Clouds clocks and climate models

A chapter in The Deniers by Lawrence Solomon treats the work of Hendrik Tennekes on the problems of modelling complex systems. Clouds are a great example of complex systems and Tennekes was pleased to find a paper by Karl Popper on the challenge of exploring the dynamics of cloudlike systems compared with clocks or the movement of the planets in the solar system.

Tennekes was a director of research in the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the European Centre. He wrote a bestselling popular book The Simple Science of Flight and a scholarly work A First Course on Turbulence.

He was a critic of some aspect of climate models from the beginning and in 1986 he delivered an important speech in Reading UK “No Forecast Is Complete Without a Forecast of Forecast Skill”. His point was that predictions of climate and weather beyond about three days are beyond the limits of testable science. “The goal of science is prediction but we stand in front of the limits of prediction.” Given the efforts of model builders since then there has been some success but only on the scale he predicted.

He did not consider that the response using “ensemble forecasting” and “multi-model forecasting” got over the fundamental difficulty that is rooted in the nature of cloudlike systems. “Fundamental questions concerning the prediction horizon are being avoided like the plague”. That sounds too much like unsettled science! Solomon reported that Tennekes found the philosophical key to his concern in Popper’s challenge to determinism in the essay “Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the Problems of Rationality and the Freedom of Man” published in the 1972 Collection Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. The essay alone is on line here.

The question is whether we can find out enough about clouds to predict their behaviour in the way that we can predict the future states of relatively stable and isolated systems. The case for determinism and the possibility of accurate prediction depends on the calculation of future states of a system based on full knowledge of the current situation. (Hayek developed philosophical counter-arguments to criticise the idea of central economic planning). Popper saw determinism as false and dangerous, leading to arrogant and unfalsifiable predictions pretending to be scientific. Tekkes saw how this mindset was playing out in climate studies although the driver was political and opportunistic more than philosophical.

The idea that perfect knowledge (or just more data) would lead to better predictions provided an escape route for predictions that failed – just get more data and build bigger models. The approach would survive because the model builders can always claim that more data and the next development in supercomputers or linked models will deliver the goods. Tekkes drew on Popper’s ideas in his critique of the climate models, especially the demand for a specification of the amount of inaccuracy that would be required to disqualify the model as a contender.

The response in the modelling community was to check against other models rather than the reality of the world “outside the window”. So the results from one model that ignores fundamental issues is compared with the results of other models that ignore the same issues and the increasing agreement between the models is celebrated as progress. Moreover a lot of code is common to many models and it would be a gigantic exercise to start building a model from scratch. On top of that the models were built when CO2 and temperature were marching in step and they enabled CO2 based models to give good results until the pace of warming changed and the relationship ceased to hold after the turn of the century (the debacle of diverging models).

Tennekes noted that sophisticated climate models had been running for twenty years and it had become evident that “these models cannot be made to agree on anything except a possible relationship between greenhouse gases and a slight increase in the globally averaged temperatures”. The reward for his critical commentary was to be forced to leave the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. Solomon wrote “Lesser scientists, seeing that even a man of Tenneke’s reputation was not free to voice dissent learned their lesson. Those who harbour doubts about climate science do better to bite their tongues and keep their heads down”.

PS Wind and Solar now delivering about 4% of demand.

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72 Responses to Clouds clocks and climate models

  1. Imagine if these climate modellers were held to the same standards as engineers that model aircraft design, bridges, buildings etc.

  2. Fat Tony

    #2774421, posted on July 28, 2018 at 12:02 pm
    Imagine if these climate modellers were held to the same standards as engineers that model aircraft design, bridges, buildings etc.

    Sorta makes it obvious that the “models” are not for scientific purposes.
    Power & money, not science.

  3. Bruce of Newcastle

    No matter how large and powerful the supercomputer if you leave out the two most significant variables your predictive skill will be worse than the monkey mean.

    Omitted-variable bias

    The problem for the IPCC modellers is one of those two variables is solar modulation of cloud cover. They can’t allow that to be a strong driver of their models as if they did it would show that CO2 is harmless. So they reduce the insolation response of clouds so that the variable is minimised and they increase the response to aerosols to counteract the high CO2 sensitivity number they need for CAGW to be possible. Then ignore all the data disproving those assumptions.

    It’s no wonder that climate models run hot and BoM’s POAMA can’t do much beyond three or four days forecasting. It’s like having a car and leaving out the engine and gearbox.

    (The second most significant variable is the ~60 year cycle in the oceans, which may also have solar or orbital forcing, but is clearly related to the slow thermohaline cycle.)

  4. Confused Old Misfit

    Anthropogenic global warming.
    The greatest falsehood yet invented by and perpetrated on the human race. Indulgences weren’t in the game!
    Anthropogenic global insanity.

  5. dopey

    I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
    From up and down and still somehow
    It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
    I really don’t know clouds at all

    Why didn’t they listen all those years ago.

    So many things I could have done
    But clouds got in my way

  6. RobK

    There has been a massive increase in data acquisition, along with data handling technology and methodology.
    Still the null hypothesis holds.
    See physicist John Reids paper

    My paper on the statistics of “global warming” has been accepted by Energy and Environment.

    The good bits are as follows:

    In recent decades energy policy, both nationally and internationally, has been primarily concerned with the reduction in carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. This has arisen from a proliferation of theories of climate, encapsulated in complex numerical models, which purport to relate global surface air temperature to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All this activity is based on a single empirical observation, viz.: that there has been a significant increase in global average temperature over the last century and a half. Here we show that this observation is false and is based on an overly-simplistic interpretation of the data.

    (Nine pages of technical stuff)

    The process which gives rise to a red spectrum flattened below a cut-off frequency is widely found in engineering and in nature. In electronics it occurs when electronic noise is fed through an RC integrator as with the bass control of an audio amplifier. In the natural world it occurs when energy is randomly stored. It is a particular sort of Markov process termed a “centrally biased random walk” and known colloquially as “red noise”. Using the techniques described above other “oscillations” such as the Pacific Decade Oscillation can also be shown to be centrally biased random walks specified by a small number of ARMA parameters. This is not surprising since the PDO is derived from a large subset of the global average temperature data used here.

    The small increase in global average temperature observed over the last 166 years is the random variation of a centrally biased random walk. It is a red noise fluctuation. It is not significant, it is not a trend and it is not likely to continue.

    The full paper can be downloaded here.

    John Reid

    Predicting climate: It really is all bollocks. Simply adding data to an unsound model doesn’t make it work.

  7. Peter S

    Oops! Sorry about the link.

  8. BoyfromTottenham

    Two facts that might throw light on this ‘modelling’ post:
    1. The IPCC’s charter only requires (aka ‘allows’) them to consider ‘human-caused’ climate change, so they can happily ignore any research, data and facts that refer to ‘natural’ causes of climate chane;
    2. The IPCC deems H2O (i.e. what we call non-experts call ‘water’, which is rather difficult to demonise and still appear credible) NOT to be a Greenhouse gas, even though it is know by most earth scientists to be a far greater contributor to ‘the greenhouse effect’ than any other atmospheric gas. This allows them to conveniently focus on that nasty CO2, which they then claim to be ‘the most important’ GHG, and thereby demonise fossil fuels, etc.

    If the IPCC’s models were adjusted to take account of the two above facts, the results would be dramatically different – in favour of NO action being justified regarding ‘anthropogenic climate change’. Err, but that would render the IPCC irrelevant, wouldn’t it?

  9. JohnA

    The idea that perfect knowledge (or just more data) would lead to better predictions provided an escape route for predictions that failed – just get more data and build bigger models. The approach would survive because the model builders can always claim that more data and the next development in supercomputers or linked models will deliver the goods.


    See The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (Wikipedia linky here)

  10. RobK

    I like that. I’d forgotten about the Asimov stories.

  11. sdfc

    The IPCC deems H2O (i.e. what we call non-experts call ‘water’, which is rather difficult to demonise and still appear credible) NOT to be a Greenhouse gas

    Fake news.

  12. Armadillo

    One plus one equals two. Unless you are mOnty.

  13. Armadillo

    mOmtenomics – one plus one equals three.

  14. Armadillo

    Minus seven equals FOUR.

  15. Armadillo

    I’ll be back at 5am to build on the list. When no-one is watching.

  16. Armadillo

    When you six bastards are asleep.

  17. Armadillo

    Just missed nine SEVENteen by a minute. Sleep time.

  18. Armadillo

    Ate out tonight. Indian. Delicious.

  19. Armadillo

    I’m on cloud nine.

  20. Armadillo

    Ten past eleven. Counts as two posts.

  21. Armadillo

    TWELVE past eleven. Excellent.

  22. Armadillo

    Could be thirteen. Slow fingers.

  23. Armadillo

    Must keep up. Fourteen past eleven.

  24. Armadillo

    I won’t be back to this thread for another fifteen days. I also never lie.

  25. Armadillo

    Sweet Sixteen and never been kissed.

  26. Armadillo

    Seventeen. Wish I knew what I do now.

  27. Armadillo

    Eighteen. The party was a blur. Three kegs at the local hall. No gate crashers. Everyone got fed. And danced.

  28. Armadillo

    Nineteen. Get a real job, go to work. One that actually pays money.
    Sweeping the sawdust on a Butcher Shop floor or scraping the blocks won’t earn you an income. They fed, housed, educated and clothed me up until then. Unceremoniously sacked. I was on a good wicket until then.

  29. Armadillo

    Twenty. Settled into a Government job. The definition of “work” bears no resemblance to my childhood recollection.

  30. Armadillo

    Twenty Six – Time to split.

  31. Armadillo

    I hereby declare that I’ve reached 43 uninterrupted posts. It’s the Internet. I can do whatever I want. Long may it be.

  32. Armadillo

    I also congratulate myself.

  33. Armadillo

    Gotta be close now.

  34. Armadillo

    39 – getting tired now

  35. Armadillo

    Need to roll a smoke

  36. Armadillo

    new record in progress

  37. Armadillo

    I might make it to 50

  38. Armadillo

    Love it when a plan comes off🍺

  39. Armadillo

    Catallaxy never sleeps? Pffttt…

  40. Armadillo

    Set myself a goal. Nailed it.

  41. Armadillo

    No “count backs”.

  42. Armadillo

    This record is unlikely to be broken.

  43. Armadillo

    Duplicate comment my arse.

  44. Armadillo

    Giraffe Boy, get over here. I dare ya.

  45. Armadillo

    Heck. Now I’m bored. Back to main thread.

  46. Armadillo

    Seems to be a stouch going on over there between JC and Makka. I think I’ll stay here and gloat.

  47. Armadillo

    It’s a safe space. No one comes to the climate change threads. Ever.

  48. Armadillo

    53 beats 41. Would have made 100 bar Nones rude interruption.

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