“Plenty of scientists,” climate change and the burden of scientific proof.

Friday, I had an interesting debate with a frequent reader of mine about global climate change. She doesn’t happen to subscribe to the theory, herself. And as is usually the case, the majority of the debate centered around the burden of proof for climate change. Namely: that “plenty of scientists” find fault with some or all of the theory. Therefore, the thinking goes, we need to wait for unanimous consensus on the issue before we can accept it as reality.

This brings up a fundamental point about science and the scientific method: all scientists – let alone all studies – do not need to agree for the studies and the overall theory to still be valid within their own purviews. What proves or disproves both a theory and a study is the preponderance of evidence.

In order for a study to be considered valid, it must:

  1. Pose a valid question.
  2. Based on research, formulate a hypothetical answer to that question.
  3. Construct an experiment aimed at testing that hypothesis.
  4. Reach a reasonable conclusion based on the results of that experiment – whether it proves or disproves the hypothesis.
  5. Communicate those findings, in detail, to the wider scientific community in a way that allows others to perform the same test and reach the same conclusion.

That last bit is really critical. That is the portion called “peer review,” and it is the cornerstone of the scientific method. Without it, we could all believe and say whatever we want without proof that any statement in science was valid.

However, it is entirely possible that a given hypothesis may disagree with an over-arching theory while both the theory and hypothesis are correct. The hypothesis may be too narrowly drawn to gain real insight into the theory. Or the hypothesis may reveal a ripple in the overall fabric of our world, while not specifically discounting the larger theory. It may just be an anomaly or an interesting exception.

And scientists, being good scientists, are unwilling to disbelieve their own studies, especially when they’ve received peer reviews. When a scientist discovers something that is peer reviewed as falid, that may lead him to believe that the larger theory is false. It is both noble and necessary for that individual scientist to hang on to and stand by his findings.

But when the preponderance of evidence – all of it as peer reviewed as the dissenting study – points in another direction, logic dictates that we have a high degree of certainty that this other direction is the correct one. Even if or perhaps especially if there are dissenting voices.

This is an important if easily confused point when science enters the political sphere. Fox News or any number of other sources can trot out a “scientist who disagrees with global warming,” but it’s possible neither he nor the theory are incorrect. One guy disagreeing with the group does not disprove a theory. And no matter how much we may all admire individualism, the pioneering spirit without facts that overwhelm conventional thought isn’t a rebel. It isn’t a brave voice of reason. It’s just one more dissenting voice, which valid or not, hasn’t done enough to prove itself. To present these voices as anything grander is just obfuscation for the benefit of a political persuasion. Not real science at all.

Which isn’t to say that real science does not often start from one minority voice, dissenting against common wisdom. But there is a threshold that must be observed.

The hero of the anti-climate science crowd would almost certainly be the Giant Impact Theory of our moon’s creation. As far back as 1898, George Darwin (fifth son of Chuckie) theorized that the moon was actually made of the same material as the Earth. But there had never been a shred of evidence to support it. And without evidence, the theory was mocked as preposterous. Believers of this theory were in a slim minority and dissenters in the scientific community.

In the 1960’s, it was theorized that another planetoid object in the early Solar System which was called Theia struck the Earth and the shattered debris of both the Earth and Theia eventually accreted as the moon. Again without a shred of evidence, most of the community laughed at this theory.

It wasn’t until the Apollo 11 moon rocks could be analyzed that the truth finally came out. Whatever the cause, the moon and Earth absolutely do share an unmistakeable common composition. Down to specific isotopes of oxygen and titanium. Here, finally, was the evidence that long-dead George Darwin needed to have proved his theory. And interestingly, the similarities between moon rocks and Earth materials is so similar and evidence of foreign rock so non-existent that science now believes that the impact theory may still be wrong, if we have not yet come up with a better hypothesis.

All of which means George Darwin may have been right an the Giant Impact Theory may still be wrong. Importantly – and this really is s the critical bit – George was not proven right simply by his absence of belief in prevailing theory. His minority status within the scientific community also did not prove him right. Eventually, had facts on his side.

It may soon turn out that the current theory of climate change is entirely wrong. It may turn out that, once a real question is raised, climate science like classical physics may go the way of the dinosaur. But so far, that is not a position climate science deniers have found themselves in.

Science VIDEO

Carnegie boffin calculates the benefits of a low-carbon society, and the answer sucks.

Stewardship is hard. Like, really, really hard. And let’s face it: Americans have to have a gun pointed at them in order to deal with anything this hard.

Ken Caldiera at the Carnegie Institution for Science was approached by a science writer with a relatively straightforward question: if we got off our coal-burning, wasteful, polluting methods of energy production, how long before we felt the benefits of that change? The numbers suck.

In order to do anything that might be considered “repairing” the damage done by fossil fuels, we would basically need to completely eradicate coal burning technologies. And if we did that, we might start seeing the benefits somewhere around half a century from now.

Sleep tight. You can watch the video here.

Politics Science

The trouble with scientists: climate change edition

A leopard, they say, never changes his spots. And scientists? Well, scientists tend to take their own research fairly seriously. Its a critical flaw in using scientists when you want to disprove reality.

So the Koch brothers discovered when they set about disproving global climate change by hiring a physicist who had questions about the research methodologies used in previous climate science research. Richard Muller, a physicist from UC Berkley, had questions about the ranges of data and calculations used by his fellow scientists. That’s not the same thing as a rabid, virulent hate of his fellow scientists or a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels in irresponsible fashion, but that’s an easy mistake to make, I suppose.

The Koch brothers paid for Muller’s research, in which he actually used one of the largest sets of data ever used to test the hypothesis of global climate change. Muller was even able to use data sets previously deemed unusable by previous studies. The man can be credited with a very positive addition to the field of study, for sure.

He just wasn’t able to come up with proof of a fraud. In fact:

Koch brothers accidentally fund study that proves global warming –

In the end, the team’s result shows that the earlier studies “were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate-change skeptics did not seriously affect” the conclusions these studies reached, said Dr. Muller, who some climate activists have labeled a global-warming skeptic.

Of course, the inefficacy of prior research is not the only intellectual hidie-hole available to climate science skeptics. Not by a long shot. Already, the elite of deniers – those that clapped Dr. Muller on the back heartily in the past – are already retreating to their second firewall: that if global warming is happening, that doesn’t prove that humans have anything to do with it. Observe the carefully-crafted statement by one former Sen. James Inhofe aide:

Climate Change Deniers Abandon ‘Befuddled Warmist’ Physicist Who Came Around On Global Warming :

“[T]he climate debate has not centered on whether the Earth has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age about 1850 or since the 1950s. The climate debate is about how much humans may or may not be contributing to the warming trend,” Morano wrote Friday, calling Muller a “befuddled warmist.”

Ah! So we’ve gone all the way back to 1850, have we? Effectively prior to the full-swing of the Industrial Revolution in the Americas, well done. But the study specifically measures the change in temperature since the 50’s, which has always been the benchmark.

But this is the trouble with mixing denial with science: sooner or later, science will ferret out the truth. And while no two experiments are exactly alike and not all methodologies are necessarily created equal, science does have a few bedrock principles that make all science relatable. And while one study does not automatically validate another, when studies that have been previously used to cross-check each other are found to be reliable, it makes ditching one “inconvenient truth” out of a handful much more difficult.

I would liken it to the Intelligent Design crowd and their insulting concepts. If you want to believe that the Bible (or Koran or Talmud or whatever) is the be-all of truth – that no truth exists but that which is confirmed in your religious handbook of choice – you are OK to do that. If you want to believe that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth – that no truth exists which cannot be measured and reproduced – you’re OK to do that as well. And if you believe, as I do, that faith tells its own truths and science its own – that these are different truths and different disciplines of thought that do not require either harmony or dissonance between them – I think you’re OK to believe that as well.

What is genuinely not OK in my book is the idea that you can take just *some* of the facts provided by science – air travel, your computer, penicillin spring to mind – while abandoning other facts that are derived from the very same Scientific Principle, but which are inconsistent with your world view, as simply “mysteries.” That is intellectually dishonest in the extreme.


Wow. Way to Go, Vegas!

I don’t often say the above without being sarcastic, but I guess Las Vegas is owed a bit more respect after Earth Hour. Check out the before and after photography of Earth Hour, the hour when we were all supposed to have turned our lights off in solidarity against climate change. There are photos from all over the globe, from Jakarta to Las Vegas. . . and Las Vegas’ participation is impressive.

We participated at my house, did you?