22 Dec 2009

“Settled Science”

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Claude Sandroff agrees with me that the ability to distinguish AGW claims and theories from established science ought to be looked upon as a basic test of scientific literacy.

If you’ve misspent your youth conducting experiments, taking graduate courses in physics and chemistry, and learning about thermodynamics, molecular spectroscopy, fluid mechanics, modeling data and publishing scientific papers, then the current debate over anthropogenic global warming can make you hurl.

While I won’t fault journalists and politicians for their stupendous ignorance when discussing most scientific subjects, I will condemn their utter lack of coherence concerning basic scientific definitions, processes, and principles.

Specifically, the chattering classes have no appreciation of the following truisms: settled science comes only in the form of physical laws, while the causes behind specific phenomena are sometimes never definitively settled. And the more complex the system being observed, the longer it takes to reach a consensus about the causal mechanisms.

Even Al Gore can probably remember being introduced to Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion in high school: F=ma. This is usually our first introduction to settled science. That’s why it’s called a law of physics. It didn’t matter that Einstein generalized its form in the theory of relativity or that in the 1920’s it had it be replaced with new mechanics valid at the atomic scale. At velocities small compared to the speed of light and for macroscopic objects, F=ma is settled science.

Despite Al Gore’s foolish protestations, there is no law of global warming. To the extent that global warming exists at all, it’s a complicated phenomenon with multiple inputs (human and natural), and its causes are speculated upon but hardly known. Global warming is unsettled science, and honest investigators use settled laws of physics along with models to try to unravel its origins and implications.

Indeed, most big scientific questions are unsettled, from galaxy formation to the origins of the moon. Closer to home, even 150 years after the first commercial extraction of oil in western Pennsylvania, the mechanism of hydrocarbon formation is still a hotly contested issue. While most petroleum geologists believe that oil and natural gas resulted from the slow anaerobic decomposition of biomass over eons, many others believe that hydrocarbons are an abiotic product of simple chemical reactions in the deep earth crust. The relative numbers of scientists in the two camps do not speak to which explanation is correct. Scientific truth is not decided by polls. Only new experiments, shared, reproducible data, and careful modeling can ultimately lead to consensus. …

[W]henever the phrase “settled science” enters a policy debate, especially when complicated planetary effects are involved, an instinctive shudder should rifle through our nervous system. Almost always, that loaded phrase masks an attempt to force premature conclusions and end all further argument. Those who want the science settled in a flash are those who will benefit most once the science is settled. Either that,or they have something to hide or protect. Settled science is dangerous science.

Galileo had to recant or face death for agreeing with Copernicus and arguing against geocentricity, which was settled science in 1633. Just 34 years ago, settled science was manifest in Newsweek with the declaration that the world was entering into its latest ice age, and we had better do something now or else we would all starve. Robert Frost’s immortal lines from 1920 come to mind: “Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice.” Apparently, still others can’t make up their minds.

With the fundamental scientific ground so shaky in support of anthropomorphic global warming, why does the theory continue to garner exaggerated support? In general, the “warmers” movement can be grouped neatly into several powerful and well-defined blocs.

Mostly liberal politicians want access to unlimited tax revenues; for scientists and pseudo-scientists, global warming victory is a path to prestige and grants; for large corporations, it’s a billion-dollar market (pioneered by Enron) for trading in carbon credits; for the hard left, it’s a new path to dictatorial power and control; for venture capitalists like Kleiner Perkins and green startups at the public trough, it’s a path to alternative-energy-funding bonanzas; for the radical greens, it’s equivalent to the unquestioned adherence to a religious faith with analogs to God (the earth), priests (Al Gore), indulgences (carbon offsets), guilt (western affluence) and penance (conservation).

But none of these things can justify or excuse upending our entire financial system or tossing our economic vibrancy, freedom, and very sovereignty into the cesspool of global government. That much should be settled fact.

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