Saturday, March 06, 2010

Medea Hypothesis Review (Part 10): Misleading Statements

This is my 10th post on the Medea Hypothesis. (o.O) I am now in the review section of the posts and, unfortunately, this is taking as long or longer than the summarization and reading. Alas. The table of contents is going to be going up shortly. For right now, the previous nine posts are first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. The completed Medea Hypothesis Review table of contents is here.

Right now though, I am going to touch on how Ward misleads with his presentation of “supporting” data in some cases with respect to the MH. Dr Ward in the Medea Hypothesis misleads in multiple cases. I am going to touch on a few.

The Permian Extinction: The Great Dying

The Permian Extinction was the greatest and most horrifying of the mass extinctions. In the marine realm, potentially as much as 95% of everything died. On land, at least two thirds of all life died and it could be as high as 75%. It has been researched in detail and the mechanisms and causes are fairly well understood. I wrote about what was state of the art in 2006. There have been some embellishments, but, generally, the post holds up fairly well. Please read about it here.

However, Ward recasts the Great Dying to fit his Medea Hypothesis. He squarely lays the blame on life as the cause and driver of the extinction. His description puts the main kill mechanism to be the excretions of anaerobic bacteria. The byproduct is hydrogen sulfide (H2S). It is highly toxic to most aerobic life. He states this is the reason that most life nearly got wiped out: the bacteria ran amok and then poisoned everything else.


This neglects the fact that there was a lot going on at the same time. The Siberian Traps were erupting. This is the single biggest eruption in the whole of the past 650 million years and possibly as much as the past billion years. The world radically warmed: well over 10 C in very short time periods. The oceans turned very anoxic. The methane calthrates erupted from the oceans. The ozone layer was destroyed: unblocked UV scorched the land and even the surface of the sea. The vast majority of land desertified. Hypersaline lakes released lethal halogen gases. The atmospheric oxygen levels crashed. Precipitation was probably extremely seasonal and possibly even a megamonsoon model. And, yes, the anaerobic bacteria that Ward cites did play a part and released hydrogen sulfide.

Ward’s bacterial menace was but one of several killing mechanisms. While possibly an important one, the root driver, instigator and maintainer of the nasty situation was not life. It was the vast eruptions that took place in Siberia. Ward states and way overemphasized life’s participation. He ignores and just short of pooh-poohs the others. By doing so, he badly misleads his readers.

The Snowball Earths

The Snowball Earth episodes are time periods in Deep Time where the world is suspected to have virtually iced over. There are detailed discussions elsewhere of what they are. However, they are not necessarily as well understood as Ward paints the picture. Ward outright says that life caused them. His scenario is that life, bacteria and more advanced photosynthetic life drew down the carbon dioxide so much that it caused the earth to lose its greenhouse effect and ice over. Truthfully, this has not been demonstrated. It has been proposed, but the data to back it up has not yet been generated. The rise of photosynthesis, first through bacteria and later through more advanced plants, and the Snowball Earth periods are not well correlated. Chronology is critical to Ward’s narrative and evidence in support of this is definitely lacking. While generally accepted as having taken place on some level, the Snowball Earth scenarios are generally poorly understood. The amount of data available is extremely small since the number of available deposits from these time periods are very few in number. Ward misleads his readers here too as far as what we really know from this time period, never mind whether or not we have a good grip on what was happening.

The Pleistocene Glaciations

Related in his conjectures about life causing ice ages are his speculation on the Pleistocene glaciations. The Ice Age as it exists in the popular mind. Ward again asserts that life caused the carbon dioxide to drop sufficiently for glaciations to take place. Like with the Snowball earth episodes, he makes no case for it, presents no evidence in support. He handwaves and just states it to be the case. We know for a fact though that there is a more complicated story than this going on. Ask Milkanovitch and Croll. Furthermore, Ward ignores some pretty contradicting data: the trend for CO2 does not match his constant downward trending plots. It’s far, far more spiky than his model allows for. Indeed, there have been recent episodes where CO2 was higher than now during those glaciations.

And there's more...I just don't have the energy to go into them for now. The above are good examples. There are probably going to be two more posts in this series besides the TOC. Then , seriously, stick a fork in me, I am so done with dealing with this...faux hypothesis.


Jeff Lewis said...

Looks like I stepped in it by mentioning another Peter Ward book two days ago.

The appeal of his writing to people like me who are very curious but not thoroughly aware of all the research is that it puts forward simple ideas that leave out much of the messy uncertainties. "So that's what happened. Now on to something new."

From a career of researching medical outcomes and effectiveness through my company's software, my alarms usually go off when answers are too tidy. That's what tipped me off about AGW (global warming caused by humans). It's a minuscule change and we already know the cause with full certainty? Not in my world.

One point I'd appreciate some clarification, Will, is that Ward said that the deep coal seams of the carboniferous period were caused by the inability of bacteria at the time to decay wood. Is this true?

I own a few sections of Louisiana swamp and I know that the organic layer is not very deep despite thousands of years in timber. We might hit a hard stump a few meters down, but it will be surrounded be blue clay that was deposited quickly as a channel was cut off at one end and filled by sediment from the still-connected stream. The clay creates an airtight tomb. They look like bald cypress, actually a redwood species, but come to think of it I have never saved a sample to study.


Will Baird said...

lol. Not at all. Ward has produced some good work and some not so good work, Jeff. I liked Out of Thin Air in part because he made a lot of predictions with ways to falsify what he is thinking. He was speculative to an extreme, but was open and honest about it. The Medea Hypothesis overreaches though: it's badly thought through and badly written. I'm going through it bit by bit.

AGW: this is where we utterly disagree though! Or more jovially, "them's fightin words!" lol. My day job is as a sysadmin (with fun side research stuff) at one of the National Laboratories' supercomputer divisions (LBNL/NERSC). I get to work with climatologists all the time.

Large systems often respond slowly. They have momentum in certain directions and once they get going, they tend to pick up speed. AGW is not a good analogy for EE work, but rather you could think of it as mechanics or, as it really is, thermodynamics. It is a small far. There's not a lot of swing in the climate: at most we could go up around 15 C on average before life gets futzed: go to for some very good info on paleoclimate.

I am willing to make a gentleman's bet that the AGW will be what the climatologists say it is. I will also be willing to bet that the warming will take off more so than the IPCC is claiming. Finally, we're not going to be able to stop it, even if the US goes carbon cold turkey. For what and how long? Dinner paid for by the loser?

Answering your carboniferous ecology questions: first, read the links about that on the right. I've written about this before. Second, plants back in the Carboniferous were more lignin heavy than now. Even today, microbes have a tough time with that stupid molecule. Back then, it was even worse. Not everything evolves in lock step with one another. Second, the model you have (lousiana bayou) isn't exactly right. Think more peet marshes in England. The Carboniferous had the right environmental conditions with the microbial deficiency with the lack of beetles with the plant structural differences that made massive carbon sequestration (ie coal deposits) possible. It was a unique situation that's not likely to happen on that scale ever again.

Jeff Lewis said...

Gentleman to gentleman, you're on.

And don't get me wrong, I do not believe that you are wrong. It's worse than that. I don't believe anything because the numbers are too small compared to the noise. I'm just not ready to buy the momentum angle yet. Time will tell.

And yes, the US can do nothing to stop the atmospheric change. We burned to lift ourselves out of the dirt. Considering the misery of so many billions of people due to their low power availability, I can't imagine anything stopping combustion other than us handing out free nuke plants around the world.

But that's just me. Damned old engineers. I got through my junior year of ChemE before changing to EE. Not that it qualifies me to anything more than explaining simple chemistry to people with the misfortune of asking me something that is tied to chemistry. (Lately that's my son who will soon make a point of letting me know that he knows more than me about the subject.)

Back to the bet, you pick the time frame and the measure. Then I will finally have a horse in the race.

By the way, I serve on what is effectively the board for the College of (Basic) Science at LSU. (They are changing the name.) It is so much fun to spend time with these people. One night I hired a professor's husband at a college birthday party because I was explaining a tricky part of medical outcomes and he spotted the gray area in the process. No one had ever seen it before I pointed it out. This guy saw it right away. I knew then that I had to have him. My first mathematician.

I am a bit spoiled in my world because I can test things. It might take a year, but I can evaluate an idea. Most of the time it takes a week, sometimes a long night. The climate guys have horizons that I'm not sure I could work with.

Psychologically that might allow me to not get too attached to an idea, and certainly not have to push too long until I know if it's true. To the contrary I can see where it might be hard for a climatologist to wake up in the middle of the night, like I do, and declare to the ceiling that I have it all wrong. Then design an evaluation while waiting for the coffee to brew. Spoiled, I say.

Shoot me a link to something you're working on. I'd like to know what real systems do these days.


Will Baird said...

Link I can do real fast:

Timeframe? 2025? What's a good restaurant in your neck of the woods? Or would you prefer to suffer in Cali?

I think we'll have 2 or 3 C higher by then.

More later.