Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Programmer Smack Talk and Global Warming

I've been amused to watch some of the arguments going on out in the blogsphere as discussion of the hacking of the climate change servers moves off into a discussion of the quality of the code being used by climate researchers to model global warming.

Commenter One: Much of the code in the academic world tends to be written by grad students that have taken a class in programming and get told to write it.

Commenter Two: This is totally untrue. I never took a class in programming before writing my crappy undocumented code.

There's a certain wry self recognition for me here as well: I've never taken a class in programming, and I build mostly undocumented models to predict revenue and profits at specific price points based on past data. My results are directionally correct when you look at whole categories of products, but can be wildly off when projecting specific instances. (I try to make this clear to those who use my data, but people are always looking for certainty in life, even if they have to imagine it.)

The difference is, of course, that I'm seeking to mitigate the risks people take in making decisions that they're going to make anyway. "Gee, I really feel like we need to turn this product 50% off for the holidays." "Well, past experience shows that we wouldn't sell many more units, but would lose a whole lot of money. Let's try something else."

You would think that if you were going to, say, recommend that the entire world ratchet levels of CO2 emmissions back to the levels of the 1800s (with all the impacts to living standards and, let's be honest here, human life, which that entails), you would aspire to higher levels of accuracy and transparancy.

In a sense, I would imagine that these climate researchers have much the same justification for their actions that I do: They're just giving people common sense advise. I advise people not to waste too much profit margin. They advise people not to emit too much CO2.

Waste enough profit margin and your company goes out of business. Get enough CO2 in your atmostphere, and you get to enjoy the kind of climate that Venus has. From the point of view of serious environmentalists, who often seem to assume that any change made by humans to the planet is pretty clearly a bad thing, it may not seem like one needs to bring a lot of rigor to advising people to not burn fossil fuels. From that point of view, of course doing all these "unnatural things" will have bad consequences.

However, for the rest of us, the fact that modern industrial technology allows six billion people to live on this planet -- and for many of them to do so in greater material comfort than at any previous time in history -- is pretty clearly a good thing. And standing in front of that yelling "Stop" requires some pretty rigorous evidence. This isn't something that can be left to buggy code whose results are massaged into shape manually when they're going to come out into the light.


Anonymous said...

In other words: climatologists need to talk about what the climate is doing, and should be listened to carefully when they do so. But they exceed their mandate when they make recommendations in public policy.


Darwin said...

More that it seems to me that if AGW advocates are going to shape policies which have billion or trillion dollar impacts on the world economy, we need to be sure that their processes have made the transition from enthusiasm to precision.

By analogy: Back in the early days of aviation it was enough for an experimenter to draw a bunch of diagrams, do some figures, and announce, "I'm just sure it's going to fly." But when you start talking about a passenger airline industry, you need there to actual process around _knowing_ that it will fly.