Not So Polite Dinner Conversation – The slow slow progress of science

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It seems I spend a lot of time trying to explain to my relatives how the scientific method works: observation/idea which creates a hypothesis, which is either confirmed or disproven by observation/experimentation and if proven, becomes a theory (a great explanation in more detail here).  A theory, in this case, in the scientific sense, isn’t just an idea you’ve pulled out of your ass, like purple polka-dotted furry sentient fruit orbit Alpha Centauri, but something confirmed by facts.  Theories can be adjusted to account for new facts.  Damn few things are called “laws”, like the “law of gravitation”; they seem to only get that moniker when it’s pretty damn obvious that gravity isn’t going to up and change or say the laws of thermodynamics aren’t going to change.  No sane individual will willingly pick up a white-hot bar of steel in their bare hand on the assumption that heat exchange will magically not work that time.  It’s very hard to get religious people to understand that this is what they essentially try to make believe in, to pretend that the things that they depend on everyday will magically stop if they want it to, by contacting their god.  

Unfortunately, it’s not only theists who can take their time coming around to facts.  It can be done though, with enough work on both the part of the skeptic and those around them. It’s often very long, very hard work even with scientists. No wonder it’s taken so long to get this far. 

Dr. Richard A. Muller, often touted climate change skeptic, has changed his mind thanks to research and looking at the facts. He now thinks that climate change does exist and it is largely due to mankind’s activities. But not after doing as much damage as one man could by doing his part to further delay any action against such climate change.  He did this by having a opinion, based on a dispute about the use of mathematical techniques and letting everyone know it. If he had a question, I would have thought he could have said “I don’t know enough about the data, so I’ll get back do you when I do.” and that would have been that.  Unfortunately, he didn’t and ended up in bed with climate change deniers, like the Koch brothers who are notorious for sticking their heads in the sand when its convenient and supporting things like PBS’s NOVA series when its not.  Their picking and choosing of what science to support is quite like creationists when they want to enjoy the benefits of science but then attack it when it dares to show their dearly held myths to be utterly wrong. 

Dr. Muller claims that he still doesn’t believe some claims about the effects of climate change. Vague claims of research about claims that aren’t mentioned mean nothing especially when put up against his own words about the details of his research that convinced him that climate change is almost totally man-caused.  I’d like to see both sets of evidence. He says that “It’s a scientist’s duty to be properly skeptical.” but he sure was not that when he became the darling of those who would prefer to ignore science.  He speaks of “Moreover, our analysis does not depend on large, complex global climate models, the huge computer programs that are notorious for their hidden assumptions and adjustable parameters.” as if he’s just discovered something special, when anyone who knows anything about computer models knows that they are useful for those *exact* reasons.  What?  We can adjust the model to account for reality observed?  Whodathunk? Ahem…… And he declares that “Hurricane Katrina cannot be attributed to global warming.” which is again nothing new to those who actually study climate change.  No climatologist will claim one event is evidence of it, no matter how much those ignorant about the discipline might wish that they did.  Indeed a lot of the public, anti-science groups like oh, the Institute for Creation Research and some parts of the conservative political movement might claim that individual events (yep, when they pointed to a blizzard winter as “proof” that global warming was “wrong”! A pity that such people forget that we humans have recording media) were signs and portents but the scientific method doesn’t work like that. For Dr. Muller to say he doesn’t believe “claims” about global warming and seem to conflate the nonsense by conspiracy theorist and anti-science forces with claims supported by actual science, it seems almost like a strawman argument. 

Dr. Muller goes on to claim that “The number of hurricanes hitting the United States has been going down, not up; likewise for intense tornadoes. Polar bears aren’t dying from receding ice, and the Himalayan glaciers aren’t going to melt by 2035.”  This show him making the error that certain events and not unpredictability are the markers of climate changes; and also making the error of not supporting his claims with data.  Dr. Muller, where is your evidence that polar bears aren’t drowning from receding ice, that they aren’t starving from the inability to hunt?  Can you show that the number of hurricanes “not hitting the United States” as opposed to the number of them total is more important (it only seems to show a vanity for your own country)? For instance 2007 had a very low number of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, but what did form included two category 5 systems.  Was this not notable since it didn’t hit the US but “only” the YucatanPeninsula?  And perhaps not all of the glaciers in the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2025 but golly, Greenland is certainly showing signs of unusual melting, as are other glaciers other places.  You were right when you said “Misinformation can do real harm, because it distorts predictions.” when you were speaking about “breaking” the “hockey stick”, but it seems you weren’t taking your own advice. 

I’m glad that the scientific method has changed Dr. Muller’s mind about climate change.  A wise man can always change his mind given evidence.  However, it still seems that Dr. Muller hedges his acceptance with weak excuses.  This may be due to his funders, always a danger, or that he may still have some honest questions but doesn’t present them well.  I’d love to see him address the data sets used for the “hockey stick” graph that he had issues with earlier to see what his BEST methodology indicates now. I hope he does address all of this in the future with the same thoroughness as he evinced with the BEST project.   

For the record, no I don’t have a Ph.D. nor am I a “genius”. Being either doesn’t mean one is perfect.  One doesn’t have to be a chef to know when something’s a bit off in the soup.

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2 responses to “Not So Polite Dinner Conversation – The slow slow progress of science

  1. I’ve been wondering something: if God ever did intervene in the natural world, (how) would we know? Theists make the case that they would just…know (by virtue of their faith and not by any particular piece of evidence or line of reasoning). What if God has already intervened in the natural world and…I don’t know… maybe chose to make the duality of light as we now know it? As soon as God manipulates the laws of the natural world, those “new” natural laws become new pieces of evidence for us to study and using the tools of science, we would simply adjust our models and equations to accommodate the changes made by God so as to update our understanding of the laws of the universe.

    • that is one of the problems with religious belief. How can one define the actions of a god (or even define “god”)? How could one tell where the new laws stopped and others started? Say someone claims that it was some god’s action that accounted for the sudden ability of light being able to escape the “cosmic fog” of the early universe rather than gravity and thermodynamics. We have what is hand-waving magic (god makes things happen with no need for physical laws) or we have a theory that takes into account the observed physics of the univers and is consistent with them. This theory also fits with the science you use everyday in comfortable modern life. The other, well, no one has any evidence for this god acting at all.

      The second problem is how do you tell which god is responsible? Theists of every stripe are sure that it could only be *theirs*. Considering that even Christians can’t agree on what their god “really” wants, it gets even worse when you start looking at other religions.

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