08 September 2009

What fields are relevant?

I've never met someone who knew everything. Certainly I've met some very bright people, and people who knew quite a lot. But nobody has known everything. Conversely, I'm a bright guy, and know a lot of stuff, but I've never met anybody who didn't know things that I didn't. That including an 8 year old who was pointing out to me how to identify some animal tracks (they'd talked about this in her science class recently).

People know best what they've studied the most is my rule of thumb. That's why I go to a medical doctor when I'm sick, but take the dogs to a veterinarian when they're sick. I call up a plumber when the water heater needs replacing, and take my car to an auto mechanic when it needs work. And not vice versa on any of them. It might be true that the auto mechanic is also a good plumber. But, odds are, the person who focused on learning plumbing is the better plumber.

None of this should be a surprise to anybody, yet it seems in practice that it is once we come to climate. Let's be a little more specific in that -- make it the question of whether and how much human activity is affecting climate. There are many other climate questions, but it's this one that attracts the attention, and lists of people on declarations and petitions. If you look only at the people who have professionally studied the matter and contributed to our knowledge of the matter, then the answer to the question is an overwhelming 'yes', and a less overwhelming but substantial 'about half the warming of the last 50 years'.

I've tried to set up a graphic (you folks who have actual skills in graphics are invited to submit improved versions!) of 'the way to bet'. The idea is to provide a loose relative guide as to which fields most commonly have people who you can have the greatest expectations that they have studied material relevant to the question of global warming and human contributions to it from a standpoint of the natural science of the climate system.

Climatology, naturally, is on the top tier -- many people in that field will have relevant background. Not all, remember. Some climatologists look no further than their own forest (microclimatology of forests -- how the conditions in the forest differ locally from the larger scale averages) or other small area, or small time scale. Still, many will be relevant.

Second tier, fewer of the people will be climate-relevant, but still many. Oceanography, meteorology, glaciology.

Third tier, most people will not be climate-relevant. But some have made their way, at least, from those fields over to studying climate. That includes areas like Geomorphology (study of the shape of the surface of the earth) and quantum physics (the ones who come to climate were studying absorption of radiation).

Fourth tier, almost nobody is studying things relevant to the question I posed. The extremely rare exception does exist -- Judith Lean has come from astrophysics and done some good work (with David Rind, a more classically obvious climate scientist) regarding solar influence on climate. Milankovitch was an astronomer/mathematical analyst who developed an important theory of the ice ages.

Fifth tier, I don't think anybody has studied the question I posed directly. I do know a couple of nuclear physicists who have moved to climate-relevant studies. But they essentially started their careers over with some years of study to make the migration. In this, it's more a matter that they once were nuclear physicists. After some years of retraining, they finally were able to make contributions to weather and climate. At which point, really, they were meteorologists who happened to know surprisingly large amounts about nuclear physics.

Sixth tier, I wouldn't include at all except that they show up sometimes on the lists. My doctor is a good guy, bright, interested, and so on. But it takes a lot of work studying things other than climate to become a doctor, and more work after the degree is awarded to stay knowledgeable in that field. That doesn't leave a lot of time to become expert in some other highly unrelated field.

[Figure removed 14 September 2009 -- See Intro to Peer Review for details]

Suggestions of areas to add, or to move up or down, are welcome. I'm sure I have missed many fields and others are probably too high or low.

For now, though, if you're not an expert on climate yourself, I'll suggest that if the source is in the first two tiers, there's a fair chance that they've got some relevant background. If they're in the bottom 3, almost certainly not -- skip these. And the third level, is probably to skip but maybe pencil them in for later study, after you've developed more knowledge yourself from studying sources on the first two levels.

This ranking, of course, applies to the particular question asked. If the question is different, say "What are the medical effects of a warmer climate?", the pyramid would be quite different and MD's would be the top tier. Meteorology would move down one or two levels. Expertise exists only within some area. As I said, nobody knows everything.

frequent commenter jg has contributed the following graphic:

A general good change he's made is to split between general skills, that can transfer to studying climate, as well as what particular sorts of detailed skills or knowledge one might have. Almost everyone, for instance, involved in studying climate knows some statistics and mathematical analysis. Many fields also require such knowledge, so those would find it easier to move over to climate.

Different good change he made was to put the question directly into the graphic. This is important. As I said, but didn't illustrate, the priority list depends on exactly what question is at hand.


Paul said...

I see only one graphic.

Robert Grumbine said...

Oops. Fixed now. Thanks.

Thomas Palm said...

I'm surprised that you rank quantum physics so high. I suppose a few of them may have some knowledge about how to calculate the absorbtion spectrum of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses from first principle, but that's about all I can think of.

Klaus Kloeser said...

Curious: Veterinarians which help keeping cow populations high impact the climate by stabilizing the entities (cows) which produce methane and thus have an impact on the atmosphere and by that on the climate.
By that we can probably say, that the pyramid is meaningful only for a particular, but not for a general question. If you would like to investigate impacts and influence of a particular discipline to another, you should probably try an entity - relationship diagram instead of a pyrimaid which has an inherent hierarchy.

Hope, this makes sense to you :)

Lippard said...

Note, however, that the IPCC is concerned not just with the science of climate change, but with responses and adaptations to it--which brings in a whole bunch of other fields as relevant. (I guess I am seconding Klaus Kloeser's point.)

Jesús R. said...

I'm always surprised at the fact that meteorologists tend to be somewhat skeptical about that question. According to the poll by Doran & Zimmerman 2009 only 64 % of meteorologists (23 of 36) answered yes to the question of the human influence. Peter Doran himself said about this: "Most members of the public think meteorologists know climate, but most of them actually study very short-term phenomenon." That's why I was wondering whether this discipline should be downgraded one level.

Anonymous said...

A few potential additions to the list: Ecology - particularly phenology. Epidemiology. Agricultural & forestry science.

Chris S.

Robert Grumbine said...

Thomas: I guess it's an accident of my own background. I happen to know a perhaps unrepresentative number of quantum types who made the move from calculating absorption spectra over to doing climate science.

Klaus, Jim: We're in agreement really. There are many meaningful questions and, as I did mention at the end, the priority list will be different for each of them. On the other hand, this particular question is common, and commonly (silly petitions, for instance) people with no relevant background are being treated as serious sources. For the question here, it's IPCC WG1 questions (physical science), rather than on effects, or economic scenarios.

Klaus: I'm not sure what you mean in the 'entity-relationship diagram'. Could you describe or illustrate? There is a degree to which I do want a hierarchy -- oceanographers are much more likely to know the science on climate change and human contributions to it than are, say, material scientists (another field I missed, and know one of the significant exceptions to the rule).

Chris: Definitely good fields to add. And, with a different question, they'd be the main ones to turn to.

Jesus: The deal with meteorologists points up the large fraction of any of these fields (climatology included) that is not involved in answering the questions about how much warming is occurring, and how much of it is from human activity. Meteorology includes a very large number of people whose main interest is forecasting tomorrow's weather. Again, a very good problem, but a very different problem than climate. The mistake I see fairly consistently from meteorologists is to think that the requirements for climate and climate prediction are the same as for weather prediction. They're not. Not least, you have to pay more attention to the oceans for climate than weather.

Alastair said...

Here's an indirect link to a recent paper in science which has some relevance to the question "How are humans affecting climate?" It seems that the current rise (over the last 50 years) is not just 100% caused by humans, it is even more since the general trend without humans would have been cooling!


There are a rather large number of authors, and I am sure they are not all climatologists!

EliRabett said...

Rather than quantum physics Eli would say spectroscopists. The atmospheric chemistry folk are pretty well covered by physical chemistry

jyyh said...

Agricultural Sciences should be somewhere though it is a very conservative (in science) subject.

John Mashey said...

Thanks, this is useful.
I've been using Scale K as a fairly general guide, but I can play your scheme versus that to see whether my model is any good or not.

I the mapping goes:

B4: Climatology (top level)

B3: the other natural sciences, from which one might move into climatology, with serious effort.

(and of course, people who started early, probably had to do so, just like many fine computer scientists started in math or EE.
I'm always amused when someone says "Hansen has no credibility as a climatologist, his degree was astrophysics. :-))

B2: other technical folks, most commonly might be part of a multi-disciplinary team.

I'm really not so sure about some of the physics areas. I've been in a lot of National Labs, and I've been reading a lot of abstracts in conjunction with this study of the APS petition that I'm trying to finish ... and the domain knowledge doesn't seem to have much in common.

F.W.Graumis said...

Hi Penguindreams,

You recommend that:

For now, though, if you're not an expert on climate yourself, I'll suggest that if the source is in the first two tiers, there's a fair chance that they've got some relevant background. If they're in the bottom 3, almost certainly not -- skip these.

Since an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, we need to be very careful trying to use it. It can be done, but not if a direct appeal. For example, we all support the suggestion above if it is only intended as a time saver.

I myself started out by reading R.T. Pierrehumbert's online "Principles of Planetary Climate". I did this (and it took some time) because I feel that even climate scientists have contributed to climate science becoming politicized. Climate scientists need to appreciate that this prior attitude effectively neuters any direct argument from authority. And I don't think this attitude is unusual.

Of course, I appreciate that this is anything but a time saver for climate scientists. They can no longer simply state interesting and important conclusions about their work but must explain them (i.e., literally teach them) to everybody. Very unfortunate, unless they really enjoy being a teacher.

BTW, I would add computer scientists somewhere in an upper tier.

quasarpulse said...

Interesting thoughts. One thing that puzzles me, though, is that your top four tiers contain essentially no biologists. There are quite a few biological sciences that are affected by the climate change question (whether it's happening, at least, if not why) - for instance, it's particularly relevant to ecologists, especially marine ecologists.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Horatio would add horticulture and agriculture scientists, farmers (see, for example Change in length of growing season in New England from Climate Change and northeast agriculture) and even Joe and Josephine gardener (see Arbor day Foundation animation of hardiness zone changes) to the list of those who have an appreciation for climate change.

Changes to the local environment are obviously not the same as global ones (and in some cases are actually opposite the trend in global average) and may happen on a time scale that is too short to be significant for "climate", but overall, they can provide an indication of what is happening.

Horatio would just note that generally speaking, people (and animals!) who spend a lot of time outside (ecologists, wildlife biologists, farmers, gardeners, groundhogs, deer, foxes, etc) can "sense" changes to their environment that the cloistered scientists sometimes miss even with supercomputers running elaborate climate models.

John Mashey said...

As a group, computer scientists are properly placed in the last tier.

Once upon a time, computer scientists often had early backgrounds in natural sciences, before shifting to CMPSC, especially when there were few undergraduate CMPSC degree programs.

This is less true these days, and people so inclined can get through CMPSC degrees with less physics, math, and statistics than one would expect.

Many computer scientists would fit B3 background, K2-K3 level of knowledge on that chart I linked earlier.

On that scale, I only rate myself a K4, which corresponds roughly to Robert's Tier 5. Many CMPSC PhDs would rate no higher than K2 (or even K1, I'm afraid, on climate science).

Horatio Algeranon said...

It strikes me that many people are smart and scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand global warming, but that does not necessarily mean they will -- or even that they will be more likely to make the effort to do so.

I think it is as much a matter of "philosophy" as it is of scientific knowledge and training in the relevant areas.

For example, ecologists as a group (whom I would put close to the top of the list) have an appreciation for the fact that humans are an integral part of nature and hence that we can do things that potentially have a rather large (negative) impact on our environment.

On the other hand, in general physicists and engineers seem to have a more "control" oriented philosophy.

Rather than try to try to find a way to live in harmony with nature, they might be more inclined (than ecologists, for example) to try to "master it". John McPhee actually wrote a book about this "philosophy", quite aptly called the "Control of Nature".

Even if one accepts that global warming is real, it stands to reason that if one has a "control-oriented" philosophy, one might tend to emphasize adaptation over mitigation whe nit comes to dealing with the problem.

AS an illustration, I would expect a proposal for a geo-engineering 'solution" to global warming to come from a physicist or engineer rather than from an ecologist or climate scientist.

Jeff said...

It's an odd form of classification you propose as it doesn't seem to recognize outside study. I would never claim to be an expert in climatology, even if I had a PhD in it. However, the data in every science I've read can speak for itself. Climatology is very very weak on its data handling and statistical processing. Similar problems exist in medicine.

So I wonder, where would you place Steve McIntyre on your pyramid list?

Robert Grumbine said...

Eli: Definitely agreed -- spectroscopists is more to the point than the much broader 'quantum physics'. The folks who made the jump were in the spectroscopy/radiative transfer end of things. This is part of quantum, but a very small part of that very large field.

All: Thanks for the additional fields. I'll be returning to this in a post 'soon', and your suggestions will be there.

gmcrews: Obviously it is a time saver. The ideal is to know enough about the field yourself that you don't need such shortcuts. But, life is short and the amount of stuff to know is enormous, so we do need shortcuts.

quasarpulse: The biology, particularly ecology, folks definitely sit high for answering the first part of the question -- whether there is climate change. They don't do well with the second -- whether and how much of the change is from human activity. This is another thing I'll take up in the revision/later post. My original was too broad.

Horatio: Your point is well-taken. Mostly. The exception I'll take is that most of the climate scientists I know are fairly active outdoors people themselves. The vision of a bunch of people going pale while staring at computer screens might work for some fields, but not earth sciences (more generally, but including climate types), even for those of us who do make the computers overheat.

Jeff: I recognized outside study in the original post, giving examples myself. As a shortcut, however, few people who devoted enough time to become reasonably expert in, say, mining engineering and mining company management (McIntyre's apparent background) then turn around and devote sufficient time to become reasonably expert in such a wildly unrelated field as climate. But, let's pursue this a touch farther. How much science has McIntyre published? A total of 1 paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (2005, with Ross McKitrick, in Geophysical Research Letters). At least that's all I can find, and he, oddly, doesn't include a publication list himself anywhere I found. (McKitrick hosts a bio for McIntyre, but it talks about only things other than his publication list.) 1 paper in 10 years is not a significant publication rate.

And no, data cannot speak for itself. Never does, in any field. Thinking that it can leads you to many outrageous errors in climate, remote sensing, oceanography, meteorology, paleoclimatology, to name some fields I've dealt with data from. If I believed the data as given (letting it 'speak for itself') I would have made, and would still be making, many extreme errors. You always have to understand where the data come from. And that requires specific knowledge about the field of study involved.

That, and McIntyre's paper, point to some other things I'll probably be writing about at more length later. Mostly regarding the doing of science.

Anonymous said...

Interesting pyramid. Where exactly would you put Dr Schmidt since he is a mathmatician who programs computers. Clearly he goes at the bottom. I also wonder how come you expect glaciologists to have a better understanding of radiative transfer, convection and particle physics than a physical chemist or physicist. Climatologists my A...!

Anonymous said...

Penguindreams said "The biology, particularly ecology, folks definitely sit high for answering the first part of the question -- whether there is climate change. They don't do well with the second -- whether and how much of the change is from human activity."

I'd say we also sit high on the second part too (but that is my bias as I'm a biologist specializing in ecology, and I've worked with Dr. C. Krebs in the Yukon on mammal populations where we studied correlations between mammal trends, berry crops and temperature data--30 plus years of info).

We see what is happening with climate and we want to know why it is happening. It is all part of what we want (or need) to know.

From a sciencedaily synopsis (Dramatic Biological Response to Global Warming in the Arctic) on a paper published in Science this week you find a list of the disciplines involved in another project:
"In addition to Eric Post at Penn State University, the team he led was comprised of biologists, ecologists, geographers, botanists, anthropologists, and fish and wildlife experts...", and then goes on to list a large number of institutions from which they drew their resources.

We're drawn in and then curiosity as to causes drives us to learn more. Once you see the first half (climate is warming) it is very difficult to stop there. We need to know why.

Just my personal bias. :-)

Daniel J. Andrews

Robert Grumbine said...

Daniel: Could be we're just exposing my rather broad ignorance of biology.

Could you show how you can tell the difference in ecosystem response to warming (say) that was caused by human activity and warming that is caused by the usual climate cycles?

I understand that ecosystems do respond to temperature -- flowers bloom earlier, hibernation times shorten. If there aren't enough cold days some bark beetle ravages forests or certain plants don't grow well or reproduce well. etc.
These and a number of other biological system responses are actually something I take as a better reason to think that climate has warmed than the surface thermometer record.

But I can't see how you use the biota can distinguish between sources of warming. Could you illustrate? If it's lengthy, I'd be glad to post it as a guest article. (Please remember I try to be inclusive of middle and jr. high science students.) Citations to the literature or your web site(s) are also welcome.

John Mashey said...

Although not a biologist, I'd certainly support having some flavors higher in the hierarchy.
For example, Barry Brook would be up there.

I.e., population biologists, ecologists might fit; those nearer biochemistry would be less likely. The former are often well-accustomed to messy data and statistical analysis.

I'd think that one of the major contributions from these areas of biology is helping figure out where feedbacks and tipping points are from the biological systems. Issues like:

a) Forest CO2 sequestration diminished by the ^$^%*% bark beetles that have chewed up much of British Columbia and are working on Alberta.

b) Any similar issues from range motion of various plants.

c) Ocean biology.

d) Studies of land-use (which seems to cross areas with agricultural studies), or into Ruddiman's rice paddies / deforestration / plagues issues, and the part of his hypotheses that proposes plagues=>tree regrowth=>CO2 sequestration=>cooler.

If warmer temperatures in boreal forests cause trees to get killed by beetles, that might not be too different in effect from humans cutting them down.

e) Biological issues due to aerosols, if any. For example, suppose one goes off into geoengineering via SO2 (not advocating that). Does the lessening of insolation reduce plant growth and hence lower CO2 sequestration?

Some of these seem like human forcings, and some seem like feedbacks (from CO2 or heat), where indeed one cannot tell the immediate difference very well.

However, some of these things also seem helpful in bounding various kinds of effects in the paleo records, and that might help with attribution.

naught101 said...

Penguindreams: It's not only about the sources of warming, but also about the sources of those forcings.

For example, Biologists and ecologists can play a big role in understanding the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide and methane - by understanding the life/death/decomposition cycle of forests, we can find more about whether GHGs are coming from land use, or deforestation, or aquatic systems, and how our impact is changing those rates of absorbtion/emission. This definitely has a large impact on how we understand where the warming is coming from.

naught101 said...

oh, and John Mashey, that's an awesome graphic. I put myself in the upper part of the red area, with toes in the green bit (just started a BS)

But dude, get inkscape or something. The rendering is horrible!

John Mashey said...

Don't worry, I'll do better graphics later.
These are just the easiest thing doable in Excel and posted as sketches. Right now, I'm more interested in getting the models useful.

Here was Barry Brook's take, Just who does climate science from a year ago. In particular, it includes a set of relevant biology areas.

Jim Bouldin said...

"Could you show how you can tell the difference in ecosystem response to warming (say) that was caused by human activity and warming that is caused by the usual climate cycles...I can't see how you[r use of]the biota can distinguish between sources of warming."

GREAT question. Books could be written (and have been--it's essentially the philosophy of non-experimental science). Short answer: at the scales we're talking about, they can't. More is required.

You have to build an attribution chain from one cause to it's effect, and from that effect as some cause of a second effect (perhaps also influenced by the first cause), and so forth. (1->2->3 plus maybe 1->3). Each step requires a (necessarily probabilistic) assessment of whether a particular, observed phenomena is due to an unforced ("natural") variation, or to some external driver (forcing), or some combination thereof. This is not easy, (and it is also why great caution is advised when you read various popular media articles about certain supposed "effects" of AGW).

Natural variability necessarily requires a certain time for proper characterization, and may well be superimposed on a forced component, thus confounding signal (forcing) from noise (natural variation). The necessary, unforced controls are hard to come by, or lacking altogether, sending us off looking for good historic/pre-historic data (with its own suite of difficulties) and (gasp!) building models and running model experiments.

Naomi Oreskes wrote a paper, not at my fingertips sorry, on the philosophy of the climate science part of this process, and essentially you have to extend some of those ideas out in evaluation of various possible environmental effects. But this is just a very quick and dirty summary. I really try not to refer to my own writings, but at the moment the best example I can think of is this, sorry:


Robert Grumbine said...

Thank you for the good comment and link. One thing I encourage is links to sources of more and better information. I'm quite happy if it turns out that one of the people doing that original science visits, so winds up citing his own work!

I'll encourage folks here to read Jim's article over at realclimate.

I'll summarize a little, finally seeing the connection on climate change attribution that I'd made back in Unity of science and turkey vultures for something else.

Jim, how does this sound w.r.t. your work:

On the straight 'go run physical models' side, there's been work done comparing model outputs with observations of the climate system. The models, unlike the earth, we get to run while turning off anthropogenic greenhouse gases, or turning off volcanoes, unlike the real earth. Folks can, and have, made the comparisons, and find that the only way to match the observed physical parameters like global temperatures is to include the anthropogenic effects.

But the real earth has more going on than just temperatures, and more than just physical components. We do have ecosystems across the planet. They respond to changes in rain, temperature, etc. as well. We can observe the ecosystems as well, if with some difficulty, and we can drag out of the models (also with some effort) the sorts of things -- like seasonal snowfall totals -- that the ecosystems care about. We can then turn around and ask whether these physical models, which know nothing about ecosystems (same as the reanalysis model knowing nothing about turkey vultures), produce the changes to the environment that we see the ecosystems responding to. Again, we can compare with or without anthropogenic effects being allowed in the climate models. Again, the only way to match up the real world observations is with models that include anthropogenic effects.

The unity of science illustration is really quite powerful. It isn't only ecosystem observation that is involved. But the only way to arrive at the observations, we can see (by way of Jim and scientists like him), is in a world where human effects on the climate system are significant. Conversely, the models are doing something right, because once we allow the known human effects in climate, they predict correct things for ecosystems.

wonderingmind42 said...

I'm not a regular reader, but was referred to this post because I've also suggested a "credibility spectrum"for the lay person to use when watching the shouting match that passes for the popular debate on climate change. I proposed it as part of my "How It All Ends" video series on YouTube, and then developed it much further in my recent book ("What's the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate"). You might be interested. Cheers.

Jim Bouldin said...

Robert, I left a long reply to your last post but it never made it through. I agree that it is optimal if the different components of the process one is studying are as independent from each other as possible.

I agree with the others who mentioned ecologists. I've yet to meet a single one who doesn't accept the reality of AGW. The philosophies and methods of science are very similar between the two areas. I would add anyone who thinks in terms of systems, and those involved in pattern recognition and/or multivariate statistics.

Robert Grumbine said...

I've heard good things about your book. I'd give the full author and title but assume you have a reason to not use your name here. Still, since I've heard good things, I'll probably be getting it sooner or later. And then reading it sooner rather than later. (If you had seen my unread bookcases, you'd know the compliment involved.)

Jim Bouldin:
I never did see your longer note. I'd certainly have passed it through. (I do have the moderation set, and get emails of the comments submitted. No longer note shows up either in the email box or the comment moderation queue.) Maybe you could resend? Copy to me at bobg at radix dot net maybe? I lose some mail there to my spam filters, but they're different ones than my usual account.

In any case: I definitely suffered from temporary brain death in thinking about ecology as a route to learning about climate change. R. Edward Grumbine is the ecologist R. Grumbine is my closest excuse, which is a poor one.

I'll generalize a little beyond climate and ecology, as places to find people more prepared to deal with systems like climate, and in to what I call 'messy systems' people. That includes, say, biologists (cells are very complex!), condensed matter physicists (but not, as a rule, nuclear/particle/relativists/...). The 'messy' is that you cannot simplify the system much, or at all, and still have something that meaningfully resembles what you want to study. In particle physics, for instance, you can simplify down to just one or two particles and still be dealing with a meaningful system. In these other areas, you have to, well, suck it up and, deal with huge systems that have tons of interactions.

To backtrack to your previous comment, if you could provide some titles on the philosophy of science, I'd be interested. (This included you, too, Lippard :-)

wonderingmind42 said...

I didn't give the book title because I didn't want my comment to seem like a plug for the book. I really was just letting you know you might find my proposed credibility spectrum interesting, since you've also put a ton of thought into yours.

But since you're asking...
"What's the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate," by Greg Craven. Available on Amazon (but if you go through gregcraven.org and click on the Amazon link, you'll get the same Amazon page, but Amazon then gives me a small referral fee.)

Now go shout it from the rooftops of the world. I happen to think the book is damn brilliant, but it has gotten very little publicity. :-)