As a nuclear engineer, I use radiation physics codes quite a bit. We use the computer software to model radiation effects experiments, to perform reactor safety calculations, and to complete nuclear criticality safety analysis. For us, the regulatory framework that we operate in requires that we validate the software thoroughly. By validation, I mean we compare the computer modeling results with a real world measurement of those results. In fact, the radiation transport and nuclear physics communities have performed many experiments using simple physical geometries and well-known material compositions designed to be modeled exactly by our computer codes. These are known as benchmark experiments, and I have performed both reactor benchmark experiments and code calculations for comparisons (link).
These comparisons are quite rigorous and quantitative. For instance, our transport codes will predict the benchmark experiments to less than 1% difference for the neutron multiplication factor. When we predict things like radiation doses and particles crossing certain boundaries, we generally don't do quite as well. Those quantities are usually predicted to within 5-20% depending on the complexity of the benchmark. These results allow us to use our software with confidence for problems that are similar in scope (same energy region, similar materials, etc.) to the benchmarks because we have demonstrated that the software code has the appropriate physics and material models.
So, here is excerpt from the abstract of an article: "Using quantitative proxy models of peat and bauxite formation, based upon modern analogues, predictions of the distribution of peats (coals) and bauxites for both the Late Jurassic (Kimmeridgian) and midCretaceous (Cenomanian) have been made using a General Circulation Model (GCM)." After saying to myself, "That's a load of BS!", I decided to write down why this is such a poor way to do computer modeling and why this is NOT validation.
Here is a clause by clause translation of the abstract from BS-ese to English:
- "Using quantitative proxy models of peat and bauxite formation ..." --> I took numbers from somebody's (another graduate student in my research group) model of peat and bauxite formation. I won't tell you where the numbers came from or how that model was constructed because the graduate student is a computer science major and knows absolutely nothing about geology.
- "..., based upon modern analogues, ..." --> We really don't know how these formations develop, we can't observe their formation happening anywhere today, but my collaborator at another university has a guess at something that supports my argument in this paper. Most people will just read right past this clause anyway.
- "...predictions of the distribution of peats (coals) and bauxites for both the Late Jurassic (Kimmeridgian) and midCretaceous (Cenomanian) have been made using a General Circulation Model (GCM)." --> I know we use GCMs to model the atmosphere and oceans and make wild guesses about climate, but I am going to show you where to find coal and aluminum ore using these magic codes. If you bought the load in the first couple of clauses, I bet that I can sell you the even bigger load to finish the sentence.
I will definitely admit to a general bias against climate models because I am unsure how much of what they do is truly science as opposed to computer science. For the sake of discussion, let's say that it is. Will someone please tell me the "world class" aspect of this paper? I KNOW that Sandia does world class science and engineering (examples), so I am pretty sure that I would recognize when something is in that category. If a co-worker brought this to me at Sandia as part of our internal peer review, it would get a "Not Recommended for Publication" rating. Saying this in another way, the article is well below the minimum information (science quota) that I would recommend for publication and is contributing to the decrease that I mentioned in For Starters. The sad thing is that the authors now have this article as a peer-reviewed publication (in the Journal of the Geological Society) on their CVs.
In summary, this article is NOT validation of any kind because the results are never compared to something that we can physically measure. At best, this is a verification that the modeling team writing the article has the same general physics models in their computer software as another computer code that models coal and aluminum ore formation. This is a good example of what Steven Milloy calls "PlayStation Climatology."
To those of you who know me well enough to have pushed my global warming button, I hope that this post on the subject provides an insight into my cynicism or lack of concern about the dire predictions that surface every few days. I don't want to put our collective economic futures in the hands of people that do "science" in this way. I am going to end with a note to Walt and Annie. I think that this is the type of stuff that you guys wanted me to write about. If it's not, leave me a comment and tell me where I went astray and suggestions for other posts.