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Confusing Future Presidents, Part 1

By Climate Guest Contributor on September 13, 2008 at 8:26 am

"Confusing Future Presidents, Part 1"


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http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/512%2BuzoGhUL._SL500_AA240_.jpgWe all bemoan the low level of scientific discourse in politics. So one might have high hopes for a course, textbook, and book for the general public all titled Physics For Future Presidents as something that might help educate today’s students and hence tomorrow’s leaders to be able to deal with basic science.

How dismaying then that the book is full of opinions and misinformation, not science, and that what is being taught would certainly mislead Future Presidents on issues such as terrorism, climate, and electric cars.

Confusingly, the textbook and the general public book have the same title, though the general public adds the subtitle The Science Behind the Headlines. A more appropriate title for the books might have been Confusing Future Presidents: My Biased Opinions.

My first encounter with the textbook Physics For Future Presidents was in 2006, when it was available on the web. As an example, the author tried to demonstrate that electric cars were impractical, and that in particular that the claims being made by Tesla Motors for their forthcoming Roadster were hype, easily refuted by basic calculations as taught in his course. For example, he estimated the cost, mass, and volume of the battery pack. The cost was said to be $922,000 (9— the sales price), the mass 6,831 pounds (2.5— the mass of the car), and that the volume to be 390 gallons. Basic sanity checking of the calculation was called for, but not done. The actual calculations were off by factors of 46, 9.7, and 12.7 from reasonable estimates that could have been made at the time. No sanity checking was done.

Professor Richard A. Muller‘s general public book is now in print. Given the earlier encounter, I shuddered at the thought of what our Future Presidents are now being taught, so I had a look at the print edition at my local bookstore. This also prodded me to take another look at the textbook, some chapters of which are still online, including the chapter on climate. Part 1 of this review will look first at the books’ handling of climate science. Part 2 will look at the solution chapters, and other topics.


The general reader book sets high goals for itself in the introduction:

Equally important to understanding the physics of modern life is unlearning the things that you may think are true but aren’t. … This book covers advanced physics, the stuff that world leaders need to know. … When you understand the underlying principles, the physics, you need never be intimidated by high tech. … This is the physics that you need to know to be a world leader. The rest is up to you.

The Evidence chapter of the global warming section of the general public book has this strong statement:

Physicists, by tradition, have a more stringent standard than the courts: if you get caught exaggerating, distorting, or cherry picking, your scientific reputation is damaged if not destroyed.

It goes without saying that the textbook should have similar goals, though all it claims is “I will not to exaggerate, either way.” But then both books go on to exaggerate, distort, and cherry pick, making a mockery of the words above.

Let’s look first at the textbook chapter on Climate. Professor Muller does tell his students that global warming is real, but gives only a small introduction to the material, and then spends most of the chapter attacking what he sees as the exaggeration of global warming activists, such as Al Gore. The student is left with a confusing message. They have little more than the author’s and IPCC’s statements that global warming is real and then lots of reasons to to think global warming science is confusing and uncertain. Is this what Future Presidents should know about global warming? And where is the Science? Teaching Science is not reciting cherry-picked facts you want students to know, it is about giving them them concepts that can be applied in diverse situations.

The textbook chapter never explains the impacts that global warming is predicted to have (e.g. drought, extreme weather), or the other things a Future President should know about global warming, such as the difference between different greenhouse pollutants.

Professor Muller’s attacks as climate hyperbole topics such as hurricane Katrina, tornadoes, Alaska temperatures, Antarctica’s differences from climate models, and paleoclimate correlations. Both books include claims that hurricane and tornado frequency are down, but never mention National Climate Data Center’s Climate Extremes Index. Apparently only data that discredits Al Gore is worthy of mention.

On paleoclimate, he writes about the chart showing CO2 and temperature:

In his movie, Al Gore gives the impression that this verifies that CO2 causes climate change. In fact, even though that is the conclusion that most people watching the movie come away with, he never actually says that. He says that the situation is “complicated.” And indeed it is. He summarizes the plot by saying that every time there is a lot of carbon dioxide, it is warm, and whenever the carbon dioxide is low, it is cool.

But most geophysicists believe that it is the temperature that is causing the CO2 to change, not the other way around. Most of the CO2 in the biosphere is actually dissolved in ocean water. When the water warms, the CO2 is driven out; gas doesn’t dissolve as well in warmer water. The fact that warming is causing the CO2 change is verified by other measurements that indicate that the CO2 changes lag the temperature changes by about 800 years. In other words, the temperature changes first, and then it takes 800 years for the CO2 to finish coming out of the ocean. That’s a reasonable number, because we know that deep ocean water takes about that long before it works its way to the surface, where the CO2 can escape.

Something else in the plot suggests that the CO2 is a result of warming, not the other way around. Look at the recent CO2 rise, at the right side of the plot. The recent increase is about as much as the increases at the ends of the ice ages. If the CO2 were causing the warming, we would expect to see a 10 to 15°F warming, not the 1 to 2°F warming that we have actually experienced.

Some scientists disagree, and think CO2 may have indeed been responsible. The situation is “complicated”. Perhaps the 800-year lag has been misinterpreted. There really is a reasonable controversy here.

Professor Muller turns the simple and important notion of positive feedback into a controversy by presuming that the mechanism is one or the other rather than both. In the paleoclimate record it is clear that greenhouse gases can drive temperature (e.g. this is a leading hypothesis for the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum), and it is likewise fairly clear that temperature can drive CO2. This bidirectional effect is the result of positive feedback: temperature affects CO2, and CO2 affects temperature with the net result that a small change in either results in a larger total change (an amplification). The textbook turns a learning opportunity into an attack on Al Gore for pointing out correlation.

In the general public book he adds his opinion of the “hockey stick” controversy, without giving any indication that the hockey stick has been for the most part independently validated. For example, he writes,

Then came a shock. Canadians Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick uncovered a fundamental mathematical flaw in the computer program used to produce Mann’s hockey stick result. In this original publications of the hockey stick, Mann said he had used a standard method known as principal component analysis, or PCA, to find the dominant features in a set of more than 70 different climate records. But it wasn’t so. McIntyre and McKitrick obtained a key part of the computer program that Mann had used, and they found serious problems. Not only did the program not do conventional PCA, but it handled data normalization in a way that can only be described as wrong.

This is a very one-sided version of the story, which is handled far more evenly at Wikipedia. At best the above is cherry-picking. It could be said to be distortion and exaggeration as well. Professor Muller also never hints that the hockey stick data is supported by independent analysis besides Mann’s, which would be very relevant to his readers. Nor is there any indication that Mann’s analysis was on the cutting edge of temperature reconstruction methodologies. The National Academy of Sciences released a report on the controversy on 22 June 2006. In the preface the report chair explained the scientific process at work here:

Science is a process of exploration of ideas–hypotheses are proposed and research is conducted to investigate. Other scientists work on the issue, producing supporting or negating evidence, and each hypothesis either survives for another round, evolves into other ideas, or is proven false and rejected. In the case of the hockey stick, the scientific process has proceeded for the last few years with many researchers testing and debating the results. Critics of the original papers have argued that the statistical methods were flawed, that the choice of data was biased, and that the data and procedures used were not shared so others could verify the work. This report is an opportunity to examine the strengths and limitations of surface temperature reconstructions and the role that they play in improving our understanding of climate. The reconstruction produced by Dr. Mann and his colleagues was just one step in a long process of research, and it is not (as sometimes presented) a clinching argument for anthropogenic global warming, but rather one of many independent lines of research on global climate change.

The whole purpose of Mann et al’s 1998 work was to propose methods, try them, report results, and begin a dialog with other scientists. That dialog results in better data and methods. The NAS report concluded that while there were issues with the way PCA was used in 1998, the results were confirmed by further work:

The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on ice caps and he retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years. Not all individual proxy records indicate that the recent warmth is unprecedented, although a larger fraction of geographically diverse sites experienced exceptional warmth during the late 20th century than during any other extended period from A.D. 900 onward.

In contrast, Professor Muller wrote about the NAS report,

In the end, there was nothing new left in Mann’s papers that the National Academy supported, other than the idea of using principal component analysis was, in principle, a good one.

This is a distortion of the NAS report. Nature wrote about the NAS report,

In its report, released on 22 June, the NAS committee more-or-less endorses the work behind the graph. But it criticizes the way that the plot was used to publicize climate-change concerns.

It is not my purpose here to settle the hockey stick issue (read the Wikipedia article for details), but rather to illustrate Professor Muller’s one-side approach to it. Mann updated his reconstruction of past temperatures with more data in 2003, and updated it again in 2008, as would be expected by the scientific process. To attack only the first work in a new area without referring to independent and subsequent work is cherry picking. The reader is left poorer in understanding by reading Professor Muller’s treatment of the subject.

In Part 2, this book review will turn to the general reader books solutions to global warming, and look at other chapters that illustrate the same sort of cherry-picking seen in the climate science.

–Earl K.


Resources for Ike, hurricanes, and global warming

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20 Responses to Confusing Future Presidents, Part 1

  1. Russ says:

    This sounds like the worst sort of conflict bias. If the depiction is accurate, the guy tosses off the basic truths, as if they were an afterthought, although they are really 99% of the substance (well, >90% according to the IPCC), then focuses with great sound and fury on the residual fraction of uncertainty, as if that were the critical issue (and apparently distorts and lies while doing so, according to some of these examples).

    Who published this, and what’s their agenda? Who’s behind it?

  2. Earl Killian says:

    Russ, I have also listened to Professor Muller speak at one of his book tour stops, so I can add a bit of context from his talk as well. He claims a concern that I sympathize with. If activists overreach, and then the antibodies find errors in their overreaching, it tarnishes the good with the bad. The problem is Professor Muller goes too far in his zeal to correct what he says is his own side.

    It also appears that Al Gore really irks the book author. This may explain his part of his misleading text.

    I have another hypothesis as well. Professor Muller’s course has been ranked #1 at U.C. Berkeley by the undergraduates. I suggest that is the result of a very entertaining delivery. Unfortunately, in the push to keep things as entertaining as possible, I believe accuracy has been compromised. His entertainment is based upon skewering what he calls misconceptions. In the book he quotes the old line, “It’s not what we don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” He revels in being a contrarian. But substituting one “ain’t so” for another, while it may be entertainment, causes yet more problems.

  3. Russ says:

    Yep, wanting to be entertaining is probably the main motivation for the conflict bias, and conflict and contrarianism (if done well) are entertaining.

    As for overreaching, I’ve heard that argument before, and I don’t find it convincing, for two reasons.

    1. It seems to me to be a straw man. I seldom see activists engage in what I’d call significant exaggeration. Even Gore, who rubs so many people like Muller the wrong way, hasn’t engaged in it the way the caricature claims. I haven’t seen the Movie Inconvenient Truth but I read the book, and the only significant arguable shenanigan I can recall are the graphics depicting sea level rise centuries hence, but giving the impression that this is imminent.

    I stress “arguable”, and I for one have no problem with it. The image is iconic and unforgettable, has certainly had a salutary effect, and the text clearly lays out the facts for anyone who bothers to read it. As for those who don’t bother, their hearts and minds are not up for grabs in any rational, scientific Enlightenment discourse anyway. It’s unfortunate but true – they’re going to be won or lost on a basically demagogic battleground.

    And that leads to my second point.

    2.The enemy’s entire argument is nothing but a welter of lies, distortion, obscurantism, and politics. That they have any traction at all, let alone the absurdly outsize influence they’ve had, is a testament to how irrelevant the actual truth is, and how counterproductive it is to be overly scrupulous regarding one’s pristine integrity.

    This is a knife-fight, and there’s really not much here to be “tarnished”. That this ridiculous pseudo-”debate” is happening at all shows how tarnished and rotten the whole public environment already is.

    So if somebody sees something he considers overreaching and doesn’t like it, fine. Quietly advise the offender to tone it down, or just don’t take part. But to react by publicly spouting denier talking points is the height of overreaction, and is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, as this book does.

  4. Eric Roston says:

    The way things have been going, I can conclude only that that the title “Physics for Future Presidents” should be understood as descriptive rather than proscriptive.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    Earl: “It also appears that Al Gore really irks the book author. . . ”

    How could that be? Read any of Bob Somerby’s essays at the Daily Howler,
    and look at the archives on Gore. The entire press corps made up lies about him (“I invented the internet”, or “I was the first to look at Love Canal”) and then the press (plus every comic in the world) punished him for the lies that the press just made up. It is shocking and shameful.

    And as for Muller’s (and others’) insistence that we must be scrupulous about 100% accuracy and not overreach, just read the title of Mann’s (actually MBH) 1999 paper: “Northern Hemisphere Temperatures During the Past Millennium: Inferences, Uncertainties, and Limitations”.

    “Uncertainties, and Limitations”. 100% scrupulous, and zero overreach, right there in the title. Could it possibly be any clearer?

    As the judge would say in Prof. Muller’s and Stephen McIntyre’s and Ross McKitrick’s tirades against Mann: “Case dismissed.”

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    BTW, thanks for the post exposing some of the problems with this book (which I had previously judged by it’s cover – shame on me.)

    OT, but have you seen the “What’s Your Crazy Green Idea?” Video Contest at the X Prize foundation? Check out http://www.xprize.org .

    CNET had an article about it at:

  7. Ronald says:

    Physics for future presidents?

    Not a big sales base. How can any publisher pick that title? I might come up with ‘the physics everyone needs for good political decisions’ or something like that.

    This author thinks that we need all this information to decide what to do as President? Am I missing something? Did he think that this is how much Nuclear Sub Engineer and hopelessly to detailed Jimmy Carter needed to make decisions? What’s true and what’s not should be enough, not the drama of the peer review process.

  8. Earl’s contribution about Muller’s chosen role as a contrarian says a lot about the dangerous game that he is playing. He is saying that he is presenting neutral scientific analysis but actually occupying the all-too-human role of the gadfly or skeptic, by which he is “selling” his opinions to students and now the general public. The sale is made by saying “You thought this but it’s really that” which appears to be delivering valuable information to people.

    I’m hoping that this book quickly gets the reputation as a partisan or self-interested attempt to create a physics textbook that is in fact quite unreliable.

    I do however think that presenting information in a univocal manner (i.e. “all signposts point to doom”) creates a reactive bias against that message. People like to think that there is a hot debate and that they can choose sides. Sometimes there isn’t.

  9. Charlie says:

    I just read the textbook energy chapter at the web site linked from my name, which is posted with the date 2008 so I assume it’s up to date. Generally fairly useful introduction to the physics concepts but then he strolls so confidently into engineering he doesn’t know….it’s puzzling that his whole thesis is that people talk about what they don’t know, and then he does the same.

    Of course, most of the problems are a little cluster related to what Joe already pointed out:

    [JT: Note -- this blog post is by Earl Killian.]

    -Numbers for batter energy density are low, perhaps because they are out of date. He says 0.03 Wh/g for an “expensive laptop battery”, but they are now more like 0.1 to 0.17 Wh/g–at the higher end of that scale if you don’t count the weight of the case.

    -Calculation of the cost of a Tesla Roadster battery is based on the inflated price that a computer maker charges for replacement parts.

    -He discusses automobile efficiency only in terms of the engine efficiency, without considering vehicle propulsion power requirements.

    -He thinks that engines are least efficient in high-power operation (in acceleration) and thinks that hybrids are more efficient because they avoid operating the engine at high power. That’s approximately backwards.

  10. rpauli says:

    We should all go to Amazon Book and any other book sale sites and post our statements in the review section. Right now most of the reviews are positive.


    This seems a very fair and worthy tactic in this struggle

  11. Earl Killian says:

    Charlie, if you read the energy chapter, here’s one tidbit I found that was wrong in the energy chapter that is not in my Part 2: “If you want to destroy a building, you can do it with TNT. Or you could hire a group of teenagers, give them sledgehammers, and feed them cookies. Since the energy in chocolate chip cookies exceeds that in an equal weight of TNT, each gram of chocolate chip cookies will ultimately do more destruction than would each gram of TNT.” Can you spot the error?

    The heat of combustion of TNT is 3.575 kcal/g compared to the 4.6 kcal/g for chocolate chip cookies, so it appears to be true at first, but something has been left out. Even when you substitute the energy of detonation for TNT (1.1 kcal/g — not the 0.65 kcal/g Muller gives in his table), teenagers with sledgehammers are still not going to do this much work. It is telling that Muller gets something that is basic physics, not just engineering, wrong.

  12. Mark Shapiro says:

    Charlie and rpauli – thanks for the great links.

    OT again, but according to UIC’s cryosphere website:


    it looks like NH sea ice area has almost hit last year’s record low. It’s a very close second, much lower than any prior to last year.

  13. Richard C says:


    It doesn’t look like the NH ice area graph has leveled out yet. It still could go either way.

  14. red says:

    Mark Shapiro: “OT, but have you seen the “What’s Your Crazy Green Idea?” Video Contest at the X Prize foundation? Check out http://www.xprize.org

    The X PRIZE Foundation has a new blog called neXt PRIZE that covers their ideas for new prizes including this contest. A lot of the content is related to energy or the environment is one way or another. The winner of the video contest gets $25,000, and might also get their idea to be the next energy/environment X PRIZE (probably on the scale of the Automotive X PRIZE, Google Lunar X PRIZE, Ansari X PRIZE, etc).

    Maybe some people on this blog have ideas for entries in the contest (or maybe just to post over there). I’d expect folks here to have a lot of ideas on what energy or environment areas are ready to be pushed to reality by a prize, that are worth the effort, that need the publicity of a competition, that aren’t going to become reality through traditional investments by government and business, and that would benefit from lots of small teams trying to solve the problem.

    Crazy Green Idea Contest:


    hints on how they design their prize competitions:


    recent alternative energy forum at MIT:


    I hope they did a better job than the “Physics for Future Presidents” book did here:

    “Dr. Ray Kurzweil, Dr. George Church, and Dr. Saul Griffith spoke about the benefits of solar power, bio power, and wind power, respectively. The event, which was hosted by MIT and the MIT Energy Club, was focused around what each speaker would advise the next president in the Energy Sector.”

    Future energy and environment prizes:


    Here’s a high school space and energy competition that used to be run at X PRIZE events – The Pete Conrad Awards:


  15. Rich says:

    Mann has just released an updated version of the hockey stick which doesn’t use PCA.

    Dr. Gavin Schmitt explains the current methodology as follows:

    There is no separate PCA stage in this analysis. Both the CPS and EIV methodologies have their own ways to deal with statistical redundancy (i.e. making sure that several nearby and similar records don’t get overweighted in the final reconstruction). For CPS, it is done through gridding onto a 5×5 grid prior to the CPS procedure, while EIV takes account of the co-variance of individual proxies directly. This is better explained in the SI (linked above).

    CPS is composite from scale and EIV is error in variables. The supporting information that describes the techniques is here:


    One other thing to note is the other that is controversial about Mann 98 is the use of tree ring proxies. This study found the same answer even without using the tree proxies. Mann et al take good advantage that the reliability and number of proxies have increased since 1998. So, they can throw away the tree ring proxies and still get good information. This also brings up another point. The skeptics often attack Mann 98 only and the techniques used which have been refined over the last 10(!) years. Take a look at the graph again. Note the other studies cited in it. Many of these use different techniques to compute the results yet come up with the same answer.


  16. Charlie says:


    Thanks for noting the building destruction example which I missed. It has even more problems. A hammer blow to a steel structure might do almost no damage if it’s not hard enough to break anything. You could eat cookies and hammer away for years and burn lots of calories without breaking anything.

  17. Earl Killian says:

    Charlie, I had in mind the human efficiency at turning food into mechanical work. I’ve seen estimates of about 16% work output from 24h of food requirement. The issue you raise is power vs. energy, which is another interesting point.

  18. Cyril R. says:

    IIRC a well trained body (eg athlete) can have up to around 25% muscle efficiency. Of course the body requires stationary power just for upkeep (processing and thermal), which lowers that figure.

  19. Alyssa R. B. says:

    i really belive tHAT PEOPLE NEED TO START PAYING MORE ATTENTION TO GLOBAL WARMING and stop doing all of the horrible things that help this process.NOBODY SEEMS TO CARE ABOUT THIS, AND THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THIS WORLD TODAY…… i think that people should open thier minds, bodies, and souls, and pray that mabye there is a chance that the human race could possible survive another day because you all should be thankfull your even alive and that you even have a damn computer to comment on…

    i also want to say that global warming is effecting everyone..every move you make effects a life…soon people will be killing each other for a loaf of bread..with no way to survive the human race will once again struggle to survive..

    all of you be gratfull that you are even alive because someone had to die for you to live…

    i go to the university of pheniox, Arizona and i can personally say that global warming is happening…global warming is a chain of events..and the facts are there but no one is willing to see whats in front of thier face.good luck with killing our planet with your cars and gas fumes that everyday poison our atmosphere that we all have to breathe…and the day that we all go back to the depression i will laugh in the faces of the people who belived this was not happening…luckly some of us have god to save us where others will suffer for thier mistakes. so get in the book. and help prevent the world from coming to an end.save yourself

  20. Alyssa R. B. says:

    i know its harsh but in the next few yearsit wont matter whos president because everyone will have to care only of survial…