell of how a protein forms and interacts with its surroundings is far from simple. Similarly medications that may prove effective in a test tube may prove to be harmful or even lethal in living organisms, thus requiring trials of medications first through complex chemical analogs, then into similar biotic systems (usually animal trials) and then into actual human test subjects. At any point in that process results indicating negative reactions in the target biological system are discarded: for every *new* drug there are thousands or even tens of thousands that went nowhere and were sidelined during this systematic approach to examination. And each of those trials is recorded and become part of the larger literature in that field, so that others can learn by the things that did not prove out. Modern and near future computing power may change that system radically as extremely complex and non-linear functions between molecules may prove amenable to newer computer platforms based on quantum physics.

Geology is a scientific realm that tends to require some of the tools of the trade across multiple fields as it has under its umbrella everything from astrophysics (planetary motion and the motion of the solar system in the galaxy) all the way down to figuring out how cells function in past observed biotic systems. While it involves all of the sciences in that umbrella, it depends upon a naturally recorded history that has had non-regularity of record keeping: the entire Earth's history is not recorded at any one spot of the planet, but is a massive cross-indexed system of observations going from direct observations of the Oort cloud down to the sedimentary strata seen on old fashioned slate chalkboards. Physics and biology have played major and determining roles in geology, but so have biochemistry and astronomy: the greatest insight into the K-T extinction event was *not* made by a geologist but by Luis Alvarez a physicist who was working with his son Walter who was a geologist.

In a tragi-comedic event Luis Alvarez pointed out that the K-T boundary layer, seen in both terrestrial and water sedimentary deposits was most likely deposited simultaneously. This was not very new but the 'what did it mean' brought everyone up short, until Luis Alvarez suggested the simple idea of getting an elemental analysis of it. The world-wide geologic community went on a scramble to start doing this thing known as: looking at the record and analyzing it. The results were astounding, indicating a high incidence of Iridium not found in normal terrestrial processes, large quantities of 3-axis shocked quartz (rarely seen in even extreme volcanic activity) and a lot of carbon particulates. Iridium, shocked quartz and soot... all in quantities only an inch or so thick, but evenly distributed on a global basis as seen in sea floor cores and uplifted rock strata. If you had a continuous transition from the Cretaceous to the Tertiary, you had this boundary layer. Taken as a whole it indicated a large astronomical event from a boloid 6-10 miles across impacting the planet.

That is not the only case of geology not doing its job, and rigorous work on such things as Piltdown Man would demonstrate that a hodge-podge of bones were being passed off as 'the real thing' while, in fact, they bore none of the developmental traits expected from such an animal nor did they have the same age. Piltdown Man was created to try and bolster a theory of human development that was popular, but ultimately wrong. It was done with intent to defraud the community and raise the status of a theory and those backing it and it remains a waypoint on the line of human hubris in the sciences.

In the non-fraud realm one can be absolutely certain they are right and have no coherent theory to back them up. In one of the earliest pieces I wrote, the case of Alfred Wegener came to the forefront. He is not well known outside the scientific community even when his observational capabilities were excellent. For that he was given proper credit and praise. He also recognized that the idea of static continents was contra-indicated by his field observations and would seek to overturn all of uniformitarianism that postulated fixed continents that went up and down, but basically stayed in place. There he ran afoul of the physics of his theory and it was not held by the scientific community at large. Only the post-WWII released observations of US submarine magnetic records would allow the first major pieces of this revolutionary idea to be put together properly. In 20 years all of static uniformitarianism had been replaced by motion-based uniformitarianism in this thing known as plate tectonics. By having a regularized understanding of how and why continents could move, the resultant Tectonic Theory explained not only all the observations that uniformiatrianism in the static mode could not, but made the ability to predict outcomes of this process. That was a global scientific community revelation and gave a new framework for the basis of Earth history and uniformity of process that went across all the sciences. Many would not be effected deeply, while others, such as biology and embryology, would start to piece together the puzzle of Ernst Haeckel's observation that "ontologeny recapitulates phylogeny".

In that realm, too, Haeckel had done good work to actually draw out the stages of embryos from first development to final, pre-birth life form. As an observation it is excellent, but the concept that each embryological form represents the adult formulation of a previous species is incorrect: growth patterns of previous developments are retained, genetically, which may give a temporary outward appearance to that of predecessor species, but at no point until birth is the final form of any species represented. By having an understanding of past climates and biotas, the parallels between modern embryos and past life forms is one that is parallel in track, due to ancestry, but not definitive at any step along the way. This would give a spur to genetics to examine just how and why the tempo and mode of developmental changes in embryos happen which would lead to the modern analysis of gene timing in embryology and being able to record which genes (or gene suites) influence what growth patterns and for how long. By looking at base patterning for body type and how that is influenced by climate biologists can now look for the genetic trait types that allow for the formulation of these body parts. The question of how those pattern and timing changes are reflected in the final, resultant animal are, however, still to be figured out, but the genetic backing for them is unquestionable and puts a solid understanding of how and why species can arise from parent species and allows us to look for modern climate equivalents in places like Australia or off the coast of Bosnia.

In these endeavors the primacy of data that is analyzed is supreme: when data contraindicates a theory or hypothesis, no matter how well held, that conjecture either needs to be 'patched' or tossed out completely. Einstein's Special relativity had a measurement that could be done during a solar eclipse and when a mathematician pointed out an error in his math, Einstein scrambled to ensure that the proper rendition of his formulas was given to the wider community. Relativity, itself, would seek to give a new framework to encapsulate and replace Newtonian physics, which had been patched to the point of falling apart by the early 20th century. Without that change we might have even a lower opinion of Einstein's ability at math than we do today! His problem was to develop an encompassing framework that explained all the problems with the older system as seen by data, and give it a new system which explains the problems and postulates effects that are predictive. General relativity would, finally, solve the problem of 'why is Mercury's orbit so irregular?', and give frame-dragging as the answer. Einstein cannot be considered alone, just 'first to publish' and others had been on the cusp of both special and general relativity in the same era, so even without Einstein our world would still have many of the same features we see today because it was a large-scale endeavor that many tried to solve and publication by months or weeks or days or hours gets primacy of place in the history books.

This brings us to a modern- day problem that is put forward by a number of people: Global Warming. GW, as a hypothesis, is built upon data sets: it has to be to have any scientific credence. One of the main data sets and data processing points has been the NASA group at Goddard Space Flight institute. Much of the data they processed seemed to indicate a growing in temperatures over time. An entire industry to hype this grew up and purported to show other effects of this climate change, and man-made global warming was posited due to carbon dioxide emissions. Way back when I first started blogging I looked at the carbon dioxide data vs. global temperatures for a period of 800 million years and found a general non-coincidence of measurements, save for the extremely low end of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Personally, I demoted GW from 'theory' well backed and having a good mechanical understanding of what it was presenting, to that of 'hypothesis' which is more speculation on less data than by hard-backed data. And note the data, itself, for such a long term sequencing of global temperature invalidates carbon dioxide as a driving force to a 'runaway greenhouse effect' as we have had much higher atmospheric concentrations (by an order of over 20 times) than today.

As a data-driven concept it was, at best, hitting in the league of Alfred Wegener: it might be right, but not by the process being backed. Later, in another post, I posited that some of the largest scale geologic functions, that of plate tectonics, *does* offer a good driver for 'climate change'. Further, the star Sol, itself, if having minor (sub-1%) variations in output due to natural stellar processes, would have a huge impact on climate for our planet. In AUG 2007 the bottom started to drop out of GW as even a hypothesis: NASA had been demonstrated to have a calculation error that effected all data sets in a determinative way and their calculations were actually no longer coinciding with actual temperature readings. When processed data no longer correlates with actual readings, then the processing is in error and all previous work built on that must be set aside and re-examined. That is how science operates and that massive dataset dropping out from GW took the hypothesis with it. Without the data you are now purely speculating and have no fundamental backing by observation. Then the mean sea level records have demonstrated to have been analyzed without regard to plate tectonic activity and the re-adjustment of that demonstrates no significant change on a global basis of mean sea level. That is absolutely contra-indicatory of Global Warming as that conjecture has this dataset as one of its prize foundations: that foundation has been removed from it.

In science 'one strike and you're out' usually does it. Two strikes is lethal. In 2006 NOAA released a report that indicated that not only were global mean sea temperatures not rising, but they were falling. Some of this was traced to instrumentation error on research vessels that were not conforming to wider-scale satellite data observations. This is not only contrary to Global Warming, it is a key part of the GW conjecture: that mean sea temperatures were rising. Then comes a killer for GW, when the 2007 student project by Anthony Watts to actually map and photograph weather stations in the US turns into the surfacestations.org site. If science is based upon observations, then assuring that the actual observation sites for gathering data have a commonality to them is essential. This mapping and photography project, now with many contributors, is showing up the high degree of variability within the US weather data recording system due to poor site placement and increasing density of buildings around previously isolated sites.

Those are strikes three and four, respectively.

When I refer to Anthropogenic Global Warming as a religion, it is due to the fact that it has no substantive underlying data to it. Even worse the data it depended upon has actually demonstrated to be giving *opposite* or non-coincidental trends to those purported. When your own data can no longer support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis must go: gather lots more data and try to make sense out of it as the limited data sets given are not there to back any AGW or GW theory. It can't even meet the scanty standard of Haeckel, which was far more detailed and is still useful for the actual developmental drawings he made.

The data is just not there, therefore the theory is inoperable along the parameters it has been built upon... and will have a damned hard time finding *any* other parameters save for solar output. It would sure be nice to have a space based economy if that is the case...

Once this current era of plate tectonics having the continents racing around the globe that started some 70 million years ago simmers down in a few millions of years I do expect traditional processes to come back and regression towards the mean to happen. Until then, until the Isthmus connect the Americas goes under, the Himalayas get out of their current location and Antarctica stops being a heat sink for the planet by moving northwards, all I can say is that the outlook for inter-glacial periods during our current arrangement will remain with highly variable temperatures and climate for thousands of years, trending towards rapid onset of continental glaciers lasting for tens of thousands of years if not longer.


cold pizza said...

My next door neighbor is a PhD(Biology), teaches at the local college, and is a disciple of the Church of Global Warming. I blame her Oregonian upbringing.

I was raised by Vulcan engineers. I want to see the data and the methodology. Using computer models? Make the data points and the source code available. Successive runs using same data should equal same results. Hide your methodology and red flags should start to go up all over the place.

Personally, I'd like my climate to be more temporate. Open up the tundra for farming.

Have these people no grasp of the idea of complex systems? Welcome to the post-literate world. -cp

A Jacksonian said...

cp - We are living in the age of scientific ignorance: we don't bother to teach the what the methodology is and why it is important to have repeatable and falsifiable theories. If it can't have falsifiable conditions, like Einstein's gravity deflection via warping space-time, then it is pretty useless as a scientific tool. Atmospheric scientists are starting to evacuate the GW bus now that they realize that their models don't work in other settings. The GW models, themselves, cannot be run backwards to get anything close to the climactic conditions of our *recorded* past... which has to say something about the models, themselves.

I found it humorous that a few mid-oceanic island nations seriously questioned the 'rising sea level' concept as they were getting more measurable shoreline over the past 40 years while not undergoing uplift or subsidence. Seems to me like actual measurements should account for more than models...

One of the benefits of taking up the Generalist's Science is having to learn lots of things across the sciences as a whole to understand the entire system we live in. Each part is very simple to learn, but in their interaction we have complexity. That simple lesson, that lots of ants may have little actual knowledge and yet the colony makes elegant structures for heating, cooling, drainage, raising young, etc. seems to be lost on the general population. And as there is no 'Royal Road to Mathematics' there is no similar one for understanding the sciences, save to actually learn and understand what the process is and why it generally works (including episodes like Piltdown and Wegener). The process is very easy to comprehend but, like Law of Nations and The Black Book of the Admiralty, no one bothers to teach it any more in an easy to grasp way. Yet it is not that mystical to understand and deeply satisfying to have for approaching the problems in life.