Polar Bears & Principles

Amstrup et al. have just published a rebuttal of the Armstrong, Green & Soon critique of polar bear assessments. Polar bears aren’t my area, and I haven’t read the original, so I won’t comment on the ursine substance. However, Amstrup et al. reinforce many of my earlier objections to (mis)application of forecasting principles, so here are some excerpts:

The Principles of Forecasting and Their Use in Science

… AGS based their audit on the idea that comparison to their self-described principles of forecasting could produce a valid critique of scientific results. AGS (p. 383) claimed their principles ‘summarize all useful knowledge about forecasting.’ Anyone can claim to have a set of principles, and then criticize others for violating their principles. However, it takes more than a claim to create principles that are meaningful or useful. In concluding our rejoinder, we point out that the principles espoused by AGS are so deeply flawed that they provide no reliable basis for a rational critique or audit.

Failures of the Principles

Armstrong (2001) described 139 principles and the support for them. AGS (pp. 382’“383) claimed that these principles are evidence based and scientific. They fail, however, to be evidence based or scientific on three main grounds: They use relative terms as if they were absolute, they lack theoretical and empirical support, and they do not follow the logical structure that scientific criticisms require.

Using Relative Terms as Absolute

Many of the 139 principles describe properties that models, methods, and (or) data should include. For example, the principles state that data sources should be diverse, methods should be simple, approaches should be complex, representations should be realistic, data should be reliable, measurement error should be low, explanations should be clear, etc. … However, it is impossible to look at a model, a method, or a datum and decide whether its properties meet or violate the principles because the properties of these principles are inherently relative.

Consider diverse. AGS faulted H6 for allegedly failing to use diverse sources of data. However, H6 used at least six different sources of data (mark-recapture data, radio telemetry data, data from the United States and Canada, satellite data, and oceanographic data). Is this a diverse set of data? It is more diverse than it would have been if some of the data had not been used. It is less diverse than it would have been if some (hypothetical) additional source of data had been included. To criticize it as not being diverse, however, without providing some measure of comparison, is meaningless.

Consider simple. What is simple? Although it might be possible to decide which of two models is simpler (although even this might not be easy), it is impossible’”in principle’”to say whether any model considered in isolation is simple or not. For example, H6 included a deterministic time-invariant population model. Is this model simple? It is certainly simpler than the stationary, stochastic model, or the nonstationary stochastic model also included in H6. However, without a measure of comparison, it is impossible to say which, if any, are ‘simple.’ For AGS to criticize the report as failing to use simple models is meaningless.

A Lack of Theoretical and Empirical Support

If the principles of forecasting are to serve as a basis for auditing the conclusions of scientific studies, they must have strong theoretical and (or) empirical support. Otherwise, how do we know that these principles are necessary for successful forecasts? Closer examination shows that although Armstrong (2001, p. 680) refers to evidence and AGS (pp. 382’“383) call the principles evidence based, almost half (63 of 139) are supported only by received wisdom or common sense, with no additional empirical or theoretical support. …

Armstrong (2001, p. 680) defines received wisdom as when ‘the vast majority of experts agree,’ and common sense as when ‘it is difficult to imagine that things could be otherwise.’ In other words, nearly half of the principles are supported only by opinions, beliefs, and imagination about the way that forecasting should be done. This is not evidence based; therefore, it is inadequate as a basis for auditing scientific studies. … Even Armstrong’s (2001) own list includes at least three cases of principles that are supported by what he calls strong empirical evidence that ‘refutes received wisdom’’”that is, at least three of the principles contradict received wisdom. …

Forecasting Audits Are Not Scientific Criticism

The AGS audit failed to distinguish between scientific forecasts and nonscientific forecasts. Scientific forecasts, because of their theoretical basis and logical structure based upon the concept of hypothesis testing, are almost always projections. That is, they have the logical form of ‘if X happens, then Y will follow.’ The analyses in AMD and H6 take exactly this form. A scientific criticism of such a forecast must show that even if X holds, Y does not, or need not, follow.

In contrast, the AGS audit simply scored violations of self-defined principles without showing how the identified violation might affect the projected result. For example, the accusation that H6 violated the commandment to use simple models is not a scientific criticism, because it says nothing about the relative simplicity of the model with respect to other possible choices. It also says nothing about whether the supposedly nonsimple model in question is in error. A scientific critique on the grounds of simplicity would have to identify a complexity in the model, and show that the complexity cannot be defended scientifically, that the complexity undermines the credibility of the model, and that a simpler model can resolve the issue. AGS did none of these.

There’s some irony to all this. Armstrong & Green criticize climate predictions as mere opinions cast in overly-complex mathematical terms, lacking predictive skill. The instrument of their critique is a complex set of principles, mostly derived from opinions, with undemonstrated ability to predict the skill of models and forecasts.

Unprincipled Forecast Evaluation

I hadn’t noticed until I heard it here, but Armstrong & Green are back at it, with various claims that climate forecasts are worthless. In the Financial Post, they criticize the MIT Joint Program model,

… No more than 30% of forecasting principles were properly applied by the MIT modellers and 49 principles were violated. For an important problem such as this, we do not think it is defensible to violate a single principle.

As I wrote in some detail here, the Forecasting Principles are a useful seat-of-the-pants guide to good practices, but there’s no evidence that following them all is necessary or sufficient for a good outcome. Some are likely to be counterproductive in many situations, and key elements of good modeling practice are missing (for example, balancing units of measure).

It’s not clear to me that A&G really understand models and modeling. They seem to view everything through the lens of purely statistical methods like linear regression. Green recently wrote,

Another important principle is that the forecasting method should provide a realistic representation of the situation (Principle 7.2). An interesting statement in the MIT report that implies (as one would expect given the state of knowledge and omitted relationships) that the modelers have no idea to what extent their models provide a realistic representation of reality is as follows:

‘Changes in global surface average temperature result from a combination of emissions and climate parameters, and therefore two runs that look similar in terms of temperature may be very different in detail.’ (MIT Report p. 28)

While the modelers have sufficient latitude in their parameters to crudely reproduce a brief period of climate history, there is no reason to believe the models can provide useful forecasts.

What the MIT authors are saying, in essence, is that

T = f(E,P)

and that it is possible to achieve the same future temperature T with different combinations of emissions E and parameters P. Green seems to be taking a leap, to assume that historic T does not provide much constraint on P. First, that’s not necessarily true, given that historic E cannot be chosen freely. It could still be the case that the structure of f(E,P) means that historic T provides a weak constraint on P given E. But if that’s true (as it basically is), the problem is self-diagnosing: estimates of P will have broad confidence bounds, as will forecasts of T. Green completely ignores the MIT authors’ explicit characterization of this uncertainty. He also ignores the fact that the output of the model is not just T, and that we have priors for many elements of P (from more granular models or experiments, for example). Thus we have additional lines of evidence with which to constrain forecasts. Green also neglects to consider the implications of uncertainties in P that are jointly distributed in an offsetting manner (as is likely for climate sensitivity, ocean circulation, and aerosol forcing).

A&G provide no formal method to distinguish between situations in which models yield useful or spurious forecasts. In an earlier paper, they claimed rather broadly,

‘To our knowledge, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that presenting opinions in mathematical terms rather than in words will contribute to forecast accuracy.’ (page 1002)

This statement may be true in some settings, but obviously not in general. There are many situations in which mathematical models have good predictive power and outperform informal judgments by a wide margin.

A&G’s latest paper with Willie Soon, Validity of Climate Change Forecasting for Public Policy Decision Making, apparently forthcoming in IJF, is an attempt to make the distinction, i.e. to determine whether climate models have any utility as predictive tools. An excerpt from the abstract summarizes their argument:

Policymakers need to know whether prediction is possible and if so whether any proposed forecasting method will provide forecasts that are substantively more accurate than those from the relevant benchmark method. Inspection of global temperature data suggests that it is subject to irregular variations on all relevant time scales and that variations during the late 1900s were not unusual. In such a situation, a ‘no change’ extrapolation is an appropriate benchmark forecasting method. … The accuracy of forecasts from the benchmark is such that even perfect forecasts would be unlikely to help policymakers. … We nevertheless demonstrate the use of benchmarking with the example of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1992 linear projection of long-term warming at a rate of 0.03°C-per-year. The small sample of errors from ex ante projections at 0.03°C-per-year for 1992 through 2008 was practically indistinguishable from the benchmark errors. … Again using the IPCC warming rate for our demonstration, we projected the rate successively over a period analogous to that envisaged in their scenario of exponential CO2 growth’”the years 1851 to 1975. The errors from the projections were more than seven times greater than the errors from the benchmark method. Relative errors were larger for longer forecast horizons. Our validation exercise illustrates the importance of determining whether it is possible to obtain forecasts that are more useful than those from a simple benchmark before making expensive policy decisions.

There are many things wrong here:

  1. Demonstrating that unforced variability (history) can be adequately forecasted by a naive benchmark has no bearing on whether future forced variability will continue to be well-represented, or whether models can predict future emergence of a signal from noise. AG&S’ procedure is like watching an airplane taxi, concluding that aerodynamics knowledge is of no advantage, and predicting that the plane will remain on the ground forever.
  2. Comparing a naive forecast for global mean temperature against models amounts to a rejection of a vast amount of information. What is the naive forecast for the joint behavior of temperature, preciptiation, lapse rates, sea level, and their spatial and seasonal patterns? These have been evaluated for models, but AG&S do not suggest benchmarks.
  3. A no-change forecast is not necessarily the best naive forecast for a series with unknown variability, if that series has some momentum or structure which can be exploited to do better. The particular no change forecast selected byAG&S is suboptimal, because it uses a single year as a forecast, unneccesarily projecting annual variation into the future. In general, a stronger naive forecast (e.g., a smoothed value of a few recent years) would strengthen AG&S’ case, so it’s unclear why they’ve chosen an excessively naive benchmark. Fortunately, their base year, 1991, was rather “average”.
  4. The first exhibit presented is the EPICA ice core temperature. Roughly 85% of the data shown has a time interval too long to show century-scale temperature variations, and none of it could be expected to fully reveal decadal-scale variations, so it’s mostly irrelevant with respect to the kind of forecasts they seek to evaluate.
  5. The mere fact that a series has unknown historic variability does not mean that it cannot be forecast [corrected 8/18/09]. The EPICA and Vostok CO2 records look qualitatively much like the temperature record, yet CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere is quite predictable over decadal time scales, and models could handily beat a naive forecast.
  6. AG&S’ method of forecast evaluation unduly weights the short term, like the A&G sucker bet does. This is not strictly a problem, but it does make interpretation of the bounds on AG&S’ alternate forecast (“The benchmark forecast is that the global mean temperature for each year for the rest of this century will be within 0.5°C of the 2008 figure.”) a little tricky.
  7. The retrospective evaluation of the 1990/1992 IPCC projection of 0.3C/decade ignores many factors. First, 0.3C/decade over a century does not imply a smooth trend over short time scales; models and reality have substantial unforced variability which must be taken into account. The paragraph cited by AG&S includes the statement, “The rise will not be steady because of the influence of other factors.” Second, the 1992 report (in the very paragraph AG&S cite) notes that projections do not account for aerosols, so 0.3C/decade can’t be taken as a point prediction for the future, even if contingency on GHG emissions is resolved. Third, the IPCC projection stated approximate bounds – 0.2 to 0.5 C/decade – that should be accounted for in the evaluation, but are not. Still, the IPCC projection beats the naive benchmark.
  8. AG&S’ evaluation of the 0.3C/decade future BAU projection as a backcast over 1851-1975 is absurd. They write, “It is not unreasonable, then, to suppose for the purposes of our validation illustration that scientists in 1850 had noticed that the increasing industrialization of the world was resulting in exponential growth in ‘greenhouse gases’ and to project that this would lead to global warming of 0.03°C per year.” Actually, it’s completely unreasonable. Many figures in the 1990 FAR clearly indicate that the 0.3C/decade projection was not valid on [-infinity,infinity]. For example, figures 6, 8, and 9 from the SPM – just a few pages from material cited by AG&S – clearly show a gentle trend <0.05C/decade through 1950. Furthermore, even the most rudimentary understanding of the dynamics of GHG and heat accumulation is sufficient to realize that one would not expect a linear historic temperature trend to emerge from the emissions signal.

How do AG&S arrive at this sorry state? Their article embodies a “sh!t happens” epistemology. They write, “The belief that ‘things have changed’ and the future cannot be judged by the past is common, but invalid.” The problem is, one can say with equal confidence that, “the belief that ‘things never change’ and the past reveals the future is common, but invalid.” In reality, there are predictable phenomena (the orbits of the planets) and unpredictable ones (the fall of the Berlin wall). AG&S have failed to establish that climate is unpredictable or to provide us with an appropriate method for deciding whether it is predictable or not. Nor have they given us any insight into how to know or what to do if we can’t decide. Doing nothing because we think we don’t know anything is probably better than sacrificing virgins to the gods, but it doesn’t strike me as a robust strategy.

The only thing worse than cap & trade …

… is Marty Feldstein’s lame arguments against it.

  • He cites CBO household costs of policy that reflect outlays, rather than real deadweight or welfare losses after revenue recycling.
  • He wants the US to wait for global agreement before moving. News flash: there won’t be a global agreement without some US movement.
  • He argues that unilateral action is ineffective: true, but irrelevant if you aim to solve the problem. However, if that’s our moral philosophy, I think I should be exempted from all laws – on a global scale, no one will notice my murdering and pillaging, and it’ll be fun for me.

There is one nugget of wisdom in Feldstein’s piece: it’s a travesty to overcompensate carbon-intensive firms, and foolish to use allowance allocation to utilities to defeat the retail price signal. I haven’t read the details of the bill yet, so I don’t know how extensive those provisions really are, but it’s definitely something to watch.

Well, OK, lots of things are worse than cap & trade. More importantly, one thing (an upstream carbon tax) could be a lot better than Waxman Markey. But it’s sad when a Harvard economist sounds like an astroturf skeptic.

Hat tip to Economist’s View.

More on Climate Predictions

No pun intended.

Scott Armstrong has again asserted on the JDM list that global warming forecasts are merely unscientific opinions (ignoring my prior objections to the claim). My response follows (a bit enhanced here, e.g., providing links).


Today would be an auspicious day to declare the death of climate science, but I’m afraid the announcement would be premature.

JDM researchers might be interested in the forecasts of global warming as they are based on unaided subjective forecasts (unaided by forecasting principles) entered into complex computer models.

This seems to say that climate scientists first form an opinion about the temperature in 2100, or perhaps about climate sensitivity to 2x CO2, then tweak their models to reproduce the desired result. This is a misperception about models and modeling. First, in a complex physical model, there is no direct way for opinions that represent outcomes (like climate sensitivity) to be “entered in.” Outcomes emerge from the specification and calibration process. In a complex, nonlinear, stochastic model it is rather difficult to get a desired behavior, particularly when the model must conform to data. Climate models are not just replicating the time series of global temperature; they first must replicate geographic and seasonal patterns of temperature and precipitation, vertical structure of the atmosphere, etc. With a model that takes hours or weeks to execute, it’s simply not practical to bend the results to reflect preconceived notions. Second, not all models are big and complex. Low order energy balance models can be fully estimated from data, and still yield nonzero climate sensitivity.

I presume that the backing for the statement above is to be found in Green and Armstrong (2007), on which I have already commented here and on the JDM list. Continue reading “More on Climate Predictions”

On Limits to Growth

It’s a good idea to read things you criticize; checking your sources doesn’t hurt either. One of the most frequent targets of uninformed criticism, passed down from teacher to student with nary a reference to the actual text, must be The Limits to Growth. In writing my recent review of Green & Armstrong (2007), I ran across this tidbit:

Complex models (those involving nonlinearities and interactions) harm accuracy because their errors multiply. Ascher (1978), refers to the Club of Rome’s 1972 forecasts where, unaware of the research on forecasting, the developers proudly proclaimed, “in our model about 100,000 relationships are stored in the computer.” (page 999)

Setting aside the erroneous attributions about complexity, I found the statement that the MIT world models contained 100,000 relationships surprising, as both can be diagrammed on a single large page. I looked up electronic copies of World Dynamics and World3, which have 123 and 373 equations respectively. A third or more of those are inconsequential coefficients or switches for policy experiments. So how did Ascher, or Ascher’s source, get to 100,000? Perhaps by multiplying by the number of time steps over the 200 year simulation period – hardly a relevant measure of complexity.

Meadows et al. tried to steer the reader away from focusing on point forecasts. The introduction to the simulation results reads,

Each of these variables is plotted on a different vertical scale. We have deliberately omitted the vertical scales and we have made the horizontal time scale somewhat vague because we want to emphasize the general behavior modes of these computer outputs, not the numerical values, which are only approximately known. (page 123)

Many critics have blithely ignored such admonitions, and other comments to the effect of, “this is a choice, not a forecast” or “more study is needed.” Often, critics don’t even refer to the World3 runs, which are inconvenient in that none reaches overshoot in the 20th century, making it hard to establish that “LTG predicted the end of the world in year XXXX, and it didn’t happen.” Instead, critics choose the year XXXX from a table of resource lifetime indices in the chapter on nonrenewable resources (page 56), which were not forecasts at all. Continue reading “On Limits to Growth”

Surveys and Quizzes as Propaganda

Long ago I took an IATA survey to relieve the boredom of a long layover. Ever since, I’ve been on their mailing list, and received “invitations” to take additional surveys. Sometimes I do, out of curiosity – it’s fun to try to infer what they’re really after. The latest is a “Global Survey on Aviation and Environment” so I couldn’t resist. After a few introductory questions, we get to the meat:

History/Fact
1. Air transport contributes 8% to the global economy and supports employment for 32 million people. But, aviation is responsible for only 2% of global CO2 emissions.

Wow … an energy intensive sector that somehow manages to be less carbon intensive than the economy in general? Sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately, it is. The illusion of massive scale of the air transport sector is achieved by including indirect activity, i.e. taking credit for what other sectors produce when it might involve air transport. Federal cost-benefit accounting practices generally banish the use of such multiplier effects, with good reason. According to an ATAG report hosted by IATA, the indirect effects make up the bulk of activity claimed above. ATAG peels the onion for us:

Air transport direct and indirect GDP contributions

So, direct air transport is closer to 1% of GDP. Comparing direct GDP of 1% to direct emissions of 2% no longer looks favorable, though – especially when you consider that air transport has other warming effects (contrails, non-CO2 GHG emissions) that might double or triple its climate impact. The IPCC Aviation and the Global Atmosphere report, for example, places aviation at about 2% of fossil fuel use, and about 4% of total radiative forcing. If IATA wants to count indirect GDP and employment, fine with me, but then they need to count indirect emissions on the same basis. Continue reading “Surveys and Quizzes as Propaganda”

Evidence on Climate Predictions

Last Year, Kesten Green and Scott Armstrong published a critique of climate science, arguing that there are no valid scientific forecasts of climate. RealClimate mocked the paper, but didn’t really refute it. The paper came to my attention recently when Green & Armstrong attacked John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney’s paper on mental models of climate change.

I reviewed Green & Armstrong’s paper and concluded that their claims were overstated. I responded as follows: Continue reading “Evidence on Climate Predictions”

Confused at the National Post

A colleague recently pointed me to a debate on an MIT email list over Lorne Gunter’s National Post article, Forget Global Warming: Welcome to the New Ice Age.

The article starts off with anecdotal evidence that this has been an unusually cold winter. If it had stopped where it said, “OK, so one winter does not a climate make. It would be premature to claim an Ice Age is looming just because we have had one of our most brutal winters in decades,” I wouldn’t have faulted it. It’s useful as a general principle to realize that weather has high variance, so it’s silly to make decisions on the basis of short term events. (Similarly, science is a process of refinement, so it’s silly to make decisions on the basis of a single paper.)

But it didn’t stop. It went on to assemble a set of scientific results of varying quality and relevance, purporting to show that, “It’s way too early to claim the same is about to happen again, but then it’s way too early for the hysteria of the global warmers, too.” That sounds to me like a claim that the evidence for anthropogenic global warming is of the same quality as the evidence that we’re about to enter an ice age, which is ridiculous. It fails to inform the layman either by giving a useful summary of accurately characterized evidence or by demonstrating proper application of logic.

Some further digging reveals that the article is full of holes: Continue reading “Confused at the National Post”