The uncertainty of knowledge

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NOAA this week posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in January. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

Back in October the Sun’s sunspot activity had plummeted, following almost two years of very weak activity. At that time, I wrote, “It appears the solar maximum has ended. The only question now is how long and deep the upcoming solar minimum will be.”

Well, talk about foolish predictions. I should shake hands with Al Gore and James Hansen for making the mistake of announcing the future as if I know what will happen. The truth is that no one truly understands the Sun’s sunspot cycle.

In January the Sun continued the high sunspot activity of the previous three months, once again producing sunspots in numbers close to the actual predictions of the solar science community. And while all their predictions remain generally high when compared to the actual numbers, they can now feel reassured that the overall length and strength of this solar maximum is beginning to resemble the prediction of the solar scientists who thought this would be a weak maximum.

Janaury Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

Like Gore, Hansen, and many other global warming advocates, I made the mistake in October of assuming my knowledge was more certain than it was. The Sun had been relatively inactive, but that was no guarantee it would remain so. It would have been much wiser to note the lack of activity but hold off with any prediction. When knowledge is limited the uncertainties are great, which is the main point I have been making repeatedly about the solar science and climate research fields for the past decade: We really don’t know enough yet to make any rash predictions, and anyone who does make rash predictions is liable to be wrong.

This is not to say that all knowledge is uncertain. If anything, most engineering truths are real and should never be ignored. For example, when o-rings stiffen because of cold weather or when foam breaks off and chips your protective tiles, you would be a fool to say the knowledge is uncertain. There, knowledge is as certain as death, which in both cases followed shortly thereafter with the destruction of a space shuttle.

Nonetheless, for our knowledge to really grow, we must always recognize that we may be wrong, that our emotional beliefs can sometimes cloud our judgement, that sometimes the certain knowledge we think we have is not certain at all. In the case of this on-going solar maximum, I allowed myself to get ahead of the data and assumed the maximum was over three months ago, when there was really no way of knowing that. Like the solar scientists whose predictions have been consistently wrong, I face-planted myself with too much certainty. Let that be a warning to everyone, on the left as well as the right.

As for the future of the Sun, that remains a mystery. If I had to bet, I would bet on a less active Sun in the next solar cycle. Then again, if you look at the graph below of the Sun’s cycle for the past three centuries, you will note that the Sun is just as likely to recover after a weak maximum and pump out more sunspots in the following cycle. Making a prediction in this field when there is as yet so little clear understanding of the process itself is dangerous and foolhardy. And believing any prediction you read is even more foolish.

We must wait, gather data, and try to understand. With patience, our uncertain knowledge of the Sun will eventually become progressively more certain.

Of that I am certain.

Solar cycles going back to 1600


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