The Heisenberg Principle of Climatology

17 02 2008

OK, I have to admit this is a pretty eccentric idea . It occurred to me around New Year’s time. Please read this as entertainment, not science – or at best, entertaining science. I assume the esteemed reader to be familiar with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle .

These days, even small-time lawyers are using the concept – as we were reminded by the Coen brothers in the magnificently quirky “The Man who wasn’t there” :

Forgetting the Coen twist, the uncertainty principle states that there is a fundamental limit to the accuracy with which you can jointly determine the position (X) and the momentum (P) of a particle in quantum world. Which one can write :

\Delta X \Delta P \geq \frac{\hbar}{2}

wherein \Delta is the root mean square operator and \hbar is the familiar Planck’s constant.

This has pretty deep philosophical implications because it means that we must abandon utopias of ever knowing those quantities simultaneously with arbitrary accuracy. Most sobering is that it is a direct consequence of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics.

It occurred to me the other day while having a shower (which is a well-known fountain of ideas), that one could formalize a similar principle in climatology. Indeed, the basic curse of paleoclimatology is that the farther back in time you try to estimate temperatures, the more uncertain they become. We think we know last year’s globally average temperature pretty well (say within 0.05 C ). Last decade might have similar or even lower uncertainties because of the central limit theorem knocking down some measurement errors for you… but try going back 100 years and the measurement error and sampling bias become so large you’ll be lucky to have an accuracy of 0.5 C. And that is during a period broadly known in the field as “instrumental”, that is to say the one over which we have a reasonable number of physical measurements of temperature. As you can see on the following graph from Brohan et al, 2006, this uncertainty grows back in time rather quickly already.

Uncertainty in global temperatures (HadCRUT3 dataset)

Before about 1850 A.D., we no longer have enough direct measurements, so we have to rely instead on proxy indicators. All of them (corals, tree rings, ice cores, sediments, documentary evidence) have their pros and cons, but even if they can give a surprisingly coherent view of past climates, they are necessarily approximate. Hence, go back 1000 years and arguably, we don’t know this within 0.7 C, perhaps even 1 C (this is a very controversial number and I’d be surprised if no one picks up on it… With wacky ideas come rather loose numbers that one should not take too literally). Go back 10,000 years and a degree C or two might be all that you could hope for. And so on and so forth : the more time elapses and eons pass by, the more water flows under bridges, the more overprinted, worn and tired is the geologic record – and so grows the uncertainty in the estimated temperature.

Say you are trying to estimate said temperature, T, over some period \tau (or equivalently, the frequency \omega). The longer the period (i.e., the smaller the frequency), the more uncertain the estimate, so one could write something of the form :

\Delta T  \omega \geq \gamma.

Which is pretty naive and assumes an inverse relationship between the two variables, and \gamma is by no means a “universal” constant. More generally one could write :

\frac{\Delta T} {\Delta T_{\circ}} =  \beta \left ( \frac{\omega} {\omega_{\circ}} \right )^{-\alpha}

where the subscript \circ denotes a reference period (say, the last decade), and \beta and \alpha are a positive constants, whose precise values are as yet undetermined. So one could play games with that and try to estimate them from a linear fit in log-log space… I’m not sure they would mean much, but who knows ? Perhaps one day we’ll have enough reliable data to be able to characterize this \alpha and it won’t seem so quirky. In any case, it’s now pretty far from Heisenberg, who must be shifting in his grave and the mere idea that I am using is august name for such silliness. Nevertheless, it is an uncertainty principle of sorts. And for no more fundamental reason that the degradation of geological records over time, which I guess one could view as a broad consequence of disequilibrium thermodynamics. But only loosely so, because bioturbation holds a large part of the blame, and darned if we have a consistent theory of living organisms that’s grounded in statistical mechanics. But I digresss.

In my defense, I would like to declare that this nonsense was scribbled on a piece of paper while leaning on a garbage can outside the Metropolitan Avenue subway station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Which we all know to be home to some pretty crazy stuff.

Now here’s the truly insane part of the story. The next day was my adoptive bigger sister’s birthday. ( If you happen to live far from home, I highly recommend you adopt, or get adopted by, a bigger sister. It’s loads of fun, especially when they have the same linguistic schizophrenia as yours). I was working from the Columbia University library that day, and decided to drop by to bring her a gift (she lives around the corner). I had no sooner entered her building and stepped into the elevator that a white-haired gentleman nimbly entering the lobby asked me to hold the doors. I happily obliged, and he promptly jumped into the cage a few seconds afterwards, with a mischievous smile on his face.

– “Piso cuatro, por favor “, he said with a distinguished Spanglish accent.

– “Si señor”, I replied, and pushed button 4.

He looked at me from top to bottom and asked in a spotless New England English (I must have looked really freaky) :

– “Are you a physicist ?”

– “Almost”, I replied, “I’m a geophysicist”.

– “Ah well, I am a physicist”, he went on. “And I recently had a very interesting epiphany about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.”


Before I could pick up my jaw from the floor, Mr Heisenberg Jr had disappeared into the depths of the 4th floor, only perceptible through the rustling of his raincoat as his walked down the corridor. And so it was decided that even though my Heisenberg idea might not pass into posterity past breakfast, it should at least be worthy of a little post.







16 responses

17 02 2008

So how did McI do on his visit? I note that he doesn’t seem to care enough about his audience to prepare ahead of time, to leave time for questions…and that he has such a deaf ear, that he did not listen to your suggestions on content.

18 02 2008
El Niño

Hi TCO !
Good to have you here. Please forgive me for not posting your earlier comment on Steve McIntyre’s visit to GaTech last week, which I found needlessly aggressive.

So, the visit, was… err… interesting, as we say in technical jargon. I know Steve is preparing a post on it, and I was waiting for him to shoot first, which he hasn’t done, surprisingly. We have had quite a bit of back channel communication on this to avert a blog blodshed…

I will tell you this much : at GaTech he was treated as an equal by everyone he met with over his 2-day visit. He will be the first to say he was well-received, and I think a good time was had by all.

At the seminar, Steve presented his beef against the Hockey Stick reconstruction in a more coherent and self-contained manner than one could ever gather from Climate Audit (or his articles). I personally was very curious to see his mathematical results on the genealogy of regression methods used for such reconstructions, but he only had enough time to flip through a few equations-filled slides. When his post is up, I think he will link to the Powerpoint file so that you can have a look if you wish. He will also summarize his story better than i can do.
I really appreciated him going into some details about spurious regressions : it is an area of applied mathematics that has been abundantly covered in econometrics, but most of our field is hopelessly naive about it. I think Steve’s most original contribution to the debate is to frame paleoclimate reconstructions in that well-known mathematical context.

His presentation did run significantly overtime, despite repeated advice and despite having being loaned Judy Curry’s watch to keep track of minutes 😉 But I can’t say he was the first speaker to do so… I had qualms about a few other things, which need not be stated here – I shared those comments with him in private.
All in all it was a pretty successful visit : people did get to hear what he had to say, and some of them spent time to show him around the labs and discuss various aspects of climate science with him. That is not to say that everyone went for his shtick, but that holds true for every visitor.

As for him, I hope he will come out of the experience with a slightly more positive view of what we do, and hopefully (but I am bordering on utopia here) that this will be reflected in his future online behavior regarding climate “scientists” (with the dirty quotes).

So the visit was by no means the “setup” that some of his more paranoid followers were trying to make of it. But nothing is new here : some dogs at Climate Audit will do nothing but bark all day. In truth, I think the most Steve could be upset about is that Kim Cobb actually called him a “climate scientist”, which must have been an unbearable insult given the contempt in which he holds our profession.

For the rest… what happens in Atlanta stays in Atlanta. 😉 We were originally thinking of writing a public statement given the amplitude of the uproar on both sides (NSF managers getting angry that we invite Steve within a university context, CA dogs barking because we are not electing Steve head of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences). But like all blog frenzies, it’s as quickly come as it’s gone, so we’ll keep it mellow.

I think it is a fruitful dialogue… but only time will tell.

18 02 2008

I hope that you rubbed off on him in a positive way. I am actually ON THE SIDE of skepticism. But it’s disappointing to see how lackadaisical he is about basic standards of science communication. If he can’t write clear papers, how can he even have his ideas examined by others? How can he be clear to himself?

The presentations he has done before for AGU and such have been shameful in terms of last minute prep, in terms of 10 pounds shit in a 5 pound bag, in terms of poor organization, chartsmanship, etc. He shows no sympathy to his audience. It’s a bad practice. Yes, he’s not the only one with such problems. All of us have them to some extent. But he is well WORSE than average. And he is trying to upgrade the science. He should be able to do the basics at least. Heck, Landsea does just fine. So does Huybers.

19 02 2008

I’m curious why NSF managers would be angry that Steve McIntyre was invited to speak at Georgia Tech. Is that appropriate?

19 02 2008

I looked at his talk. [snip] Any normal professional (not even a scientist, but just anyone who goes to the office) would know that he had too much [material], that he didn’t stick to the main topic, that he is wasting everyone’s time introducing new linear algebra [snip] that he hasn’t published yet.

McI introduces interesting questions, but he fails to even set them up properly or to finish them off in written form. He has a pattern of this sort of sloppiness…and I WILL BET MONEY that similar crappiness is holding him back from getting papers published more than the man holding him down (he lacks the [courage] to show his submitted papers…btw).

Note that he also slips in a few fast ones, like the “standard” covariance matrix. He’s been talking out both sides of his [mouth] on that for a while. Confounding acentering with it, saying he has no stance on which is preferred method, etc. He’s had other skeptics even tell him that correlation is more often used than covariance. The whole sly wording is the most lawyerly blog type game. [snip]

19 02 2008

let me temper that a bit. He did have some fun and topical slides at the beginning, telling the story. And he didn’t have quite so many just plain miserable slides as at AGU. But crits stand.

And he messed up the axes and labels for AGU as well. He just keeps making the same mistakes.

20 02 2008
El Niño

JimR : Isn’t your answer included in your question ? Are you asking for confirmation ? In an ideal world, one should be free to invite anyone anywhere, but we do not seem to live in an ideal world.

TCO : for the LAST time, please hold off on the truckdriver’s language … I had a little fun replacing dirty words with flowery ones, but I can’t do this all day. Next time : giant snip.

I don’t feel it is appropriate to further discuss his presentation here. For one thing, you weren’t even there, yet you must know there is more to a presentation that the slides. For another, do we really want to see so and so’s talk torn apart on a blog ? Even the solar clowns (Scaffeta & Willie Soon) did not get the same treatment at AGU… Yet Ray Pierrehumbert (from was sitting right behind me in that session, and we shared much bewilderment that they would dare present half-baked theories with the pretense of revolutionizing the field.
That would have deserved a public spanking, but is the blogosphere is the best place for that ?
It’s way too easy to take things out of context.

As for Steve McIntyre : he has said repeatedly on his blog that he considers himself the equivalent of “a postdoc or graduate student”, and lo and behold he gave a talk that reflected such greenness. I don’t think he failed to deliver on any promise in that regard. He has proven a fast learner, though, so give him a chance. Apparently this was only his second scientific presentation, and everyone knows you can draw a line through 2 points . Before making abusive generalizations you might want a longer observational period…

20 02 2008

Hi El Niño,

In my question I meant is it appropriate for the NSF managers to have been angry at Georgia Tech for inviting Steven McIntyre? I suppose from the reverse they could have asked if his invitation was appropriate. Valid question and obviously the answer is yes it was appropriate and a positive experience according to all side who have reported on the visit.

[snip : inappropriate rambling about NSF program managers]

I applaud you and the others at Georgia Tech for inviting Steve and look forward to more openness and cooperation in climate science.



20 02 2008

Nee-no: It’s exactly what I predicted! I TOLD YOU SO. Also, this is NOT McI’s first science talk. Also, he has presumably heard a few. Also, he could have researched these types of seminars if he hadn’t. Also, just any normal 60-year-old person who goes to the office and works in the business world would know how to craft a presentation, how to practice it ahead of time, etc.

Sure McI made the same mistakes really, really green grad students make. I mean well out on the left end of the bell curve. But there is no excuse for that. Certainly not as an invited speaker. You even gave him coaching ahead of time and he still blew it off. There’s a pattern here, Nee-no. And it fits in with his written work as well. He deserves all the spankings he gets, as he persists in such behavior.

He can always complain about “warmers” or “the team” etc having it out for him. But I’m not a team member. I’m a Barry Goldwater republican. I’m in favor of dollar a gallon oil and spudding into ANWAR. I really am. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stay silent when I see miserable analysis by “my side”.

The issues are very separable: how to give a good presentation…versus how much did Micheal Mann mess up.

If McI persists in such behavior: miserable presentations, confused papers, not writing things up in the real literature, I think the best thing for the field to do is to ignore him. Heck, he hasn’t published anything for 2.5 years despite having quit his job to work full time in this field! Oh and he’s not some 24 year old grad student just learning to be an adult and transitioning to science. He has 40 years of work history! Sheesh. This is not that HARD!!!!

I have to wonder about his business analysis. He probably wrote miserable prospectuses as well. Probably the reason why he was working at Canadian penny-stock shell company. And you don’t need to snip that: BCL checked and found some of the companies. They are the CLASSIC crappy Canadian penny stock charades. Like right out of a book of stereotypical crappy joke Canadian stocks. And literally PENNY stocks. (under a dollar/share).

20 02 2008
El Niño

JimR says :

In my question I meant is it appropriate for the NSF managers to have been angry at Georgia Tech for inviting Steven McIntyre? I suppose from the reverse they could have asked if his invitation was appropriate. Valid question and obviously the answer is yes it was appropriate and a positive experience according to all side who have reported on the visit.

It is a valid question and the answer is by no means obvious. There are politically-motivated climate skeptics with no particular science background (say, John Lott), that it would be totally inappropriate to invite. Because, as much as everyone seems to realize that invitation is not synonymous with endorsement, still “one does not discuss cuisine with cannibals”. Steve McIntyre does have valid scientific points, and the fact that some NSF staff might not recognize it could just be an unfortunate consequence of the historical inability of ClimateAudit to rise above petty, personal vendettas which dilute the science into nothingness (there are signs that this is changing, however). That’s the way i used to think of CA before Judith Curry really enticed me to look deeper into it. I don’t think anyone can blame busy NSF program manager for not spending hours weeding through those endless threads.

I applaud you and the others at Georgia Tech for inviting Steve and look forward to more openness and cooperation in climate science.

Well, thank you Jim. Thank you for stopping by and discussing with civility.

20 02 2008

While I’ve never heard of John Lott or his blog it is obvious with a quick glance that his blog is a political blog as opposed to one that addresses the science. I would hope it would be embarrassing for an NSF manager to spend any time being angry regarding Steve’s appearance at Georgia Tech when with little effort one can differentiate between a political blogger such as John Lott and Steve McIntyre at CA. I’ll bet Mr. Lott hasn’t testified before Congress or presented at the AGU. That doesn’t mean Steve McIntyre is correct…. but I think it does show he has added value to the paleoclimate discussion.

As a long time CA reader (I seldom post there) I recognize there can be angry, personal posts. But I read many blogs and it is more common at Realclimate or Deltoid or Rabett Run to name a few. Some of those blogs get very nasty. You even have some nastiness here… even though there is only one other person commenting. Steve seems to be working to eliminate this behavior, wouldn’t it be nice if these other prominent climate change blogs were encouraged to do the same? (hint, hint)

Even in the bigger picture we have James Hansen calling other “jesters” displaying an unflattering and adversarial attitude. I don’t know about you but to me that sounds more like a personal vendetta than an attitude of “deliberative, cooperative, yet still competitive enterprise, where each side is duty bound to fairly consider all arguments and data that bear on the matter at hand”. That quote is how realclimate recently described science and while that is a wonderful goal in practice science (and specifically climate science) seems to fall short of this ideal.

I suppose my point being if we are going to chastise the behavior at CA isn’t it only fair to address similar behavior by other blogs and even some climate scientists?

20 02 2008
steven mosher


Good to see you again. We have a peace treaty and you owe me
Spicy bloody Mary’s so I wont comment on your comments.

JEG, thanks again.

20 02 2008
El Niño

TCO, I was about to do some snipping but i think it is interesting to read your motivations, which definitely help me understand your vehemence. So i left them in for this time, but I may not always be so tolerant…

JimR :

if we are going to chastise the behavior at CA isn’t it only fair to address similar behavior by other blogs and even some climate scientists?

While you are certainly correct that courtesy works both ways, I’d like to offer 2 points of reflection :
1) Climate scientists blog as a hobby, and their blog is NOT where they are trying to prove themselves as scientists. I think Steve McIntyre is a very different position, as his blog is the primary vehicle of his scientific ideas (save one peer-reviewed paper, in GRL). So ClimateAudit had better be “clean”, otherwise no-one will ever receive said ideas. Other scientists use mostly journals and presentations for that purpose, and you’d be hard pressed to find RealClimatologists in breach of civility there.

2) As Judy Curry said elsewhere, many climate scientists have felt personally aggressed by politically-motivated attacks on their integrity, if not direct intimidation. James Hansen , whom you quote, is a case in point but alas not the only one. The result has been that the climate community has been “circling the wagons” and has tended to shoot in the dark any approaching skeptic. There are signs that this could be changing, but please give it some time.

Steven Mosher : welcome ! Enjoy a Bloody Mary and turn up the volume on Tom Waits while TCO calms down…


All right, comments will henceforth await approval before being posted. This is the only way I can do my work during the day without having to constantly monitor the truck-driver or NSF-bashing factor on this blog…
This may mean a delay of a few hours or days, if I’m traveling. Such is the price…

20 02 2008

Thank you for the reply… but respectfully I must say you seem to be holding Steve McIntyre and CA up to a higher standard than others.

Let’s consider your case 1) where it sounds as though you feel those who publish can be excused for their poor behavior on their blogs while Steve McIntyre must be held to a higher standard since his blog is the main vehicle of expressing his ideas. I’m sorry but I do not find that to be a reasonable position. Both CA and other blogs are for communication with the public. Certainly some of these people do publish papers on climate science but regardless even the “RealClimatologists” breach civility often in the blogsphere where many in the general public are exposed to their ideas and opinions. Certainly they must behave civilly in their publications (they have to) but why would that offset or justify their poor public behavior and the behavior they allow on their blogs?

I do agree with your case number 2) and understand it. But I still see it as a problem. There are politically motivated people on all sides of this issue who constantly attack. And while some may feel they are the recipients of politically motivated attacks other seem to use theatrics to publicly claim suppression to garner more attention while steadfastly refusing openness and disclosure.

Can you imagine anything more wrong than scientists “circling the wagons” as Judith Curry so accurately put it? Can climate science actually be this “deliberative, cooperative, yet still competitive enterprise, where each side is duty bound to fairly consider all arguments and data that bear on the matter at hand” with so many in the climate science community circling the wagons and shooting in the dark anyone who expresses skepticism? I think not.

Anyway, thank you for your time. I’m sorry to have to disagree with you but what would this world be like if everyone agreed with each other?

20 02 2008
El Niño

JimR, you are indeed so respectful that it is a pleasure to disagree with you 😉

In fact, I don’t disagree much. First, I offered points of reflection, not absolutist arguments… Your point 1) is well taken. In my experience, no climate blog has been fraught with as much nastiness as ClimateAudit (though this blog may soon get there if TCO continues to pelt fireballs at Steve…). 2 reasons to that :
– I mostly read CA or RC, and the latter i find much more civilized
– clearly i am not objective, as I have never tried to defend a “contrarian” position at RC, and I’m in good terms with several of the contributors.
So you have a point.

Re # 2), of course it’s a problem. Can you imagine anything more wrong than scientists intimidated for their results by lawmakers, silenced by Washington cronies, or having to fight a well oiled PR campaign aimed at discrediting results for political purposes ?

I never said “circling the wagons” is the appropriate response – I am as sad as you are about the state of affairs. I am merely saying there are a few extenuating circumstances to take into account… without excusing everything.

The scientific debate would certainly be more along the RC lines you quote if politics were out of the fray – on both sides…

Thanks for dropping by, I really appreciate your comments.

20 02 2008

Mosh-pit. It’s a date. Bloody Mary’s and fish tacos at that place on Newport Ave in OB next to the peir. I respect that you actually care about the truth. [snip]. I got no beef with you.

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