Why Our Science is Probably Not Up to the Task of Resolving the Global Warming Debate (My Case: Part 2 of 3)

This is a historical post.

In my last post, I finally made the point that is most crucial to me: that CO2 Levels are growing and even AGW Skeptics agree it’s Anthropogenic in nature. I concentrated in that post on why choosing to believe the testimony of an AGW Skeptic on this point is as good as it gets as far as indirect evidence goes. I finished with this statement:

…our science is not up to the task of proving if global warming is man made or not.

Bold claim? Not really. At a minimum science can never “prove” anything. But in this post, I’m going to attempt to strengthen this claim even further. I’m also going to explain why this fact (if true) favors AGW Believers, not Deniers.

Start with What is Non-Controversial (i.e. Not Refuted)

Now we know a lot, to be sure and in fact these two points seem to not be in any major dispute:

General Agreement #1: We have a high degree of consensus between AGW Skeptics and Believers alike that the earth is getting warmer. See, for example, this link to John Stossil report I previously posted. Note that the room of AGW Skeptical scientists still admit that global warming is happening. They just don’t believe its man made.

General Agreement #2: Likewise, we have a high degree of consensus between AGW Skeptics and Believers that CO2 levels are growing and it’s almost certainly man made.

But we really don’t know if the two are related or not. That is to say, the CO2 levels are rising due to humans and the globe is certainly warming, but we can’t really tell if the one is the cause of the other. If there is one thing that the ‘global warming debate’ proves, it’s that we can’t prove it either way.

What To Do If Your Science Can’t Tell You

Now in retrospect this isn’t so shocking after all. As Poppper points out there is no such thing as settled science. So no matter how good our climate science will some day become, the idea that we can “settle” that global warming is man made will never happen.

Even if the whole earth becomes like Venus and all life is wiped out, E.T.s that later find our civilization will not be able to prove beyond doubt that our extinction was man-made or natural. They’ll just restart the whole debate all over again by proxy.

This point is significant for so many reasons, not the least of which is a point that seems to have been lost on AGW Deniers: you don’t get to demand proof of anything if proof is impossible. Therefore, we need a different way to determine if we should be acting or not. Deciding to do nothing until there is proof is immoral.

To make matters worse, I think our climate science will always have an inherent flaw. We can never directly use the scientific method on it.

When the Scientific Method Fails

What is the scientific method? Isn’t it that we conjecture a hypothesis and then come up with an experiment to test it? [1] Just exactly how are we going to “test our hypothesis” that man-made CO2 is causing global warming?

Here is how I’d go about it. I’d start with 100 alternative earths across the multiverse. I’d have half of them do nothing (they’re the control group) and half enact legislation forcing CO2 levels to a sustainable level. I’d then do a statistical analysis of how many of the two groups are still alive in 100 and 1000 years.

Now I think that we can all agree that if we could do this, we’d be able to come to some decent level of consensus that would convince all but the most die hard global warming denier or global warming zealot.

But, of course, we can’t perform this experiment because it’s impossible.

So instead, we try to duplicate that experiment through mathematical models (i.e. simulation). That’s what the climate scientists are doing and they are, in general, finding that there is a problem. That’s why there is such a strong scientific consensus over global warming. I don’t trust it as far as I can spit, but I can’t deny that they are doing the best they could possibly do. The problem isn’t the climate scientists themselves, the problem is the inability to apply the scientific method against this problem.

Side Note: I didn’t need to even say this. Really, what I should have said is that both sides admit to the existence of a problem and there are no refutations of it. We can’t do an experiment to test this, but we don’t need to. We should just address the non-refuted problems.

What’s the Right Course of Action When ‘We Don’t Know’

So if we don’t know with certainty — and I assert we do not and never can — then what do we do?

I’ve heard this argument by a global warming skeptic:

We don’t know if changing our output of CO2 will produce climate changes that are good or bad. We do know that reducing CO2 will do a lot of economic harm.

Ergo, take no action until we know more.

I think he’s basically right. I just think he’s missed the point and therefore drawn the wrong conclusion.

The first problem I see with this argument is that it assumes that if you don’t have proof of AGW that AGW is therefore not true. The real truth is that we have four possible states:

  1. AGW is true and we have evidence of it
  2. AGW is true and we don’t have evidence of it (i.e. we don’t realize it’s true)
  3. AGW is false and but we have false evidence in favor of it.
  4. AGW is false and therefore we have no evidence for it.

 Pretending like only #1 and #4 are logical possibilities for the existing climate change situation does not make sense to me. It may well be that AGW is true and the reason the evidence seems questionable to us skeptics is only because our science isn’t very good yet. It may well be that the scientific consensus is correctly reading the tea leaves but simply does not have the ability to prove it to a satisfactorily level. Or, of course, it might be that the scientific consensus is wrong.

We tend to think of this in terms of probabilities. If we feel skeptical of AGW we think to ourselves “Well, I’ve looked at the evidence (as far as is possible for a layman, which isn’t far) and I’m feeling skeptical. That means AGW might be true, but probably isn’t.” That’s exactly how I used to look at it.

The problem with this line of thought is that “probability” is being used in place of lack of knowledge. We use probabilities not only to describe actual chances –- like say what a die roll will be –- but also to describe lack of knowledge -– like say what a previous die roll was that we haven’t looked at yet.

AGW — assuming no intervention by us — is either true or it is not. The die has already been cast. (i.e. obviously if we take action, then the die isn’t cast. I mean only that if we simply do nothing then either the models will prove correct or not correct.) We just don’t know which face has landed yet. So while it makes sense to describe things in terms of ‘the probability of AGW’ in truth it’s already either going to kill us at some point (again, assuming inaction) or it isn’t. We may think there is a 99% chance AGW is false and a 1% chance it’s true. But if it turns out to be true nonetheless, that just means we were 99% wrong. Putting this simply, we not only don’t know, we also don’t know the probability (even if we think we do.) It’s like a die has been rolled and we have to guess the result, but we don’t even know how many sides it has.

Historical Note: I wrote the above not aware of Deutsch’s later writings on the abuses of how we use probabilities.

The second problem with the argument above is that it’s based on a certain false dichotomy that we either have to do nothing or we have to do what the liberals say and that there is no other possible point of view. We either choose inaction or we choose a massive cap-and-trade policy that is likely to cause economic disaster.

Note: I wish I had emphasized this way more. I was not at the time aware that Deutsch was suggesting taking many different actions simultaneously to solve AGW. But it seems I was starting to figure that out on my own.

Now personally, I don’t accept this at all. We conservatives are smarter than that and we can do better than that. We don’t have to accept that the liberals are right about the only two choices they’ve allowed us.

The only other possible argument I could use now was to claim that, yes, CO2 Levels are growing thanks to Anthropogenic causes, but that it’s harmless, so who cares. Truth be told, this is just an obviously lame argument that needs no refutation. So naturally I’m going to refute it at length in my next post.

Notes

[1] “Isn’t it that we conjecture a hypothesis and then experiment and test it?” I know what I just said here is technically wrong. Karl Popper would probably say that experimentation is merely one type of possible refutation. But I’m simplifying appropriately here and the full complex truth doesn’t affect my point here.

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