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Scientific confusion

Filed under: — gavin @ 16 November 2011

“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”

I read this quote on a wall on Mark Cane’s office at LDEO (Columbia) many years ago and always wondered where it came from. He found it as an epigram in a book on ‘Stochastic Differential Equations‘ by Bernt Øksendal where it is sourced to a sign outside the mathematics reading room at Tromsø University. The actual source appears to be a 1951 report on an education workshop by Earl C. Kelley, a professor at Wayne University (sleuthing by QI).

55 Responses to “Scientific confusion”

  1. 1
    Sean Rooney says:

    Isn’t this at least generally true right across the board? It seems to me to characterize our progress in science across many decades. We always know more today than we did yesterday and usually know more tomorrow than we did today. But the quest is never ending and new challenges emerge from our ever expanding sphere of knowledge. There’s nothing to do save plow on and keep plowing, and never give up the ship.

  2. 2
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    I have posted on RealClimate about 4 times in the past 5 years regarding the potential thaw of the methal hydrate deposits at the bottom of the oceans.I stated in my posts on your website that I believe firmly that those deposits are in quite a good bit of danger of melting from climate change feedback mechanisms.On Nov 8th, ScienceDaily posted a huge new study on the PETM boundary 55 million years ago, and some key data on how the methane at that point may very well have melted and contributed to the massive climate shift.I am an amateur who reads in the new a lot about climate change.I’d now like to say “I told you so!!!”It seems that the new study has confirmed what I was saying, namely, that those deposits are in danger of melting in the next 500 years.In reference to the above open ended post, I humbly suggest this opens a “whole new set of important questions”.
    If I missed a RealClimate post on this new PETM/methal hydrates study, my apologies.What do you experts think now?Was I right to raise a huge alarm about these deopsits 3 years ago?
    Mark J. Fiore
    Harvard, 1982
    Boston College Law School, 1987.
    (not a real scientist, like you guys, but a fairly up to date guy on the climate change news stories)
    Do you think the methal hydrates are going to melt in the harsh light of this new study I’ve just pointed out?

  3. 3
    David B. Benson says:

    Mark J. Fiore @2 — Somehow the climate survived during the Eemian interglacial despite global temperatures about 2 K warmer than even now. [I’ll point out that it was far from pleasant in East Africa during that time; humans tended to move elsewhere around then.]

  4. 4
    Chris Colose says:

    Good quote, especially the part about “being confused on a higher level.” Though, I would suggest the most important stuff is the textbook material, things that are rather well known. The “details” are important and interesting, and may in fact be of key importance to society (rather than just of academic interest…for example the stability of the Greenland ice sheet), but they are called details for a reason.

  5. 5
    Edward Greisch says:

    “Willful Blindness” by Margaret Heffernan. Scientific confusion may be a cure for willful blindness. Let’s hope so.

  6. 6

    Another insightful quote that springs to mind on reading this is: “keep an open mind but not so open that your brains drop out.”

    I think of this when listening to people who argue that the sun, natural cycles, blue pixie dust, etc (anything other than CO2 and human activites) is what is causing rising global temperatures.

    As for who said it, Gavin attributed it to Carl Sagan ( ) but there is debate on its author:

  7. 7
    Blair Dowden says:

    Mark, could you at least provide a link to the ScienceDaily article? All I could find around that time was Tropical Forest Diversity Increased During Ancient Global Warming Event.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    Ian Love says:

    # 2 and 7
    Presumably the item is Methane May Be Answer To 55-Million-Year Question.

    #3 Humans – Homo sapiens – going away from East Africa 55M years ago???

  10. 10
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    For comment # 7, Blair Dowden, here is the link.I do not know how to embed a link into another webpage by using cut and paste because my computer skills are quite bad, but here is how it is spelled.
    It was on the Nov 9th ScienceDaily stories.
    Also, thanks to #8, John Byatt, for the link to the RealClimate post from 2010 on methane.I now remember reading that now that I just read it again.It does not comfort me because it says that the methane can change into co2.Also, it does not comfort me that a bigger problem is the peat moss methane escaping.Both sources of potential methane release worry me.Now that you all know the link to the sciencedaily story, what do you think?

  11. 11
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    It appears that the link address is not working.Here is the exact title of the story:
    Methane May be Answer to 56 million year old question:Ocean could have contained enough methane to cause drastic climate shift.

    It is from ScienceDaily, Nov 9th, free e mail subscription to their top stories.
    Thanks, Mark

  12. 12
  13. 13
    William P says:

    Mark Fiore: I recall reading reports of Russian and other scientists observing actual bubbles and gas escaping on the Arctic Sea surface along the coast line. This study was maybe a couple years ago. They found methane in the escaping gas samples.

    You might want to pursue that lead. I am sorry I can’t give you a better lead and reference.

  14. 14

    Sounds a bit like Startrek.

  15. 15
    vukcevic says:

    “We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions.”
    Agree up to there, but do not accept confusion bit, just look for answers to the ‘whole set of new questions’. Here is one:
    details on line in few days (data verified by Dr. Svalgaard from Stamford), came out of the question and clear answers in here:
    I found many answers in the Arctic

  16. 16
    Burt Armstrong says:

    Could any reader enlighten me about the delay aspect of climate change. I am under the impression that the weather we are experiencing is related to CO2 increases that happened years possibly decades ago. This lag time between a CO2 increase and the manifested related weather change I find very frightening in that we are experiencing weather related events to the level of CO2 that occurred a long time ago with much lower CO2 levels.

  17. 17
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Chris @ 4: “Though, I would suggest the most important stuff is the textbook material, things that are rather well known.”

    Unfortunately Chris may be mixing up surprisingly different things (textbook material, well known) as shown here:

    Understanding public complacency about climate
    change: adults’ mental models of climate change violate
    conservation of matter

    Why Don’t Well-Educated Adults Understand Accumulation? A Challenge to Researchers, Educators, and Citizen

    etc. etc.

    Very basic textbook material like conservation of matter is not known very well at all.

  18. 18
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Conservation of energy is also under appreciated. Numerous denier arguments involving slight fluctuations in the global distribution of warmer vs cooler sea surface areas as supposed explanations of climate change neglect all the energy that goes into ocean heat content, melting large ice deposits and so forth. Where does the energy come from, and why?

  19. 19

    #11 Mark J. Fiore

    Methane leaks from the oceans and many other sources. Context is always key. CH4 is indicated in climate change in a number of studies, but confidence levels aka level of understanding needs to be increased before claims are made.

    Generally, there are indications that if we reach 4 to 6C rise there is a chance possibly for larger methane hydrate release once the oceans warm up.

    While many are still misled about the science now, I don’t think that will last forever. So, feedbacks and all, there is still a chance we can turn things around depending on how long we wait, which of course changes the odds.

    Meaningful concern is needed of course, but acting alarmed is different than recognizing an alarm. And being alarmed often leads to poor decision making. Just food for thought.

  20. 20

    #3, #9–

    No, the Eemian was not 55 million years ago:

  21. 21

    16, Burt Armstrong,

    Other readers here know better than I, but if we presume that a 3˚C per doubling of CO2 is correct for climate sensitivity then the current level of 395 ppm translates into an actual temperature commitment right now of 1.41˚C. We have, of course, only seen about 0.6˚C of this. This means that if we stopped burning fossil fuels enough right now to hold atmospheric CO2 levels at 395 ppm, temperatures would continue to rise another 0.8˚C or so.

    So in that sense yes, what you are seeing is the tip of the melting ice-berg. Extreme weather can be expected to get much worse, and that’s even if we were to get things under control instantly, today.

  22. 22
    wili says:

    John @19 said:

    “Generally, there are indications that if we reach 4 to 6C rise there is a chance possibly for larger methane hydrate release once the oceans warm up.”

    I have heard that too, but hasn’t the Arctic warmed up much faster than the rest of the globe and much more than models had predicted? So might we not get this melting up there well before the whole globe reaches these temps?

    On the general question at hand–uncertainty in science should not be a cause for great comfort. It means we don’t know exactly how great the harm is that we are doing, so we should tread much more carefully than we have been doing. Wendel Berry describes it as crossing a swift but cloudy river depending on submerged stepping stones whose locations you cannot be sure of.

    This actually relates back to the methane issue: We can’t be sure at what point we would trigger such a catastrophe, so it is best to steer way clear of such a possibility. Unfortunately, we seem to instead be charging ahead blindly and recklessly.

    Mark, do a google scholar search on Semiletov or Shakhova for recent work on methane hydrates. They and other scientists were recently rushed up to the Arctic “on short notice” on reports of “dramatic” increases of methane release, and observers reported “seas bubbling as if they were boiling.” The scientists’ report on this will not come out for another five months or so. I have seen no instrumental measurements showing a dramatic increase in atmospheric methane, though, but I only have limited access and time to look.

    The whole issue is of great concern, and should get more attention and discussion. I think the (understandable) attitude John just expressed about trying to avoid alarm can, unfortunately, get in the way of people’s willingness to look squarely at things that might truly be quite frightening.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing it up, Mark.

  23. 23

    @ Mark Fiore,

    Suggest you read the new paper by Mark Pagnani when it comes out – soon. I’m not so sure that the methane hydrate/PETM connection is the slam dunk you think it is. Look for it.

    P.S. Maybe move this discussion to “Unforced V’s”?

  24. 24
    P.E. McDaniel says:

    I like this quote – putting it in my journal!

    Methane hydrates have been on everyone’s radar for some time. If you dive even in the shallow waters of the Gulf Coast you can see methane bubbling to the surface.

    As you might expect, the hypothesis that methane hydrates was a contributor to the PETM has been kicking around for a while.

    I’ll admit it is a convenient ‘possibility’ but to quote medical school, “when you hear horse hooves, don’t think zebras”.

    The popular press rarely looks at all angles of a topic in the sciences. If you spend an hour or so a week keeping up in the journals (I confess I spend closer to eight to ten) then you would notice that in the last three years at least three competing hypothesis for the cause of the PETM has circulated.

    While seabed and arctic methane is first in line on my own personal hit list (methane is the guy in the line-up with the shaggy beard and the Charlie Manson eyes) there is this nagging little voice in the back of my head that says “keep looking”

    Science is about asking questions and each answer brings more questions (which is probably why when talking science to politicians its important to mention “if you don’t like the answers, don’t ask the questions!”)

  25. 25
    P.E. McDaniel says:

    I like this quote, it goes into my journal !

    Methane hydrates have been on everyone’s radar for some time. If you spend any time at all reading the journals, even limiting yourself to Science and Nature, you’ll see that in the last three years there have been no less than three competing hypothesis about the cause of the PETM.

    ( All interesting ideas but I’m not bragging to my mother about them yet. )

    However to quote my physician about his time in medical school – “when you hear horse hooves, don’t think zebras!”

    It would be simple to point to methane hydrates (he’s the shaggy guy with the Charlie Manson eyes on the far right of the line up) but a little voice in the back of my head keeps saying, keep looking.

    Science is about asking questions, the answers always lead us to more questions.

    [ Its easy to explain to adults (and small children) how energetics of a reaction may favor one chemical result over another, but its more fun to lead them into the deep forest to show them how flora, fauna and the planet are woven together. ]

    Not sure how this conversation got started but of the ideas I get from my advisers, the best ones come from the hallway.

  26. 26
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    I agree with #22.Thanks to all for the feedback.Pun intended.I will do the google search on those issues mentioned.
    Mark J. Fiore

  27. 27

    #22 wili

    Please don’t get me wrong. I am in no way saying we should be comfortable with the uncertainty. The Precautionary Principle is applied when there is high risk plus uncertainty. There are areas of climate science that are more and less certain. Context is always key.

  28. 28
    Geno Canto del Halcon says:

    David B. Benson says: “Somehow the climate survived during the Eemian interglacial despite global temperatures about 2 K warmer than even now.”

    What does this mean, that the “climate” survived? Certainly, it is accurate that our ancestors survived the Eemian, but we shouldn’t be cavalier about our survival of previous major climate shifts; we cannot assume that we will survive future crises. We did not have a population of 7 billion people back then, a population that is highly dependent on modern technology and “cheap” energy. Our Eemian ancestors also didn’t have nuclear, biological, and other potentially extincting weapons at their disposal. When you start considering the social and economic impacts of shifting percipitation patterns, rising sea levels, and the rising cost of energy, one can see the potential for major social and economic upheavals that pose the danger of economic and social instability that could lead to new major and very dangerous wars.

  29. 29
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Burt Armstrong @ 16, you are very much on the right track, but think more in terms of accumulating ocean heat content and rising sea surface temperatures. That is the main source of more water vapor and energy (as latent heat) in the air, and consequently weather trouble. Some countries have been effected more than others so far. Read this

    for a downer. From this link

    “It means that 1,030 out of the total 1,120 municipalities throughout Colombia have been adversely affected, covering 29 of the 32 Colombian departments.”
    To get an idea of the irregularity of climate disruption, compare drought in Bolivia.

    About 1,000 people died in Southeast Asia floods: UN.
    but you mostly hear only about the part of the flood in Bangkok.

    USA is not getting off scott free

    but we try to be quiet about it. Only extreme public pressure will move government in a constructive direction. Get to work creating activists!

  30. 30
    Karen Kohfeld says:

    Mark Cane appears to be a great source for great quotes. I will never forget his tongue-in-cheek quote during a presentation: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

  31. 31
    Jason Miller says:

    “We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”

    To me, this is progress. For example: The Earth is flat => the Earth is a sphere => the Earth circles the Sun => the Sun is one of many hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy we call the Milky Way => The Milky Way is among a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe => the universe is ???.

    The deeper the knowledge, the wider is the span of questions. Unfortunately, many people do not understand this concept.

    Another problem is the inability of many people to understand the concept of scale. An example of this is Steve Goddard’s pixel counting where he converts temperature anomaly map scales of +12 to +1 and -1 to -12 to simply +1 or -1 depending on color – (please glance at the comments). Scale is very important.

  32. 32
  33. 33
    harvey says:

    ooops got the first one wrong:

  34. 34
    David B. Benson says:

    Geno Canto del Halcon @28 — The additional warming during the Eemian interglacial, about 2 K, was not enough to unleash a methyl hydrate runaway as is sometimes hypotesized happened during the PETM temperature ‘spike’. That is all I meant except to point out that conditions during the Eemian interglacial in East Africa were not conducive to human habitation; many groups left for more hospitable locations.

    That suggests that much the same will begin to occur now as peoples transhuminate, to use an old fashioned term, to more equitable regions. Altogether, that might prove civilization ending is (very roughly) the same way the German transhuminations put paid to the Roman Empire. Of course, even worse might well ensue.

    [I suppose I’m not confused at a high enough level yet.]

  35. 35
    Titus says:

    In my life (a long one) we say we are confused because we do not have the basic (lowest level) understanding of our existence. All we have are theories based on concepts which we have invented that fit our current knowledge and understanding.

    Saying “we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things” is totally arrogant and kills the flame of discovery.

    I disagree profoundly with this statement.

  36. 36

    Popper wrote about the role of Reductionism in science and said much the same thing about the maturation of the confusion. He argued that our attempts to solve problems created so-called solutions that uncovered other problems we hadn’t known about and (most importantly) couldn’t have thought about without the first round attempts.

    Popper also pointed out that Reductionism as a philosophy was doomed in an indeterminate universe, but that it worked surprisingly well as a method for Science. He even went on to argue that it is probably the only sensible method we have that COULD work to do what we are trying to do.

  37. 37
    cthulhu says:

    “The additional warming during the Eemian interglacial, about 2 K, ”

    I think that’s the regional difference at the site of the ice cores and don’t they end around 1950? Globally we are probably a lot closer to Eemian temperatures, perhaps we’ve already passed them.

  38. 38
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Skeptical Science has a very good five part series on the Eemian.

  39. 39
    Susan Anderson says:

    This a bit OT, but I had been assuming this is the Pulitzer winner Mark Fiore of Solyndragatepocalypse and ContagionEx, but seems not?

    Back to topic, while reductionist thinking is a good working tool, it should not be given authority. Being unable to study or understand something, potentially or actually, is not a good reason to limit one’s view of reality.

    I am grateful for every kind of work that is done to enhance our understanding, but we still stand on the earth, which is infinitely interesting and varied. Physics does not encompass our whole experience, though it makes a good attempt to understand things. Theory is nice, but it doesn’t limit reality. Understanding is useful, but not if it leads to a closed mind.

    Aside from fake skepticism, the narrow kind that denies reality in favor of preference, another bete noir comes to mind: string theory. Just like Chicago economics, it’s pretty but leads to trouble if its followers start to treat it as an object of worship, invariant and all encompassing.

  40. 40
    Chris R says:

    Wili #22,

    “They and other scientists were recently rushed up to the Arctic “on short notice” on reports of “dramatic” increases of methane release, and observers reported “seas bubbling as if they were boiling.” The scientists’ report on this will not come out for another five months or so.”

    Do you have a source for this?

  41. 41

    I wonder if the quote is from a physicist. Up to the late 19th century, it looked as if the major problems were nailed, and only details remained to be tidied. Then big holes started to appear and despite good work by Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein, et al., things have become in a way increasingly confused since even if we can still get amazing stuff done.

  42. 42
    Hank Roberts says:

    For Chris R., wili’s talking about a widely blogged news story from a few months ago:
    Since it was set to be a 45-day expedition, some more info ought to be available somewhere.

  43. 43
    David B. Benson says:

    cthulhu @37 — No, that is a global temperature and we haven’t come close yet [but probably will reach at least that].

  44. 44
  45. 45
    CM says:

    Re: Arctic methane rush: Perspective needed. Breathless reports of scientists on a ship off Russia reporting bubbling seas are a recurring phenomenon (e.g. this Independent story, 2008), but according to the unwritten laws of journalism, always presented as totally never-seen-this-before breaking news. They’ve been doing this for some years, see publications from the International Siberian Sea Shelf Study. The most recent major summary of their findings, I think, is Shakhova (2010). It’s disturbing reading. The main RealClimate posts on this are getting a bit long in the teeth (2005, 2006); maybe it’s time to raise us to a higher level of confusion?

  46. 46
    CM says:

    (re: Arctic methane rush, cont’d) …and Harvey’s Newsvine source at #44 exemplifies the confusion, blogging the dramatic quotes from the 2008 expedition as breaking news from this year’s. Apparently this year’s results will be published in half a year’s time. The owl of Minerva, and all that.

  47. 47
    John McCormick says:

    RE # 45

    CM, you said “Breathless reports of scientists on a ship off Russia reporting bubbling seas are a recurring phenomenon”

    Many thanks for that re-assuring comment. Now, I can get on with my day knowing that stuff hits the fan all the time. If more stuff hits that fan, I don’t have to be concerned because stuff happens.

  48. 48

    #47–“I feel your pain,” but in this case it’s actually the *same identical stuff* hitting the fan–despite the blogger’s claim that Dr. Gustafsson’s comments were “leaked two days ago,” the identical quote appeared in print in 2008, as a quick Google search will confirm.

    CM’s caution is well-warranted.

  49. 49
    Chris R says:

    Hank, CM, Kevin,

    Thanks for the comments. Let’s just say something massive were to happen, some kind of massive release of CH4 presaging a catastrophic release and the start of a PETM type event. We’d know it was happening from;
    1. Substantial increase of CH4 concentration around the Arctic.
    2. Substantial increase of Carbon 13 in CH4.

    However it isn’t happening, not yet anyway…

    There really is enough scary stuff going on with AGW without dragging monsters from the future into the present.

    The Shakova 2010 paper mentioned by CM (#45) is here: It’s gone up to the top of my reading list.

    [Response: Of course, the PETM *is* what is happening now, in terms of the amount of carbon being released. We’re just releasing it *faster*.–eric]

  50. 50