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Monday, January 30, 2012

AiG responds to NCSE's involvement with climate-science education

I have no intention of turning this blog into a discussion on climate change, but in light of AiG's recent response to the new campaign goals of the NCSE, several points are worth highlighting. Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, who authors the News to Note series at AiG, recently characterized NCSE's approach to climate change education as an effort "to squelch even more academic freedom" (original article here). Disputing Eugenie Scott's own position on climate change, Dr. Mitchell writes, "The problem comes down to questions about observational science and academic freedom."

Let's return later to the topic of academic freedom. First, what sort of questions from observational science does Dr. Mitchell envision that would challenge the current paradigm? Dr. Mitchell admits that "climate change is observable," but she goes on to claim that "observations have not matched the magnitude of predictions based on models...[which] predict massive and rapid temperature changes." Unfortunately, Dr. Mitchell provides no direct references to such models, in which case any critical reader should reserve judgment and examine her claim in light of the primary literature.

Current climate models are summarized by the IPCC 2007 report (Section 8.1 and following), which provides references to individual studies. In section 8.3.1, the authors flatly contradict Dr. Mitchell's claim, noting that:

"[Climate] models account for a very large fraction of the global temperature pattern: the correlation coefficient between the simulated and observed spatial patterns of annual mean temperature is typically about 0.98 for individual models. This supports the view that major processes governing surface temperature climatology are represented with a reasonable degree of fidelity by the models." (emphasis added)

Simply put, Dr. Mitchell's claim that "past increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide...have produced only a fraction of the predicted change" is false. For the sake of argument, however, let us entertain the possibility that Dr. Mitchell has access to models not cited by the IPCC—models that project more 'catastrophic changes'. In this case, she would be obligated to cite those models and offer reasonable evidence to reject the currently accepted models, which dominate the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Since she has neglected to cite supporting evidence and instead misrepresented available literature, she is guilty of misleading her readers—many of whom presume that her career experience as an obstetrician qualifies her to critique paradigms in climatology.

So as not to mislead you, I have reposted the IPCC graphic summary of 14 climate models (produced independently by various research groups). I will let you judge whether observed warming (black) constitutes only a fraction of predicted warming (yellow).

FAQ 8.1 Figure 1 from IPCC (2007). Caption reads: "Global mean near-surface temperatures over the 20th century from observations (black) and as obtained from 58 simulations produced by 14 different climate models driven by both natural and human-caused factors that influence climate (yellow). The mean of all these runs is also shown (thick red line)."

When recent additions to atmospheric CO2 are removed from the models, all of them diverge significantly from the warming trend and predict a stability in global temperatures since 1960. These model results are not the final word on climate change, but they do provide significant evidence in support of the current understanding.

Dr. Mitchell continues her critique by addressing paleoclimate data supposedly used to support model projections—namely, ice-core records of the Younger Dryas (YD) event. The YD cold period was first hypothesized from an abrupt shift in post-glacial, European vegetation patterns (specifically, a flower species called Dryas octopetala). Only much later was it identified in oxygen isotope records from the Greenland ice core. The current interpretation of the event as a short-lived cold period, which lasted from ~13–11.5 thousand years ago, has been corroborated by global vegetation records, lake-core isotope and pollen records, marine isotope records, speleothem records, and more.

But what does all this have to do with climate models? According to prevailing interpretations, the YD 'cold snap' had less to do with greenhouse gases and more to do with oceanic circulation (as an aside, the movie The Day After Tomorrow cites an embellished version of this mechanism). Nonetheless, Dr. Mitchell writes:

"The climatology models in use were influenced by uniformitarian interpretations of abrupt temperature-related oxygen isotope changes in ice cores...By misinterpreting the cause of isotope changes, uniformitarian climatologists naturally construct their models for the future on an incomplete understanding of the past."

In actuality, oxygen-isotope data are not used to construct climate models, which instead rely on meteorological and geophysical parameters. Rather, we use past climatic trends to verify the accuracy of these models. The figure above provides one example, where each model was 'asked' to predict 20th-century warming trends in response to atmospheric perturbations. Whether or not we have rightly interpreted ice-core records is simply not relevant to the integrity of climate models, which predict 0.4–3.6°C warming by 2100 AD (depending on future trends in atmospheric CO2).

I would love to have the opportunity to discuss personally the above citation with Dr. Mitchell. It is unfortunate that her misperceptions about paleoclimatology have caused her inadvertently to suppress the academic freedom she ostensibly defends. Academic freedom allows us to examine critically claims made by the scientific community, as well as to challenge interpretations of data via the peer-review process. But as long as relevant data are suppressed through 'strawman' arguments presented by public figures (whether Dr. Mitchell, university administrators, or presidential candidates), investigators (such as yourselves) are forced to draw conclusions from limited, biased datasets. In other words, misrepresenting the current science only inhibits critical thinking and academic freedom.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Creationism, Climate Change, and the NCSE

A recent article from ScienceInsider asks, "Is climate change education the new evolution, threatened in U.S. school districts and state education standards by well-organized interest groups?" The National Center for Science Education believes so and has taken upon themselves the task of making sure that science teachers are sufficiently informed to teach "good climate science". Director Eugenie Scott, who is best known for promoting the teaching of evolution and fighting to quash legislative maneuvers that allow 'creationist' ideas in public schools, justified the new focus by highlighting similarities between skeptics of both evolution and climate change. She also notes that groups challenging current models of climate change are "more numerous and much better funded" than those battling evolution, and she anticipates tougher resistance to the new move.

Dr. Scott is not the first to draw a parallel between these two controversies, and her sentiments are unfortunately true. I noted in a previous post, for example, that although most skeptics of climate change are not creationists, 'climate-change skepticism' is a logical consequence for those who believe that scientists have grossly misinterpreted Earth history. A quick search on any young-Earth ministry site will demonstrate how tight the bond is, despite the fact that none of these organizations employ qualified climatologists (Michael Oard may be a close exception, but his analysis of the Greenland Ice Core belies his comprehension of paleoclimatology).

So how effective will NCSE's campaign be? Individuals and organizations that deal strictly with creationism have one advantage in that creationists are relatively uniform in their ideological premise. It is far more difficult to generalize about what causes people to doubt the scale of anthropogenic climate forcing than to understand why evangelicals struggle with human evolution. I am anxious, therefore, to see how NCSE decides to tackle the issue, and I hope they will be able to avoid divise and pejorative rhetoric like 'denialism'. Long ago, I stopped using NCSE as a resource on science/faith issues, not for any incompetence on their part but rather for their lack of compassion/empathy with creationists (perhaps they have improved since then?). When it comes to controversies such as evolution and climate change, it doesn't take long to clear out the pews so that preaching to the choir is your only option.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Attempt to correlate ancient sediment core to Abraham's journey "dead in the water"

Several weeks ago, Brian Thomas of ICR offered the curious claim that a Dead Sea Sediment Core Confirms Genesis. "According to the Bible, in around 2000 B.C. what is now the Dead Sea used to be a plain that probably served as farmland for people of the nearby debauched city of Sodom," writes Thomas. After the Dead Sea Deep Drilling Project reported evidence that the Dead Sea once completely dried up in the past, Mr. Thomas drew an immediate connection. He continues, "This research demonstrating that the Dead Sea was indeed once a dry region supports the Bible as a trustworthy historical record."

No one can blame Mr. Thomas for his enthusiasm, but we should immediately question why the presumed connection was not reported rather in biblical archaeology news. The Science Magazine report gives one important clue: the sediment layer to which Mr. Thomas is referring was buried 235 meters below the surface and is 120,000 years old—not ~4,000.

Of course, Mr. Thomas and others would object to the dating methods used to construct an age model for the Dead Sea sediments, but several factors make the objection irrelevant. First, for the Dead Sea basin to have dried up (leaving a layer of pebbled beach deposits), the region must have been extremely arid—more so than today. Since lake levels are controlled by the balance between evaporation and precipitation, higher temperatures and lower annual rainfall are required to dry out the deep, elongated basin. Such climatic conditions would have rendered the region inhospitable to large populations, and farming would have been simply out of the question.

Secondly, more than 200 meters of sediment that have accumulated since the lake dried up defy Mr. Thomas's fantastic timeline. These sediments are comprised of alternating organic-rich silts (winter deposition) and evaporites (mostly calcium carbonate). In other words, not the sort of laminae consistently laid down in multiple cycles per year—totaling more than 5 cm thickness per year—in a semi-arid environment. Moreover, isotopic analysis can be used to verify independently that these laminae result from seasonal transitions, contra Mr. Thomas's unspoken, gratuitous assertion that even stratigraphic dating methods are unreliable.

That being said, multiple independent dating methods (radiometric and stratigraphic; i.e. counting of annual layers) are both internally consistent and place the drying event during the last interglacial, which was more arid for the Levant than the current epoch, according to numerous paleoclimatic records. The preponderance of evidence thus supports the conventional investigative methods, as well as current interpretations of the climate history on a local and global scale.

But what about Abraham?

Unfortunately, Mr. Thomas's take on the evidence would seem to cast doubt on the biblical record, if he were correct. I would propose, however, that he has misused the Abrahamic narrative, whose purpose was to exegete Israel's mission among the nations while warning them of immanent judgement should they fall into temptation as Lot. The fate of Lot's wife even foreshadows that of the Israelites who desired that they could return to Egypt despite the exodus promises. It also highlights the faithfulness of the covenant God, who heard the cries of the oppressed in Sodom as he did in Egypt and acted in their behalf. The Pentateuchal parallels are numerous, and sufficient to conclude that the reference to the "Salt Sea" more likely originated as a tangible referent to explain the gravity of Israel's wavering in the faith.

As an aside, one may argue that the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah is recounted intertextually by Matthew 10 and 18—both in the nature of the apostolic mission and in the parables regarding "lost ones" and "little ones" of Israel. I would go so far as to say that the parable of the 'Rich Young Ruler' (Matt. 19) echoes the predicament of Lot, who was blessed by excess wealth and became a rich man for whom it was extremely difficult to escape the coming destruction ("camel through the eye of a needle"), but with God working through his messengers (the angels of Gen. 19; apostles in Matthew's account) it became possible (Matt. 19:26). I'll leave it to you to judge the merits of my literary analysis. In the meantime, do not fail to miss the scathing moral and cultural critique that follows from Sodom's fate, which should resonate eerily with our own generation:

"Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." Ezekiel 16:49

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

С Новым 2012 Годом, Russian airlines, book clubs on Skype, and more...!

I am a little late, but still I'd like to wish you all a Happy New Year, once again from Russia. About a month ago, I flew into St. Petersburg for a geology conference and to meet with potential collaborators on future projects. In short, I was overwhelmed by their hospitality and eagerness to work together in studying Russian paleoclimate. Things are looking up, and I see myself returning soon for a more permanent stay.

The conference included a field trip (i.e. at the very least, walking around a bit in the snow), for which I came over-prepared. At the sound of "December", "59.5 degrees latitude", and "outside" in the same sentence, I packed heavily. Winter so far has been incredibly mild for St. Petersburg, however, and we scarcely saw the temperature drop below freezing (notwithstanding a chilling breeze on the plateau outside of town). For those interested (all 2 or 3 of you, I'm sure!), the mild winter here is a result of a strong, positive-phase North Atlantic Oscillation, which prevailed throughout December and shifted relatively warm cloud masses northward from the subtropical Atlantic. Emphasis on 'oscillation', of course; this weather won't keep for long.

On the bank of the Izhora River, late December.
After the field trip, and a day of collecting lake-sediment samples in the field, my wife and I spent nearly a week walking the streets of downtown St. Petersburg. To be sure, this modern tourist attraction was built for summer, but I was still taken back by the unique blend of European architectural styles, variegated historical imprints from Tsarist and Soviet empires, sampling of local cuisines served in cozy cafes, and the basic inability of residents to park their cars in a manner even broadly consistent with common decency and/or traffic school. Yes, I loved it all, including the morning service at this monument to geometry, less than a block from our hotel:

Kazanskiy Sobor; a prime example of 'blended architecture'.
After a long week, and perturbed by common colds, we opted to fly to Samara rather than spend 20 to 30 hours on the train. As much as I like the Russian railroad system, I love Russian airlines. We were able to buy the tickets the same day as the flight at normal prices. When one of our bags was too heavy to carry on, we were charged a whopping $12 to check it as a second bag (the first ones were free, of course). The planes all have ample overhead storage space and leg room (i.e. compared to American domestic services). Since we had to make a connection in Moscow, we had two flights around an hour each, but both served full dinners, dessert, choice of cold drink, and choice of tea/coffee. When I flew more than 4 hours to Washington D.C., I received a ginger ale and some pretzels.

Church of the Resurrection of Christ, aka Church of the 'Savior in Spilled Blood' (Спас на Крове).
Every New Year, I am reminded of the fact that I have never in my life made a New Year's Resolution (on the other hand, I've never broken one). That being said, I want to share my plans to continue a weekly book club and encourage you to indulge in the same. Over the past year, a couple friends and I have met via Skype for two hours every week to discuss the latest reading assignment. Do you have a list of books you need to read this year, but lack the motivation to do it yourself? Skype is the perfect tool to accomplish this for several reasons. First, you can make the club as big as comfortable, with members from around the country (or world, for that matter). It's a great way to keep in touch with old friends. Secondly, you need not travel to some central location. Even when all are in the same city, scheduled meetings can feel like an inconvenience, in my opinion. On a similar note, you can wear whatever you'd like to the book club (and I do mean anything!) and sit anywhere with internet access. Finally, meetings are easy to reschedule and offer little inconvenience when canceled.

However you wish to accomplish your annual reading, I strongly encourage you to do it in a group. The best way to learn any subject is to teach it, and book clubs allow you to reiterate what you read, argue for or against the author's message, and of course receive feedback from trusted friends. Book clubs are also the ideal setting to work through more 'controversial' readings--that is, books that challenge your worldview, social setting/background, or academic ideology--or publications that are beyond your normal comprehension/expertise. Since January 2011, for example, we made it through the following works:

New Testament and the People of God (N.T. Wright)
Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)
Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Richard Hays)
A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Helmut Thielicke)
Jesus and the Victory of God (N.T. Wright)
Covenant and Eschatology (Michael Horton)
Resurrection of the Son of God (N.T. Wright)

Along with several published articles (complementary or critical responses, etc. from journals and blogs), the list totals just under 3,000 pages--far more than I would have read on my own had I drawn it up at the beginning of the year. Though admittedly I missed a handful of reading assignments (20-30 pages here and there), the advantage of having a book club is that you can review the missed content with or without reading it later. New Year's Resolutions are easy to break, but where two or three are gathered, you have no choice but to keep up. So give it a shot; see what you think. Organize a book club or study group online through Skype--with friends or enemies, acquaintances or strangers--and reclaim your lost efforts.

Дом Книги - "House of Books", St. Petersburg
I suppose I will end my ramblings here. Though I've been quiet recently (as per last post), I have kept up on the latest efforts of AiG and ICR (including the outlandish claim that 126,000-year-old sediments found by the Dead Sea Drilling Project confirmed the historicity of the Abrahamic narrative?!). Perhaps next week, after I return to the states, I'll find the time to interact with those efforts properly. Until then, feel free to leave feedback or suggestions regarding my update and exhortation to read more in 2012.

До свидания!