Science! Strikes Again: Saving the Theory from the Data

An amusing headline: For 35 years, the Pacific Ocean has largely spared West’s mountain snow from effects of global warming. A “study” by “scientists” is used to explain what, in a saner world, might simply be stated as follows: “Western mountain snowpack shows no evidence of global warming over the the last 35 years.”

In the article, we learn that models predict that snowpack in Washington’s portion of the Cascade Range, for example, should have fallen by 2% – 44% over the the last 35 years, but in fact have shown no significant decline. Now a crass, narrow-minded person, clearly not in the cool kids club, might leap to the conclusion that the data here contradicts the model, therefore – you’re sitting down, right? – the model is wrong. The whole purpose and entire source of validation for a model is predictions. You build a model hoping to capture some aspect of the real world. You use this model to make concrete, measurable predictions that can be checked against the real world, to see if your model is useful. If the facts don’t match the predictions, you throw out the model and start over. This is called science.

Here, instead, the study invokes a cause not in the model. We know this cause was not in the model since, if it were in the model, the model would have presumably produced useful predictions.

“There were a lot of discussions within the department of the surprising stability of the western U.S. snowpack, because it went against the predictions,” said co-author Cristian Proistosescu, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

The discussion did not, evidently, include the obvious conclusion required by basic science: our model is wrong. Nope, this inescapable conclusion is masked behind an appeal to additional causes. Natural variations in the Pacific Ocean kept the snowpack stable, it is asserted.

Stop right here: if your model needs to appeal to factors outside itself, factors not built into the model, that means your model is wrong. Call it incomplete if you want, but the short, English word for that state where the model does not provide useful, validated predictions is ‘wrong’. Throw it out. Build a new model that includes the newly-discovered (!) causes, if you want, make some more predictions, and see what happens. But clinging to a model that’s been proven wrong by real world data is pathetic, and patiently anti-science.

It’s not just the Western U.S. mountains that fail to validate those models. It’s not like the hundreds of different climate models floating around have some sort of sterling track record otherwise, so that we’d lose predictive power if we just tossed them all. No, they all predict that the earth would be much warmer now than it actually is. The Arctic would be ice free by 2000 2013 2016 2050. (Pro-tip: always make your predictions take place out beyond your funding cycle, to mitigate the slim chance people will remember you made them by the time the next grant proposal needs filing.)

A slightly – very slightly – more subtle point: we all know there’s such a thing as ‘natural variations’ in all sorts of areas. In practice, especially when building models, natural variations are nothing more than a collective name for causes we don’t understand well enough to build into the model. Even admitting the existence of natural variations that affect the thing being modeled that are not included in the model is to admit the model is at best incomplete.

One might leave out potential causes on the assumption that, while they might theoretically affect predictions, in practice they are not material. When we say acceleration under gravity at the earth’s surface is 32’sec^2, we leave out air resistance (and air pressure variations, and humidity, and no doubt a bunch of other things) because that formula has proven to be useful quite a bit of the time. Only in very fussy situations do we need something else, as long as we’re testing near the earth’s surface.

We know we can ignore some complexities only because we used our model to predict outcomes, measured those outcomes and found them good enough. To admit there are natural variations that render a model’s predictions useless is to admit that the phenomenon being modeled is beyond our skill as modelers. No amount of statistical sleight of hand can make this go away.

Another issue is the baseline question: this study considers 35 years of data. With few exceptions, the mountains of the Western U.S. have been there, experiencing snowpack and natural variations, for at least several hundred thousand times that long. This data covers something less than 0.00001% of the potential dataset.

Well? Is that enough? Can we justify any conclusions drawn from such a tiny sample? Can we say with any confidence what ‘average’ or ‘normal’ conditions are for snowpack in these mountains? The natural variations we know about include ice ages, glaciers and glacial lakes. Precipitation levels almost certainly vary wildly over thousands, let alone millions, of years. On what basis should we conclude that the snowpack should stay the same, grow, shrink or do anything in particular over a given 35 year period?

Enough. The monotonous similarity of these sorts of “studies” in their steadfast resistance to apply even a little basic science or common sense to their analyses tires me.

Participation Trophy and The Cool Kid’s Club

As mentioned in previous insufferable biographical posts, I am a blue collar kid. Dad grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and worked in sheet metal, mom was the granddaughter of Czech immigrants whose father, coincidentally, also worked sheet metal – most all her relatives were farmers, so she got a full set of farm skills, too. (1) Neither had more than a high school education, apart from dad doing a lot of night school – he was certified in all types of welding and learned bookkeeping, etc. He was a real go-getter, with that farmer’s mentality that, if there was something to do, spending 16 hours a day doing it was how life worked.

The adults I knew as a child leaned strongly toward welders and other blue collar folks, and housewives. Later, when I was a teen and dad had made a successful go at running his own little company, he started hanging out a bit – golf (his doctor told him to get some exercise), that sort of thing – with a doctor friend and the pastor at our church. But I never got to know these people. I knew Billy Joe, Roy, Jose and Delbert down at down at dad’s shop. Guys who got their hands dirty. Starting at age 12, I spent many of my Saturdays and much of my summers working for my dad with these men, so these guys were my adult male role models.

Ah! This is like looking at pictures of the old neighborhood! The tools in dad’s shop were much cleaner, otherwise it’s a match.

Nonetheless, I managing to get into St. John’s College. They were pretty desperate, back then – basically, if you showed the initiative needed to complete the application essays, they’d give you a shot.

College was different. Not at all like my first 18 years.

I dimly expected college to be filled with smart people, at least, smarter than the folks I’d grown up with. Isn’t that what everybody thinks, having heard it from the cradle? Instead, I met lots of people not noticeably smarter than the people I knew from my childhood, but with markedly different expectations. The sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and other professionals came to college so fully convinced that college was how they cemented their place in the ‘smart’ world that it never rose to the level of consciousness. They might agonize over whether to become a lawyer before or after doing a stint in the Peace Corps, or even consider becoming an artiste, or living the life of the communist agitator – all perfectly within the realm of smart people careers – but they didn’t consider becoming bricklayers, say, except as some form of protest (irony as a goal had not yet reached St. John’s as of the late 70s).

No, whatever course they chose, their place among the professional elite was assured. Of course, there are exceptions – me, for example – but we exceptions, insecure of our place in that particular world, lacking the automatic graces and attitudes growing up like that seems to create, we – I – really didn’t and don’t assume we have any place among these folks. (2)

In highschool – and St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, considers itself college preparatory – there were still plenty of people who did not expect to be part of the elite. One of my basketball buddies, for example, got his girlfriend pregnant in his senior year – and graduated, married her, and got a job. That an 18 year old dude would get married and have children and get a job to support them was not out of the realm of acceptable behavior, circa 1975, in my little bubble. (Getting her pregnant before marriage was frowned upon, but much less than people now imagine – that he did the right thing afterwards made it only a minor, easily forgiven and forgotten slip up.)

I remember this dude because he was clearly smart, easily as smart as the typical St. John’s student. His expectations were wildly different, however.

Let’s talk about those experiences, whatever it is that corresponds in the lives of the sons and daughters of the professional class to my experiences of growing up with blue-collar people. I acknowledge up front that I’m arm-chair psychoanalyzing people here, because, obviously, I don’t know firsthand. The appearances do seem to support this analysis.

  • There’s the simple assumption, possibly unspoken but possibly not, that the people in our house and our friends are smarter than the people we hire to fix it when it breaks.

This can also take the form of false comradeship: we are brothers with the workers. That they don’t recognize it is because they are unenlightened. No, no, no – you think we’re insufferable snobs, and maybe that you hate us, but you really only hate the *bad* rich people! We’re your buddies! Nobody really believes this.

  • There are certain jobs approved of in our social network. They are the better, more worthy jobs held by the better, more worthy people. The classics would be doctor and lawyer (and college professor), but the right kind of politicians and businessmen are also admired, as well as do-gooder fields that make us feel good about ourselves. Community organizer, say.
  • We prove our own virtue and goodness by how we encourage and welcome the little people into our ranks.

This attitude has been institutionalized in colleges and universities. Look at all the gyrations colleges go through to get ‘diverse’, how the question: “would this person benefit from what we offer?” never really gets asked. Of course they would! What kind of nut wouldn’t want to be one of us!

Since it’s painfully obvious they belong to an exclusive clique, these members of the professional class are desperate to show they don’t, to keep that cognizant dissonance at bay. That’s why a character like Obama, who I have accurately described as a ‘towering mediocrity,’ gets canonized in advance of any actual positive achievement (for which we are still waiting). He’s the proof! See how good and sharing we are! It’s also worth noting in this context that it’s all optics – I’m closer to being from the ‘hood than O is. Dude grew up overseas and in Hawaii, for crying out loud! He’s the son and grandson of the 2nd most privileged class (to use language with which they are familiar) in America: academics. These are the folks that think, for example, they by rights can simply redefine any words they like – for our own good. Talk about power and privilege.

That’s why they are much, much more committed to getting black kids into Harvard than they are to helping black kids get some jobs training. Black kids with jobs and families don’t reinforce the professional class’s goodness, while sending people to college in order to welcome them into the tribe does.

  • Low, low risk economic environment. I’ve long thought of wealth as being most accurately measured by how big a problem, expense wise, you can take care of without it destroying your standard of living. Most people live in the 4 to 5 figure range: Need 1st & last for a new place? Need a new car? Need bail money? These can usually be taken care of by most people without breaking the bank, maybe through borrowing from mom. Need $200K to go to college? We have many people today who fully expect mom and/or dad to spring for this. Real economic want is just not a concern. Then, they’ll eventually inherit a house or two worth maybe 7 figures, which they will at worse have to split with one sibling (and maybe a few half-siblings).

These attitudes are absorbed with their baby formula. As Chesterton said, it’s the things simply assumed that are the most reliably learned.

  • Membership is the achievement, such as it is. Since it is just expected that the sons and daughters of the professional class will become professionals themselves as a consequence of being in the group, actually getting that career is more an affirmation of group membership than an actual achievement. Just as Uncle Billy can get you a job down at the docks if you show up on Thursday, 6 a.m. sharp and dressed to work, Uncle Chad has a spot at the law firm ready for you, if you check the right boxes. Every effort will be made to help you check those boxes. (3)

Thus, we get the participation trophy culture we now live in. It’s not a new thing brought about by mush-headed and guilty parents, but rather a simple expression of the true nature of the world, as they see it. There is little if any achievement in their lives. It’s all just group membership. Their college life, their careers, perhaps even their families are not experienced as an achievement, primarily, but rather as the all but inevitable outcome of group membership. (4)

We also get – or don’t – a whole set of group signifiers. In my day, the late 70s, the college boys owned a sports coat, some khaki slacks and a few button down collar shirts – except for the few of us who would have never had an occasion to wear that sort of gear prior to college. One of the young ladies I knew commented that her boyfriend at the time was the only man she knew who kept his $10,000 wardrobe on the floor. (She, presumably, kept her $10,000 wardrobe hung neatly in the closet.) I think I could have replaced every item of clothing I had with me at school for under $500. (This, even though my dad by that time was probably worth as much as most of their dads, after 15 years of 16 hour days at his shop. It really isn’t about money. He got his hands dirty.)

More subtle signs: what I will call a New York Times Book Review approach to learning. If you subscribe to the NYTBR and skim it every week, you will know what the cool kids are talking about and – more important – what the New York Times considers the proper attitude towards those books. You’ll have something to say when another group member (who, himself, is unlikely to have read the book) name drops. This confirms group membership while conveniently reinforcing you shared world view, giving you predigested acceptable responses while avoiding the risk of meaningful exposure to opposing ideas. (5)

  • Outcomes are essentially irrelevant. For people secure in their group membership and not having any real sense of economic risk, failure emotionally means something like having to borrow money from or move back in with mom and dad. It’s sad it didn’t work, but you gave it a good shot, that’s what matters! Next time, it will work! Thus, it’s bad form to harp on how everything from civil rights legislation to affirmative action to Prohibition to Obamacare to Communism have failed. As long as it reinforces group membership, it can’t fail, or, more to the point, it doesn’t matter if it fails. (6) Supporters of Obamacare truly did not care if it had any chances of providing what it promised to provide, even less that that whole ‘you can keep your plan’ was a bald-faced lie. The important point was that we good people support everybody getting healthcare. That the actual bill did nothing of the sort means nothing, and you’re a bad person and not of the tribe if you keep pointing that out. Just move along.
  • A corollary: real successes, real improvements in people’s lives are also dismissed or simply ignored insofar as such successes happen outside the bubble. When one is so uncool as to point out the direct correlation between free markets and improved welfare of the poorest people under such systems, as opposed to the relationship between communism and extreme repression and poverty, one get a knowing smirk or some sort of outrage, similar to what one gets if the similarity between fascism and communism is pointed out. Nope, the group accepts that the economy must be managed by the good, smart people – for the sake of the poor! – and that Nazis and Commies are *totally* different, so you must be crazy, evil, or both to suggest the opposite.

In some sense, our current little culture war is the reaction of people who accept this group membership as the obvious goal (if the the question ever reaches consciousness) of all good, enlightened people. Who doesn’t want to sit in the front of the class? Who wouldn’t want to be a lawyer or doctor or elected official from the proper party? Who doesn’t want to be behind all the progressive steps on the right side of history. Who would not want to have their thinking done for them by our hive mind?

The pain, the cognitive dissonance, of having to face a world of people who reject all of that is too much! Such people must be Eeeevil! They must be Literally Hitler! The weaker members flee for their literal (or figurative: college) safe spaces. The less weak roll their eyes hard when they’re not expressing group-approved heartfelt fear for the Future of the Nation. Beneath this range of reactions is the cultivated disbelief that anyone smart could possibly really disagree.

Heads are exploding. Bring popcorn.

Final note: perhaps we are on the verge of a collapse into barbarism, during which all the infrastructure, both physical and cultural, upon which civilization is built, will be destroyed by the mob. Dark Ages, cannibalism, cats and dogs sleeping together – you know the drill. Could be. But it also could be a Soviet Union style collapse, where the rot just got to be too much, so much so that a former B actor and a Polish bachelor in a funny hat could end it just by standing up to it and pointing. Recall how unlikely that scenario looked before it happened. Unfortunately, if there is a just God, that outcome is much, much better than we deserve.

  1. Mom could reduce a live animal to dinner with surprising alacrity. Glad she was on our side.
  2. Yet, by attending college, we lose our standing in the blue collar world. Was once a volunteer on a construction site, in college. I approached one of the foreman, who started speaking, in Spanish, before he’d turned around to see who it was. “Sorry, I thought you were one of the boys.” I am clearly not one of the boys (although the boys couldn’t do much of anything I couldn’t do). That 3 second encounter has stuck with me for 40 years now.
  3. Met a charming gentleman last week, who told how he, another son of the working class, had applied to illustrious Wall Street firms upon graduation, thinking: shoot for the top. He discovered that all the other men in his area were sons of prominent political or business leaders, CEO of this, cabinet secretary of that. For him, that job was a huge achievement; for them it was an entitlement, just another step in world they belonged to.
  4. Also, this may explain the odd deification of the tech geek billionaires, who are pretty much exclusively from this class. They are forward thinking, progressive and brilliant! They talk not about their vast wealth, but about how they are going to change the world! Good Lord, spare us from these people!
  5. Had this happen to me the other day, which is why I’m reading Polanyi’s Great Transformation: in catching up with a long-time college buddy, I asked about Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, I’ll admit it, to tweek him a bit. He asked if I was aware of Great Transformation. Later, in the course of reading and subsequently reading about that book – silly me, I thought that’s what one did! – I ran across the NYTBR review of Deneen. And – surprise! – the reviewer pretty says Deneen is way behind the times, that Polanyi explained all about how Liberalism, understood as Capitalist free markets, failed and continues to fail. So, we can safely dismiss any concerns over liberalism failing, because that’s not what we mean – we mean the good stuff! The NYT says so! Chances this buddy of mine has read Polanyi? Too close to zero to measure.
  6. Knew a man who said he always voted for the party that promised to take more of his money. The idea that that party might do either good or evil with the money thus taken didn’t enter into it.