Tsonis, Swanson, chaos, and “s__t happens” (slightly revised and expanded)

(Slight updates, 1st October and 30th September 2017. Thanks to Jim Stuttard for noticing that a link on Takens embeddings was closed to all but students. I have replaced that link, and added a link to an article about stable recovery of embeddings.)

There’s been a remarkable amount of play given in peer reviewed and informal scientific literature to the ideas of Tsonis and Swanson, e.g., here and here.

I say “remarkable” because, for instance, in their frequentist work on series, their autocorrelatiions, and statistics are filled with unchallenged assumptions about independence and about false discovery rates, especially in their highly imperfect appropriation of methods from gene sequence analysis. Their paper on El Nino is especially egregious, using a t-test in total neglect of the fact that they are performing multiple and many tests. They don’t address the problem of overfitting at all, and, being frequentists, they are obliged to do so.

But far worse, in my opinion, is their advance of what is Just Bad Science. In particular, their series analysis suffers three blemishes.

First, there is no instance where their series based explanation makes a prediction that is falsifiable. I challenge thrm to make one.

Second, while they offer a statistical explanation of series, they have not advanced a physical mechanism for its realization, something essential for both taking it seriously as a hypothesis and for supporting additional scientific work based upon it. They can’t say what additional measurements are to be taken or where. Indeed, from their perspective, doing additional measurements is somewhat pointless. due to the “chaotic” nature of outcomes.

Third, they embrace the popular understanding of “chaos” from the Lorenz setting rather than a technical one, so the scientific reader really doesn’t know from paragraph to paragraph what exactly they are talking about.

Thus, I’d say their thesis is Not Even Wrong (*).

Update, 6th March 2015

So, I finally found a possible explanation of what Swanson and Tsonis mean by their ‘s__t happens’, even if they dd not say that. They were so wrapped up and excited about “internal variability” in climate, they did not allude to their paper co-authored with George Sugihara (**), which said, in part:

The lack of an oscillatory model signal suggests that the interdecadal global mean surface temperature signal derived from the observations and shown in Figs. 1A and 2B is indeed the signature of natural long-term climate variability. Removing this internal signature from the observed global mean temperature record should clean up the individual and unique realization of nature, isolating the forced climate signal. Fig. 3 shows that the resulting cleaned signal presents a nearly monotonic warming of the global mean surface temperature throughout the 20th century, and closely resembles a quadratic fit to the actual 20th century global mean temperature. Interdecadal 20th century temperature deviations, such as the accelerated observed 1910–1940 warming that has been attributed to an unverifiable increase in solar irradiance (4, 7, 19, 20), appear to instead be due to natural variability. The same is true for the observed mid-40s to mid-70s cooling, previously attributed to enhanced sulfate aerosol activity (4, 6, 7, 12). Finally, a fraction of the post-1970s warming also appears to be attributable to natural variability. The monotonic increase of the cleaned global temperature throughout the 20th century suggests increasing greenhouse gas forcing more-or-less consistently dominating sulfate aerosol forcing, although our technique cannot exclude other mechanisms not contained in the current generation of model forcing (22) … Second, theoretical arguments suggest that a more variable climate is a more sensitive climate to imposed forcings (13). Viewed in this light, the lack of modeled compared to observed interdecadal variability (Fig. 2B) may indicate that current models underestimate climate sensitivity. Finally, the presence of vigorous climate variability presents significant challenges to near-term climate prediction (25, 26), leaving open the possibility of steady or even declining global mean surface temperatures over the next several decades that could present a significant empirical obstacle to the implementation of policies directed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions (27). However, global warming could likewise suddenly and without any ostensive cause accelerate due to internal variability. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the climate system appears wild, and may continue to hold many surprises if pressed.

(Emphasis added, 30th September 2017.)

The referenced Figures 1A, 2B, and 3 are shown below, in turn.

The latter figure’s quadratic is remarkably similar to a figure I generated and posted elsewhere here:

A similar result was reported by Comrie and McCabe in 2012, in “Global air temperature
variability independent of sea-surface temperature influences
“, where correction of tropospheric air temperature for SSTs netted a linear increasing temperature over the 20th and beginning 21st centuries, per

(*) Professor Peter Woit has a wonderful blog by this title which repeatedly finds instances of such, having been most prominently been used by him in his book on superstring theory. A recent example in a blog post titled “Advertisements for the Multiverse”:

It suggests that the answer to the question raised by all these different kinds of multiverse (“which one is true?”) can be answered by believing all multiverse models at once, no need to choose.

No mention of tedious things like dust. This multiverse is all new and shiny, slices, dices, provides every reality you could possibly want.

(**) I first encountered Professor Sugihara’s work in his famous “Detecting causality in complex ecosystems“, co-authored with Robert May, Hao Ye, Chih-hao Hsieh, Ethan Deyle, Michael Fogarty, and Stephan Munch, and I have had professional reason to use his work, published in an article with Deyle as “Generalized theorems for nonlinear state space reconstruction“, as well as the recurrence quantification ideas based upon the embedding of Floris Takens championed in “Detecting causality”, incorporated into its convergent cross mapping. Note that recovering these in a literal-minded way is a fragile process, but Yap and Rozell have shown how these can be recovered stably.

Update, 2016-07-24

Berner, et al do “Stochastic parameterization”, and this is related to the work by Ye, Beamish, Munch, Perrettia, and colleagues on model-free forecasting.

About ecoquant

See https://wordpress.com/view/667-per-cm.net/ Retired data scientist and statistician. Now working projects in quantitative ecology and, specifically, phenology of Bryophyta and technical methods for their study.
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21 Responses to Tsonis, Swanson, chaos, and “s__t happens” (slightly revised and expanded)

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  6. So, after a series of encounters at Science Of Doom, and here, as well as a survey of the people engaged, I feel I underestimated this Tsonis and Swanson thing. For I believe it now to be nothing other than the latest funded move on the part of people politically and ideologically opposed to constraints upon fossil fuel energy to provide plausible sounding cover for the argument that the extraordinary weather and other events which will plague the planet due to human emissions of carbon dioxide are actually simply natural variation, that they’ve always happened, and anything to the contrary cannot be proved. If that be so, of course, then any attempts at containing these by legislating limits on carbon dioxide emissions would be foolish and cause harm.

    The principal commentator at Science Of Doom is one Robert Ellison whose qualifications are that he builds civil engineering projects for the Australian government. He is a registered civil engineer, and works projects for Australia’s coal industry. What a surprise.

    How convenient.

    I leave Mr Lang’s comments here as additional evidence of the most recent campaign.

    • Peter Lang says:


      It’s not clear what your rambling rants with no valid evidence or arguments to offer are trying to say. Deniers are those wh deny the relevant facts. You seem to fit into that category.

      [snip by Moderator, blah, blah, blah ]

      • Peter Lang says:

        If my comment above and this comment are deleted, they are evidence of denial – i.e. incapable of conducting a rational debate based on valid evidence. And, together with your belief based, evidence free rants, displays several of the “10 signs of intellectual dishonesty”: https://judithcurry.com/2013/04/20/10-signs-of-intellectual-honesty/

        • I never agreed to “a debate” and I do not think “debating” or dialectical discussion is a useful tool for this set of problems. This is not a courtroom. This is my blog, I am its editor, and I set the tone and conduct of discussion here, clear?

          I have more important things to do, discuss, and read or study than, for instance, Tol, whose economic arguments I’ve wrestled with elsewhere.

          I also think that it really doesn’t matter what you or Tol or the present administration believe or do, or what wishful thinking the majority of the American public believes in. I used to think it did. Facts are, I believe Kahneman is right and people are just another bunch of short-term-minded hominids, despite having access to technology which depends upon aome people being disinterested in the short term. In the end, the incontrovertible proof they want will come, and they’ll realize they’ve been backed into a terribly uncomfortable and expensive corner. Unfortunately when that kind of thing happens people usually look for someone to blame and to pay for it. They won’t find enough monies, but people in the USA like retribution.

          And there’ll be a few climate-related market crashes before then, because the real estate market will realize coastline investments are stranded, and then other markets will panic, pricing in climate impacts. I’m sure you realize that Minsky moments happen at paces too fast to control or rationalize.

          So now go away and don’t bother me. I have too many more interesting and relevant discussions to pursue, and problems to solve. And they are pretty.

          • Peter Lang says:


            I never agreed to “a debate”. This is my blog, I am its editor, and I set the tone and conduct of discussion here, clear?

            Your response is a clear demonstrating you are a DENIER (of the relevant facts), not those who do not accept your BELIEFS.

            You clearly do not understand, do not accept and do not practice the scientific method.

            You delete comments that do not agree with you and that show you as the fool you are.

            • “… as the fool that you are.”

              You can assert and blame and label all you want. I do not really know you. On the other hand,

              1. Whatever you think of me, something I have written has gotten you deeply emotionally upset, whether because of what I wrote, or because of what I write matters to Someone Else.
              2. Who are you performing for? Yourself? An employer? The general public, in witness? It depends, you see, you you are performing the ad hominem attack for?
              3. So, what’s your game, Lang? To really expose corruption among “the climate warming faithful”? To get paid? Or, as one of an otherwise invisible member of a coerced minion, to go forth and tie up the valuable intellectual resources of people trying to do some good?

              And, on that last one, I caught on to that bit from your ilk years ago. Don’t expect me to cooperate, or applaud.

              • Peter Lang says:

                Your questions are typical of deniers. Try answering them for yourself first:

                2. Who are you performing for? Yourself? An employer? The general public, in witness? It depends, you see, you you are performing the ad hominem attack for?
                3. So, what’s your game, Lang? To really expose corruption among “the climate warming faithful”? To get paid? Or, as one of an otherwise invisible member of a coerced minion, to go forth and tie up the valuable intellectual resources of people trying to dovsome good?

                The word “Denier” was introduced by you and is a good example of ad hominem attack/ fallacy. You introduced it and I wrote you off as anyone who can make a serious contribution to science or policy.

  7. Having recently re-read the main article on the subject at RealClimate on the subject of common interest, I missed this excellent comment by Ray Pierrehumbert down below on the subject of chaos, climate, climate models, and all that.

  8. Readers note: Deniers are not welcome here.
    I apologize. That response was uncharitable. What I should have written was Climate change denials are not welcome here.

    A number of Peter Lang’s posts, as well as my replies, have been deleted.

    My view is, if nothing political or economical can work to fix the carbon emissions problem, then the companies who mined the coal and extracted the oil should be charged with cleaning up the mess, in whatever way is required. And, if necessary, their assets should be seized to do so, by court.

    The determination of whether or not a carbon fee or tax “works” is contingent upon assuming the rules of the present economic system. I think what many students of the problem have been saying since the late 1970s is that the kind of climate change which results from our slamming the environment with our carbon dioxide emissions presents an existential threat to those rules, and, once outside of them, options for preventing such catastrophe are not properly evaluated within the constraints of a system that cannot survive the catastrophe. There are some alternatives, whether people accept them or not.

    As I said in an exchange with Mr Lang, in comments which have been set aside for reasons of clarity and coherent discussion, if after presenting the scientific and statistical evidence, if people choose not to buy the consequences of extreme human behavior, that is certainly their prerogative, and I don’t care whether they do so or not. It’s not like I’m out to change the political system on a pretense. I am also very confident and assured that the climate system will begin to demonstrate the severity of the change soon enough, Wally Broecker’s “beast” waking up. (See also his short book.) I hope that does not result in a panic, although it could and it might. Rather, people should then take stock of what they did not listen to, assess (scientifically) where they stand, and move on. The value of real estate along the coasts as well as that of stocks of fossil fuel companies will go to zero as a consequence, no matter what we do. Question is, when will humanity wake up and cut it out?

  9. Pierre-Normand says:

    “For instance, if proceeds are returned to either the general public or a government fund, especially in exchange for reducing other taxes, at some point the recipients are dependent upon the price and the fee, and don’t want it reduced.”

    That’s a good point. (By the way, I am the one who advertised your excellent blog on Climate Etc after someone inquired for the reason why I thought the recent comment thread at SoD was worth reading.)

    One favorite philosopher of mine recently wrote an article — A Reasonable Frugality — in which he expresses concerns maybe similar to yours about the rather weak current framework of mitigation policies. The requisite sense of urgency isn’t yet justly appreciated and our priorities are skewed as a result. Wiggins broaches what mitigation might look like if the need for it was appropriately felt not just by policy makers but also by planner at all level of civic development and by citizens.

    Click to access Wiggins_RIP.pdf

    • Thank you for your kind recommendations, and the link to David Wiggins piece. I disagree with many of his points, despite his embrace of the basic problem, that human emissions of carbon dioxide are 80 times as large as natural background emissions from, say, volcanic outgassing. I won’t detail them here. I do need to clarify that (a) the idea that our dumping of carbon dioxide will make the planet inhospitable for any life is simply ludicrous, (b) the idea that much of humanity will find conditions “unlivable” is also grossly incorrect, although there may be large regions and hundreds of millions of people who are displaced or suffer starvation, (c) the idea that because there is no straightforward path to carbon free energy, that path must be abandoned in favor of drastic reduction of consumption is, from what I have seen, wrong, contingent as it is on the present political systems being responsible for realizing it, and, most severe, (d) the idea of the quilt analogy to explain the greenhouse effect is simply incorrect.

      I won’t delve into the first three, but for (d) I’ll say that it misses three points, one being that the effect of carbon dioxide is to raise Earth temperature until outgoing longwave radiation is back in balance, the second being that quilts operate by trapping warm air, and that is decidedly NOT what happens with carbon dioxide, and the third being that everyone embracing local self-sufficiency is not an answer either.

      See http://trillionthtonne.org/

    • Peter Lang says:


      “For instance, if proceeds are returned to either the general public or a government fund, especially in exchange for reducing other taxes, at some point the recipients are dependent upon the price and the fee, and don’t want it reduced.”

      Carbon pricing almost certainly cannot succeed no matter how you try to present it. Read the two links I posted to understand why. Unless there is high participation (e.g. >80%) the penalty to the participants is so high as to prevent them from participating or continuing to participate long enough to do the job. The risks are huge and the probability of net benefits negligible. This is the point. There is no way around it in the real world.

      The sort of scheme you (and Hansen) suggest has high compliance cost (therefore economically damaging) and other issues. It’s not being seriously considered anywhere (although there are some advocates always suggesting different ways to put lipstick on a pig.

      I posted my question here hoping I could get some help with the analysis I asked about. Instead I got a great long, mostly irrelevant, rant about the the blog owner’s ideological beliefs (i.e. CAGW). [Emphasis added by blog owner.]

      Some where I’ll come across someone who is willing to deal with the question and has the capabilities to do so.

      • There are practical problems with a Carbon Tax or Carbon Fee-and-Dividend scheme. Not all Carbon pricing schemes need to be those, and, certainly, a cap ‘n’ trade scheme is fundamentally flawed as it allows emitters to continue to emit, hiding their atrocity under dubious fig leaves of negative emissions in other countries, emissions which we don’t really have good accounting schemes to assess.

        The practical problems with Carbon Tax and Fee-and-Dividend are, essentiall and firstly, that they raise revenue and, eventually, if their purpose is successful, emissions will be reduced enough so revenues will fall. At that point, the incentivization they offer flips, and people are rewarded to continue emitting, because otherwise the revenues raised, whether personal or governmental, will need to be offset by funds or taxes which were previously not necessary.

        Secondly, but less severe, there is the problem of sufficient size to have market force. For example, oil prices once-upon-a-time were in excess of $100 per barrel, yet people did not rush headlong towards non-fossil fuel transportation, even if efficiency concerns were raised. Accordingly, once would expect that elasticity being what it is, Carbon fees would need to be the equivalent of multiples of a $100 per barrel in order to have an appreciable effect.

        Third and finally, there are significant emissions of Carbon introduced into, say, the United States economy which any proposed scheme will not catch. Development, for example, might convert a lake or pond or river into a marshland which releases methane. There are extant landfills which emit methane. There are sewage treatment plants which emit methane and carbon dioxide. Agriculture also does. Production of hydrogen from natural gas also does. Waste to energy facilities also do. Cement production also does. By rights, if introductions of Carbon to an economy are to be taxes, all these should as well, and I have never seen a proposal for legislation which does that.

  10. Thank you for your comment. You are welcome.

    While your sought items pertinent to policy analysis are understandable and typical for other impacts, there is presently no science that can forecast *well* below hundred year time frames the “time to the next abrupt climate change”, etc. Indeed, these are not events, but a gradual increase in the “radiative forcing” of the planet due to atmospheric carbon dioxide. Manifestations of re-creating the blackbody equilibrium with space lag the actual forcing with times ranging from years to decades.

    It would be possible to improve that science, but, from a funding perspective, whether in the United States or Europe, there appears to be little interest in doing so.

    The forcing is directly related to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, and there’s no question of that. Moreover, it is known that natural mechanisms for scrubbing atmosphere of carbon dioxide, while robust, operate on the scale of thousands to tens of thousands of years.

    You ask for a “damage function”. Since the impacts of the models akin to RCP 8.5 (or worse) end up making structural changes in economies, such “damage functions” tend to be discontinuous with unpredictable change-points. For example, due to zoning policies, the United States tends to put energy facilities such as refineries and storage depots in areas unattractive for other development and having access to transport facilities such as ports. If there were an unexpected and sudden rise in sea level, these facilities would be compromised. What would be that damage function?

    There are many possible outcomes from Earth retaining more energy. There are storm effects, drought effects, and effects of rise in local surface temperature which could, some day, in some regions, be high enough for long enough that people could not work outside without support like “air conditioned space suits”. However, sea level rise (“SLR”) is a good proxy for these to think about, both because there is significant exposure in low-lying lands worldwide, and because, storms or not, SLR can cause assets to be “seized by Nature”.

    We know, collectively, that with extremely high probability (99+%), SLR will be +65 feet within 400 years. That’s at 400 ppm CO2, what it is now. What we do not know is the probability profile over that time. We know that in the past SLR has occurred in jumps, discretely, because the principal driver is and will be the melting of the great ice sheets in Greenland and parts of Antarctica, principally in the west, or “the WAIS” as it is called. (Antarctica is really two continents in all matters of concern, separated by a mountain range.) Whether the lagged warming of 400 ppm or additional warming as we exceed 400 ppm will advance or accelerate this, and how soon, we don’t know. There is widespread consensus among the experts here that the IPCC projections are far too tame regarding the possibilities. So, some day, within the next 10 years, we could all wake up one morning and find our sections of towns along the coast awash at high tide due to a sudden collapse of a big chunk of the WAIS, like the PIG. The implications of that for Bangladesh are obvious, but they don’t have as much to lose as do the countless communities who will find themselves instantly without assets or property. If the inundation is big enough, or frequent enough, there could be displacements of businesses and, so, jobs. As I said, these are structural changes. To obtain a “damage function” of this, it simply can be calculated as the time integral of property values plus the income-generating rate of properties within some level d of high tide, and multiplying that by the probability of an ice shedding event generating an SLR bigger than d over time. The other thing to realize is that this inundation will not be like a storm, where there is destruction and opportunity to rebuild. This destruction is permanent, unless all the structures are raised, as was down, BTW, for Galveston, TX, although not in such challenging circumstances or such a broad extent. Whether this is paid for by locals or is a federal support, there is cost here. The SLR will not go away, and, indeed, even if we could some how (see below) extract CO2 from atmosphere, the oceans are such good repositories of heat energy, they will hold onto it, and keep ice sheets from reforming at scales of tens of thousands of years.

    Of course, as CO2 rises, these effects will get worse. At 600 ppm, the geologic record says we are in a time of (eventually) no ice at either pole, and SLR of hundreds and hundreds of feet. This isn’t difficult to sea. Just visit Acadia National Park and hike the trails along the coast and see the sea caves a couple of hundred feet about the present day ocean.

    The question is, then, at what point does this kind of thing become intolerable, after adding in effects of superstorms, and droughts, and fires, and enhanced defense costs because of mass displacements of peoples from now uninhabitable homelands. (What price keeping India and Pakistan from waging a local nuclear war?) Or the cost of patrolling a now completely navigable Arctic sea? Or of building ports at the periphery of that sea? Or of abandoning major ports in Newport News, VA, and San Diego, and Hawaii, to rebuild at higher levels? Or of having no agriculture in California or in the Midwest USA, because it’s too dry and hot, and farmers in Canada have a gentler, cheaper weather to grow, and can outcompete.

    It is “out there” as a possibility, but, the $1000 question is if there is a day, in 2100, or 2200, when circumstances are just intolerable, and things must be reversed. How much damage is needed to make that reasonable? Well, we can look at what it would take. Setting aside the contingency non-solution of artificial aerosol shielding of the planet (with natural and geopolitical complications of the extreme sort), this means clear air capture of CO2 and its sequestration using nearly zero fossil fuel energy. It also means having essential no fossil fuel emissions, because why would you spend money to capture and sequester when you are just making your job harder by continuing to emit?

    Current pricing of this as-yet-unproven technology, at scale, put establishment costs (one time) at 40% of the sum of GDP for all OECD countries for one year, in present day dollars. Thereafter, the system demands a recurring maintenance of US$2 trillion per annum in present day. This excludes any indirect costs, such as those which might be needed to protect the entire structure from vandalism or terrorism or, say, sabotage by some unhappy nation state. That’s high. Trouble is, no one has any idea of build time, or time to get to zero emissions on the global economic scale. It probably would be a good idea to figure that out.

    Even if this is all not deterministic, a good planner should be able to use Bayesian techniques to simulate a set of outcomes based upon all these, and figure out an effect present day cost of doing nothing, appropriately discounted, of course. (Although, I have no idea how to come up with a discount rate that extends across centuries.) An uncertainty like SLR out +400 years would be modeled by one or more prior profiles, ranging from the “uninformed”, to ones which say risk of SLR is proportional to carbon dioxide concentration, to ones which say risk of SLR is proportional to time above some threshold, like 350 ppm CO2. These could be informed by additional studies of the ice sheets, but that’s not necessary, even if I think it would be a good idea. This is not really any longer a scientific question, even if some want to pretend or argue it is, for whatever reason. This is a policy and political question.

    But the cost of mitigating, that is, reducing carbon dioxide emissions to zero within 100 years has simply got to be tiny compared to the cost of either clear air capture and mitigating to zero, or climate impacts. We can no longer do anything about +65 feet SLR within 400 years. We can do something about +200 feet SLR within whatever. The cost impact of that should be pretty well constrained. In Boston, we surely lose Back Bay and all its jobs, and all the jobs downtown. I have no idea about NYC, although no barrier will withstand that, and Florida is completely gone. We will lose much of southern Louisiana and its energy infrastructure no matter what we do.

    I’m not sure you, or the U.S. Constitution, or the UN, or capitalism are each or together up to the task of solving it.

  11. Peter Lang says:

    I’ve just been referred to this web site by a post on Climate Etc.

    I have been asking the following question for a long time and have received not answer. I wonder if you have some thoughts on it and could perhaps rune a thread and hold a discussion on it.

    How can policy analysts estimate the probability that an advocated policy will achieve the claimed benefits and do so on the claimed schedule? I am particularly thinking of the policies to mitigate GHG emissions to achieve claimed benefits of avoided climate damages.

    For some background, Professor Richard Tol estimated the probability of success at the 18th round of the UN Climate Conference: http://www.voxeu.org/article/global-climate-talks-if-17th-you-don-t-succeed

    I have two posts on MasterResource explaining why the world will not agree to carbon pricing.

    Here are some examples of information that is relevant for policy analysis.:

    1. probability that the policies being advocated will succeed in the real world – where succeed means deliver the claimed benefits (in $ of climate damages avoided) on the claimed schedule.

    2. time to the next abrupt climate change, its sign (warming or cooling), rate of change, magnitude of total change, duration.

    3. damage function

    4. Costs and benefits of advocated policies:

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