Confirmation Bias Unchained

What happens when confirmation bias (to put the best face on this) gets to the point where even facts that diametrically oppose the pet theory are drafted and beaten until they can be made to appear to support it?

Yesterday, as is my habit, was cruising the Google news science feed, and saw reports that satellite data shows that the Antarctic ices sheet is getting thicker. The day before, there were reports that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting (aside: West versus East of what? We’re all but standing on the South Pole. Hope there’s a colorful story to explain this..). Insert Wicked Witch of the West joke here, preferably involving flying monkeys.

Wicked Witch
“Great Circle route, you flea-bitten blue cretin!”

Reading a bit, we have on the one side, facts, as in things based on actual observation: satellite measurements of ice thickness(1). Here, no one to my knowledge is arguing that the facts don’t show that the Antarctic ice sheet is getting, on the whole, thicker. Now, what the facts mean or tell us is another kettle of krill. All I note here is that we’re starting with them:

Antarctica is gaining more ice than it has lost, according to a new study by NASA.

A NASA team came to this conclusion after scientists examined the heights of the region’s ice sheet measured from satellites.

On the other side, we start not with facts, but rather with models:

It won’t take much to cause the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse—and once it starts, it won’t stop. In the last year, a slew of papers has highlighted the vulnerability of the ice sheet covering the western half of the continent, suggesting that its downfall is inevitable—and probably already underway. Now, a new model shows just how this juggernaut could unfold. A relatively small amount of melting over a few decades, the authors say, will inexorably lead to the destabilization of the entire ice sheet and the rise of global sea levels by as much as 3 meters.

And, from a slightly more scientific version:

The current study was not an example of — and cannot replace — this difficult fieldwork. (In other words, no facts were gathered from Nature here –  it’s theory all the way down – ed.) Rather, the researchers used a complex ice sheet model that simulated the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, as well as the Antarctic peninsula and some of East Antarctica. They then simulated what they termed a 20 to 200 year “perturbation” to the region, in the form of increased rates of melt similar to what is believed may have already happened. “Our modeled sea-level contribution from the perturbed region lies well within the range of observations,” they say.

With a 60 year or greater perturbation, the model — which, the researchers caution, is only “a single realization of an ice-sheet model that applies approximations to the ice dynamics” — then produced a retreat that continues even without continuance of the perturbation. That is, after all, precisely what has been feared — that the region has an inherent “marine ice sheet instability,” as researchers put it.

Where, one might ask, are any pertinent facts in these paragraphs? A ‘slew’ of papers and a ‘new model’ are not, in themselves, facts relevant to this question. The idea – the theory, as it were – is that warming seas are causing the point at which the ice sheet cease floating on the sea and instead rest upon the land to move inland. In other words, the ice at the bottom of the West Arctic ice sheet is melting, and as it melts, more of the ices sheet is floating rather than resting on land (Much of Antarctica’s ‘land’ surface is below sea level but buried in ice.) Then, a new model predicts that the slow – one might say glacial – flow of the continental ice sheet into the ocean will speed up as a result. Thus, in the worse case scenario, the entire West Antarctic ice sheet could end up in the ocean, raising sea levels up to about 10′.(2)

Here’s an interesting picture from that second article on the same subject (3):

“Runaway Glaciers”? “More than 10 times as fast”? So, when will disaster strike?

The critical issue here is, of course, the speed at which this could all occur. The new study’s simulations show the loss of West Antarctica playing out over thousands of years.

But that’s not what we mean! So the following sentences get tacked on, to make sure we don’t reach the obvious conclusion that disaster, if any, is as far or farther in the future as the builders of the Pyramids are in the past:

But many scientists worry that at least some of the change could happen faster.

“We know very little about the new world we are entering of rapid retreat into deep basins,” said Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a glaciologist at Penn State University who has conducted research atop Thwaites glacier and reviewed the study for the Post, by email.

“There are likely processes there that we haven’t fully accounted for. For example, as the grounding line shifts farther back, the ice front may start to fracture and fail — something we don’t see today because we don’t have any deep grounding lines to study and use as analogies.”

OK, so, since we don’t know, we’ll go with some worst case? Other articles have been written, in the predictable Studdock-at-NICE(3) process, to tell us that the increases in thickness of the ice sheets in general does not mean what it obviously means – that worries about the melting of the ice caps are premature and overblown, and, more important, that it was not predicted by any of the models and therefore we really don’t understand what’s going on. We don’t understand glaciers, nor ice ages nor, by inescapable extension, the climate into which they factor. We don’t know why glaciers and ice ages appear or disappear except – maybe – in very broad terms. We don’t know when or if we will be entering another period of glaciation. But we have to pretend we do, or people might take a perfectly reasonable wait and see attitude, letting a perfectly good, if completely made up, crisis go to waste.

For example: Just Because Antarctica Might Be Gaining Ice Doesn’t Mean Climate Change Isn’t Happening:

Jay Zwally, the lead author on the paper and a scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said that this study should not fuel climate change denial.

“Climate warming is taking place in the Antarctic, but to a lesser extent than it is in the Arctic or the rest of the world,” he told VICE News. “It’s affecting part of Antarctica, the peninsula and West Antarctica, which are losing mass faster now than they did 10-15 years ago. But the large interior of Antarctica is gaining mass.”

BTW: notice who the climate change deniers are in this picture: Not me – I’m totally down with climate change, recognizing that it happens all the time, is happening now, has happened for billions of years, and will almost certainly continue to happen for as long as there is a planet earth for it to happen on. The deniers are the ones who act like climate change is a huge surprise and needs to be stopped at all costs – as if we puny humans could make more than a tiny blip on even a short-term basis, geologically speaking. Nope, if history and paleontology are any guide, well within a couple million years, humans will have gone extinct, and within a few millions years at the most after that, visitors form space would have to look real hard to see we’d ever even been here no matter what we do, up to and including all out nuclear war. If we have no divine purpose, but really are just naked apes no better than or different from the other apes, or from insects or any given pile of salt or, for that matter, any given volume of intergalactic vacuum, then all we have to do about climate change is calm down and wait for the mindless natural forces to take over. It makes no difference either way, so why get upset?

Or maybe we’ll reach Star Trek level technology in Roddenberry’s consequence-free-sex and socialist Nirvana (because, let’s face it, those are the two areas of progress he was really interested in) – in which case, we just change the climate to whatever we want it to be! California from pole to pole, if I get a vote! Polar bears and rain forests are overrated – give me wine countries, Yosemite and beaches! Or let’s just terraform Mars and Venus as wildlife refuges for polar bears and rain forest dwellers, respectively! Gee, this control-the-climate stuff is FUN! But hardly realistic.

Being more realistic, unless we are willing to weigh things by likelihood, we would need, for example, to chain ourselves to the earth just in case the worst case scenario of gravity suddenly failing came to pass. But because we think it very unlikely that gravity will fail, and because, if we think about it, if it did, flying off into space would be the least of our problems, and, in any event, all our problems would be over shortly, we don’t worry about it and take no precautions. So, how likely is it that the Antarctic ice sheets will melt, and what can we do about it?

It is darn near 100% certain the Antarctic ice sheets will melt. They have only existed for the last 3.5 million years or so – a blink of an eye, geologically speaking – and there would be no reason to be surprised if previous ice-free conditions returned. Also, the sun is gradually warming as it burns through its supply of hydrogen, and will reach red giant status in about a billion years, turning earth into a cinder if it survives at all. Well before then, plate tectonics are as likely as not to move the entire continent out of the antarctic. Thus, one way or another, we are very confident that the Antarctic ice sheets are doomed.

But that’s not what we mean – we want to know how likely are the ice sheets to melt soon, like in a lifetime or 2? Not very, as in vanishingly unlikely – even the scientists behind the fear-mongering journalists who wrote the above linked essays couldn’t bring themselves to predict imminent disaster. They banked on uncertainty. I suspect that any real scientist understand thermodynamics enough to know that melting enough ice to send enough mountains of glacial ice into the ocean to raise sea level enough to measure requires enormous amount of heat – the kind of heat it would take centuries and centuries to accumulate. Thus, appeals to unknown factors or causes – the known ones aren’t very scary.

Getting back to what, if anything, we should do: Apart from continued and improved monitoring, nothing(4). As far as we can tell – fact, not models and theory – all our activities are having a negligible effect on climate. Human effects have not been distinguished from background noise, climate-wise – otherwise, valid predictions could be made. But all such predictions have failed.

It is quite possible that, over time, the CO2 added by human activity might raise the temperature some – but so far, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between increased human-generated CO2 and increased temperatures. Otherwise, we’d be far along that hockey stick, instead of nearly 2 decades of flat temperatures despite higher CO2 levels. Calling this phenomenon a ‘hiatus’ is no different than what those end-of-the-world types do when they push the Apocalypse out few years every time it doesn’t happen the they said it would. The words we use in these cases are not ‘hiatus’ but ‘wrong’ and ‘disproven’ – at least, when we’re talking science, not religion.

  1. We can get all kinds of philosophical here about what qualifies as an observation. In this case, nobody really observed anything – satellites took pictures or images in certain wavelengths, then computers analyzed those images according to rules, then, based on well-founded beliefs about how the physical world behaves and reasonable assumptions that what the satellite pictures show falls well within our understanding of the universe, ‘facts’ get made. This is very similar to how we ‘see’ things like sub-atomic particles and nuclear reactions, and way more certain than we see things like evolution by means of natural selection, and different in kind from what some claim to know about human sociology and psychology. Anyway, I’m completely comfortable with this process, as long as the steps really do fall within what we really do pretty well understand, and if we hold back a little reserve of doubt just to recognize that things can go wrong and we never understand things in the natural world as well as we’d like to think we do.
  2. An inquiring mind – mine, for example – would want to know how things looked 50, 100, 1,000 and 10 million years ago in order to have the relevant context within which one might understand changes in the Antarctic ice sheets’ extent and behaviors. Unfortunately, other than being very confident that there were no ice sheets in Antarctica (or anywhere else on earth for that matter) 10 million years ago, we just don’t have the data – the facts. Therefore, we just don’t know or even have a very solid basis to guess what will or has happened.
  3. Per the Oracle Wikipedia: “Mark (Studdock) is finally given work: his main duty is to write pseudonymous newspaper articles supporting the N.I.C.E., including two for use after a riot they intend to provoke in Edgestow. The riot takes place as planned, allowing the N.I.C.E.’s private police force to take over the town.” Gotta be a team player.
  4. Nothing meaning nothing specifically intended to ‘stop climate change’ which is a fool’s errand. I’m all in favor of keeping the planet tidy and leaving plenty of room for the critters – let’s do that!
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias Unchained”

  1. Headline in the elevator TV monitor in my office building: “Antarctica Gaining Ice Despite Global Warming”. Hilarious.

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