Kristen Byrnes - Skeptical To A Fault

Kids these days! They're getting into all kinds of things. First you've got 11-year old Jamison Stone who killed a "monster pig" in Pickensville, Alabama (reported here, disputed here, and lamented here). Then there's the eighth grader who took first place in a "science fair" for disproving evolution. And now there's a 16-year old who is challenging the conventional wisdom on the causes of global warming.

Billions of dollars in research and thousands of scientists around the world have only just settled what the conventional wisdom should be - namely that man-made carbon dioxide gas will be the cause of all our woes in the not-to-distant future. This is the anthropogenic global warming that's been all the rage in the media these days. 2007 is significant year in the debate because it's the year that the case for anghropogenic global warming was firmly established, especially by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There are still doubters, dissenter, denialists, skeptics, or whatever other category you choose to label them as, but the majority of the American public recognizes global warming to be a problem that needs addressing sooner than later.

To make your own informed decision, you can rely on reports from the media, as long as you keep in mind that most media focuses on the controversy or the extremes of the science behind global warming. It's how they make a buck. Instead, you may want to do a little more research. The internet is a wonderful resource, but again you have to be aware of some of the motivations behind particular postings. Are you reading a blog paid for by Exxon Mobil or the Sierra Club. How do you know? Maybe you should appeal directly to the source - the scientists themselves. You could try this blog or this blog. Both are very cerebral and cut right to the science - and they support opposite sides of the debate. So you have to decide who makes the better argument, supported by the best science. Worse still, you can read the scientific journals where the evidence is presented for all to see. This assumes, of course, you have access to the journals and that you can make sense of all the terms, equations, tables, figures, and logic. Sure...

Or, you can teach yourself. Maybe start with a little history behind the discovery of global warming. Then you'll need to learn about how the sun warms the earth [including how much radiation falls on the earth, how much is reflected, how it is transformed to infrared (IR) radiation]. You'll also need to teach yourself about greenhouse gases (GHGs) and how the different modes of molecular vibration absorb and re emit IR, ultimately trapping the sun's heat. Which, in turn, leads to learning about the production and loss of GHGs, albedo effects over different parts of the earth's surface, and other so-called feedback mechanisms (cloud production, moisture cycles, land use, etc.) . Eventually you'll have to delve into weather, including seasonal or decadal variations in wind patterns, jet streams, major circulatory oscillations...and don't forget about the ocean, with El Nino, La Nina, the undersea conveyor belt.

Whew! The list just seems to go on and on. A scientist can take just a small fraction of any of the above items and build a career upon it. But who can really know it all? That's just the reason why the global warming debate has gone on for so long. This isn't quantum mechanics or brain surgery. The science behind global warming is graspable to many people. We can understand many facets of it, if just barely, and intuit consequences ourselves. That leads many to feel they can justly argue with the experts because, well, experts are only looking at their piece of the pie. You don't hear too many people debating the Riemann hypothesis simply because it's not within their field of reach.

Enter Kristen Byrnes, a 15-year old high school student in Portland, Maine, who, as an extra-credit assignment for her honors earth science class, decided to take on the task of more fully understanding the underlying causes behind global warming. Her website, Ponder the Maunder (Maunder from the Maunder Minimum, but also meaning 'to speak indistinctly') documents her journey by providing rudimentary background information while connecting certain salient dots in this scientific miasma. Ultimately, she concludes that CO2 plays little part in this recent global warming trend. Rather, she claims that it is cause by solar variation and the reason that this has not been recognized is that El Ninos and La Ninas have obscured the picture. In particular, she only looks at the period from 1945 to the present because, during that time, their was a cooling trend even as CO2 was being continually emitted to the atmosphere. Accordingly, the earth should have been warming at the time.

I laud the effort she put into this. I think it's wonderful that someone so young takes the initiative and is persistent in tackling such a large beast as global warming. She has been garnering praise, as she rightly should, but for the wrong reasons. Her conclusions are being praised more, it seems, than her effort. I reserve my comments on her work for this reason, but I think it is a mistake for global warming proponents to take this as a serious challenge to the global warming consensus. It shows that they have become entangled in the complexities of the science and, in extricating themselves, convince themselves of the correctness of her theory. For them, this is their David vs. Goliath moment, with Goliath being played by Al Gore.

Perhaps it is her nature, or perhaps it is her recent notoriety that has engendered a certain cockiness. In a recent guest weblog at Climate Science, she chastises the professional scientists who have written in defense of their published article, with:
Oh come on, guys. When are you going to stop representing these computer simulations as science?

You don’t know squat about the sun, clouds, water vapor and etc. You can’t predict volcanoes, ENSO, PDO or Kelvin waves.
You tune these programs to death, run 9438752309457 simulations and give yourselves large ranges for “natural variation.” Under these circumstances I can program my Nintendo 007 game to say that all the dead spies were killed by GHG’s.

Comment by Kristen Byrnes — May 22, 2007 @ 10:07 pm

Not a great career move...but a feisty one. However, I wonder if she can take away from this experience the most valuable science lesson of all - the meaning of the scientific method. That she has done so much hard work and developed a plausible theory is one thing. But if she believes it to be infallible and immutable, then the real lesson is lost. If she can accept criticism and is willing to modify her theory, even to the point of completely discarding it, then she will make a fine scientist indeed. One road leads to science, the other to crankishness.

Perhaps in a later post I can point out some of the problems with her work, but it's likely someone already has. Or, better yet, maybe I can tell you that I learned something from her. So thanks for that, Kristen. Now I'm off to see if I can bag me a monster pig!


Steve Ballmer said...

Check out my Band, Balm:


bi -- IJI said...

Apparently Byrnes got a PhD in cutting and pasting graphs wrongly. Ugh.

-- bi, Intl. J. Inact.

The skepTick said...

Thanks for the link. I'll make a note to see if she ever responded to the criticism of confusing the year 800 AD with 1880 AD. That's a huge and embarrassing mistake...I wonder if she had the humility to admit her mistake.