Monday, July 19, 2010

Global Warming, the Charlie James Syndrome, and a Very, Very, Very Big Number

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been aware of what I refer to as the Charlie James Syndrome. My father, although he grew up in New England, was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. He started following the “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, and remained a loyal Cardinals supporter until the day he died.

I, on the other hand, followed the utterly hapless New York Mets. So it was that one day late in the 1963 season, my Dad and I were listening to a Mets-Cardinals game on the radio (we didn’t have a TV). Despite my loyalties to the Mets, I was aware that the Cardinals were in a pennant race (they ended up in second place, 6 games behind the Dodgers), whereas the Mets finished 15 games out of 9th place in a 10-team league. So my loyalties were divided.

Anyway, on that particular day a journeyman outfielder for the Cardinals named Charlie James hit two home runs, giving St. Louis its margin of victory. In that same game, Stan “The Man” Musial, a future Hall-of-Famer, went something like 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. “Clearly,” thought I, roughly a week or so from my 8th birthday, “Charlie James is a vastly superior baseball player to this Musial guy my Dad keeps talking about.” Needless to say, he wasn’t. James’s career OPS (On-Base Percentage Plus Slugging Average) was .652. Musial’s lifetime OPS was .976; even in 1963, when he was 42 years old and James had the best year of his career, Musial was still the better hitter by a .729-.697 margin.

But on that one particular September day in 1963, Charlie James sure had a better game than Stan Musial did. For some reason, that game stuck in my mind, and it has become an important memory—not merely because a little boy got to share a baseball game broadcast with his Dad, but for the lesson of Charlie James. It wasn’t too long before I realized that anomalies happen, but that doesn’t make picking Stan Musial instead of Charlie James a bad idea.

So with all the hoo-ha about climate change, I have remained ever-so-slightly skeptical. True, I trust scientists more than I trust politicians, and I have found the protestations of the right more than a little foam-flecked. But the fact that the arguments being adduced against the whole idea of climate change aren’t convincing doesn’t mean that those in favor of the theory are much better.

And, of course, there is ample anecdotal evidence that the doomsayers are exaggerating. All of us have a friend in northern climes who jokes about having to shovel 14” of global warming in the winter. I just returned from Ireland, where the reason we couldn’t go inside Thoor Ballylee, W.B. Yeats’s tower, was that the coldest winter in nearly a half a century had led to flood damage that hadn’t been cleaned up yet.

Both sides of the debate are guilty of selective interpretation of evidence. Some readers will recall the O.J. Simpson trial, in which prosecutors made a big show of making the defendant try on a pair of gloves, ready to strut their stuff when one more nail was added to Simpson’s coffin. Of course, the gloves were too small, leaving the prosecutors scrambling to babble—accurately but with palpable desperation—that, reasonably, the gloves would have shrunk because of the exposure to blood. But all Johnny Cochran needed was one little chink in the armor; when, with rhetorical flourish, he proclaimed, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit,” the trial was effectively over.

I am always reminded of that when I see someone claiming that, for example, an increase in snowfall is actually attributable to global warming. I follow the scientific explanation, and it makes sense, but there’s still that nagging feeling that I’m buying into a scam. So what would be a statistic that would prove unequivocally that global warming is a real and present danger?

How about this, from the official National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report on the Global State of the Climate:
June was the fourth consecutive month that was the warmest on record for the combined global land and surface temperatures (March, April, and May were also the warmest). This was the 304th consecutive month with a combined global land and surface temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below average temperatures was February 1985.
I first saw this passage, by the way, on the Guardian’s website. [N.B. I find it interesting that the mainstream US media—even such “liberal” bastions as MSNBC and the Washington Post—ignore the most significant statistic of the story; I can’t find the story at all on the New York Times website.] OK, let’s look at that 304 consecutive month number. Logically, there’s a 50-50 chance that each month will be warmer than or cooler than the 20th century average. So, the odds of having 304 straight months above that average based purely on chance are 1 in 2 to the 304th power, or roughly 1 in 3.25 times 10 to the 91st power. That is, 1 in 32,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Those strike me as rather long odds. You know the expression “one in a million”? The odds of 27 consecutive months being above the 20th century average are less than one in a million. That gives you a rough idea of what 304 would be.

Or look at it this way: Charlie James hit a homer about every 48.5 at bats. 304 consecutive months isn’t James homering twice in one game: it’s his hitting a home run in 53 consecutive at bats. (The major league record is 4.)

Now, global warming deniers… you were saying?

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