Category Archives: Big Numbers

Understanding Global Warming Scale Issues

Aside from the endless stream of Cantor cranks, the next biggest category of emails I get is from climate “skeptics”. They all ask pretty much the same question. For example, here’s one I received today:

My personal analysis, and natural sceptisism tells me, that there are something fundamentally wrong with the entire warming theory when it comes to the CO2.

If a gas in the atmosphere increase from 0.03 to 0.04… that just cant be a significant parameter, can it?

I generally ignore it, because… let’s face it, the majority of people who ask this question aren’t looking for a real answer. But this one was much more polite and reasonable than most, so I decided to answer it. And once I went to the trouble of writing a response, I figured that I might as well turn it into a post as well.

The current figures – you can find them in a variety of places from wikipedia to the US NOAA – are that the atmosphere CO2 has changed from around 280 parts per million in 1850 to 400 parts per million today.

Why can’t that be a significant parameter?

There’s a couple of things to understand to grasp global warming: how much energy carbon dioxide can trap in the atmosphere, and hom much carbon dioxide there actually is in the atmosphere. Put those two facts together, and you realize that we’re talking about a massive quantity of carbon dioxide trapping a massive amount of energy.

The problem is scale. Humans notoriously have a really hard time wrapping our heads around scale. When numbers get big enough, we aren’t able to really grasp them intuitively and understand what they mean. The difference between two numbers like 300 and 400ppm is tiny, we can’t really grasp how in could be significant, because we aren’t good at taking that small difference, and realizing just how ridiculously large it actually is.

If you actually look at the math behind the greenhouse effect, you find that some gasses are very effective at trapping heat. The earth is only habitable because of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – without it, earth would be too cold for life. Small amounts of it provide enough heat-trapping effect to move us from a frozen rock to the world we have. Increasing the quantity of it increases the amount of heat it can trap.

Let’s think about what the difference between 280 and 400 parts per million actually means at the scale of earth’s atmosphere. You hear a number like 400ppm – that’s 4 one-hundreds of one percent – that seems like nothing, right? How could that have such a massive effect?!

But like so many other mathematical things, you need to put that number into the appropriate scale. The earths atmosphere masses roughly 5 times 10^21 grams. 400ppm of that scales to 2 times 10^18 grams of carbon dioxide. That’s 2 billion trillion kilograms of CO2. Compared to 100 years ago, that’s about 800 million trillion kilograms of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere over the last hundred years. That’s a really, really massive quantity of carbon dioxide! scaled to the number of particles, that’s something around 10^40th (plus or minus a couple of powers of ten – at this scale, who cares?) additional molecules of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s a very small percentage, but it’s a huge quantity.

When you talk about trapping heat, you also have to remember that there’s scaling issues there, too. We’re not talking about adding 100 degrees to the earths temperature. It’s a massive increase in the quantity of energy in the atmosphere, but because the atmosphere is so large, it doesn’t look like much: just a couple of degrees. That can be very deceptive – 5 degrees celsius isn’t a huge temperature difference. But if you think of the quantity of extra energy that’s being absorbed by the atmosphere to produce that difference, it’s pretty damned huge. It doesn’t necessarily look like all that much when you see it stated at 2 degrees celsius – but if you think of it terms of the quantity of additional energy being trapped by the atmosphere, it’s very significant.

Calculating just how much energy a molecule of CO2 can absorb is a lot trickier than calculating the mass-change of the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s a complicated phenomenon which involves a lot of different factors – how much infrared is absorbed by an atom, how quickly that energy gets distributed into the other molecules that it interacts with… I’m not going to go into detail on that. There’s a ton of places, like here, where you can look up a detailed explanation. But when you consider the scale issues, it should be clear that there’s a pretty damned massive increase in the capacity to absorb energy in a small percentage-wise increase in the quantity of CO2.

Big Number Bogosity from a Christian College Kid

I know that I just posted a link to a stupid religious argument, but I was sent a link to another one, which I can’t resist mocking.

As I’ve written about quite often, we humans really stink at understanding big numbers, and how things scale. This is an example of that. We’ve got a jerk who’s about to graduate from a dinky christian college, who believes that there must be something special about the moral atmosphere at his college, because in his four years at the school, there hasn’t been a single murder.

Yeah, seriously. He really believes that his school is special, because it’s gone four whole years without a murder:

Considering that the USA Today calculated 857 college student deaths from 2000 to 2005, how does one school manage to escape unscathed? It’s certainly not chance or luck. For Patrick Henry College, it’s in our Christian culture.

Critics mock us for our strict rules – like no dancing or drinking on campus, no members of the opposite sex permitted in your dorm room, nightly curfew hours – and the lack of a social atmosphere it creates. We have been the subject of books (God’s Harvard), television shows, op-eds, and countless blogs who rant against our brand of overbearing right-wing Christianity that poisons society’s freedom.

Yet, what is the cost of students being able to “express” themselves? Is that freedom worth the cost of drunk driving deaths, drug related violence, and love affairs turned fatal?

There were 857 college student deaths in the five-year period from 2000 to 2005! Therefore, any college where there weren’t any murders in that period must be something really special. That christian culture must be making a really big difference, right?

Well, no.

According to Google Answers, the US Census Department reports that there are 2363 four year colleges in the US. So, assuming the widest possible distribution of student deaths, there were 1506 colleges with no student deaths in a five-year period. Or, put another way, more than 60% of colleges in the US went that five-year period without any violent student deaths.

Or, let’s try looking at it another way. According to the census, there are 15.9 million people currently enrolled in college. The school that, according to the author, is so remarkable for going without any murders in the last four years? It has 325 students. Not 325 per class – 325 total.

In other words, among a group making up less than 2/1000ths of one percent of the college population, there were no murders. Assuming that the distribution of violent deaths is perfectly uniform (which it obviously isn’t; but let’s just keep things simple), given that there were 857 violent deaths in the student population as a whole, how many violent deaths would you expect among the student body at his dinky christian college?

That would be a big, fat zero.

The fact that there were no violent deaths at his school isn’t remarkable, not at all. But to a twit who’s incapable of actually understanding what numbers mean, that’s not the conclusion to be drawn. It’s also not that the violent death among college students is actually remarkably rare. Nor is it that most college students will go through college without any violent deaths on campus. No – according to a twit, with 857 violent campus deaths over five years, the only reasonable conclusion is that there must be something special about the ridiculous religious rules at his college that prevented the great rampaging plague of violence from touching the students at his school.

I actually spent five years as an undergraduate at Rutgers University in NJ. During that time, there were no violent student deaths. (There was one death by alchohol poisoning; and there was one drunk driving accident that killed four students.) But zero violent deaths. Gosh, Rutgers must have been an absolutely amazingly moral university! And gosh, we had all of those horrible sinful things, like dancing, and co-ed dorms! How did we manage to go all that time with no violence?

It must have been the prayers of the very nice Rabbi at the Chabad house on campus. Yeah, that must be it! Couldn’t just be random chance, right?

Ok, now let me stop being quite so pettily snide for a moment.

What’s going on here is really simple. We hear a whole lot about violence on campus. And when you hear about eight-hundred and some-odd violent deaths on campus, it sounds like a lot. So, intuitively, it sure seems like there must be a whole lot of violence on campus, and it must be really common. So if you can go through your whole time in college without having any violence occur on campus, it seems like it must be unusual.

That’s because, as usual, we really suck at understanding big numbers and scale. 800 sounds like a lot. The idea that there are nearly sixteen million college students is just not something that we understand on an intuitive level. The idea that nearly a thousand deaths could be a tiny drop in the bucket – that it really amounts to just one death per 100,000 students per year – it just doesn’t make sense to us. A number like 800 is, just barely, intuitively meaningful to us. One million isn’t. Fifteen million isn’t. And a ratio with a number that we can’t really grasp intuitively on the bottom? That’s not going to be meaningful either.

Bozo-boy is making an extremely common mistake. He’s just simply failing to comprehend how numbers scale; he’s not understanding what big numbers really mean.

Big Numbers and Air Travel

As you’ve surely heard by now, on christmas day, some idiot attempted to
blow up an airplane by stuffing his underwear full of explosives and then
lighting his crotch on fire. There’s been a ton of coverage of this – most of
which takes the form of people running around wetting their pants in terror.

One thing which I’ve noticed, though, is that one aspect of this whole mess
ties in to one of my personal obsessions: scale. We humans are really,
really lousy at dealing with big numbers. We just absolutely
have a piss-poor ability to really comprehend numbers, or to take what we
know, and put it together in a quantitative way.

Continue reading