A Few Things Ill Considered

Am I a hypocrite?

A frequent commenter on many of my "How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic" articles has just taken me to task for what he sees as revealing inconsistencies.

‘paul’, who is generally respectful but still very antagonistic to the whole AGW concept, quotes me from various places saying at one time "The translation of what the science is
saying into the language of the public is this: Global warming is
definitely happening and it is definitely because of human activities and
it will definitely continue as long as CO2 keeps rising in the atmosphere." and in other places saying or agreeing with the phrases "still theory" and "no proof that it is correct" as descriptors of the whole proposition.

He concludes "such verbal gymnastics are only required when one
has to avoid having to state the plain truth."

While I think the argument is specifically addressed right in the article he quotes me from, I will expand on that a bit and see if I can satisfy paul’s concerns.


At face value, the quoted material does seem to be at odds. "Still theory" and "no proof" hardly makes one feel definitive about anything. The key is in the context, because words rarely have meanings that are defined strictly enough so that context does not matter. Science is all about theories. Nuclear physics is just a bunch of theories, but I would "definately" not stand on top of a Hydrogen bomb about to be detonated. Orbital mechanics is a bunch of theory, and with known problems too, but we still predict the motions of our probes with astounding accuracy (view that wonder in high resolution JPG here).

Clearly the vernacular and the scientific usages of the word "theory" simply do not have the same connotations of confidence. A similar comparison can be made for the vernacular understanding of "definate". We all use that word to express a high degree of confidence and it is not necessary to think there is absolutely zero chance of being wrong before saying "definately".

It is revealing to think about why we are even talking in so much detail about the meanings of specific words in specific contexts. Why is there any need for "verbal gymnastics", as paul calls it. The answer, of course, is that the "debate" over anthropogenic global warming is far from a sincere effort to determine the truth about anything, and in such an environment words and phrases are constantly and intentionally twisted and taken out of context. If you know people will be examining everything you say with a fine toothed comb you tend to be careful and sometimes that comes across as (or even becomes) pedantic, evasive or opaque.

It’s a challenge! But I don’t find paul’s criticism of what I have written in this case to be a valid one. There is no proof, but that doesn’t mean there is any doubt!

Comments

  1. #1 jrshipley
    January 13, 2009

    Paul seems to be confused about the nature of scientific inquiry. Scientific methods cannot ever “prove” a proposition in the sense of logical or mathematical proof, yielding absolute certainty. It’s basically moving the goalposts to demand “proof” of a scientific theory.

    Climatologists have not in that sense proven their theory. They have gathered a great deal of evidence. Furthermore, the claim that human emitted greenhouse gasses are changing the climate is supported by basic thermodynamics: the phenomenon of “black body radiation”. That CO2 emissions change the climate is predicted by what we know from laboratory physics and climatologists have amassed a great deal of evidence that this prediction is being confirmed outside of the lab.

    I would not put things to Paul in terms of “absolutely no doubt”, but then I’m a philosopher and ever wary of Cartesian demons. I would put the point like this. A medical experiment requires informed consent. We know enough about our CO2 emissions to know that we are performing a massive experiment on the natural world and its human population. Some outcomes are more predictable than others. If Paul’s point is just that more is unpredictable than predictable, how does he morally justify subjecting billions of people to an experiment without informed consent?

  2. #2 Crakar14
    January 14, 2009

    jrshirpley, you do raise some interesting points. I agree it is hard to state with absolute conviction that any theory is infact fact. For example Darwins theory of evolution whilst considered to be “the ways things evolve” the theory is still challanged even today by intelligent design.

    I think the question is, how strong is the theory. A theory will begin based on little fact but over a number of years as more evidence is gathered the theory can gain strength to the point were it is accepted as fact although in reality it is still a theory.

    Now if we apply this logic to the AGW theory in question, once a theory is developed it is possible to make predictions of future events, if these future events come to fruition then it is a good indication the theory is correct or at least heading in the right direction.

    jrshirpley, how many IPCC or wannabe scientists predictions have come to fruition? The answer to this question is of course none.

    To me this turn of events would lead us back to the theory and or models used to make said predictions because one or both of these are obviously wrong. They need to be re considered, maybe it is a case of the models exaggerating the effects of C02 for example, in any case these failed predictions indicate that their knowledge of the climate is not at a level high enough to warrant making predictions. Examples are the IPCC is constantly lowering the predicted levels of C02, sea level rise and temp rises etc over the near future years. However regardless of this fact the the scary stories of armageddon continually get published in the media and internet.

    Perhaps rather than focusing on what C02 does to the climate they should spend more time on trying to understand and to what extent other factors have on climate change.

    It would appear that the IPCC have jumped the gun somewhat in that they adopted the theory, then sold it to world governments as fact per se and are now constantly fiddling with the finer details to try to get it to fit in the real world. Unfortunately mother nature is always one step ahead.

    You make the point and i will quote for simplicity

    “We know enough about our CO2 emissions to know that we are performing a massive experiment on the natural world and its human population. Some outcomes are more predictable than others.”

    Do we really know enough? Dont for get the IPCC is making these claims so the onus of proof per se is on them. Refer to my question about inaccurate predictions.

    “If Paul’s point is just that more is unpredictable than predictable, how does he morally justify subjecting billions of people to an experiment without informed consent?

    What experiment, do you mean the one were we have a not so strong theory about C02 causing warming and we are almost certain the perhaps, quite possibly that maybe, if we apply a TAX to every man, woman and child on the planet and destroy economies and if our theory is correct we will drop C02 emmissions which may some time in the future cause the planet to cool. But dont ask us how much it will cool because we really dont understand the climate all that well to begin with.

    In regards to informed consent, i will not give it to you so go find another planet to play with.

    In regards to this statement “He concludes “such verbal gymnastics are only required when one
    has to avoid having to state the plain truth.”

    If think i have already answered that question.

  3. #3 paul
    January 15, 2009

    jr – I’m not confused about the nature of scientific inquiry at all, and I don’t need the difference between a logical proof and the interpretation of the results of an experiment explained to me. And, further, I wasn’t suggesting that climatologists have or haven’t “proven their theory”. My comment isn’t/wasn’t about MY understanding of “proof” or “theory” or whatever, it was about Coby’s – and specifically whether or not two of his statements from different posts could be regarded as consistent when viewed together.

    Sure, we can debate between us exactly when we can say something is so strong as to be considered, for all practical purposes, “proven”, and this is certainly non-trivial and requries case-by-case consideration.

    But Coby can’t debate this with himself – he can’t use phrases like “still theory” and “no proof that it is correct” while simultaneously saying the debate is over, not without distorting the words in use beyond recognition.

    My view – if I may speculate – is that Coby is highly representative of many of those who push AGW, in that he is not evil or stupid, he is just not quite clear on the exact reasons why he “believes” it to be true so strongly and so, rather than step back, he resorts to different viewpoints at different times when pressed. And these different arguments are not consistent, and this should be a red flag. My comments and questions aim to show anyone reading that there is NO self-consistent case for AGW based on current observations. But Coby and others are free to prove me wrong by answering consistently or by pointing out inconsistencies in my own point of view.

    Prove me wrong here by pointing out anything else -anything – about which you can say something like:- it is “definitely happening” and “there is no proof that it is correct”.

    PS. And, while i’m here, I hear this kind of reasoning all the time:

    “Scientific methods cannot ever “prove” a proposition in the sense of logical or mathematical proof, yielding absolute certainty. It’s basically moving the goalposts to demand “proof” of a scientific theory.”

    It’s really easy to say this a a dinner party or in a philosophy lecture, but it’s much harder to find an engineering project / system of any practical use that has any care, need or use for these kind of statements at all. No’one can “prove” mathematically that a plane is not going to crash, but I and many others regularly bet their lives on the fact that it won’t. For the record, I personally think a good definition is: something is “proven” when people will hang their lives or other extremely valuable items on it proving correct. I don’t think the case for or against AGW warrants this yet.

  4. #4 Douglas Watts
    January 19, 2009

    For the record, I personally think a good definition is: something is “proven” when people will hang their lives or other extremely valuable items on it proving correct. I don’t think the case for or against AGW warrants this yet.

    Your test would “prove” that smoking, obesity and drunk driving are good for you.

  5. #5 Greg
    January 20, 2009

    Expanding on Douglas’s comment:-

    There is proof of Anthropogenically induced Global Warming.

    It is the same kind of proof as that smoking causes cancer, i.e., a statistical proof. No single case of cancer can be attributed to smoking with 100% certainty, but the incidence of cancer in smokers is so different to the incidence in people not exposed to tobacco smoke that the difference cannot be due to chance.

    In the same way observed changes in species’ habitats, migration patterns, the frequency of extreme weather patterns, and so on and so on, cannot, taken together, be due to chance.

    The difficulty is that most people, even people who are highly numerate and literate, don’t understand probability and reason inconsistently as a result.

    Using Paul’s example of “proof”, every plane will crash if flown enough times. What Paul is betting his life on is that the plane won’t crash this trip. And that is justified because the chances of a crash on any one plane trip are of the order of one in a million, or less.

    Assume for the moment there is doubt about AGW. If it is real, it potentially has very severe, possibly life-threatening, consequences. The risk (probability times cost of consequences) is high.

    So if Paul is to remain consistent with his “plane trip” argument, he must subject the case against AGW to very searching scrutiny, not the case for it. Otherwise he is saying in effect “I will go on a plane because the risk is small. However despite the severe risks of AGW, I will take the chance.”

    Because of the risks, the burden of proof lies with those who assert AGW is not occurring. And the proof must be to a very high standard.

  6. #6 mikatollah
    February 17, 2009

    Crakar,

    Intelligent Design does not challenge the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory has been one of the pillars of modern science for 160 years and only gets stronger as the technology progresses.

    What ID does challenge is the constitutional prohibition against teaching religion in public school science classes. So far to date it has lost every court challenge, but we must remain vigilent. Or are you going to deny the theory of evolution too?

  7. #7 Crakar14
    February 17, 2009

    Mikatollah,

    I respectfully disagree with you on ID does not challenged Darwin, as it is a bit off topic maybe we should leave it there.

    I do not deny evolution, For the record i am an athiest, beleive in life beyond this planet, there is now way we could have built Giza and yes we did walk on the Moon.

    Cheers

  8. #8 mikatollah
    February 17, 2009

    Yeah Crakar, a couple of problems here… First, you brought the comparison up to make a point about AGW so that makes it fair game. Second, it is one of the most outrageous claims I have heard on this list. And finally, well, this fits in nicely with my theory (and by theory I mean hunch) that AGW deniers are really science haters who distort the definition of words to fit their political agenda.

    To my first point, if Intelligent Design could challenge evolution it would be on the science because evolution is after all, a scientific theory. ID on the other hand relies on the supernatural and requires an intelligent designer (God, if you will) to explain the natural. That disqualifies it as a scientific theory. When ID proponents forced the issue into the courts, Kitzmiller v. Dover affirmed what most of us already knew… ID is not science. And since the losing side chose not to appeal we get to live with the verdict.

    Now if you know of a way that ID could challenge evolution on grounds other than the science, give it a go. Because I think what you mean is that ID challenges evolution in the minds of the faithful, and I suspect either you are one of them, or you are trying to discredit a well supported scientific theory with a comparison to a creation myth.

    Last and most important, where is the competing scientific theory to AGW? If you know of one you should give it to us and lay out your supporting evidence. Deniers never win arguments, but a better theory would demand attention.

  9. #9 Crakar14
    February 17, 2009

    Fine Mikatollah here we go,

    First ID v Darwin.

    I am not an expert so appologies to those who are but i believe Darwin theory suggests that a number of species evolved from one a bit like a tree branch if you will, for this to happen you would need two seperate species with a common ancestor for it to be true.

    ID does not prescribe to this as it states the design operates independantly so therefore each of the species evolved per se independantly kind of like individual poles ( or no branches)

    In the case you refer to ID lost the case because the world is full of examples of common ancestors as prescribed by Darwins theory.

    By the way ID does not mean “God” is involved in fact even the pope disagreed with them. Also read my previous post as it will enlighten you on my thoughts in regards to God or Gods.

    Next, “where is the competing theory to AGW?” Sorry i did not know i needed one, I thought you had it? What is my theory supposed to prove? Is it to prove warming? or maybe cooling? or nothing at all?

    I beleive you are the one making claims about AGW therefore the onus is on you to supply the scientific proof. And no i will not accept a computer calculation based on a process of elimination. Many people can speak of the theory of GHG but where is the real world experimentation to back up the theory? It does not exist so i do not need a theory to prove your theory wrong.

    Cheers

  10. #10 mikatollah
    February 17, 2009

    So you really don’t believe Darwin got it right… there is not enough evidence for you, so you have turned to a competing theory. One that has never produced a testable hypothesis.

    The reason ID lost the court case is because their argument of irreducible complexity fell apart under cross examination, and the religious motives of the Dover school board were exposed. Also, the head of the school board lied under oath and probably could have been prosecuted for perjury if the DA hadn’t been one of the faithful.

    This is the type of mindset that allows a person to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit their world view. If you can deny evolution then it’s child’s play to deny AGW theory.

    The AGW theory evidence is piling up every day. So much so that over 60 percent of Americans now believe it is a serious problem. But if you won’t see it then it doesn’t exist. Not a problem, except you have taken it on your selves to try and confuse the voting public into inaction.

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