Rationalized Science

Posted on 19. Feb, 2013 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

So convenient a thing it is to be a rational creature, since it enables us to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do. — Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Otto von Bismarck was the great Prussian minister who unified Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century.  Of laws, he once said:  Law is like sausage—if you like it, you should not watch it being made.

I spent almost twenty years in Washington, DC, watching our government grind out sausage.  In this process, influence is vital.  This explains why like-minded people band together into groups with impressive names like “The Union of Concerned Scientists,” “Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility,” and “Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.”  The implication associated with these names is obvious:  if you disagree with the members of such organizations you are unconcerned, irresponsible, or insane.

Now New Mexico has its own organization of “New Mexicans for Science and Reason.”  At the risk of being branded irrational and anti-science, I would like to take issue with a couple of claims made by David Thomas, president of this organization, in his Op-Ed “Writer Wrong on Climate Change” (Albuquerque Journal, Feb 4, p. A11).

Thomas’s Op Ed is a critique of an earlier article published in the Journal—E. Thomas McClanahan, “‘Climate Change’ Fearmongers Lose Ground to Data,” (Journal, 25 Jan, A9).  In response to McClanahan’s comment about there being a “lack of significant warming since 1998,” David Thomas wrote:  “This is simply wrong — there has been significant climatological warming since that year. The word ‘climate’ refers to a multi-year average, and the climatic average temperature is significantly higher now than it was in 1998.”

I am not quite sure what semantics game Thomas is playing with his comment about what has transpired since 1998.  However, in November of last year, the UK Daily Mail reported that the British Met Office’s Hadley Centre and the Climatic Research Unit of East Anglia University jointly released figures showing “that from the beginning of 1997 until August 2012 there was no discernible rise in aggregate global temperatures.”

Even before the release of the UK data, two leading American climatologists had already noted that there had been no global warming for about a decade and a half.  These climatologists are Richard S. Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Judith Curry, head of the climatology department at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  As long ago as 2008, Lindzen reported that there had been “no warming since 1997 and no statistically significant warming since 1995.”

Curry’s position on global warming was highlighted more recently as a result of a report from a study group headed by Professor Richard Muller, a physicist from the University of California-Berkeley.  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 in the press.  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.

Another major point missing from some of the coverage of Muller’s report is Professor Curry’s dissatisfaction with reports of the Muller committee’s findings.  Curry, who was a member of Muller’s panel, held that the publicity surrounding the Muller study had 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 might still believe that the earth is warming and that this warming is caused by human use of fossil fuels: there had 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.

Regarding the continuing increase of CO2, the Journal featured an article in June of last year with the following sensationalist headline:  “Levels of Carbon Dioxide Troubling” (Journal, June 1, 2012, p. A9).  The article featured a number of lamentations from various supporters of global warming.

Yet, the data on increasing CO2 when combined with the stabilization of global temperatures over the past decade and a half call 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 will not produce the catastrophic results predicted by global warming zealots like Al Gore.

Thomas’s article also raises questions about how global warming advocates view the nature of the scientific process.  At one point, he claims that “the great majority of scientists” involved in climate research hold that “humans are causing most if not all global warming by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”  Leaving aside questions about the size of this majority, assuming it exists, let’s look briefly at the role majorities might have played in the history of science.

For one thing, had the majority prevailed in 1543 when Nicolas Copernicus published his classic Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs, astronomers would have continued to adhere to a geocentric concept of the universe.  Had the majority prevailed in 1603 when Johanne Kepler published his New Astronomy, astronomers would have rejected Kepler’s elliptical planetary orbits and continued to explain planetary motion by using the circles on circles employed by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy.

Had the majority prevailed in 1789 when Antoine Lavoisier put forward the oxygen theory of combustion, scientists would have continued believing that combustion was produced by the release of phlogiston from the substance being burned.

Regarding those who have accepted the idea of anthropogenic global warming and malign anyone who disagrees with their views, I would remind them of the words of J. B. S. Haldane:  “To sum up, science has owed its wonderful progress very largely to the habit of doubting all theories, even those on which one’s action is founded.”

This article was submitted by Donald Baucom




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