June 2, 2006


The Tempest: As evidence mounts that humans are causing dangerous changes in Earth's climate, a handful of skeptics are providing some serious blowback (Joel Achenbach, May 28, 2006, Washington Post)

IT SHOULD BE GLORIOUS TO BE BILL GRAY, professor emeritus. He is often called the World's Most Famous Hurricane Expert. He's the guy who, every year, predicts the number of hurricanes that will form during the coming tropical storm season. He works on a country road leading into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, in the atmospheric science department of Colorado State University. He's mentored dozens of scientists. By rights, Bill Gray should be in deep clover, enjoying retirement, pausing only to collect the occasional lifetime achievement award.

He's a towering figure in his profession and in person. He's 6 feet 5 inches tall, handsome, with blue eyes and white hair combed straight back. He's still lanky, like the baseball player he used to be back at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington in the 1940s. When he wears a suit, a dark shirt and tinted sunglasses, you can imagine him as a casino owner or a Hollywood mogul. In a room jammed with scientists, you'd probably notice him first.

He's loud. His laugh is gale force. His personality threatens to spill into the hallway and onto the chaparral. He can be very charming.

But he's also angry. He's outraged.

He recently had a public shouting match with one of his former students. It went on for 45 minutes.

He was supposed to debate another scientist at a weather conference, but the organizer found him to be too obstreperous, and disinvited him.

Much of his government funding has dried up. He has had to put his own money, more than $100,000, into keeping his research going. He feels intellectually abandoned. If none of his colleagues comes to his funeral, he says, that'll be evidence that he had the courage to say what they were afraid to admit.

Which is this: Global warming is a hoax.

"I am of the opinion that this is one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people," he says when I visit him in his office on a sunny spring afternoon.

He has testified about this to the United States Senate. He has written magazine articles, given speeches, done everything he could to get the message out. His scientific position relies heavily on what is known as the Argument From Authority. He's the authority.

"I've been in meteorology over 50 years. I've worked damn hard, and I've been around. My feeling is some of us older guys who've been around have not been asked about this. It's sort of a baby boomer, yuppie thing." [...]

The skeptics scoff at climate models. They're just computer programs. They have to interpret innumerable feedback loops, all the convective forces, the evaporation, the winds, the ocean currents, the changing albedo (reflectivity) of Earth's surface, on and on and on.

Bill Gray has a favorite diagram, taken from a 1985 climate model, showing little nodules in the center with such labels as "thermal inertia" and "net energy balance" and "latent heat flux" and "subsurface heat storage" and "absorbed heat radiation" and so on, and they are emitting arrows that curve and loop in all directions, bumping into yet more jargon, like "soil moisture" and "surface roughness" and "vertical wind" and "meltwater" and "volcanoes."

"It's a big can of worms!" Gray says. It's his favorite line.

The models can't even predict the weather in two weeks, much less 100 years, he says.

"They sit in this ivory tower, playing around, and they don't tell us if this is going to be a hot summer coming up. Why not? Because the models are no damn good!"

The ability to get a mathematical equation to work has little or nothing to do with reality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2006 1:23 PM

"It's sort of a baby boomer, yuppie thing."

The opinion split between older & younger climate scientists really, really needs to be covered more. The younger generation are True Believers. The older generation has much less at stake, professionally and emotionally, in promoting extremist views of AGW.

Posted by: b at June 2, 2006 1:40 PM

Older academics didn't haven to live and die by their ability to write grants, so they said what they honestly thought and what their research bore out.

That's all changed now. Everything's politicized. Grant writing is prized above genius.

Posted by: erp at June 2, 2006 2:08 PM

Again, Gray's good news is not met with hope or relief, but with rage and ostracism. Real rational, that.

Posted by: Peter B at June 2, 2006 2:25 PM

Can't get grants? Won't come to his funeral?

He should just be glad that the official state religion no longer burns its heretics at the stake.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at June 2, 2006 3:14 PM

I think it comes down to first vs. second generation atheists. The first generation was taught Christanity. They rejected it, but "Knew it in their bones". They had a moral code, and were vain enough to believe that they had reasoned it out on their own. They had meaning in their lives(Opposing the Church). The second generation got taught that protecting the eviroment was one of the highest moral goods. They were told their lives had no meaning, and so they found meaning in "Saving the planet".
I think it's funny(in a black humor way) to watch the old guard dealing with their failure to remove Religion from the public square. The new Religion that has blossomed in the barren square is far blooder, fanatical, and irrational then anything they opposed.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 2, 2006 3:27 PM

Sorry. It's not that complicated. It's all about money, not metaphysics.

Posted by: erp at June 2, 2006 4:02 PM

Money is the new metaphysic for these guys.

Posted by: ratbert at June 2, 2006 4:15 PM

Thank you for you thoughts Mrs. Erp. I have not found that to be the case with the people I have talked to. I have had fun exploding the heads of the students who come down from the university up the road. It is a litany to them, with no science to back it up. When I tell them that the ozone "problem" is self correcting, they just stare. It's bad for business I'm sure, but I can't help it.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 2, 2006 4:19 PM

According to Brad DeLong's website, Achenbach's essay is really a sort of 'give 'em enough rope to hang themselves' cognitive trap for the disbelievers of warming.

It's too subtle for my reading, which is that Achenbach's piece is a straightforward promulgation of the skeptics' viewpoint.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at June 2, 2006 5:45 PM


So if you believe humans are the cause of sudden catastrophic warming you won't believe the skeptics but if you're a skeptic you'll be skeptical?

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2006 5:48 PM

Unless his (DeLong's )was tongue-in-cheek.

Of course, once you start proclaiming that things are exactly the opposite of what they appear to be, you may prove just about anything you want (e.g., despite all evidence to the contrary you are a machine with no free will, your decisions are pre-made by entirely external ensembles of influences, blah blah blah).

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at June 2, 2006 5:51 PM

Bruce: Are you serious? By my reading the article was one of the most grossly unfair hatchet-jobs I've read recently. It was full of open ridicule for the motives & competence of anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about the catastrophic future that awaits if we don't do something about AGW NOW!!!!

Posted by: b at June 2, 2006 6:05 PM

Thoughtful comments, Robert. Something to ponder.

Posted by: jdkelly at June 2, 2006 6:18 PM


Even better, by reading them that way you become a Straussian. And so do we discover that DeLong is part of the crypto-fascist conspiracy.....

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2006 6:18 PM

Rbt. I'm not talking about global warming which is balderdash, I'm talking about academic research being based on how much grant money comes their way.

Students are fun, but have only the flimsiest grasp on the way the world works. No need to disabuse them, they'll find out soon enough that practically everything they so assiduously studied is useless to their real world life. That is the smart ones will, the dumb ones will stay in academia and carry the cycle unto another generation.

No harm done except to their parents bank balances.

Posted by: erp at June 2, 2006 6:24 PM

Thanks for responding Mrs. Erp. I would agree if I didn't know that those ignorant little souls were going to be the ones handing out the grant money.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 2, 2006 6:38 PM

Most academics are conformists. They stayed in academia because they were afraid to try an unfamiliar tenureless career in which they'd have to continuously win the approval of others; they knew from school experience they could win the approval of the academic world, and if they could behave well until tenure, they'd be protected ever after. So fear of other people drove them to become professors, and fear of others keeps them from disagreeing with the conventional wisdom once there.

Bill Gray is a multiple-offender: his scientific views, if they won, would shut off the great money tree that now hovers over the climate field. And he threatens to disrupt the cozy conformity which makes it safe to do third-rate modeling and never be criticized.

In short, he's acting like a scientist in a field which really wants to behave like a humanities PC-protected discipline (e.g. Women's or African-American Studies).

Posted by: pj at June 2, 2006 8:14 PM

Rbt. Which ignorant little souls do you mean?

Posted by: erp at June 2, 2006 8:17 PM

Mrs. Erp, the ones who get law degrees and english majors and end up as headless nails in the bureacracy......

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 2, 2006 9:39 PM

Robert, thank you from an ignorant soul with both an English degree and a law license. Missed the bureacracy part. Oh to be so wonderful.

Posted by: jdkelly at June 2, 2006 10:52 PM

I don't buy into a lot of the global warming doom-saying. I don't necessarily disagree with theories of global climate change, as there is reasonable evidence to suggest that climates do change over time with or without mankind's influenece.

I do take offense, however, with the "The models can't even predict the weather in two weeks, much less 100 years," type arguments. They're apples and bananas predictions. I mean, I can't well predict which of my friends will be parents within the next year, but I bet I could pretty accuratly gauge which of them will be grandparents in 5 decades. There should be better arguments.

Posted by: nobrainer at June 2, 2006 11:28 PM

Jdkelly, you don't strike me as an eater of dust type. Probably why you missed the bureacracy part.
I'm thinking you don't qualify to be the kind of twirp to sit on a review board.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 3, 2006 1:22 AM

Rbt. Thanks for clearing that up. I dare say none of the twerps of which you speak waste their time reading this blog as it is written in a language unknown to them.

Posted by: erp at June 3, 2006 8:19 AM


Exquisite! The Intelligent Design argument comes to climate!

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2006 8:58 AM


Would you use a computer model to make that prediction?

Posted by: Peter B at June 3, 2006 11:00 AM

nobrainer has a point, a statistical observation, that (1) it's easier to predict a mean (e.g. temperature averaged over the whole globe for a full year) than an element of the statistical distribution (e.g. temperature averaged over a small geographic area over a period of one week), while (2) it's easier to predict 2 weeks ahead than fifty years. The question is, which easiness-ratio dominates, (1) or (2)? Bill Gray's argument is damning if it's (2), no-brainer's objection wins if it's (1). Which it is depends on the nature of the stochastic processes involved. And we don't know the nature of those processes.

The bigger argument against the models is that, since we don't understand the mechanisms, you can make a model that predicts anything. The model conclusions are determined by what the modeler wants his model to predict, not by theory-based logic or empirical evidence.

Posted by: pj at June 3, 2006 11:30 AM

Except that the predictions are even more wrong over longer periods of time. This should be an ice age by now according to the best minds of the 70s.

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2006 12:30 PM

pj: Although it is clear from what the models ignore (geographic features, living things, etc.) that the models are much too simple.

It is ironic, though, that Gray's reputation is based upon his accurate predictions of the hurricane season.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 3, 2006 1:05 PM