Recent issues of the North Star and Beacon Star have carried letters to the editor that strike me as more interested in advancing a favoured position than contributing to the discussion. I won’t offer an opinion on the subject of the letters except to provide a bit of perspective on science and how it works.
The letters seem to be a debate between English majors or perhaps Political Science majors. Political Science has much less to do with science than it does politics. Politics are perfect fodder for debate, there really isn’t any right or wrong, just an argument, or election, to be won or lost.
The process of science when practiced properly is reasonably well-defined. Credit for the process goes back to the 17th Century and Sir Francis Bacon. The following excerpt from Wikipedia captures Bacon’s contribution to the process of science and the empirical approach to knowledge.
Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.
The scientific method briefly summarized, once again from Wikipedia, is presented as:
The overall process of the scientific method involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments based on those predictions. An hypothesis is a conjecture, based on knowledge obtained while formulating the question. The hypothesis might be very specific or it might be broad. Scientists then test hypotheses by conducting experiments. Under modern interpretations, a scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, implying that it is possible to identify a possible outcome of an experiment that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, the hypothesis cannot be meaningfully tested.
The key point is not taking observations and measurements and generating a hypothesis (global temperatures are rising and man is the cause, or global temperatures are not rising and there is no further issue), rather it’s the critical step of testing the hypothesis to see if it holds true with repeated measurements and tests. If it doesn’t hold up, the hypothesis needs to be scrapped or revised. And if it holds up it generally continues to be tested for consistency or refinement. Many hypotheses have been proven untrue years after their first proposal and wide acceptance, and others have been proven true years after they have been rejected as unreasonable because of insufficient evidence, or when they didn’t easily fit in with generally held public beliefs.
It is much harder to prove than disprove a hypothesis. That’s sort of the creationist’s strategy with respect to the theory of evolution. Note that it’s referred as the theory of evolution, not the law of evolution as is the case with the law of the conservation of energy. If the creationists can show there is a single missing fossil in the evolutionary chain they can claim the theory is wrong, in its entirety. But of course the creationists are yet to provide any proof whatsoever for their hypothesis that mankind was placed on this planet in his/her present form a few thousand years ago. But because there is still no unassailable proof for evolution it remains a theory and certain individuals and groups reject the idea and refuse to allows its discussion and teaching. Perhaps they are right, there is basically no evidence to support their position of divine creation but the alternative position of mankind being the product of evolution from lower lifeforms is not without unanswered questions so it can be argued there is no ‘correct’ answer. If nothing is right, then of course the argument can be made that nothing is wrong.
Good science is typically based on observation, experiment and statistics. All three are critical for not being misled by events that arise by mere chance. There are some theories that are hard to test directly, or are unethical. We can’t from a practical or ethical basis increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to see if there is a change in the environment that might prove whether human industry is contributing to climate. And we can’t practically reduce carbon dioxide levels in the air and see if this lowers temperatures and reverses whatever climate change is being experienced.
But is the earth even experiencing climate change? Well that can only be determined through precise longterm experiments that are subjected to rigorous statistical analysis. That’s pretty much where we are right now. Many scientists believe there is statistical data to support a warming planet hypothesis. Others argue the information is insufficient to support the argument.
And even if there is agreement that global warming is occurring and causing climate change there is the question of whether industrialization is contributing to the warming. Perhaps it’s a natural earth, or solar effect that we can’t influence in any way. Possible, but it seems that there is considerable, though not conclusive, evidence to suggest that if global warming is real it may well be a result of industrialization. But perhaps the earth really isn’t warming, and perhaps industrialization is actually cooling off the earth.
Science can be wrong, witness the excitement of cold fusion that was pretty quickly debunked, or the presumed link between vaccinations and autism. That last hypothesis had a pretty good run before it was proven false. Scientists get as much pleasure from proving a hypothesis is false as proving their own pet idea is true. This provides a needed oversight on scientists and their conjectures. But one typical cold winter in Parry Sound doesn’t prove climate change is wrong, nor does a scorching hot summer prove it is right.
Science can identify trends and form hypotheses with a reasonable degree of confidence long before they are proven to the satisfaction of all. This has it’s pros and cons. For example the hypothesis was put forward in the 19th century that surgical and obstetrical deaths were a result of some sort of infective organism that was being spread through medical procedures. The suggestion was made that simple cleaning procedures could reduce the rate of infection and death. The idea had strong evidence, but it wasn’t conclusive, and it required a change in common medical practice. It took a couple of decades, with presumably millions of avoidable deaths in the interim, before the concept of transmissible infectious disease was accepted and appropriate procedures were adopted to minimize their spread.
The same is true for the link between smoking and cancer. Despite early evidence it took decades before there was acceptance of the link and public health measures were implemented to discourage smoking and reduce the incidence of cancer. There were many strong arguments made that the connection was not really definitive and that smoking was safe. Many of these arguments were made of course by an industry that profited from smokers, the more the better. So how many people suffered and died because they were assured by smoking advocates that it was safe and that the scientific evidence was not conclusive?
And there is the story of DDT and dioxin contamination in the environment. Strong indications of a problem were ignored for years because the evidence was not definitive and the implied remedies were expensive.
So is the earth warming up and are we facing climate change? A good question.
There seems to be strong evidence that the earth is warming at an unnatural rate. But the evidence is not definitive, more time and effort is required to collect sufficient data to prove or disprove the hypothesis. But where is there conclusive evidence to prove the earth isn’t warming, that it is staying ‘cool’? It’s a bit like the creationist argument. Unless you can definitively, conclusively, prove that man evolved from a less developed creature, it’s not true. In the meantime we will choose to believe that man was created in the form we see him now. In the absence of definitive proof we prefer to rely on faith rather than incomplete evidence.
It’s worth looking at the commercial interests arguing the merits of global warming and climate change. The tobacco companies spent considerable money, time and lobbying effort to refute the link between smoking and lung cancer. It was their business to do so. And it was the business of scientists, physicians and health professionals to ensure public health. In this case the lobbying against global warming is largely led by the energy industry and countries that have economic interests in producing energy sources that might lead to global warming. Are they defending a belief that is based on science and good conscience or are they acting as the tobacco industry did for decades to protect their economic interests?
When looking at ‘science’ based arguments it’s helpful to follow the money. Who makes the most money in proving a theory to be right, or wrong?
As I was revising this post for the last time I read a news item that reported the US Senate yesterday voted 98 to 1 to agree that climate change is real. They did not agree that the cause could be laid at the feet of humankind, failing to provide the necessary 60 votes for approval. This is politics rather than science but suggests that perhaps politicians are starting to listen to the scientific evidence presented by scientists and not just the arguments presented by lobbyists.
So This is Global Warming? (Parry Sound in Black & White)