Antarctic Shrimp, Global Warming and the Laffer Curve

This one’s about philosophy, science and chaotic systems.

H/T Caleb Howe, who called attention to an AP Science article today:

Scientists go ‘gaga’ to find creatures beneath 600 feet of ice


A borehole through 600 feet of Antarctic sea ice discovers two new critters: a sort of shrimp, and a jellyfish, living in a region that no scientist predicted. Until they’re proven tasty in a remoulade, I really couldn’t care less, but here’s the money quote from the lead researcher:

“It’s pretty amazing when you find a huge puzzle like that on a planet where we thought we know everything…”.

On a planet where we thought we know everything?!



That comment is appalling coming from a scientist. One thing a scientist must know is how ignorant we are about a lot of things; otherwise, we don’t need scientists to discover new stuff. But the remark points to a naive hubris that is pretty pervasive among a “consensus” in the scientific world.

Just fifty years ago, the few believers in “continental drift” were derided by the geologic establishment as kooks on the fringe of science (if not worse). But evidence accumulated, and the theory, repackaged in the ’60s and ’70s as plate tectonics, is now recognized as the grand unifying theory of earth science.

So-called “Progressives” have a tendency to evaluate everything in life as if it were a deterministic, zero sum game. What goes up, must come down. In with the good, out with the bad. What goes around, comes around. Input X necessarily results in Output Y.


But real life systems don’t often obey these rules; they tend toward chaos and often lead to counterintuitive conclusions. In business, they often create examples of The Law of Unintended Consequences.

The Laffer Curve is a perfect example. To a “Progressive”, if you want the government to have more tax revenue, you raise tax rates. Cutting tax rates only benefits “the rich”.

But the real world is governed by the chaotic rules of economics and personal choices. Arthur Laffer made the simple observation that if tax rates are zero, tax revenue is zero. If tax rates are 100%, tax revenue is also zero. Somewhere in between is a maximum, and tax rates above that optimum rate actually result in less tax revenue.

Businessmen don’t need to have this concept explained, so they tend to be conservatives. Academics, trade unionists and Hollywood types will never get it, so they become “Progressives”.

So, you might ask, what does this rambling discourse have to do with Global Warming, Climate Change, or whatever-the-hell they’re calling it these days?

A brilliant article called “The Unbearable Complexity of Climate”, by Willis Eschenbach appeared in the online journal of climate skepticism, near the end of last year. In it, Eschenbach gives examples of chaotic systems in the real world, and points out the near futility of making predictions in the abscence of a complete and thorough understanding of the system in question.


I recommend that anyone with as much as a passing interest in the climate debate should read the article. A sample:

Unfortunately, while the physics is simple, the climate is far from simple. It is one of the more complex systems that we have ever studied. The climate is a tera-watt scale planetary sized heat engine. It is driven by both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial forcings, a number of which are unknown, and many of which are poorly understood and/or difficult to measure. It is inherently chaotic and turbulent, two conditions for which we have few mathematical tools.

The climate is comprised of five major subsystems — atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. All of these subsystems are imperfectly understood. Each of these subsystems has its own known and unknown internal and external forcings, feedbacks, resonances, and cyclical variations. In addition, each subsystem affects all of the other subsystems through a variety of known and unknown forcings and feedbacks.

Then there is the problem of scale. Climate has crucially important processes at physical scales from the molecular to the planetary, and at temporal scales from milliseconds to millennia.

As a result of this almost unimaginable complexity, simple physics is simply inadequate to predict the effect of a change in one of the hundreds and hundreds of things that affect the climate.


So, on a planet where we thought we know everything, it turns out we may not. And it’s what you don’t know that’ll kill you every time. The passage above pretty well sums up why I’m a proud global warming climate change skeptic.

Cross-posted at VladEnBlog.


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