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.

7 Responses to Programmer Smack Talk and Global Warming

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Amazing isn’t it to consider that it took a bunch of hackers to bring this all to light. Obviously peer review, government agencies funding the research, private entities funding the research and the media have all done a completely miserable job in checking out the claims made by people pushing an agenda that would totally remake our economic system.

  • John Henry says:

    I think this is really the most interesting angle of the story. I could have predicted most of the other parts without the disclosures. But I’d always assumed that the models themselves were the best available (isn’t there adequate funding for that sort of thing?).

  • Wendy Posh says:

    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
    Co2 is a building block for life on this planet. I heard a quote that when scientist look out into the universe that 96% are not like the planet earth. So to take Venus as an end could not be true.

  • Well, actually, it’s more than that. There are no other planets known to be like Earth.

    And to be clear, it’s actually not possible for us to end up with an atmosphere like that of Venus. Venus’ atmosphere is about ninety times thicker than ours, and it’s make up of >90% CO2. Earth’s atmosphere is 0.04% CO2. We could burn all the fossil fuels on the planet, and we’d still never have anything like a Venusian atmosphere.

    However, Venus is a good example of how CO2 acts very successfully as greenhouse gas: the surface temperature is a steady 850 degrees F, significantly hotter than Mercury, which is much closer to the sun.

  • Ivan says:

    Tito, if I recall correctly most of the Watergate operatives were contrite about it in public if not in 1973 then at least later. The problem with the modern operators is that they are so brazen and self-righteous. Accusing the sceptics of everything from being in the pay of Exxon to comparing them with Holocaust deniers, while they themselves draw huge amounts of funding and have no compunction about spiking the academic careers and prospects of their opponents. I am glad to be living through this time, when all the clay gods are tumbling down.

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