Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When Engineers are Wrong People Die

Below is a comment I left on Anthony Watts' blog, the most popular blog in the world on climate issues. The blog post was by a guest, Dr. Jerome Ravetz, who has an interesting point. He posits, among other things, that science has made a journey over the decades, and now is in what he calls Post-Normal Science, or PNS. By PNS, he means (among other things) that the peer-review system of years gone by is also gone. The advent of the internet with various blogs where anyone, anywhere, anytime, can join the discussion has forever changed the way science is done. Freedom of Information laws (which Dr. Ravetz mentioned) also play a role, as some, perhaps most, science is now done via government funding - thus the information obtained is subject to disclosure in most cases. There are some instances in which government-funded research is not to be disclosed, one such instance is national security. But climate science has little to do with national security, and thus is subject to FOI.

The enhanced scrutiny of PNS has obvious difficulties that weigh against, or balance the benefits. One difficulty is what Dr. James Hansen of NASA termed "jousting with jesters." This is, to put it simply, a waste of a talented scientist's time to respond to questions or criticism posed by those who are unqualified to discuss the issues. And that is a valid point, to a certain extent. There are, and will likely always be, a few jesters around to slow things down. Some jesters deliberately strive to slow things down by disrupting - they have an agenda. Greenpeace is a good example, when they try to prevent law-abiding ships from accomplishing their goals.

But then there are the knights noble (to continue the medieval royal court analogy). One wants to be careful about jousting with a knight, especially an experienced, knowledgeable one with a superb horse and superior equipment. One can get seriously injured jousting with such a knight.

And there are, indeed, such knights around the world with internet access. I have run into quite a few, myself. People who know what questions to ask, and how to evaluate the responses they receive to those questions. People who, like me, seldom read the conclusions of a report, or if I do read it, discount it with a mental note of "well, let's just see if his data supports such a claim, and see what analysis was made and if it was done properly." This attitude is due to my background in engineering, specifically chemical engineering in oil refineries, where things explode when things go wrong. When one works in a place that could instantly turn into a raging inferno, one's wits get sharpened and the tolerance for BS (in this case, "Bad Science") disappears. I realize that few people in the world understand or even care what happens in an oil refinery, and what it takes to make them run safely and smoothly day after day for decades. And yes, sometimes mistakes are made. I know this probably better than most, as a good part of my law practice comes from such matters. My clients love the fact that their attorney, me, understands what they are saying without a lot of background explanations.

My response on WUWT was to a statement Dr. Ravetz made, from the Quaker principle: ‘never forget that you might be wrong.’

My comment begins: The engineer in me shudders when I read that. Engineers (I am a chemical engineer – and a lawyer) had better not be wrong. We don’t have that luxury; for when engineers get it wrong, people die. The news outlets – and the court cases – are replete with examples.

Engineers never, ever, forget that we might be wrong, so a good engineer falls back on the fundamentals – that which is never wrong. The legal term for one aspect of this, in the U.S., is RAGAGEP. This acronym stands for Recognized And Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practice. Other disciplines have similar standards, one such is GAAP for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

Many of my contacts are puzzled at some of my writings and statements, as they see the world in far more shades of gray than do I. They wonder just how I can be so adamant that I am right. The answer is simple: fundamentals of engineering are right. As just one example, a given grade of steel has a certain strength at a given temperature. Engineers use this fact to design and build all sorts of structures, from bridges to boilers to boxcars; and oil refineries.

The fundamentals are also very useful in a law practice, where defendants did not adhere to RAGAGEP but instead cut corners or did a sloppy job or substituted a cheaper material or fabrication technique.

In engineering, there is much parallel to science, in that there are experiments designed and conducted, data acquired and analyzed, theories formulated and tested against the data, and better experiments or larger systems built and tested. It angers me to observe how pathetic the science has been with respect to climate change. I cheer inwardly when I read comments on various blogs where quality of measuring instruments is described as paramount. If the raw data is suspect, then one might as well stop right there – any further use of the data is useless, and likely dangerous if one is an engineer. It can also lead to massive economic losses to the defendant in a lawsuit brought by an injured plaintiff, who is represented by a knowledgeable and skillful attorney.

It is encouraging to me to see that, in the extended peer community described by Dr. Ravetz, some are engineers. I don’t disparage non-engineers by this, as there are many good, skeptical, knowledgeable people without engineering degrees. And it is true that some engineers do a bad job, or more likely, are not permitted to do a good job because their bosses (usually non-engineers) prevent them. The Toyota car problems of the moment come to mind; it is very likely that the engineers at Toyota knew exactly what to do and how to do it to send out cars without the problems, but layers of management prevented them from doing so.

I would hold all scientists to the same standards to which engineers are held: get it right, or people die. My own background is in oil refineries, natural gas plants, petrochemical plants, basic chemical plants, and power plants. In those industries, one does not take chances, use bad data, use questionable measuring instruments, falsify data, manipulate data to obtain a pre-determined outcome, or any of the other myriad things revealed in the post-Climategate mess. Things blow up and people die.

Therefore, I am a skeptic about climate science. At every turn, there is sloppy work, conclusions not supported by the data, very poor quality data, and agenda-driven work. My research and investigations show me that essentially none of the AGW claims are true, and will never be true. I am also very encouraged to see that many other engineers are speaking up and speaking out, using the internet.

As Dr. Ravetz said, Post-Normal Science is here, and it is not going away.

As I see it, the knights are suited up, and astride their horses. Climate scientists are now required to joust with the knights. May the best man win.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

Marina del Rey, California


DOuglas2 said...

In Canada many engineers wear an iron ring. The lore is that the rings are made from the steel of a bridge that was not built using good engineering practice, and collampsed causign many deaths. It is a sign of humility and caution, a reminder that lives rest on your work.

CaptainDave said...

The ring ceremony also involves the candidates swearing an oath, not on some book of religion or law, but on a piece of steel (which, as mentioned, has well documented properties), to be thorough and to try to think of everything that can go wrong.