An interesting way of explaining scientific certainty and climate change

Anyone who suggests that professors do not protect their theories as if they are children has very little exposure to dissenters.

Something very important to both relativity and quantum mechanics is the correspondence principle. It says that whatever peculiar results they might give at very large or small scales and energies, we know they can’t change the answers for the familiar objects for which traditional physics already provides a very well verified description.

So sure, one might suppose all sorts of compositions for the 96% dark matter you bring up, or even that it doesn’t exist because gravity works substantially different than we expect. But if your theory gives different outcomes for a baseball game than Newtonian physics, we already know you are wrong.

Anyone who understands this can see that bringing up dark matter and unified physics models is a terrible red herring. As I’ve said before, climate science is based on, tested against, and continuously refined by observations made on earth and its close environment. If it works, new physics won’t change that any more than it will the baseball game.

So no, this is just one more excuse to wave aside anything you like. Does smoking cause cancer? We don’t know what 96% of matter is made of and nature is not broken into discrete disciplines, so there could be so many confounding possibilities, there is no way to know! Well, sorry, but there is and we do.


I’m pretty sure @HannesAlfven doesn’t care about climate change except insofar as it’s a lead in to talk about Jeff Schmidt, author of Disciplined Minds.

You know, it’s funny that you never see those two in the same place.

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I don’t know. It seems to me like Jeff Schmidt might well have a legitimate point, and none of the quotes from his book that I’ve seen presented so far would lead me to believe that he’s a crank, which is much more than I can say for Hannes Alfven (the one posting here, not his late namesake).

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Actual snort occurred. Good thing I wasn’t drinking my coffee.

13 disdain laden comments in and calling -other people- out for defending theories like children.

That’s a regular Tom Swifty, he opined, childishly.

You’re making an important point here, and I think this is where people generally go wrong: They assume that our current framework for how the universe works lacks any possible competitors. It’s clear that the conventional theories are more developed than any other, but that’s not what we care about here: What we want to know is if there are there any alternative frameworks which society can decide to elaborate such that they can eventually compete with the current one?

To be clear, in terms of astrophysics, this belief that we cannot develop a competing framework was arrived at through a half-century effort to completely ignore critical debates (started, in part, by a Nobel laureate) over the models we use to understand interstellar space. 99% of what we see with our telescopes is identified within the introductions of most astrophysical textbooks as being matter in the plasma state, and yet we still don’t teach our astrophysics students (to this day) that a very important debate has been raging over how to model these cosmic plasmas. This debate continues on to today, but – curiously – mostly outside of the walls of our universities.

There are red flags all over this story for those who have a very basic understanding of electromagnetism, for not only do the cosmic plasma models seriously differ from the laboratory observations for plasmas, but those differences are highly “political” in nature. Down here on Earth, it is generally accepted that where we see a magnetic field, that there exists an electric current cause associated with it. This is a completely fundamental principle in electronics.

It is only in the highly speculative disciplines of astrophysics and cosmology – two of the most observationally and experimentally challenged disciplines known to man – that suggestions that the magnetic fields we see in interstellar space might have an electric current cause are not only ignored, but oftentimes even ridiculed as ludicrous. What is suggested instead is that these interstellar magnetic fields, which are now observed to pervade most of the space we can see, are leftovers from some former event, such as the Big Bang – leftover “fossils” frozen in place.

This is the same framework which both astrophysicists and climatologists base all of their models upon. To be clear, it’s a very tenuous foundation to base the rest of science upon. And without this notion of “professionalism”, people are ill-equipped to understand why it is that professional scientists do not explore this longstanding controversy in greater depth.

Okay, let’s explore the implications of everything I’ve stated up to this point.

Plasmas are gases which possess some percentage of unbound charged particles. Gases tend to be subject to the gravitational force, but plasmas tend to be electromagnetic phenomena which with only 1% ionization can begin to ignore gravity (!). A plasma will exist in a dark mode until some charge density, at which point it will enter into a glow mode (like a fluorescent light), where it emits a diffuse light. With higher charge density, it will go into arc mode (like an arc welder). Notice that where we use plasmas, there is always a power switch nearby …

So, what does this all have to do with climate change?

If you recall, there was an episode of Mr Wizard where he cooked a hot dog by plugging it into the wall. It turns out that the solar “wind” is not actually a “wind” at all. It’s a stream of charged particles, a plasma, which is buffeted by cosmic rays coming from the opposite direction (the edge of the heliosphere, alternatively called the heliopause). Those who are closely paying attention to the electrodynamics of this system are trying to warn the public that not only is this plasma’s interaction with our atmosphere turning out to be more complex that was initially imagined, but the amounts of electric energies being dumped into our planet’s atmosphere are really quite enormous.


NASA-funded researchers say the solar storms of March 8th through 10th
dumped enough energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere to power every
residence in New York City for two years … “This was the biggest
dose of heat we’ve received from a solar storm since 2005,” says
Martin Mlynczak of NASA Langley Research Center. “It was a big event,
and shows how solar activity can directly affect our planet.”

This form of heating is scientifically called “electric joule heating”, and the current climate models do not properly take it into consideration. From “Possible reasons for underestimating Joule heating in global models: E-field variability, spatial resolution and vertical velocity” …

It is important to understand Joule heating because it can
significantly change the temperature structure, atmosphere composition
and electron density, and hence, influences satellite drag. It is
thought that many coupled ionosphere-thermosphere models underestimate
Joule heating because the spatial and temporal variability of the
ionospheric electric field is not totally captured within global


High latitude Joule heating is one of the most significant energy
deposition processes from the magnetosphere into the
ionosphere-thermosphere system. During the January 1997 magnetic cloud
event, 47% of the solar wind energy was deposited in the form of Joule
heating, while 22% was in the form of particle heating [Lu et al.,
1998]. During a typical storm, more than half of the energy is
deposited through Joule heating [Sharber et al., 1998]. Joule heating
has significant consequences in the thermosphere and ionosphere.

Without some sense of awareness that there has been an ongoing debate over how to model cosmic plasmas, electric joule heating seems like an unlikely avenue for investigation for climate change. The worldview – our scientific framework – suggests a mechanical-gravitational-magnetic universe where the magnetic fields do not imply electric currents. Where electric currents are observed in space, they are assumed to be byproducts of those movers-and-shakers (second-order effects). The notion that the Earth might be electrically connected to the Sun, which in turn might be electrically connected to the galaxy, which are in turn electrically connected to one another, is an idea which our scientific framework basically rules out – not through some process of empirical science, but simply be decree and assumption.

In the world of professional science, the question just never gets asked. Remember: Questioning the framework itself is considered an act of politics. It will get you booted from the PhD program if you dare attempt it as a grad student, and it might dramatically shorten your career if you attempt it as a novice scientist.

And, to be clear, electric joule heating is not necessarily the point. The larger message here which I want to convey is that this 95% confidence really means very little when we are manufacturing PhD’s who are not permitted to question the scientific framework.

We really need to fix this, guys. Our PhD system is broken, and until it is fixed, our scientists will not be asking all of the questions that they need to be asking in order to create an actual 95% certainty.

And yet we know it doesn’t matter that much. Because our observations are what they are, and our climate models give reasonably good agreement with them, both on past data and in terms of predicting the changes we are now seeing. And yes, people do get funding to question them; they simply haven’t managed to come up with anything substantial. So taking electric heating into account might improve their accuracy, but we already know it won’t change the main results, the same way we know it doesn’t change the outcome of baseball games.

And yet through this possible limitation to accuracy, you try to pull a conclusion that we should assume what we have now is completely wrong, and definitely not take any actions on emissions based on purely assumed economic effects - because, you know, those you can take without question. Regardless of astrophysics, it’s a total nonsense argument.

And really, since you don’t seem to understand simple things like that, it doesn’t inspire a lot of trust in all the handwaving you give about how modern astrophysics could be completely wrong. PhD programs are too dogmatic so there is no way to know! Sure, sure. You know, outsiders are sometimes important in paradigm shifts, but they still earn their place through better agreement with observations; so far as global warming goes you are only coming up with distractions and excuses to ignore them.

You can stop being disingenuous. PhD programs are broken in a number of ways, there are lots of things we don’t know about the universe, and at the same time there is very real support and meaningful agreement on climate change and its consequences. Trying to cast doubt on the latter by questioning if the former lets us know anything is dishonest, especially if you aren’t willing to apply that same level of scrutiny to other ideas, as you’ve shown.

Arguing that way doesn’t fool or convince anyone.


If I were in the US coal industry, I’d be inclined to do just that. Shut down every coal-fired power plant in the country for say, two weeks.

Nuke plants too, because, you know, scary.

Then re-open the dialogue. “How ya feelin’ about those greenhouse gases 'bout now, son??”

It’s not feasible to argue any more that the planet is not warming, or that humans aren’t at least partly the cause. The scientific findings here should be considered final.

Now whether the projections call for minimal effects, or major discomfort, or outright catastrophe…that’s still very much up for legitimate debate, as far as I can tell.

And the question of what to do about it, how to evaluate the costs and benefits of various actions (or of no action) - that’s in the realm of economics and politics on a global scale. In that arena, the most brilliant climatologist on earth has exactly the same right to vote (with dollars or with a ballot) as has you or I.

But, if you read only the next paragraph in the paper, it will tell you in very plain terms that the question remains open because the data is not being taken …

While Joule heating has been investigated utilizing measurements
obtained by satellites [Rich et al., 1987; Heelis and Coley, 1988;
Kelley et al., 1991; Gary et al., 1995; Lu¨hr et al., 2004] and
ground-based radars, [Banks et al., 1981; Kamide and Kroehl, 1987; de
La Beaujardie´re et al., 1991; Thayer et al., 1995; Thayer, 1998], it
is currently impossible for observations to give a precise
specification of global Joule heating
due to the difficulty of
observing conductivity, electric field and neutral wind simultaneously
at all locations. Furthermore, these contributing variables respond
independently to specific sources of energy.

Aren’t you simply being dismissive?

The costs and benefits of various actions are better known than you portray. The costs of inaction, especially, are absolutely something climatologists have investigated far better than you or I do; but lots of people have spent their lives investigating what different courses of action might plausibly result in. The voting may be up to all of us - except, sadly seems to be ruled by corporate interests so far - but anyone sensible would listen to them.

Well, you’ve completely ignored what I just said - that while things like the value of electric heating may be uncertain, we already know they won’t change basic results that are established by other observations.

We all understand you can find one uncertain number after another, for the rest of our lives, even as climate change predictions come true around us. That’s what a Gish gallop is, seizing on one tiny point after another to instill doubt, even though they don’t affect the over-all picture. I don’t mind dismissing chaff.

But, a scientist’s worldview certainly does have a rather large impact upon the questions which that scientist asks, as well as the inferences which they make when evaluating observations.

And, this notion that somebody who might be fluent in the implications of just one particular worldview would – in just a few short sentences, and without any actual effort to dig into the subject – dismiss arguments stemming from an alternative worldview as “tiny” points is really symptomatic of the larger problem with our university system today. It takes time to learn a new field of research. IEEE, the world’s largest scientific institution, has been publishing on this topic of plasma cosmology for more than half a century now. I’m guessing you’ve yet to be exposed to any of that background …

No, what has happened is that the problem has been solved within the context of just one worldview. But, it’s common knowledge for most at this point – thanks to Kuhn – that paradigms are incommensurable. If I started talking about the Big Bang using concepts from plasma cosmology, you’d rightly object. I completely agree that electric joule heating is a “tiny point” for the climate models within the context of the conventional worldview. But, this conventional worldview involves highly idealized cosmic plasma models which cannot even support electric currents or electric fields. You could not even use these models to fire up a fluorescent bulb. This is an extraordinary, untested gamble that cosmic plasmas differ from our observations of laboratory plasmas – which we absolutely know exhibit a small electrical resistance, and can therefore support electric fields. You’ve unknowingly accepted these (truthfully political) idealizations as a foundational assumption, without any question, and in defiance of our laboratory observations of plasmas.

Is this really a surprise that electric currents play no important role in the conventional climate models, given that astrophysicists simply refuse to infer electric current causes for the magnetic fields they routinely observe in interstellar space?

You know, nobody can force scientists to investigate a new worldview. That’s their choice. But, what the public does have a right to do, when they see such decisions made, is to refuse to accept the claim of 95% confidence.

…still applies. Climate models give good results based on observations, so we know whatever physics we might be missing, it wouldn’t significantly change those results, because the link between carbon dioxide and climate has been verified by measurements. It seems you will talk forever and day, hating to repeat yourself, about how everyone else is indoctrinated and unfair and childish and over-protective of their pet theories, and nobody can admit how awesome your favorite theory must be compared to them…and yet keep dodging that simple point, which is what makes it all chaff. Gallop on.

By the way, correlation does not imply causation. Would you like to modify this claim?

No. What I’d like is for you to realize that when a tremendous amount of very knowlegable people have devoted themselves to studying the evidence about something, and have a result they’re all confident in but continue to study, and that the financial interests Schmidt worries about have been trying hard to disprove but without coming up with meaningful evidence…it’s probably not

  1. something that depends on a naïve assumption like correlation implies causation;
  2. entirely based on a dogmatic inability to consider other possibilites;
  3. going to be completely different based on one unknown variable.

But you’ve made it plain that you have nothing but contempt for anyone who’s studied anything except plasma physics, and apparently 700+ researchers + Noam Chomsky haven’t persuaded you to look at the reasons people believe in climate change, which you are ignoring or downplaying. So all I can do is call you out for being disingenuous and throwing chaff, and I think this is enough not to have to hash that out again - I will just link to comments here.

That’s a great idea. It’s like if you were talking in the back of a taxi about how the city needed a better public transport system, but it couldn’t get it partly because the taxi companies were blocking any proposals. The taxi driver kicks you out in the middle of nowhere to show you how dependent you are on his services. That’ll show you for wanting a cleaner city!

Nobody is saying that we aren’t highly dependent on fossil fuels right now. Still, the alternatives are out there and we need to be working on sourcing energy in a way that has the least impact on the planet, based on our not insignificant knowledge of the harm that we are currently doing.

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In those fields where there isn’t any professional organization that can legally enforce dogma, once the graduate has received his or her PhD there is no longer any reward for suppressing new ideas - in fact the graduate must come up with new material and challenge the status quo, or you will never reach tenure and get the hot babes. This is obviously true, just like it is obviously true that many academics terrorize and abuse their PhD students.

Nobody takes away your climate science doctorate if you buck the common belief system; in fact you will get far more attention and opportunities to prove your case if you have a controversial view. Then if you actually do prove your points, you will be showered with job offers and speaking gigs. There’s no Bar Association, Pope or Synod, ADA or AMA that can strip you of your license to practice because you said something controversional; the way you lose your job is to not be controversial - publish or perish!

In fields where one can be stripped of the ability to earn income (like dentistry, for example) by a professional organization that rigorously enforces doctrinal purity, dogmatism will obviously be more of a problem, and there you’d have a much better case. But climate science ain’t like that.

I give you credit for engaging the subject matter.

The problem here is that the system has basically done its work by this point. The student has just spent the past 4-5 years under constant threat of expulsion internalizing a massive volume of knowledge. Those who are willing to invest in that commitment rarely come out the other end with the attitude that they then want to start over with a fresh worldview. At this point, you’ve made it. You are now an expert. People now look up to you, in theory (in practice, the PhD’s that end up in corporations are oftentimes treated like neophytes). Either way, nobody at this point needs to enforce any dogma. It’s by this point become internalized.

The deeper one gets into this subject, the more philosophical and perplexing the questions become. Is there a way to do this better? I have some ideas, but these are difficult questions.

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