Friday, August 18, 2017

From instrumentation to climate change advocacy

I learned a lot from reading In the Eye of the Storm: The Autobiography of Sir John Houghton (with Gill Tavner). He is arguably best known for being the lead editor of the first three reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). He started his scientific life as an atmospheric physicist at Oxford. Here are a few things that struck me.

The value of development of new instruments.
At Oxford Houghton was largely involved in finding new ways to use rocket based instruments measure the temperature and composition of the atmosphere at different heights. These were crucial for getting accurate data that revealed the extent of climate change and understanding climate dynamics. It was good for me to read this. As a theorist, I am often skeptical or at least unappreciative of the value of developing new instruments. I think it is partly because I have heard too many talks about instrument design where it really wasn't clear they were going to generate useful and reliable information, particularly that could be connected to theory.

A reluctant administrator.
I think the best people for senior management are those who don't want the job. The worst are those who desperately want the job. It is interesting to see that Houghton was quite reluctant to leave Oxford when he was asked to be director of Rutherford-Appleton Lab. Then he wanted to go back to Oxford but was persuaded to become head of the Meteorological Office. It is also refreshing to see how he pushed back against some of the "management" nonsense that people wanted to impose on the organisations that he led.

Rigorous peer review at the IPCC.
Just because something is peer reviewed does not mean it is true. However, when there is an overwhelming consensus about some issue in peer-reviewed literature, we can high confidence it is true. Furthermore, at the IPCC there was really a double layer of peer review. The reports were based on reviews of the peer-reviewed literature. Every sentence in the reports was debated and ultimately voted on by a committee of leading scientists with relevant expertise. It is very hard to get scientists to agree on anything. However, when they can agree it means there must be a high probability it is true.

Dirty tactics of denialists.
There are a few stories about the different antics of "observers" at IPCC meetings who worked tirelessly to get IPCC to dilute their reports and sow doubt. Unfortunately, Federick Seitz features along with the lawyer/lobbyist Don Pearlman, who worked for the Global Climate Coalition.

Gracious public engagement.
The book describes how Houghton has worked hard to engage with climate change denialists, particularly among Conservative Christian leaders in the USA.

Finally, the book makes a strong case for concerted action on climate change. The most striking figure in the book was the map of Bangladesh showing how much will go under water, with just a one-metre rise in sea level. As often the case it is the poor that suffer the most.


  1. Imagine this: there is a model of heat flow that show how gravity and surface temperature is exactly equal opposing forces.

    How should we then relate to IPCC'S peer-review? And climate science?

    Using units for thermal resistance, Nm², surface temperature is equal to the source power of gravity in 4g². Total solar irradiation is coupled to as TSI(1360.8W)/(4πr³/3)=(4πr³/3)*8g².

    Same as

    What do you think?

  2. Hi Ross, as an experimentalist, I should let you know that I find it extremely important to develop new instrumentation, even though the connection to theory may not always be immediately apparent. Experimentalists should not be constrained and should explore uncharted territory. Usually, theory will catch up if the technique can yield important insights. There are always skeptics when a new technique is being pioneered. Consider, for example, resonant soft Xray scattering, which faced its fair share of criticism when it started being used. Now it is a commonplace technique. I'm surprised to hear that you have been skeptical of new techniques in the past and I am happy to hear that the book aided in changing your opinion about this somewhat.

  3. I find it not convincing to say that IPCC' peer review is rigorous at all, given the organizations political nature and so many well documented counter evidences against their claims and their models. How could we make policies on those oversimplified models that has again and again made wrong predictions?