Yes, in this single post, I will indeed touch upon the Battle of Midway, and the way in which it relates to received wisdom, official pronouncements that heated debates “are over,” and the fallibility of computer models. I’ll start with Midway, and move on from there.
Seventy-years ago, between June 4 and June 7, the American Navy engaged with the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway. It was a turning point in World War II. The Japanese didn’t just lose the battle, they lost the war, although it took more than three more years of fighting, tens of thousands of American dead, and the atomic bomb to make them realize that they were, and had for some time been, defeated.
Every year in San Francisco, there’s a commemorative dinner celebrating that great victory. I’ve written about the evening before, so I won’t repeat myself, other than to say it’s a wonderful experience. The only sad part of this past Saturday’s commemorative evening was that the number of Midway veterans able to attend has dwindled down to two, a reminder that these living treasures won’t be around forever.
At this most recent commemoration, the speaker was Admiral Ronald J. Zlatoper (Ret.), who served as Commander of the Pacific Fleet from 1994-1996. Adm. Zlatoper is a dynamic combination charm and enthusiasm, so he was a most delightful speaker. I’ll tell you two things that he told his attentive audience, one of which has nothing to do with anything, but is a good story, and another of which relates directly to this post. First, the digression.
While he was still Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Zlatoper’s daughter graduated from college, so he took a little time off from his duties to attend her graduation. While he was there, about nine graduates were also getting commissioned as Naval officers, so Adm. Zlatoper went to watch the commissioning ceremony. Later in the day, he found himself in the sitting room at his daughter’s sorority while she was changing for an event. When he walked into the sitting room, he discovered three newly commissioned Naval officers, all waiting for their girlfriends.
When the young men saw him, they instantly stood rigidly at attention, with sweat starting to bead on their brows and around their necks, right above their collars. It’s not usual for newly commissioned officers to meet with the Commander of the Pacific Fleet within hours of their commissioning. Adm. Zlatoper tried to make small talk with them.
To the first, he said, “Congratulations on your new commission.” The young man choked out “Thank you, Sir!” He then fell silent and appeared incapable of further speech.
Moving to the second, Adm. Zlatoper said, “Congratulations on your graduation.” This young man too managed a “Thank you, Sir,” and then he too appeared to retire from the conversational fray.
Adm. Zlatoper was determined to elicit some conversation from the third new officer. “So,” he said, “what was your major?” The young man answered “History, Sir!”
Aha! A conversational opening.
The admiral asked “Did you study any military history?”
“Yes, Sir, I did,” said the young officer.
The admiral asked the obvious question: “Who do you think were the best admirals in American history?”
The young man answered without a second’s hesitation, “Well, I didn’t quite catch your name, Sir.” He later named Admirals Nimitz and Spruance, proving that he was a young man of both charm and erudition. I wonder what happened to him in the ensuing 20 years.
I threw that story in just for fun, since it was fun to hear and fun to retell. Now I’d like to talk about something else Admiral Zlatoper said, and this is the fact that the U.S. shouldn’t have won. And if it should have won, it should merely have eked out a tiny, rather than a great, victory.
Going into battle, the Americans had 3 carriers, approximately 7 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 15 destroyers, 233 carrier-based aircraft, 127 land-based aircraft, and 16 submarines. Of these ships, the USS Yorktown, which had suffered heavy damage at the Battle of the Coral Sea, was held together by string, spit, and spirit. By contrast, the Japanese had 4 carriers, 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 12 destroyers, 248 carrier-based aircraft, and 16 floatplanes, all of which were in fighting trim.
By battle’s end, the unthinkable had happened. Not only had the Americans won, but they’d achieved a stunning victory. They lost one carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft, and only 307 men. I don’t mean to diminish those deaths, but that loss was nothing compared to what the Japanese suffered at Midway. They lost four carriers, one heavy cruiser, 248 aircraft, and 3,057 men. The men were as irreplaceable as the ships and plans, because they were top pilots and sailors who carried hard-earned knowledge and experience to their watery graves.
I already knew those outlines about Midway. Adm. Zlatoper, however, said something I’d never heard before: Every single computer model run of the Battle of Midway has the Americans losing. Fortunately, those young fighters and their commanders in 1942 weren’t computer models. They were real, dynamic people acting in real-time and doing individual acts of greatness. Just as the Americans shouldn’t have been able to take on and beat the mighty British Empire near the end of the 18th century, those young sailors and Marines, in their rag-tag ships and fragile planes, shouldn’t have been able to take on and decimate the mighty Japanese Navy.
The obvious moral of the story is never underestimate Americans. But as described by Adm. Zlatoper, I took away another moral: computer models aren’t infallible. This matters because just last week, our President and Commander-in-Chief, Barack H. Obama, announced that America is facing a foe more deadly than the Hun, the Nazis, the Japanese Imperial Army, and the Communists put together! That foe, of course, is climate change.
And how does Obama know that climate change is the most deadly foe of all, more deadly than it’s ever been before in the 3 billion years of the earth’s existence, during which time the earth has warmed and cooled repeatedly? He knows because COMPUTER MODELS.
Think about this: Decades after the fact, after victory was already secured, computer models for the Battle of Midway came back, relentlessly and repeatedly, with the wrong answer. Even knowing the historic reality, and with finite and specific data (number of men, number of ships, number of planes, knowledge of fog and other weather) there was no way the computers were going to get it right.
Nothing proves more clearly that a computer’s predictive value is limited. Had America’s military hierarchy in 1942 relied on computers instead of human knowledge, common sense, experience, and instinct, the Navy would have avoided Midway like the plague. God alone knows how much longer the war would have lasted had that happened. But armed with the above uniquely human traits, plus optimism, bravery, and a touch of desperation, the Navy went ahead and did what the later computer models assured us they couldn’t ever do: They won.
Transfer what you know about Midway models, which were modeling a past event, to computer models, which are so confidently predicting future events. Unlike the Midway models, the climate models do not have fixed and finite data. Instead, the variables and the amount of data for modeling the climate are infinite.
Indeed, the climate model problem isn’t limited just to the known infinites (this temperature or that one?). They’re also plagued by the unknown infinites, such as volcanoes hiding underwater, events on the sun, and climate phenomenon that we haven’t even discovered yet. All of these infinites, unknowns and, given the scope of the atmosphere and the universe itself, unknowables, logical people would have to admit that climate models are virtually useless at future predictions. They’re good for repetitious weather events, but that’s about it. And if you want proof that my previous statements are correct, consider that, to the extent climate-models from the 1990s predicted events in the first decade of the 21st century, they were all wrong.
Despite the reality that computer models have poor predictive ability even with finite data, and that past climate models were all wrong, our President still announces that the greatest (and, if he can help it, most expensive) war American will ever wage is against the climate because COMPUTER MODELS. If Obama had sat in Admiral Nimitz’s chair, we’d all be peons in a Bushido colony today. Except for me. I wouldn’t “be” at all because my mother, who barely survived the war as it was, would most certainly have died in that Japanese concentration camp that she called home from December 1941 through August 1945.
And while we’re talking about the limits of science and technology as it relates to climate change, let me say a word about the Left’s favorite phrase: “The debate is over.” I’d like to run through a few other issues as to which the “debate was over.” For example, the debate was over about the Black Death. It was a bacteria spread by infected rats . . . except that new data that was previously unavailable tells a different story:
Evidence taken from the human remains found in Charterhouse Square, to the north of the City of London, during excavations carried out as part of the construction of the Crossrail train line, may support a theory held by some scientists that only an airborne infection could have spread so fast and killed so quickly.
By extracting the DNA of the disease bacterium, Yersinia pestis, from the largest teeth in some of the skulls retrieved from the square, the scientists were able to compare the strain of bubonic plague preserved there with that which was recently responsible for killing 60 people in Madagascar. To their surprise, the 14th-century strain, the cause of the most lethal catastrophe in recorded history, was no more virulent than today’s disease. The DNA codes were an almost perfect match.
According to scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down, for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then been spread by coughs and sneezes. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. Infection was spread human to human, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then bit another victim.
So much for that debate being over.
But what about the fact that we’ve all known since, well, forever, that eating fruits and vegetables is the key to fighting cancer? Every American school child learns that. The debate must be over about fruits’ and vegetables’ role in cancer . . . except that newly discovered data says they don’t seem to have a role at all:
A trip to almost any bookstore or a cruise around the Internet might leave the impression that avoiding cancer is mostly a matter of watching what you eat. One source after another promotes the protective powers of “superfoods,” rich in antioxidants and other phytochemicals, or advises readers to emulate the diets of Chinese peasants or Paleolithic cave dwellers.
But there is a yawning divide between this nutritional folklore and science. During the last two decades the connection between the foods we eat and the cellular anarchy called cancer has been unraveling string by string.
In the opening plenary session [of the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting], Dr. Walter C. Willett, a Harvard epidemiologist who has spent many years studying cancer and nutrition, sounded almost rueful as he gave a status report. Whatever is true for other diseases, when it comes to cancer there was little evidence that fruits and vegetables are protective or that fatty foods are bad.
So maybe the debate isn’t quite over about cancer and the benefits of a vegan diet. (And if you want to know about the connection between vegans and socialism, which predates the connection between vegans and climate change, don’t miss this wonderful Ed Driscoll post).
Okay. So we’ll concede the Black Death and the vegetable/cancer connection, but there must still be some reliable scientific received wisdom. Surely the science can’t be wrong about the connection between fatty foods, such as butter and red meat, and heart disease. I mean, that debate must really be settled, right? Right?
Uh, sorry, Charlie, but no. Those foods we love to eat don’t hate us in return. As in most things, they’re fine in moderation and that old “settled” science was, in fact, total bunkum:
After decades of advice on the harm done by saturated fat such as butter, scientists have found no evidence of a link with heart problems.
A ‘mega’ study which analysed a huge amount of existing data also said so-called healthy polyunsaturated fats, such as sunflower oil, had no general effect on the risk of heart disease.
In contrast, a dairy fat called margaric acid ‘significantly reduced’ risk, while two kinds of saturated fat found in palm oil and animal products had only a ‘weak link’ with heart disease.
Two types of omega-3 fatty acid found in oily fish – EPA and DHA – and the omega-6 fat arachidonic acid were linked to a lower risk of heart disease. But omega-3 and omega-6 supplements appeared to have no benefit.
The above aren’t the only hits on “settled science.” In the past few days and years, we’ve also learned that men have broad fleshy faces, not to cope with a Stone Age vegan diet (because then women would have those strong, fleshy faces too), but instead because men like to punch each other (and always have). MMR vaccinations don’t cause autism. Stomach acid, stress, and spicy foods do not cause ulcers.
Here’s the deal with science: The debate is never settled. Science is not math, where one plus one always equals two. Science is always the best theory based upon the available data (provided that the data is selected and analyzed intelligently, without ideological bias). When the data changes, people have to let go of cherished theories. Most people understand this scientific truism about everything except climate change. As to that, when you turn Left, nothing will falsify climate change theories, which means climate change is a faith, not a scientific theory at all.
I’ve decided, by the way, that climate change is my new go-to answer for my life. In media and DemProg land (but I repeat myself), climate change is the answer to all things: Hot weather? Climate change. Cold weather? Climate change. Drought? Climate change. Deluge? Climate Change. Wife beating? Climate change. Rape? Climate change. Health problems? Climate change. Golf course failures? Climate change.
Well, from now on, since I’m married to a card-carrying, climate-change-believing DemProg, things are going to be different in my house. Why isn’t dinner ready? Climate change. How come you didn’t fold the laundry? Climate change. Why aren’t the bills paid? Climate change. If it’s a faith that works for you, my dear, it should work for me too, right?
I’ll wrap this up with a bit of poetry, courtesy of Edgar Albert Guest:
It Couldn’t Be Done
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.