08 January 2017

The Spirit Thermometer

Letters from the Land of the Protons #1

It has, as usual, been hot and cold here in Texas between the third Sunday of Advent and Epiphany. You could literally have given yourself a heatstroke while jogging at noon on December 17 and frozen your tongue to a metal pole at noon the next day, if you didn't have much sense in any kind of weather.

I have a record of the whole thing, because of the weather station I installed in my back yard (it's a long story, but the nub of my motivation is that we live in a kind of hyper-local rain shadow, so the Austin news stations' summaries of how much rain the area receives tell me nothing about whether I should turn the sprinkler system on or off). Here's the temperature graph for 15 December 2016 through 6 January 2017:

I love the weather station; it tells me lots of fascinating stuff about wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, rainfall rates and totals, relative humidity and dew point, and solar and UV intensity. But the weather station isn't perfect. For one thing, it doesn't store information locally - it can display data for just the current instant on a console inside the house, but all the storage and graphing happens on the Internet via Weather Underground. So unless I want to do a lot of work to design a data capture and storage system I can run in my house, I can't record weather data unless my internet connection is up and running. In lots of places that might not be much of an issue, but here in Texas, we get a lot of extreme weather, which translates to a lot of power outages. And so I tend to lose data about the weather at exactly the moments when the weather is most interesting.

There's another thing about the weather station that doesn't bother me, but does bother some people: it's hard to know for sure if it's telling the truth about the weather. The station itself is a bunch of sensors I've never seen, hiding inside a vaguely duck-shaped white plastic housing. I don't know exactly how those sensors work, and I'm pretty sure there's a bunch of software hiding in there with the sensors, which inevitably means the duck's guts are full of bugs. If somebody wanted to fool me about the weather, or if somebody at the weather station factory was just having a bad day and screwed up some of the software, it would be hard for me to tell that anything was amiss.

I don't worry much about this for two reasons: first, I can't figure out why somebody would want to fool me about the weather, and second, Weather Underground doesn't just report my weather station's results - it reports all my neighbors' weather stations' results, and I can check and see if they're all saying similar things. There are a lot of personal weather stations near me, and they're made by a bunch of different companies, and they all report pretty similar data all the time. Here's what the map of the weather stations near me looked like yesterday:

So if there's some kind of weather data manipulation conspiracy going on, it's a very big and very effective conspiracy.

Still, the weather station is not a majority-proton device; it's got a bunch of electrons. So a conspiracy is at least possible. And some people are very worried about weather data conspiracies. This guy, for example. Lots of folks have already made up their minds about whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, and I'm not going to argue about that here; I want instead to talk about the electrons vs. protons aspect of Tony Heller's article. The most obvious thing I took away from the article is that there's no way I can verify anything about his claims - and there's no way he can verify anything about them either. He's making claims about thousands (or maybe tens or hundreds of thousands) of sensors he's never personally inspected. These sensors are made by lots of different companies, operated by lots of different organizations, deployed in all kinds of different places under all sorts of different conditions - and most of them are stuffed with shifty little electrons doing whatever it is shifty little electrons do when we're not looking. And after the sensors' local electrons are done doing whatever they do, they're reporting little electronic numbers to big electronic computers far away, stuffed with more shifty little electrons doing more mysterious electron-stuff.

If "Heller" (who is "himself" a creature of the land of electrons; there is apparently a male primate mammal named Steven Goddard from the land of protons who invented this electron-character he calls "Tony Heller") wanted to argue, based on this reality, that there's a high degree of uncertainty about any result reported by all the sensors, that argument would at least make sense. But that's not what he's arguing; he's arguing that the IPCC and NOAA are interpreting the sensor data incorrectly, and that he (who does not own or operate any of the sensors) has a high degree of certainty that he's interpreting it correctly. Upon what, we might ask, is that high degree of certainty based? And how, we might ask, might we achieve a similar degree of certainty?

The answer, of course, is that we really can't be as certain as Heller thinks he is. Achieving that degree of certainty involves hauling huge hulking bags of protons (us) all over the world to look at all kinds of complicated devices and figure out whether they're working - and doing that all the time, everywhere.

So if we can't be very certain about all those sensors, what can we do, if we want to have an informed opinion about climate trends? It turns out that if we're modest, we can do quite a lot, and we can do it with big, slow, reliable protons instead of shifty electrons.

George Washington Carver reportedly liked to tell a story about humility. He said that when he was a young man he prayed to God to tell him the secrets of the universe - and that God told him he wasn't big enough to learn the secrets of the universe. So after a little reflection he prayed to God to tell him the secrets of the peanut. And God answered "George, that's more your size".

If, like Carver, you want to be humble about how much of the universe you're likely to be able to understand, you might just want to give up on being really certain about whether the temperature readings from a sensor floating a yard under the surface of the Pacific Ocean off Tierra del Fuego are accurate, and focus instead on being pretty confident about knowing the temperature in your backyard.

And to be really confident about the temperature in your backyard, you'll want a sensor that works all the time, even when the power is out, and that can't lie to you, either accidentally or on purpose. In other words, you want a sensor that lives in the land of protons instead of the land of electrons.

Luckily, it's easy to find a proton-land temperature sensor. It's called a Spirit Thermometer, and you can get one for about two bucks. Mine is the slightly more expensive (but prettier!) version in the photo at the top of this letter. It's just a sealed glass tube with a little bulb of red-colored alcohol at the bottom. It works because of very simple proton-land physics: alcohol expands when you heat it and contracts when you cool it, so the hotter it gets, the higher up the glass tube the alcohol creeps. There's a handy scale alongside the glass tube so you can read the temperature in the degrees of your choice (PSA: just take a marker and scratch out the Celsius scale, because Fahrenheit is better, at least if you're a human.)

Unless the laws of physics which govern thermal expansion of liquids change, there's no way the Spirit Thermometer can make an error. Like George Washington, the Spirit Thermometer cannot tell a lie.

If you believe in conspiracy theories, you might be worried about someone tampering with your sensor; the good news here is that since the Spirit Thermometer is a proton device rather than an electron device, it's pretty hard to tamper with: to get it to change its behavior you have to change the size of the space inside the glass, or you have to add or take away alcohol. Doing any of these things would mean you'd have to open the sealed glass tube and then close it up again without leaving any evidence that you'd messed with it. It's a little easier to replace the scale that sits alongside the glass tube with one that's marked differently; my take on this is that if you live in a neighborhood where there's a real chance that people are breaking into your backyard to replace parts of your thermometer, the climate might not be the first thing you should worry about.

Living in the land of protons with my Spirit Thermometer provides me with a kind of existential calm. The land of electrons is full of arguments about whether the globe is warming, whether the scientific community is cooking the numbers from millions of shifty-electron sensors, and whether the government is lying to us. I don't have to worry about that. My stolid, boring little red liquid protons and clear glass protons tell me - with the majestic authority of the physical laws of the universe - whether it's hot or cold in my backyard. I can write down what they tell me every day at 3pm, and after a year, I know with a very high level of confidence whether this year is warmer than last year in my own back yard. And if someone tells me "the world isn't getting hotter", I can smile and answer "well, my backyard is hotter. The protons told me so".

By the way, my protons approve of the weather station. Right now the protons say it's 51 degrees. The weather station says 50.2, which is pretty close for a bunch of shifty electrons. And, give or take 0.8 degrees, it's a mighty nice day down here in Austin.


Blogger Dave Kearns said...

It may just be that your backyard gets cooler each year - climate change doesn't only mean that the earth is getting warmer,. but that some parts of it are getting colder.

I, too, have one of those weather stations in my yard, but I use a different electron instrument to check up on it - so I never actually have to leave my office to do the comparison.

January 08, 2017 7:28 PM  

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