Sometimes I hate my newsreader

dunce by cogdogblog

Climate and network connections
[Via RealClimate]

by Rasmus & Jim

Who would think that Internet, ideas, disease, money, birds, and climate literacy have anything in common? Recent progress on complex systems and network theory suggests that they all can be described in terms of a ‘Levy flight‘. A recent and lengthy paper with the title ‘A study on interconnections between climate related ideas in complex networks’ (Ann. Trans. ICCPRS Soc. 52(3):1647-71; subscription required) by John McVenus argues that new ideas can be traced over the Internet just like dollar bills are traced at Wheresgeorge. Our take on this is that this study muddles things more than clarifying the facts – probably because McVenus tries to explain almost everything.

Random walks (RW) may have a much wider applicability than just describing climatic processes (see ‘Naturally trendy?‘). Recent progress on complex systems and nonlinear network information theory suggests that many information transfer and evolution processes exhibit characteristics that are effectively modeled by RW or its variants. These concepts can help us to understand the transmission and evolution of ideas in science, particularly when an extensive communication network (i.e. the internet) is a dominant communication medium, as it very much is today, and probably will be for some time.

There is, in particular, one type of random walk known as a “Levy flight“, which is simply a walk in which a highly skewed distribution of step distances leads to a small percentage of steps that are much larger than average (“jumps” or “flights”), altering the system state rather abruptly. Such behaviour can be studied with methods such as the agent-based approach for describing the spread of disease and meta-population models, but are used in McVenus to describe how information travels. Similar “agent-based” approaches are also used for example, in ecology for the modeling of metapopulation dynamics and the spread of diseases and wildfires.


This report showed up in my news aggregator with a date of March 31, so I felt safe. Plus it mentioned Levy flights, which I had just run across yesterday. Wow, such a weird term but it must be becoming more relevant because I have seen it used twice in two days.

So I settled down to read the rest of this very long post. But I got slowly and slowly more confused with the article.

After briefly laying out some conceptual and mathematical bases for Levy flight behavior and analysis, McVenus gets quickly to details. He begins a long litany of interesting examples with the recently proposed idea that orbital patterns in Jupiter and Saturn can in fact affect the solar center of mass, which in turn influences the level of solar activity, and hence the climate.

The McVenus paper also cites a small group in Norway which argues that changes in the moon’s orbit affects the climate though changes in ocean circulation, sea-ice cover, and hence the climate. This group coordinates a project called ‘Luna-Ticks’, and is interested in the idea of Jupiter and Saturn. But nobody has ever seen a Jupiter-tide or Saturn-tide here on Earth, and hence, they fear that critics convincingly will argue that the effect of the planets is pretty weak. But they really do like the idea, and instead proposed that the general principle could be translated to the moon and its measurable effect here on Earth. Everything but greenhouse gases, they argue, affects our climate.

Some bloggers have dubbed the process through which such arguments spread as ‘dispersion of confusion‘, which does not follow a simple diffusion law, but exhibits strange characteristics in addition to distant leaps in space. In addition to spreading, the ideas also change over time, morphing into new concepts, according to the McVenus paper.

While much more investigation into this topic is needed to get any sort of reasonable estimate of when and exactly how such conditions might be important, from an information flow analysis perspective, it is a fairly easy trace from there to therecent proclamation that astronomical alignments (astrology) can cause the climate to change, however strangely misguided such a pronouncement may be. Fair and straightforward enough; a good choice of examples with which to illustrate McVenus’ overall approach. But from here things start to get more complex–and highly interesting–pretty quickly.


McVenus further proposes that there is also a wealth of information to derive from all the “gates” and network analysis, because their number is rather limited and their identification is easy. Usually, a “gate” is a label telling the media to start a hype, being proposed by someone with limited imagination. But there are exceptions to this rule, such as “Colgate”. This notion also exists in plural form, such as “Billgates”.

The recent “Cowgate” appears to be a highly noteworthy Levy flight example. However, the gender of this gate turned out to be wrong – it later turned out really to be a “Bullgate”. It was traced by McVenus back to its press source via a principal system node in the propagation and evolution (usually via catastrophic mutation) of multiple climate science ideas at a web site called ‘the Gate Depot’.

It was here I completely flipped over to WTF mode. I had a sly idea and clicked to read the article itself online so I could see the online date. Which turned out to be April 1, 2010.

Pretty sly to screw with those of us who read the website through an RSS feed. Date the April fool’s article with March 31. Then you have a double April Fool’s gag. Luckily for my self-esteem, I figured this out before I got to this paragraph:

This node represents what McVenus calls (using the slanderous invective of scientists, which has generated 99% of the bad blood in public discussions) “a mad man with an affinity for black listing”. The language here is unfortunate, even if the idea sleuthing is still first rate. And speaking of bloodsucking and bad blood, we apparently now have a ´Draculagate‘, fresh from the Gate Depot. But here we note that McVenus may have misinterpreted things slightly. Is that really the blood bank Dracula is in charge of, or is he rather just caught up fang-deep in ketchup? Where’s the photographic, or even metaphoric, evidence? What’s up with that? Caution is urged; the analysis is good but not without errors.

One thought on “Sometimes I hate my newsreader

  1. Yeah, I was scratching my head at first too. Then I noticed that I was “secretly” linked to in the article!

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