The belief in Chaos

The Chief says :

“Nothing just happens randomly in the Earth climate system. Randomness – or stochasticity – is merely a statistical approach to things you haven’t understood yet. ”

One of the unsung achievements in physics, in comparison to the imagination-capturing aspects of relativity and quantum mechanics, is statistical mechanics. This will scale at many levels — originally intended to bridge the gap between the microscopic theory and macroscopic measurements, such as with the Planck response, scientists have provided statistical explanations to large coarse-grained behaviors as well (wind, ocean wave mechanics, etc). It’s not that we don’t understand the chaotic underpinnings, more like that we don’t always need to, due the near-universal utility of the Boltzmann partition function (see the discussion on the Thermodynamics Climate Etc thread).

Many scientists consider pawning off difficulties to “Chaos” as a common crutch. This is not my original thought, as it is discussed at depth in Science of Chaos or Chaos in Science” by Bricmont. The issue with chaos theories is that they still have to obey some fundamental ideas of energy balance and conservation laws. Since stochastic approaches deal with probabilities, one rarely experiences problems with the fundamental bookkeeping. The basic idea with probability, that it has to integrate to unity probability, making it a slick tool for basic reasoning. That is why I like to use it so much for my own basic understanding of climate science (and all sorts of other things), but unfortunately leads to heated disagreements to the chaos fans and non-linear purists, such as David Young and Chief Hydrologist. They are representative of the opposite side of the debate.

You notice this when Chief states the importance of chaos theory:

“You should try to understand and accept that – along with the reality that my view has considerable support in the scientific literature. You should accept also that I am the future and you are the past.

I think they sould teach the 3 great ideas in 20th centruy physics – relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos theory. They are such fun.”

There are only 4 fundamental forces in the universe, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. For energy balance of the earth, all that matters is the electromagnetic force, as that is the predominant way that the earth exchanges energy with the rest of the universe.

The 33 degree C warming temperature differential from the earth’s gray-body default needs to be completely explained by a photonic mechanism.

The suggestion is that clouds could change the climate. Unfortunately this points it in the incorrect direction of explaining the 33C difference. Water vapor, when not condensed into droplets, acts as a strong GHG and likely does cause a significant fraction of the 33C rise. But when the water vapor starts condensing into droplets and thus forming clouds, the EM radiation begins to partially reflect the incoming radiation, and thus the sun providing even less heat to the earth. So obviously there is a push-pull effect to raising water vapor concentrations in the atmosphere.

Chief is daring us with his statement that “I am the future and you are the past”. He evidently thinks that clouds are the feedback that will not be understood unless we drop down to chaos considerations. In other words, that any type of careful statistical considerations of the warming impact of increasing water vapor concentrations with the cooling impact of cloud albedo, will not be explainable unless a full dynamical model is attempted and done correctly.

The divide is between whether one believes as Chief does, that the vague “chaos theory”, which is really short-hand for doing a complete dynamical calculation of everything, no exceptions, is the answer. Or is the answer one of energy balance and statistical considerations? I lean toward the latter, along with the great majority of climate scientists, as Andrew Lacis described a while ago here and in his comments. The full dynamics, as Lacis explained is useful for understanding natural variability, and for practical applications such as weather prediction. But it is not the bottom-line, as chaotic natural variability always has to obey the energy balance constraints. And the only practical way to do that is by considering a statistical view.

The bottom-line is that I chuckle at much of the discussion of chaos and non-linearity when it comes to try to understand various natural phenomenon. The classic case is the simplest model of growth described by the logistic differential equation. This is a non-linear equation with a solution described by the so-called logistic function. Huge amounts of work have gone into modeling growth using the logistic equation because of the appearance of an S-shaped curve in some empirical observations. (when it is a logistic difference equation, chaotic solutions result but we will ignore that for this discussion)

Alas, there are trivial ways of deriving the same logistic function without having to assume non-linearity or chaos; instead one only has to assume disorder in the growth parameters and in the growth region. The derivation takes a few lines of math (see the TOC).

Once one considers this picture, the logistic function arguably has a more pragmatic foundation based on stochastics than on non-linear determinism.

That is the essential problem of invoking chaos, in that it precludes (or at least masks) considerations of the much more mundane characteristics of the system. The mundane is that all natural behaviors are smeared out by differences in material properties/characteristics, variation in geometrical considerations, and in thermalization contributing to entropy.

The issue is that obsessives such as the Chief and others think that chaos is the hammer and that they can apply it to every problem that appears to look like a nail.

Certainly, I can easily understand how the disorder in a large system can occasionally trigger tipping points or lead to stochastic resonances, but these are not revealed by analysis of any governing chaotic equations. They simply result from the disorder allowing behaviors to penetrate a wider volume of the state space. When these tickle the right positive feedback modes of the system, then we can observe some of the larger fluctuations. The end result is that the decadal oscillations are of the order of a tenths of degrees in global average temperature.

Of course I am not wedded to this thesis, just that it is a pragmatic result of stochastic and uncertainty considerations that I and a number other people are interested in.

This is reproduced from a comment I made to Climate Etc:

I am glad that Myrrh posted this bit of pseudoscience.

As I said earlier (when I thought that this thread was winding down) the actual pseudoscience is in the crackpot theories that commenters submit to this site. There is a huge amount of projection that goes on amongst the skeptical readership — the projection is in the framing of their own scientific inadequacies onto the qualified scientists trying to understand and quantify the climate system.

Projection is a devious rhetorical strategy. It is an offensive as opposed to defensive approach. It catapults the propaganda from one of doubt on the skeptical side, to an apparent uncertainty on the mainstream science side. This adds FUD to the debate. As in politics, by attacking the strong points of your opponents argument, you can actually make him look weaker. Everyone realizes how effective this is whenever the audience does not have the ability to discriminate nonsense from objective fact.

The key to projection is to make sure that the confidence game is played out according to script amongst the participants, both those in on the game and those unaware of what is happening. The shills in on the game have it easy — they just have to remain silent, as it appears that no comment is condoning the arguments. The marks are the readership that gets suckered into the pseudoscience arguments, and are not sophisticated enough to be aware of the deception.

The antidote to this is to not remain silent. Call these confidence tricksters, including Myrrh, out on their game. Do it every time, because a sucker is born every minute. On the street corner, the 3-Card Monte hucksters will just move to another corner when they get called on it. Fortunately, there is no place for the tricksters to relocate on this site.

Ultimately, science has the advantage, and as the objective of Climate Etc is to work out uncertainty objectively, not by confidence games, you all should know about the way to proceed. Sorry if this bursts any bubbles, but when it comes to an aggressively nonsensical argument as that relayed by Myrrh, someone has to keep score.

Then you have a kook like StephanTheDenier, where he actually tries a thinly veiled psychological threat against me, by saying (“The souls of hose 600 people that did freeze to death in winter coldness, will haunt you in your sleep…”). What can I say but that threats are even more preposterous than projecting via lame theories.

And in reading Bart’s rebuttal, I just want to add:

Outside of a sled dog, an igloo is an Eskimo’s best friend.
Inside of a sled dog, it’s too cramped to sleep.

One thought on “The belief in Chaos

  1. 'The overall slight rise (relative heating) of global total net flux at TOA between the 1980's and 1990's is confirmed in the tropics by the ERBS measurements and exceeds the estimated climate forcing changes (greenhouse gases and aerosols) for this period. The most obvious explanation is the associated changes in cloudiness during this period.''The new paradigm of an abruptly changing climatic system has been well established by research over the last decade, but this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policy-makers.' is a total idiot who insists on applying simple math to complex systems. I'm glad he has a friend – but it isn't me. The future comment is about paradigms – but Webby has woeful holes in his knowledge of humour, poetry, popular culture, the philoshophy of science, natural philosophy, physical sciences and climate data. He claims we don't need data – he can solve everything through simple exponential forms. He is a dickwad.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s