A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Vizzini Moment

In the Princess Bride, Vizzini repeatedly uses the word "inconceivable" to describe the progress of The Man in Black's pursuit of Vizzini and his gang. After about four or five "inconceivables", Inigo Montoya looks at him with a quizzical expression and says, "You keep on saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

That's a Vizzini moment.

The U.N. appears to be having one in regards to the recent IPCC report on global warming, claiming in it's headline, and in the first paragraph of its news release, that the report provides "unequivocal" proof that the world is warming and that man is responsible for the warming. Unequivocal-- absolute, without equivocation, capable of only one interpretation, not subject to conditions or exceptions.

Only problem, in the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the U.N.'s very same press-release-- the one where they claim unequivocal evidence of warming in the headline-- we find this:

The IPCC, which brings together the world’s leading climate scientists and experts, concluded that major advances in climate modelling and the collection and analysis of data now give scientists “very high confidence” – at least a 9 out of 10 chance of being correct – in their understanding of how human activities are causing the world to warm. This level of confidence is much greater than the IPCC indicated in their last report in 2001.

Today’s report, the first of four volumes to be released this year by the IPCC, also confirms that it is “very likely” that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases have caused most of the global temperature rise observed since the mid-20th century. The report says that it is likely that effect of human activity since 1750 is five times greater than the effect of fluctuations in the sun’s output.

Now, I will grant you that 90% is pretty high. I will grant you that scientists having a "high confidence" in a particular issue, or believing that something is "very likely" would tend to give a particular viewpoint supported by those scientists quite a bit of weight.


By definition. Period. End of story.

And its this kind of stupid, alarmist, over-reach that is greatly hampering sincere, honest, and worthwhile efforts to study global climate change and develop reasonable and effective solutions. Because this kind of stupid crap feeds right into the Rush Limbaugh poo-pooing mindset.

And it also feeds into the mindset that the U.N. is a bunch of pompous, preening, squeezebags with little connection to reality and a strong propensity to want to tell other people what to do even though they clearly have no idea how to manage their own affairs, much less other peoples.

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Alright, you want to quibble?

The headline, as you state, claims that the report presents unequivocal proof that the world is warming and that the activities of mankind are at least partly responsible in some way. That's all it claims that is unequivocal- that the globe is, overall increasing in temperature, and that our activities have some bearing on it.

The two paragraphs you cite are talking about two different, althought related, issues:

The first is that of a 90% confidence level in scientists understanding of how human activities are causing the world to warm. I trust you see the difference here? You may be able to present unequivocal proof of the change, and mankind's relationship to it, without having a complete understanding of the mechanisms involved. You know you need your keys to drive your car; that you need to insert it to start it and thence to drive; but you may not have an engineer's level of knowledge of the electrical and ignition systems necessary for it to happen.

The second paragraph Talks about these mechanisms further in depth, and it's magnitude. Again, this is separate from the assertion in the headline; now they are talking about specifics of the relationship, and the relative magnitude of the effect, over time.

Due to the nature of science, the relative certainty is going to decrease as the specifics of the relationship increase. But the reduction of this level of understanding to 'very likely' doesn't reduce the unequivocal nature of the understanding towards the primary issues: The oiverall warming of the planet, and that mankind has a hand in it.

Your line about sincere, and honest research into global warming does insult to the work done by the thousands of scientists who have contributed to the understanding of our planet, including the ones compiling this report. The only reason it seems alarmist is that Americans, and our government, has developed a staggering blindspot towards the issue that seriously impedes an international effort to address it; I am sure that does alarm scientists who are aware that they don't have all the answers; In fact, it is the lack of all the answers that makes addressing the situation increasingly urgent, because it is difficult to ascertain where an irrevocable tipping point may be reached. By some calculations, that tipping point may already be past.
Hmm... I see what you're saying, but I think you're parsing, or quibbling, not me. I find it hard to wrap my head around the idea that they is unequivocal proof that human's are causing global warming, but we're only 90% sure of how human activity causes warming. That seems to clearly imply that there is a 10% chance we don't understand how human activity warms the planet, in which case, how do we know we are? To use your example, we know that 99% of the time people use their keys to start their cars, but we also know that 1% of the time, someone hotwires a car to start it. Claiming the 99% as unequivocal proof of the need to have keys to start a car is incorrect. And unnecessary.

I'm not saying we aren't warming the planet. I think we are. But to claim it unequivocally and then say we're only 90% certain how is disingenuous. And counter-productive in my opinion. Why claim absolutes, which then opens you to "quibbling" like mine, when you can simply state the problem as it actually is?

As to my insulting of those who have done sincere research. I did not mean it that way-- I meant to dis the bureaucrats and pundits who claim "unequivocal" proof from 90% certainty, not the scientists themselves.
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