Varun Sivaram

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What the Higgs Boson Tells Us About Climate Skeptics

by Michael Levi
July 5, 2012


Scientists around the world are celebrating the discovery of the Higgs boson. Last December, researchers announced that they might have glimpsed the elusive particle, but refrained from declaring victory, since there was a one percent chance that their result was a fluke. Now they’re confident: the odds of error in the new calculations are less than one in three million.

Keep those numbers in mind when you hear smart scientists say that we’re uncertain about whether humans cause climate change and whether the consequences will be tolerable. Scientists can have immensely high thresholds for what counts as solid knowledge. Even if we knew with ninety percent certainty that climate change was poised to cause the sorts of wildfires that are raging across the American West, many physicists would stand up and attack anyone who made the connection. If we knew with similar confidence that the planet would heat by ten degrees this century absent efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, some scientists would still insist that the case wasn’t closed. Those sorts of odds aren’t usually good enough for physicists, and certainly weren’t adequate for the Higgs. Why should climate scientists be allowed to get away with less?

Here’s why: We’re talking about two totally different sorts of scientific knowledge. Particle physicists are after the absolute truth. They’re building fundamental theories of nature where firmly distinguishing between right and wrong is the ultimate goal in itself. When that’s the aim, ninety nine percent confidence isn’t enough. Demanding perfection turns out to be reasonable.

The most important goal of climate science, though, isn’t to build a perfect model of the planet. It’s to help societies and leaders manage risk. (To be a bit more precise: It’s about clarifying risks so that societies and leaders are better informed in their efforts to manage them.) Knowing that there’s a nine in ten chance that we’re cooking ourselves is a lot more important that knowing that there’s a one in ten chance that we aren’t. That’s because it lets us take action to slash risks by cutting our emissions. Waiting for Higgs-like confidence in climate predictions before waiting to act misses the point.

It would be wonderful if our knowledge of climate change was as solid as what we now know about the Higgs. But it never will be. Society acts on far weaker odds and much murkier knowledge all the time, whether it’s investing in national defense or developing new medicines. Waiting for perfect knowledge is great when we’re trying to understand the origins of the universe. It’s downright dangerous when it comes to protecting ourselves from dangers at hand.

Post a Comment 16 Comments

  • Posted by Jeff H

    Seriously? No mention of the fact that climate scientists are using computer models to predict catastrophe, while the scientists searching for the Higgs-Boson were conducting experiments?

    [ML: Any therefore… What? That’s a big cause of the uncertainty in climate projections. Not sure how it undermines my point.]

  • Posted by Alan Emery

    In response to Jeff H.

    In a sense we are conducting an experiment with past history as the “control.” The climate models are in essence testable hypotheses. Because the reactions of the the climate are slow with initial high inertia and later high momentum, making judgements based on normal human perceptions which are primarily arithmetic and “real-time” is not particularly reliable.

    Never mind, in a couple of decades, the answers should become more easily discernible on a human level although reversing the experiment will be more difficult at that time.

  • Posted by Luis Dias

    Flawed analogy. I get this all the time. Before this one, we had the “cancer analogy”, equally obnoxiously wrong.

    Now, let me be a little bit generous here, and accept the premise. That premise being that we could analyse these two fields which have so little in common in both praxis and theorizing.

    And then, let’s take this the other way around. Scientists on the discovery of the Higgs boson managed to get a 5 sigma confirmation. They are still not entirely sure, but they are confident enough to proclaim its existence to the wider audience. OTOH, climate activists will proclaim with all the certainty of the world (the science is, after all, settled, innit?) that the global warming will “most surely be” a catastrophe (90% you say, etc.), when even the IPCC puts this theory at “most likely”, which is barely sigma 1.

    Can’t you see the enormous difference between the two? The first is only ready to annunciate to the world this phenomena when it is basically sure at 99.99999% level, while the other demands of the rest of the world to believe them with a 50-80% confidence level, and why not put gazillions of dollars into our pockets so we can study this problem better and try to solve it with otherwise laughable technologies that are getting us nowhere. And if you don’t, you are a denier! A scientific illiterate! An enemy of the planet! And other amazing regurgitations one has to suffer.

    If anything, this Boson episode should be a reminder for the climatologists to refrain themselves of saying outrageous things, but apparenly you decided that it was an example of the exact opposite. It figures.

    The most important goal of climate science, though, isn’t to build a perfect model of the planet. It’s to help societies and leaders manage risk

    I don’t think this is for you to decide. Perhaps some scientists believe that finding the truth is more important than political purposes. Perhaps some scientists believe that the contrary is to run a slow walk into the politicization of science, and its ultimate downfall. Oh wait.

  • Posted by bjedwards

    Jeff H,

    No mention of the fact that computer models are only one of the tools of scientific inquiry, along with 150 years of empirical data, physics, chemistry, and a range of uncertainty that cuts both ways in terms of risk?

    Don’t fall for the climate science deniers’ woo.

  • Posted by Sundance

    Climate scientists have been reluctant to offer data and code for anyone to verify their work and calculations. Journals haven’t required them to make public their data a nd codes and ecpect everyone to trust them. The problem is that they have not earned any trust as models diverge and predictions are exaggerated when compared to reality.

    The most recent example was the AGU’s release of new experimental data, the first of its kind, by scientists that were able to get physical measurement of mass balance of a major glacire in the Antarctic, finding it to be stable when models predicted large melt loss. The most disconcerting aspect of the press release by the AGU was that none of the Antarctic models were ever designed based on any physical evidence, in essence the scientists took their best WAG for 20+ years as to what they “believed” was occurring without any physical evidence to support them. Now this is fine if the scientists provided an honest caveat that theirmodels are WAGS with no physical evidence to base the models on, but they don’t and all the public hears is that sea levle will rise XYZ rate with BAU. unfortunately for the modelers they were completely wrong on their model assumptions. I appreciate that this author addresses the problems associated with trying to model a chaotic open system with variables that scientists still have no knowledge of, but the genie is already out of the bottle with respect to the poor job previously done in not communicating the large uncertainties like those just exposed in the Antarctic. Add to that the Climategate emails and whitewashed followup investigations and you have the situation of the public loss of trust for the climate science community to overcome. And how do the respond? With the arrogance that we are going to include grey literature in are assessments without being open about it. The rest of the science community is appalled (see Science 2.0 or any physics site) at the lack of openess and suggesting reform of the journal process to require all data (including rejected proxies) and all code for a study to be accepted. This would be a good first step in regaining public trust.

  • Posted by Gerald Wilhite

    I agree with Luis Dias and Alan Emery. Your analogy is the kind of flawed thinking that is making science, especially climate science, look like a very expensive highly politicized joke.

    Try listening when Dr. James Lovelock says he was very wrong to be a climate alarmist. Try listening when he says that current climate science is seriously inadequate and that the IPCC is an embarrassment to science. The fact is that in spite of substantial increases in atmospheric CO2, there has been no significant increase in global temperature for over a decade. It is well worth noting that AGW and cAGW advocates are not even able to state their concept as a proper falsifiable scientific hypothesis so that it can be tested.

    You are tragically and terribly misguided when you say “The most important goal of climate science … [is] to help societies and leaders manage risk.” That is a perverted goal, sir, and it is precisely the problem. What you are talking about is political policy activism, not climate science. Wrapping political activism in the cloak of bad science is a road to hell.

  • Posted by A. Moss

    I’ m not agree with this opinion, we need to give our support to the scientists that have given their time to improve the fact of our existing by giving a meaningful argument that will serve the humanity for the future. If we didn’t value the work of Steins, we will not understand the effect of climate change in our planet, using this technology we can instrument the system and control the effect. Higgs Boson is our generation victory, because we have seem this discovery and we can witness or we can use it for a forward research that may drive us to a further useful development as in some area or other area of interest as a physic instrument is identified in one are area, but can be used in thousand of application in the universe. Higgs discovery will give us meaning in the weather management, you will see take your time. Commenting in America damage, I can comment that this land is not a human living place, because most of the catastrophic disaster that our planet is suffering come from this part , from NASA report on the 6/06/ 2012, I can argue that the region is suffering a very strong magnetic flux that has a serious effect in the climate leaving many population out of their living. This is why I say, some area of the planet cannot to be humanized. US has a vast landmass that can allow population to emigrate in a safety of the planet. The damage goes since the Inkas civilisation in South America.

  • Posted by jud hook

    “Knowing that there’s a nine in ten chance that we’re cooking ourselves is a lot more important that knowing that there’s a one in ten chance that we aren’t.” that’s my take-away from this piece. That’s how i’ll express it conversationally.

  • Posted by jim

    The other difference between particle physics and climate is the method of investivation: experiment vs. forensic/model. Climate sci concl are not directly testable nor are there repeatable experiments. The number of varibles is unknown, and outcomes are subject to the inflence of self-interested actors. Last but by no means least, proxy/geologic data are incomplete and depend on animmense array of assumptions. Finally, model-derived parameter values, such as climate sensitivity, are freqently at odds with empirically derived parameters. I think climate science.has some way to go before it can provide the robust error estimates we expect from particle physics.

    [ML: You’re right that there isn’t even a remote chance that climate science will ever provide the sorts of robust errors that particle physics does. The point of my post was that asking for that largely misses the aim of useful climate science.]

  • Posted by jim

    ML: I would agree with you if it was clear that all errors were propated through to result. But I can’t see how that can be so. The wide range of empirical climate sensitivity estimates alone should dispel any notion that confidence numbers are quantitative. So, if they’re not quantitative, what are they? Expert opinion? Now we have the expert confidence prob.

    Personally, I just dont see where any predicitons of climate science have any chance of having robust errors.

  • Posted by jim

    In response to Alan Emery,

    Backmodelling atmospheric data or atmospheric proxies is useful, but by no means equivalent to actual experiments. Not really even close. First, in an experimental setting, we would produce many data sets (outcomes) with the dependent variables rezponding to diff initials. In modelling, we have only one data set (outcome) with which to.asses the independent variables. In experimentation, the “proper” functioning of physical laws is safely assumed. OTOH, Models usually seek, at least in part, to determine physical laws and, at best, operate with a selected subset of these laws.

    Overall, while models are very usefull for investivating phys process, it’s is not apprpriate to equate.them with.experiments. With these considerations in mind, it seems even.less appropriate to use them for policy decisions until their outcomes are demonstrably robust.

  • Posted by Marlowe Johnson


    Climate sensitivity is an emergent property of climate models, not a parameter. Google ‘annan and hargreaves’ or papers by gabi hergel for more info on the multiple lines of inquiry (i.e. paleo, modern obs, climate models) that serve to constrain estimates of climate sensitivity.

    Your suggestion that “outcomes are subject to the inflence of self-interested actors” is somehow unique to climate science but not, say, particle physics demonstrates a paranoid, cynical and ultimately inconsistent view of how science actually works.

  • Posted by jim


    Clearly, you misunderstood my comment. The subject of study in particle physics – the physical particles themselves – are not controlled by their own self interest. OTOH, climate is, in part, controlled by humans and other organisms, which do act in their own self-interest. These “self interested” actors are beyond experimental control. The are not predictable. There is no statistical formulation that can even determine the odds or probability of a given outcome, let alone establish the population of possible outcomes. What was the probability of the emergence of personal computers in 1940?

    As far asI know, climate sensitivity is not a “property” of any kind. Even to call it a “parameter” overstates its physical importance. It’s a crude index or guide based on the idea that doubling of CO2 concentration has some particular relevance not shared by tripling or squaring CO2 concentration.

  • Posted by Marlowe Johnson

    Thanks for clarify jim. I certainly did misunderstand your point it seems!

    While I disagree with your assertion that climate sensitivity is somehow unimportant, the convention used in its definition (i.e. equilibrium response to a a 2x pre-industrial CO2 forcing) is just that – a convention. Nothing more, nothing less. Similarly, scenarios that forecast temperature changes or sea level rises out to 2100 do not do so for special reason. It’s just a convention, and a dangerous one at that, since many of the impacts of climate change will persist for much, much longer.

  • Posted by jim

    Marlowe, thanks, I’m glad that you asked. I don’t mean to imply climate sensitivity is irrelevant. It is, certainly, a useful index – but not a property of the planet.

  • Posted by Gerald Wilhite

    As an avid armchair fan of climate science, I have to challenge your assertion about climate skeptics expecting too much of the still-embryonic science of climate studies. My impression is that skeptical physicists and other scientists are challenging sloppy mushy studies full of mights and maybes based primarily or entirely on their own assumptions about variables — not actual data. These assumptions get plugged into IPCC computer models that even the IPCC modelers say are crude and inaccurate.

    I think it is fair to say that everyone’s skepticism (except perhaps for Al Gore and Jim Hansen) has been raised by the failure of these models to foresee the flat global temperatures of the past decade or so. The fact that CO2 has also risen significantly during this same period calls the basic AGE hypothesis into question. One well-known and very active originator of the cAGW hypothesis, the UK’s Dr. James Lovelock, says essentially the same thing. Lovelock has put his radical alarmism on hold, saying we’ve got time to do this right.

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