Blogs > Liberty and Power > Global Warming and the Scientific Method

Dec 9, 2006 1:57 am

Global Warming and the Scientific Method

One of the best reading experiences I ever had came in the form of The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. In her novel she chronicled the plight of the Norse people living in Greenland as the medieval warm period ended during the 14th century. As it grew colder each passing year fewer ships came to trade and food became more and more scarce. Life degenerated into an absolutely brutal struggle for survival.

Smiley's book is based on historical reality and at the time of both the beginning of this warm period and its end there were no significant amounts of man made carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Yet, climate change with profound consequences occurred and not for the first time in the earth’s history. These periodic shifts in global temperature could have had their origin in any number of phenomenon. Perhaps, small variations in our planet’s orbit, sunspot activity, or alterations in background cosmic radiation effecting cloud cover caused these changes. Moreover, one thing is certain, the climate did not turn back then because people switched from driving gas guzzling SUVs to ethanol powered or electric cars.

In order to believe in Global Warming, and Global Warming is not just about whether it is getting warmer it is about why it is getting warmer, you must believe that the factors which changed the climate in past centuries are not relevant today. This is contrary to the scientific method which requires you to prove your hypothesis by seeking the null. Those calling for action on human induced global warming have not fulfilled this responsibility. Before they start to take people’s jobs away from them, and make no mistake that is their ultimate objective, they need to prove that the present climate change is not caused by orbital variation, sunspots, or cosmic radiation. It is unscientific and immoral for them to be pursuing solutions, to something that more than likely is not causing the problem, irregardless of the consequences to others.

In a piece describing his ambivalence about the idea that climate change is a product of human activity, Sheldon Richman lists some “environmental nightmare scenarios” of dubious value such as overpopulation panic and predictions of resource exhaustion. He then argues, “But a series of bad predictions doesn't mean the latest environmental prediction is necessarily wrong. For one thing, atmospheric scientists who warn about climate change are not necessarily the same people who warned about overpopulation and resource depletion.” However, many of these same atmospheric scientists did tell us, not so long ago, that human released carbon dioxide would cause a new ice age.

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E. Simon - 12/14/2006

At the expense of looking past your warning against "believ(ing)" in global warming at the expense of "think(ing) about it", I can only reply by pointing out - once again - that degrees of correlation between certain variables are still relevant to "think(ing) about" such things, even if you saw fit to clip that incredibly important point out of your quotation of me.

Electric blankets and thermonuclear explosions are both correlated with heat. Nevertheless, we don't conflate both things in some kind of reductio ad absurdum, as if to do otherwise would betray thinking and instead favor the promotion of mere beliefs about such correlations, as if the actual, relevant distinctions between them didn't matter.

Keith Halderman - 12/13/2006

You write "past experience allows humans to overcome their inability to predict with absolutely certainty." But, we have past experience with global warming without the release of significant amounts of man made carbon dioxide. It is so much easier to believe in Global Warming than it is to think about it.

E. Simon - 12/12/2006

That about sums up your approach in this post.

I suppose it is also immoral to prevent a manufacturer of poisons to poison someone, since it can't be proved with absolute certainty that the poison will work. But deduction and past experience allows humans to overcome their inability to predict with absolutely certainty future events with degrees of likelihood nonetheless, through such things as common sense - even when it comes to carbon dioxide and past experiences regarding its heat capacity. Physical constants are funny like that.

Your third paragraph doesn't make much sense, and it is hard to even see what kind of a point you're trying to make. The null hypothesis claims that two things are not related. Moving to point out that a currently hypothesized correlation outweighs other, similar correlations is simply a matter of possessing a sense of numerical literacy and statistical probability - things with which philosophical absolutists tend to be ill acquainted.

Keith Halderman - 12/10/2006

A cynical person might say that they learned that you can no longer scare people into giving you money and power with a new ice age when temperatures begin to rise.

Sheldon Richman - 12/9/2006

Thanks. But point stands. Those climatologists could have learned something in the time that has passed. Scientific knowledge grows, one hopes. That they were wrong about cooling doesn't of course mean they are wrong about heating. We're still left to examine the particular case and its evidence.

Keith Halderman - 12/9/2006

Yes, I do not have any specific names for you at the moment but when it was first discussed the Greenhouse Effect was proported to block the Sun's rays thereby cooling the earth. The dire predictions all involved a new ice age.

As late as 1989 I took a course in physical geography at the University of South Florida and when the textbook addressed the topic of the Greenhouse Effect it took the position that scientists were unclear whether solar radiation was blocked leading to cooling or trapped leading to warming. Also, remember that according to satellite data temperatures were actually declining until 1998.

Andrew D. Todd - 12/9/2006

Correction: that should be the bishop of Trondheim (Nidaros), not Tromso

Andrew D. Todd - 12/9/2006

Well instead of relying overmuch on Jane Smiley, I would be inclined to turn to Vilhjalmur Stefansson, _Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic_

The Amazon link below is to a paperback reprint, but the book was published about 1940. The "mysteries" are broadly about how highly educated white men could have been dumb enough to starve when any Eskimo could see that there was plenty of food. Stefansson had years of Arctic experience, apart of course from being an Icelandic-American, who had grown up in a culturally Scandinavian rural prairie environment. He has to be considered one of the two or three great men of early Arctic Studies, along with Franz Boaz. His writing is informed not only by a firm command of Scandinavian languages, but by a sense of having been there, and done that.

As Stefansson points out, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that the Greenlanders went native by small increments, with no particular fuss. As he points out, the way to live well in the Arctic is to hunt polar bears and seals. Polar bears, like sharks, are accustomed to being predators, so finding a polar bear is not a major difficulty. The difficulty lies in putting it down, giving the bear its quietus. Here a steel crossbow of typical medieval European type must have been a valuable tool. The one obvious threat the Greenlanders faced was English pirates. Englishmen had been fishing off the Grand Banks since an indeterminate date, either early fifteenth century or before. As Stefansson points out, the surviving records are those of the King of Norway, and the Bishop of Tromso (or rather the copies sent to the Vatican). What was actually happening might have been something like an English incursion.;s=books

Sheldon Richman - 12/9/2006

"However, many of these same atmospheric scientists did tell us, not so long ago, that human released carbon dioxide would cause a new ice age."

Are they really the same?