Sunday, November 29, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XXIV

I'm not sure any translation is necessary:

Do I really need to say, "Don't try this at home?" Anyone with two brain cells to rub together ought to know that joyriding a medieval siege engine is an express train to Hurtville, especially if you should miss the net.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Storytellers, Advocates, and Scientists

There are basically three ways to present facts to the public.

The Storyteller is only interested in facts insofar as they make a good story. He doesn't need to be right, he just needs to be plausible, and even that only long enough to finish the story. We, the public, will happily suspend disbelief of things we know to be untrue for the sake of entertainment. Indeed, some of our highest-paid citizens are actors who facilitate such storytelling. We don't castigate storytellers for "lying". Rather, it's proverbial that facts should never get in the way of a good story.

The Advocate is only interested in facts insofar as they provide evidence. To prove his point, the advocate needs evidence to support his argument, and he needs to suppress or discredit evidence to the contrary. In this the advocate is being neither dishonest nor mendacious, he is simply doing his job. Paired off against another advocate, it is the jury's job (or the public's) to decide whose case stands up to reality better.

The Scientist's job is to explain the facts -- all of them. Not just the ones that fit a pet theory, but the outliers, too. To analyze the totality of the data available, and glean from them the underlying principle at work -- this is the scientist's proper task. The honest scientist follows where the data lead, come what may.

The thing that gets us into trouble is when individuals begin confusing the roles.

I am, of course, talking about the recently-leaked e-mail exchanges between the leading scientists that supported the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

Color me unimpressed. Maybe that's because I've always thought the hockey-stick graph was nonsense. That particular hobby-horse has always reeked of scientists straying into advocacy. The fact is, there has always been a considerable amount of variability in Earth's climate. Within the written historical record, it has been warm enough that the southern tip of Greenland made good economic sense as a way-station between northern Europe and Vinland. Within the written historical record, it has also been cold enough that the Hudson River froze sufficiently solid to drag artillery across during the Revolution. And when you get right down to it, we just don't know what caused either the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age. Indeed, as of the early 1970s, the climate buzzword was "Next Ice Age", because if you look at the longest-term climate trends, we're due one any day now. (Well, maybe any century now.) If anything, we may well be in a slight cooling period. The current Solar cycle, Solar Cycle 24, has been abnormally quiet. The last time this happened, the Little Ice Age may have been the result.

The honest answer is, we just don't know.

In my opinion, global warming is bad science, and has always been. As a theory of climate change, it cannot explain either the Medieval Warm Period, nor the Little Ice Age, and if you bring up either of those two at a climate conference you will face vicious personal attacks.

This doesn't mean the climate change itself is bad science. And this is what I find most frustrating about the whole affair.

The CO2 concentration data is clear and incontrovertible: the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are at simply absurd values based on the deep-drill ice core data. We don't know for sure what that's going to do to us. We probably shouldn't wait too long to find out. But we do need to quantify what it's really doing.

But as clinching as the CO2 data was, it wasn't sexy enough. It didn't stoke enough fear. So, it's entirely possible that a group of scientists yielded to the temptation to become advocates, and cooked the data a little so that they could be sure to "find" the right answer. And now that the shenanigans are coming out in the open, their eagerness jeopardizes everything they've worked for.

In a sense, this revelation changes nothing. We're running an open-ended experiment on elevated CO2 concentrations, and that is probably unwise. Even discounting global warming (which, generally, I do), there are plenty of good reasons to reduce CO2 emissions. The brown haze that hangs over most of our cities is one. Impoverishing Islamic extremists is another. Making Hugo Chavez shut up and deal with his own country is yet another. Reducing our need for oil tankers is another still. We need to transcend fossil fuels, and transition our economy to other energy sources. As I've said before, this won't be easy. But it won't get any easier if we wait.

In another sense, this revelation makes the transition that much harder to begin. It hands ammunition to the people who think we don't need to change anything at all. This is the price paid when a scientist dabbles into advocacy. The most powerful thing about the scientific method is the way that the truth always points to itself. You may try to diddle with the data, and you may succeed for a while. But it always comes out. And when it does, you run the risk that the revelation will set a match to everything you've built.

I think it would have been far better if they'd played it straight, and built their case on the CO2 data alone. We might be no closer to an answer, but we'd be no farther away either. And the science itself would have been trustworthy, through and through.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Ballad of Acceptance Test

I've been busy enough to wish I was triplets. But sanity should return to my schedule in a few weeks. Until then, I leave you with a ballad that should apply to all engineers working through the acceptance test phase of a project:

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friends and Foes

The day after a huge event is always a bad time to ask big questions, like "What does this mean?" You're too close, you haven't had time to think on it yet, the emotions are still too raw. But it's always the first one that comes to mind. And if past crises are any guide, someone will leap immediately to their favorite answer straight away, and learn the wrong lesson. We don't know why Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on soldiers at Fort Hood yesterday, and indeed we may never know; he's in a coma and might well never regain consciousness. I will neither ask nor attempt to answer that question. There are a few other thoughts rattling around in my head that I want to chase.

First: I think we should contrast the oath of service that an enlisted person takes versus the oath that an officer takes. Upon induction, enlisted personnel take this oath:

"I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

Officers, upon commissioning, take this oath:

"I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

They're the same, up through the bit about "true faith and allegiance." That's where they diverge. The enlisted person swears to obey orders, while the officer swears honest intent to do a good job. Interestingly, the officer does not swear to follow orders. He's expected to, and can get in a whole lot of trouble if he doesn't, but it's not in the oath of commissioning. But the important part is that the officer swears that he accepts his responsibilities freely, and without reservations.

Here's the thing: an officer cannot -- CANNOT -- have any higher calling than his commission. Nothing in this life can come before bearing true faith and allegiance to the United States. Nothing. It's a hard road, and one not everyone can follow. After much soul-searching, I found that to be true for me, and I left the AFROTC program after my second year.

The honorable thing for an officer to do when he finds that he cannot carry out his assigned task in good conscience is to resign his commission. Simply that. It may carry unpleasant consequences. Those consequences may be quite severe, depending on circumstances. But that's what an honest man with honest intent would do in that situation. It is no one's fault but Hasan's that he did not choose this path.

Second: The usual suspects have swarmed out of the woodwork, alternately bellowing that it's all about religion, or that religion had nothing to do with it. Horsefeathers, the lot of 'em. You'd have to be outright delusional to think religion had nothing to do with it, given that he shouted an Islamic slogan prior to opening fire. There is a religious dimension to what's happening, but it's not as simple as Islam versus the West. At the end of the day we have to remind ourselves: what are we fighting for? It's the same old fight, just a new phase. Andrew Sullivan puts it quite well: "We are fighting to retain an open democracy, where all religions can coexist, where religion is separate from politics, where toleration is a civic virtue." There are world-views, both within radical Islam and within some of the more backward strains of Christianity, to which this is anathema.

This is the shape of the enemy: men for whom Church and State must march side-by-side, in perfect lockstep. One of the great geniuses of the American experiment is the way by which we prevent the bloody murder that often happens when different faiths rub together. It wasn't too terribly long ago that members of different Christian denominations in Europe were slaughtering one another wholesale. Even today, the wrong answer to the question "Protestant or Catholic?" can earn you a beating in Belfast. The doctrine of separation of Church and State is the wall that keeps that insanity out. The Church cannot use the State to enforce its will, and the State in turn cannot interfere in matters of conscience.

The fight we have joined is to preserve this idea. It is anathema to bin Laden, who believes in an Islam that is both Church and State. But we have allies, even within the Muslim world. Take Turkey, for example: a majority Muslim nation, yet with a strong, secular government. And we have allies at home: good, hard-working, honest men and women of all faiths who simply want to live their lives and raise their families. In this crisis, we must resist with all our strength the temptation to over-react. The enemy is not the man down the street who prays differently than you do. The enemy is the man down the street who insists that everyone pray exactly the same way he does.

The task before us? Discerning the difference between the two. And that won't be easy.