(My friend Tom, certainly among the most analytical and intellectually capable people of my acquaintance, posted two long and thoughtful comments to my post of a few weeks ago about computational models in general and climate models in particular. I thought that Tom’s comments deserved better billing so with his permission I have converted them to a guest post, which follows, with some slight editing for flow. Tom raises some valid and interesting points, which I will probably revisit in a future post. Also, I highly recommend the Guardian podcast linked in Tom’s post below, in which I can find very little to take issue with other than the implicit assumption that anthropogenic climate change is a proven fact, forever settled, and about which no reasonable disagreement is possible.)

Here’s Tom:

Jack, I won’t pretend to any ability to state properly the scientific case in favor of the many nonpolitical and serious climate scientists who are presently convinced that dangerous anthropological global warming exists and is increasing. I do, however, think that your posting gives too much weight, like the litigation lawyers we both know who want to win for their clients by fair means or foul, to the possible or, as you put it, inevitable computer modeling hocus pocus and political jabberwockiness that exist in the science dispute. I personally believe, and feel it’s OK to use this, since your posting also contains a fair amount of opinion, that existential evidence of global warming caused by increasing CO2, apart from intricate computer models and hypocritical politicians, is gathering apace. Can anyone rational turn a blind eye to that?

As for the inevitable selectivity of the parameters for computer modeling of climatic changes, I came across this in Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography of Alan Turing I’m reading on Kindle, an excellent book by the way, where he is discussing Turing’s long obsession with comparing computers and the human mind. It seems to be relevent to your argument about the unreliability of computer modeling:

“But Edward Carpenter had gone to the heart of the matter long before: ‘The method of Science is the method of all mundane knowledge; it is that of limitation or actual ignorance. Placed in face of the great uncontained unity of Nature we can only deal with it in thought by selecting certain details and isolating those (either wilfully or unconsciously) from the rest’. Edward Carpenter, Civilisation its Cause and Cure, first published 1889, quoted here from 1921 edition (George Allen & Unwin); the chapter ‘Modern Science: a Criticism’.”

You would agree, I think, that valid climate science studies have to include computer modeling. We must use the tools available, even if the data are recalcitrant, don’t we?

Whether your statement—”if you left it up to engineers instead of politicians, we could probably solve the problem fairly easily” — is credible, I wouldn’t know, but from what reading I’ve done the fix-it afterward solutions to the problem, if it does truly exist, sound mostly cockamamie. I have read some apparently credible economic studies that present a good case that the costs of successfully curing after-the-fact would be impractical and prohibitvely expensive.

I guess my bottom line is that I don’t have the confidence you do that the engineers and business leaders, whether phd or not, who got us into this fix should be the only ones given the job of fixing it. (I do agree that it looks like that’s where we are all headed.) To me, that’s like letting the big banks and their kleptoexecs provide advice and cures for our bubble economies.

Jack, As I recall, you sometimes listen to The Guardian Science Weekly podcasts. This year’s Sense About Science Lecture on 17 November 2014 is of interest in connection with your posting above. It has also made me to think a little more deeply about my comments above.

This year’s Sense About Science lecture considered a dramatically different approach to our biggest challenge as a species: anthropogenic climate change. Guardian science editor Ian Sample and environment site editor Adam Vaughan spoke to this year’s lecturer, Professor Steve Rayner of Oxford University about his radical proposal.

The ideas discussed in the lecture by Professor Rayner of Oxford, cover his studies and conclusions that three fundamental ways to deal with the problem require immediate changes in the approaches taken so far to limit emissions of greeenhouse gases — approaches that aren’t working. I think his ideas are worth listening to.They seem to parallel some expressed by you in your blog posting, although he is convinced on the present state of the evidence that temperature is rising (though there is more question about precipitation levels), and that a 2 degree limit is not possible to achieve. (He states that he is not a climate scientist: he is Director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, web site is here.)

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