January 16, 2021

The Myth of Settled Science

Posted on 15. Jan, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Energy/Environment

Who would dare assert that we know all there is to be known? Galileo Galilei, Letter to Father Benedetto Castelli, 21 Dec 1613.

If you rely upon America’s mainstream media for your news about climatology, you may not have noticed that the idea of an impending global disaster caused by anthropomorphic global warming (AGW) is somewhat passé.  Still, the same mantra used in efforts to silence critics of AGW is now being deployed in defense of climate change or AGW light:  The science of climate change is settled.  In reality, the assertion that any science is settled is essentially a political slogan that misrepresents the nature of science.

One of the reasons people may not have noted the shift from AGW to climate change is that the mainstream media continue to hype global warming.  Reports on the results of a recent study headed by Professor Richard Muller, a physicist from the University of California-Berkeley, illustrate the slanted manner in which global warming is all too often handled by American journalists.

Muller’s study concluded that the earth’s temperature had increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the last two hundred-plus years.  This conclusion was well-reported.  Less well reported is the fact that Muller was and continued to be skeptical about the role of human activities as a cause of this increase.  Furthermore, Muller noted that even if this warming is caused by human activity, there is virtually nothing the U.S. can do to abate its effects, given the growing carbon emissions produced by the expanding economies of India and China.

A major point missing from much of the coverage of Muller’s report is dissent from a member of Muller’s own study team, Professor Judith Curry, who heads the Department Of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology.  Curry believes the publicity surrounding the Muller study has mischaracterized its results by saying that this study should end skepticism about global warming.

In fact, Curry noted, the Muller study had pointed up a major anomaly for those who may still believe that the earth is warming and that this warming is caused by human use of fossil fuels: there has been no increase in the global temperature since 1998 in spite of the fact that carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is considered the major cause of global warming, has continued to increase.  This calls into question any direct cause-and-effect linkage between carbon dioxide and global warming.  This in turn suggests that the continued use of fossil fuels may not produce catastrophic results as global warming advocates like Al Gore have long proclaimed.

The absence of global warming in the past decade or so was noted as long ago as 2008 by Richard S. Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  According to Lindzen, there had been “no warming since 1997 and no statistically significant warming since 1995.”

Lindzen and Curry are among the dissenting scientists that AGW advocates seek to silence with their “settled science” mantra.  To re-iterate, this mantra is a political slogan used by those who would use global warming to justify draconian measures to force a shift from fossil fuels to green energy.  Moreover, global warming would also be used to justify annual transfers of as much as $100 billion from developed to undeveloped nations under the guise of offsetting the effects of global warming on these lesser developed nations.

Regarding the transfer of wealth that is involved here, all doubt about the political goals of at least some climate change zealots should be removed by the November 2010 comments of Ottmar Edenhofer, a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  In an interview published by the Neue Zürchen Zeitung, a Swiss German-language daily newspaper based in Zurich, Edenhofer said:  “One must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy.”

The loftiness of such goals does not justify the invention of fictions to suppress opposition.  As Thomas Mann put this matter:  “In the long run, a harmful truth is better than a useful lie.”  Dissent and disagreement are crucial to the advancement of knowledge according to philosopher Karl Popper, who also noted that scientific theories can never be completely, finally verified—they can only be falsified.  And, of course, the falsification of a concept hopefully leads to the development of another, more comprehensive one.

Popper’s views are echoed in Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Kuhn, a physicist turned historian of science, argued convincingly that science is an open-ended process composed of a never-ending series of cycles.  For the sake of example, we may start this cycle with the establishment of a paradigm, a theoretical framework that is accepted and supported by a body of scientists.  These scientists then seek to explain a set of natural phenomena in terms of the paradigm.  In addition to explaining phenomena, the paradigm determines the questions scientists ask about these phenomena.

When a paradigm is first established, there are still problems to be solved within its context; Kuhn refers to this as the puzzle-solving phase of the scientific cycle.  The challenge of solving these puzzles is one feature of the paradigm that attracts adherents.  However, at some point, new puzzles emerge that cannot be explained within the accepted paradigm.  (Think here of the absence of an increase in global temperature in spite of a continuing increase in the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere.)  These anomalies now drive the cycle into a crisis phase in which adherents to the old framework begin to think outside the confines of the paradigm.  A new theoretical framework emerges and wins supporters.  The cycle begins anew.

Science at the end of the nineteenth century illustrates what can happen when practitioners conclude that they have achieved a complete understanding of some aspect of the natural world.  According to historian Lawrence Badash, a number of scientists in the late 1800s concluded that they had developed a complete theoretical framework.  All that remained to be done was to secure more precise measurements that could be used to improve “‘physical constants to the increased accuracy represented by another decimal place.’”

Within a decade or so of such pronouncements, an entire world of new phenomena emerged.  The discovery of X-rays, radioactivity, electrons, etc., ended the era of classical physics that had begun with Sir Isaac Newton and spawned the quantum and relativity revolutions.

Lest a reader conclude that the situation in classical physics is not commensurate with today’s science, here are comments on the open-ended nature of science from two leading contemporary scientists.  According to Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous scientists of our day:  “Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis:  you can never prove it.  No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.

On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory.”  Similar views have been expressed by Freeman Dyson, a physicist who made major contributions in the field of quantum mechanics.  In his 1985 Gifford Lectures, which were later published in book form under the title Infinite in All Directions, Dyson wrote:  “The cutting edge of science moves rapidly.  New discoveries and new ideas often turn whole fields of science upside down within a few years.”

The insights of these two scientists would seem to be unknown to far too many advocates of AGW/climate change who seem incapable of confronting anomalies spawned by increasing knowledge of phenomena like cloud cover, sun spots, and cosmic radiation.

Finally, virtually no one seems to remember the grave warning that President Dwight Eisenhower issued concerning the undue influence of a scientific-technological elite.  While Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex is one of the most oft-quoted presidential pronouncements, few seem to remember that Eisenhower also told us in the same speech that “the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture” had been spawned by “the technological revolution during recent decades.”

Eisenhower went on to say that this revolution thrust scientists and technicians into positions of unprecedented influence.  Of this situation, Eisenhower warned:  “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy should itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

For several years now, some members of our scientific elite have been using the “science is settled” mantra in an effort to quash opposition to their position on human-induced climate change.  Science and all of us will suffer should they succeed.

This article was submitted by Donald Baucom. Donald R. Baucom graduated in 1962 from the USAF Academy with a BS in Engineering Sciences.  In 1976, he received his Ph.D. in the History of Science from the University of Oklahoma and taught for six years in the Air Force Academy Department of History.  After twenty-eight years in the Air Force, he served as the civil service historian for DOD’s missile defense program for thirteen years.  His book, The Origins of SDI, was awarded the 1992 Leopold Prize by the Organization of American Historians.  Dr. Baucom retired from DOD in 2003 and now lives in El Prado, NM.



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