Miracle Max

November 17, 2009

I’ve prefaced my comments in the past with disclaimers about my non-science background, but this one is too rich. Apparently, if you drill straight into a tree, you get really skinny tree rings, and if you drill sideways into that same tree, you get thicker tree rings. Moreover, if you drill all the way around a tree in a big circumferential loop, you get no fracking tree rings, which is pretty astounding, because dendrologists have asserted for quite some time that all trees exhibit a telltale tree-ring shape.

Given that this is the case, it stands to reason that if a tree is irregularly shaped — maybe due to some external pressure like, say, a giant ice monster crashing the hell up against it several thousand years ago — or if it is perfectly round, as if plucked from the fantasy-land of Plato’s forms, you will get different patterns of tree rings. Lordy. Nature is confounding!

Here’s another interesting factoid that I am wholly unqualified to assert (but will anyway): If you stick a needle into my bicep, you will be more likely to strike muscle than if you stick a needle in my skull. My skull, as it turns out, is mostly bone (or rock; hard to tell). Many doctors probably do not know this about my skull and my bicep, but it bears pointing out lest my doctors draw irrational conclusions about their breaking of needles on the top of my head.

More astonishing is that this peculiar topology is true for all people, except those who have led cosmically different lives: who have fantasized exactly 218 times about dining on chocolate for breakfast, who have swum with piranha, sung lullabies to sheep, eaten three micrograms more spinach than paneer, or been attacked by a thousand-year-old ice monster. And yet, this impudent institution loudly insists on extrapolating across a wide population of all humans, mindless of rampant data-collection errors, naive to the perils of individual variation, wholly reliant upon a flawed and out-dated statistical apparatus that can never account for individual difference because, when we look back over time, there is always another causal branch that has not been explored. Four micrograms of spinach, you say? Bullocks. Back to the drawing board. Audacious, then, to insist that we use their imprecise and flimsy analysis to protect our children against the nefarious pig disease that has been giving all manner of press-lackey conniptions since April.

Don’t get me wrong. I make no pretense to know the statistics. I have no interest in such voodoo. Nor am I interested in tree rings or muscle tissue. I’m interested, instead, in holding the highest standards for the sciences, in setting the truth bar so high that no possible methodology could hope to surmount it. There’s grace in sticking to one’s theoretical guns, you see, in insisting that researchers maintain an immeasurable degree of accuracy, that they hold fast to truth with a conceptual stringency only Moritz Schlick could love.

By my humble lights, far better to stick with math. This a posteriori drivel is a disaster.

Have fun storming the castle!


  1. You’re right. We should set the bar low so that any nonsense can pass as fact. Only a philosopher.

  2. Only a non-philosopher would be unfamiliar with the unraveling of positivism.

  3. Ben, the “sideways” is not sideways at all. Read further, look at some of the tree diagrams.

    The actual data is exactly the opposite of what you surmise.

    Our most interesting tree anomaly (#31) is several hundred percent wider than thick. If you drill straight in the end, you get the wide (recent) rings. If you drill straight in from the side (near the end) you get narrow recent rings. Older rings are similar.

    This has nothing to do with drilling at angles.

    The measurement methods address angled drilling, as they must because one cannot predict the angular nature of the rings before drilling.

    Take a look at a measurement sample to see what I mean.

    • I’ll put it differently: if I drill with a wildly-curved drill bit, I get different ring patterns than if I drill with a squiggly bit. My post doesn’t have anything to do with drilling at angles either.

  4. Interesting photo. I have no idea how to interpret it.

    • Interpretation:
      It is only by “miracle” (Brian Luckman’s words, not mine) that these disturbances can be wished away as non-significant. Treeline trees – the ones that are supposedly so sensitive to temperature that they operate as thermometers – are riddled with these pesky disturbances. Alas, in the real world we can’t have our miracle, so we close our eyes and wish – and hope no one’s paying close attention.

      • (Brian Luckman’s words, not mine)

        I think you mean Sidney Harris’ words.


        The Morrie Schlick reference has gone stratospherically over the heads of the castle stormers. See: Sidney Harris/Math/Page 1/Row 1/ column 5

      • I was hoping they’d google him. And with this crowd, I think you mean ‘tropospherically’.

      • Dodge. Dodge. You guys are useless. Goodbye.

      • Bender, I watched the Luckman video from which that slide was drawn, but he didn’t really talk about that particular tree very much.

        At one point in the lecture he did talk about another tree which showed a lot of damage and said that it would be thrown out, not used, because of the amount of disturbance it showed.

    • Or, we make simplifying assumptions so that we can explain the data as reasonably as possible.

      • Absolutely we make simplifying solution. It is what comes next that’s important.

        One with a scientific bent asks: “Under what circumstances does my simple model hold ?” Better yet, can we objectively characterize our simple model against the real world to get some idea of how much we can trust it ? Are other models reliant on this simple model ? How do they fare under the error conditions we are currently examining ? Am I really testing what I think I am testing ?

        Seems to me that this pretty accurately describes what is going on at Climate Audit in the referenced article.

        It might be well and good for philosophers and religionists to scoff and snark at the nuts and bolts. They have their faith to get them by and don’t need much convincing that the model being tested is accurate. Pity instead, the poor scientist who lacks faith and needs to see that all the puzzle pieces actually fit. I must admit a certain amount of envy for those who can survive with just faith and rhetorical flourish. It must be sooooooo much easier.

  5. Seems to me that this pretty accurately describes what is going on at Climate Audit in the referenced article.

    Perfection as the enemy of the good enough, is more like it.

    • Where, I suppose that “good” is a model that supports the rationalizations that you currently want to make ?

      That may fly in philosophy or other forms of sophistry, but I find I tend to find that it is far more interesting to quantify things and look at how this actually effects the obtained results.

      We are guessing at temperatures based on physical characteristics of trees. Some factors are going to make our guess better match reality, and some are going to make our guesses worse. Maybe deformation could even prove to be a non-issue in terms of our guesses, but it is hard for me to see how I can know this without first examining the problem.

      Perhaps you know something I don’t and have a quantitative estimate for this effect on temperature measurement which is what makes you so assured in your assessment ?

      • I think a signal that is 30 – 50% reliable is better than 100% noise, which seems to me is all the suspicion of doubt you can muster.

        “All models are wrong, but some are useful”

        —George Box.

      • Artifex imagines that tree ring-based temp plots are critical to understanding past temperature, especially insofar as that might inform policy. Wrong.

        OTOH, tree ring studies do provide an endless thicket of potentially confusing details for those who like confusion.

      • – luminous

        I note that the caveat 30-50% “on select sites” is actually used. I take this to mean thats the best you are going to do and the selection criteria that separates these “good” sites from the others is not completely clear to me.

        I completely agree that being able to pick some signal out of a system is better than being able to recover no signal from a system, and Mr Box’s quote is an absolute truism.

        That being said, I think you are missing the point. To use models (that is to say, pretty much all of science) you need an understanding of where those models break down and how those models break down. This is a quantitative process and it yields a quantitative value. I would value anything that increases my understanding of this process.

        To simply wave one’s hands around and say that the model is “good” and then scoff at someone trying to further characterize the problem is hardly useful.

        – Steve Bloom

        Project much ? I have little interest in policy or politics. I find the science and to a lesser extent the personalities far more interesting.

        Why would I think tree ring based temperature plots are critical to understanding past temperatures ? I don’t understand your point, but I would guess this is some transition to some form of sophomoric argument such as “I have a bunch of vague and weak points. If you shoot down any one it really doesn’t matter and overall they prove my point”. I find such rhetorical arguments pretty much useless in trying to comprehend what is actually going on.

        Instead of heading off into unrelated handwaving, lets look at the specific question I am really asking instead:

        “Why is an attempt to further characterize the limitations of a model a bad thing or something to be scoffed at ?”

      • Well, artifex, I suppose on one level it’s just an interesting hobby, rather like stamp collecting, and I’m happy to grant that for you that’s all it is. Of course McIntyre and his political supporters try to read a larger meaning into it.

        I’m perfectly willing to grant that dendrochronology is a difficult field with room for differing interpretations of the details. It remains an important field because the annual nature of tree rings and the vast number of locations in which trees are present make for a very good, perhaps even uniquely good, proxy for determining the details of late-Holocene climate. But the fact remains that those details are no longer significant (if they ever were) for public policy.

        Together with current observations, ice cores and lake/ocean sediments are what’s significant. Interpretation of those is far less subject to interpretation than are tree rings, and it’s rather amusing to see them piling up by the dozen while McIntyre pretends they don’t exist.

  6. whatsa matter Ben?

    no comments on the rest of your drivel?

    • I’ve got a kid. I take the evenings off to make sure that his belly is full and his tushie is clean. I’ll return to this in a bit. Meanwhile, looks like Luminous Beauty is doing a fine job without me.

  7. Artifice,

    My guess is you haven’t viewed Prof. Luckman’s presentation, have you? You’ve just assumed the accuracy of St. Steven’s characterization on faith, haven’t you?

    • Artifice,

      You really should take a look at the video. But it takes 1/2 hour and you might be in danger of learning something about how the science is actually done, since it is designed for nonspecialists.

      And that stuff you learn? It might show Sir Stephen of Toronto to be incorrect. We couldn’t have that, could we?

      • Rattus,

        I was not aware this existed – thanks.

        This addresses some of Steve’s points directly ? I have no problem with Steve being shown to be incorrect, but it is going to take a real engagement of the argument. I simply don’t find proof by assertion very compelling.

    • luminous

      I had read through the powerpoint, and was unaware that there was a video. The material is actually interesting and I will be sure to take a look at the video.

      As for “St Steven’s” characterization, I am not looking for illumination from on high. I am expecting him to make relevant and strong arguments for his point. That’s how science works. I then expect the opposing viewpoint to make their strongest and best argument. While my direct knowledge of the field is tiny compared to someone who has actually concentrated on the subject matter, by watching the argument in progress, I will definitely gain an understanding of the strong and weak points that both sides have to offer. I may not have full knowledge of specific details within the field, but I can certainly identity when a question is not engaged.

      Now I could be wrong, and things may be very different here than in the physical sciences, but when I see a lot of dodging and avoidance of the argument, I suspect the case is probably weak.

      • Or that one side sees having an endless argument in public with someone like McIntyre as having no upside.

      • I’m sorry Artifex, but I fail to see how Steve is engaging in a scientific argument in any meaningful way. To all appearances, he is presenting a strawman whose snarky misdirection is driven home with a non sequitur.

        On the other hand, Prof. Luckman fairly represents the current science with all it’s warts, uncertainties and caveats. Like most science it is empirical and inductive, and not reducible to absolute proof. It is merely the best explanation, so far as we can infer from the cumulative weight of evidence.

        To tout the problematic difficulties of deriving meaningful data from a justifiably discardable single example of evidence, equivocating it to the mass of evidence whose difficulties are not at all so problematic, and then characterizing this falsely construed equivalence as hocus pocus and reason to dismiss the entire field of science being thus misrepresented, is disingenuous at best.

        Perhaps you could enlighten me as to what you see as a relevant scientific argument as presented by St. Steven?

  8. SB,

    I note that the caveat 30-50% “on select sites” is actually used. I take this to mean thats the best you are going to do and the selection criteria that separates these “good” sites from the others is not completely clear to me.

    This is specifically for Canada where the accumulation of data is relatively recent and sparse as compared to the US and Europe where there is nearly a century of collections and a dense network of sites, plus a wealth of conciliatory evidence, both as instrumental records and other proxies, reducing the stochastic uncertainty and making confidence levels much higher. As the collections in Canada grow and expand, confidence will likewise improve.

    Upper tree lines, altitude and latitude, are the selection criteria for temperature as these are simply the limits beyond which it is too cold for trees to thrive. The use of lower altitude tree lines, especially in arid and semi-arid regions and latitudinal forest valley edge tree lines (above the water table), and also local annular lake sediment varves for moisture shouldn’t be discounted, as this allows the climatic information to be further discriminated into the categories of wet/cold, wet/warm, dry/cold and dry/warm, as well as a means of compensating for confounding factors.

    Is that helpful?

    • I think this is for artifex, not me.

      • You’re right. My bad.

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