Why climate engineers beat the climate academics

The academic way: if one theory won't reach, just use two.

The academic way: if one theory won’t reach, just use two.

There is no doubt that skeptics have a proven track record on predicting the inability of climate academics to predict the climate. After nearly 18years without warming which none of the academics predicted (even after it started), they are looking increasingly sheepish and trying to talk about anything but their proven inability to predict the climate.

However, whilst us “climate engineers” have been vindicated, there is still the question: “why?” Why is it that people from a general engineering/science background like us skeptics could have known that the academics would get it wrong?

Of course, the obvious answer is: “because they are academics”. But … how do I put this … I’d rather like a more academic answer.

In my previous post I highlighted yet another shot in the foot comment from The EndOfPhysics:

People who are insisting on validation of models, or precise confirmation of certain quantities (like the ECS for example). It’s as if they think science should be more like engineering and don’t realise that science is about trying to understand the world around us, not control or use it. You can’t just deliver a scientific result on demand, you can only do as well as is possible given the tools/knowledge available at that time.

Strangely he does add to the sum of human knowledge – but not quite in the way he hopes. Because he confirms some key points.

  1. Academics don’t worry if models are not validated (much to the disgust of skeptics)
  2. That asking things to be validated is the type of thing that engineers ask for
  3. “Understanding the world”, is what he sees as important (not boring validation of models to see if they have any utility at predicting anything.)
  4. “Deliver”, “demand”, “at that time” … describe the difference between academics who believe they’ve got all the time in the Universe to (eventually) come up with the right answer – and engineers who had to come up the (best) “right answer” yesterday.
  5. “Control or use” … again this highlights how academics don’t feel comfortable having their theories used in real life.

Here are some more thoughts:

Academia/Scientists Engineering/Doctors
Focus Look to understand a class of problems in some general way To deal with a specific problem on a specific system
Complexity The “quirks” of individual systems are glossed over in order to find the simple universalities. The “quirks” of individual systems make them each far more complex than the theory suggests.
“Understanding” Prime focus Often helpful, but can be replaced by monitoring of problems
Decisions Not a focus Prime focus
How to deal with lack of information. Ask for a grant to get more information Assess whether information is necessary given project time & costs.
People Issues Largely assumed to be irrelevant In real situations, people are part of the system and their behaviour has to be understood together with physics, chemistry, etc.
Predictions A nice way to finish a paper.No one really expects them to be right. A estimation which has direct impacts on safety and profits.Get it wrong – you may lose your job.
Utility Theories not for “control or use” Ideas, theories, concept must have practical utility.
Economics We don’t talk about vulgar subjects like that. Yes the economy is key and unless it improves I doubt my company will be in business with all this foreign competition from low-cost energy.

In particularly the “simple” versus “complex” mindsets of academics and engineers must be important. Engineers assume that a real system is going to be far more complex than they can hope to understand in full. So, we are used to the idea of not knowing everything and we are trained by skills and culture to make the best  decisions (although far from ideal) in these circumstances when evidence is lacking.

In contrast the academics focus is in “understanding” and so not only do they waste huge amounts of effort trying to understand the climate, but they simply lack the skills to make good decisions with a system where they don’t have full understanding.

So, to an engineer “natural variability”, isn’t so much a description of a physical phenomenon as that it is “natural” there will be “variability” whose cause is unknown in almost all systems dealt with by engineers.

For an engineer, all systems have far more variability than we can measure. That’s because we deal with problems as a whole – the science as in physical or chemical properties, the economics, the human, and even politics. All these are part of the bread and butter issues that engineers deal with.

In contrast, academics see almost all these as being “extrinsic” to the system. To the engineer, the “system” is the whole issue. To the academic, the “system” is the basic “science” once all the “irrelevant” externalities are removed.

So academics invent a lot of ways to IGNORE VARIABILITY. They pretend it doesn’t exist, that it is extrinsic to the system under investigation. in contrast engineers have to deal with the actual system and the actual scientific implication on people and profits.

Engineers cannot draw an abstract line around what someone deems to be the “science”, and pretend the rest doesn’t matter.

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