Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Climate Day at Boing-Boing

It seems to be climate change day over at the ever-worthwhile internet digest Boing-Boing.  Guest blogger Charles Pratt quite knowingly opened a can of worms this morning with a series of posts on "Climatic Heresy", that is to say questioning "the interdisciplinary scientific consensus on the reality of deadly human-caused climate change", as Cory Doctorow puts it in one of a series of refutations.  Boing-Boing's ideological eclecticism and tolerance of dissenting views are pretty atypical for the blogosphere.

I'm not going to delve deep into this issue here, as there are far more who write about it far better than I could, but I do want to address again this idea of scientific consensus, which Doctorow expressed so stridently.  Firstly, science simply does not work by consensus.  To borrow an example from the late Michael Crichton, one would never say "the scientific consensus is that the Sun is about 93 million miles from the Earth".  It just sounds wrong, because we know intuitively that science doesn't work that way.  Secondly, I can't even fathom the cognitive dissonance of someone who praises great scientific pioneers like Galileo and Copernicus while shouting down all skeptics, saying "we've reached a consensus, the science is settled, no alternative hypotheses are worthy of examination".

5 comments:

Shane said...

Can of worms, indeed. Man I wish my own blog weren't broken. OH WELL IT'S TIME FOR LONG COMMENTS ON MY FRIENDS' BLOGS THEN.

I stay out of most debates concerning climate change or evolution because 95% of the commentators involved have never read Thomas Kuhn or the other heavyweights in the discipline of the philosophy of science.

To paint science as some sort of pursuit of truth is naive at best. I'm a bit of an instrumentalist in my own belief about science and reality, but you have to agree that we often find use in science we know not to be true. Newtonian mechanics are an excellent model for calculating, say, ballistics or automotive engineering. But we know that reality is more complex than that. If you can't doublethink then you probably aren't an effective scientist, and you almost definitely aren't an effective engineer. In electrical engineering, the "direction" of current is from positive to negative, even though all electrical engineers understand that the physical phenomenon is electrons moving the opposite direction.

If you compare the sun-centered solar system to the earth-centered solar system theories of Galileo's day, you'll find that Galileo's theory was more complex with no greater accuracy. Basically there was no reason for it, except that it paved the way for elliptical orbits for Kepler and others.

The thing is, science really is just philosophy with a consensus. Look at the birth of physics, geometry, algebra, calculus, etc. Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Adam Smith, Descartes, Darwin, and Einstein considered themselves philosophers as they invented their famous theories. Once there was a consensus, it stopped being philosophy and became a scientific discipline.

In regards to Climate change, it is actually quite easy to doubt the absolute accuracy of the consensus climate models. The problem comes when there is no real reason to prefer another similarly detailed model. It's like having the plurality vote without having the majority.

The real interesting thing is why people seem to really avoid the following views:

-Climate change is human-caused and bad, but the costs of preventing it are greater than the costs of it happening
-Climate change is human-caused and bad, but it's already too late and there's nothing we can do to stop it
-Climate change is human-caused and good
-Climate change is not caused by humans, but it is bad and (cost-effectively) preventable by humans
-Climate change is not caused by humans, it is not bad, but human engineering of climate is possible and will make things even better
-Climate change is caused by humans and is good

It's like people like to believe that anything caused by humans can be fixed by humans, and anything not caused by humans can't be fixed by humans. Also, some people believe that only natural is good, and artificial is bad. As if when we ultimately colonize Mars that will be in any way "natural."

Seriously though I need to get my own blog fixed.

Evan said...

I need to re-read Kuhn.

I once heard someone make a comparison of climate science to economics. Both are heavily invested in using modeling to predict the behavior of very complex systems, many parts of which are exceedingly well-understood on the micro level, but which on the macro level are affected by factors we may not even know about. It strikes me as an apt comparison. Also in both cases politicians, activists, and the media pretend to far greater understanding and certainty than the scientists themselves generally do.

I really like your analysis of the various unspoken interpretations. That really is the most interesting part about it. In the end, the most important question, the unpopular question that nobody wants to really wrestle with (except Bjorn Lomborg), is whether our efforts are better spent trying to reverse climate change (no matter what's causing it) or focusing on development so that people are less vulnerable to climate events, no matter what they turn out to be.

Evan said...

I'm crossposting this from my Facebook comments. LB says:

I would agree, except that in the days of Copernicus and Galileo there was no science as we know it today, rather it was a position that was taken by the church who had in turn taken it from Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Ptolomy, who unlike the scientists of today based their theories on pure intuitive logic and not through observation. lacking the tools developed by Galileo, namely the telescope, people did not have a way to make observations. also unlike galileo, today we have a army of scientists who's job it is to refute or confirm, people smarter than me. but the thing about science is, like every group of people, also have their nutjobs, such as Edison, who near his death was trying to make a device to talk to the people in his head. the point is, that I don't tell the pilot how to fly the plane, I won't tell scientists how to do their job either.

hope that's the dialog you wanted.

Evan said...

Well, Galileo and Copernicus were just the first names that came to mind. You're right, in their cases, there was no science, only natural philosophy, and that was generally a monopoly of the church of the time. But there are better modern examples as well, things like germ theory or plate tectonics. There is consensus on these things now, to the point that it seems strange to think of a time when they were radical ideas (less than a generation ago, in the case of plate tectonics). My main point is that when someone asks "well, how do we really KNOW that the earth's crust is composed of floating plates?", the natural response is to start citing examples of all the evidence that supports the proposition. Nobody would ever simply respond "there's a scientific consensus in support of it, so it's foolish to be skeptical". It's that aspect of the climate debate that just gives me an eerie feeling.

Big Doofus said...

If science says it, I believe it.