Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lets Have a Frank Discussion on Climate Change Part 2: Let's Eliminate the Soap Box

So now that I have laid out my personal viewpoint on climate change lets try to have a reasonable discussion on what we know. We frequently hear that the debate is over or about a scientific consensus. While clearly the debate isn't over what about the scientific consensus.

 In a sample of scientists from all fields there was an absolute consensus in regards to evolution. Some 97% of respondents agree that evolution is the primary means of species differentiation. However in the same study only 86% agree with the belief that man has had an effect on global temperatures. While that is a majority it is not a consensus. I state that using the traditional significance level of around 5% if 95% of scientists agreed then we could say it was a consensus. but as it sits now it doesn't even find significance at the 10% level much less the traditional 5%.

Proponents of the consensus would point out that most dissenting scientists are not climate or atmospheric scientists, and that they tend to come from fields related to geology or engineering. That does not change the fact that evolution seems to find ground among scientists outside of the field of biology. Nor does it take into account that skeptics like myself would have responded yes to the question because it simply asks if there has been an effect. there is no discussion of significance of the effect, Efficacy of environmental proposals, or whether the modern catastrophic theory is entirely correct. So lets put the idea that there is a consensus of pro catastrophic global warming scientist advocates to rest. It doesn't exist and given the timescales that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is supposed to play out it is unlikely that there will be a true consensus within our lifetime.

How can scientists who have looked at most of the same data and come to different conclusions. The answer is it has to do with the scientific method and more specifically how it is applied to the soft science fields like climate science or even psychology. To do that we need to bring up the scientific method how it works and why it works and where it differs in these fields.

The traditional scientific method is an actual step by step process.It is as follows
1. make an observation
2. develop theory to explain the observation
3. conceive an experiment to test the theory
4. analyze the experimental data in order to make an observation
5. repeat

According to that procedure we technically are never likely to know the exact truth about reality. There is an engineering joke that explains the scientific methods. A mathematician and an engineer are placed in a psychological experiment they are placed in a room with a beautiful naked and willing woman and the distance between the two is halved every minute. The mathematician is informed of the experimental rules looks at the women and cries that he shall never truly reach her, thus abandoning the experiment. The engineer listens to the rules looks at the woman and takes his position in the experimental room with a smile. The psychologist is perplexed by the engineers response particularly after the mathematician. The engineer looks at the psychologist and simply replies in ten minutes ill be close enough for practical purposes.

This is similar to the scientific method. The idea is that we proceed through this iterative process and in time we arrive at an answer or a solution that closely approximates reality. As long as we get close enough we can use that information to affect ourselves and environment. This approach has allowed the human race to advance farther in the past 200 years than we have in the past 120,000 years that we as a species were on this planet.

The difference between the hard sciences and the soft sciences is the hard sciences stick to this process and the soft sciences play a little bit with the steps particularly the first two. While there is no direct reason why the steps have to be followed in a very specific order it does help to eliminate personal as bias. This difference Explains why fossil fuels were blamed for global cooling 50 years ago and then global warming 20 years later. Its why Carol Gilligan a psychologist published scientific theories that have yet to be proven either by herself her disciples or any actual tests. If you start with a theory you can find or convince yourself that an observation fits that theory.

The second key point of contention is typically in regards to whether or not the theory is falsifiable. In order to be falsifiable the theory must be able to be tested. Both the time frame (effects are expected to be verifiable 50-100 years away) and the nature of the subject (we don't have a weather control machine) means that it is inherently non falsifiable. Any discussion as to the fallout or effects from global warming is assumed based on correlations and literature. Elementary statistics teaches the correlation does not equal causation.

While I and most other scientists acknowledge the inherent challenges associated with the subjects matter we don't feel they get a free pass to make predictions or advise policy without making it abundantly clear that the theories are inherently untestable or verifiable until the appropriate amount of time has elapsed, regardless of the information those theories are based on.

Outside of bias which both of the primary arguments have, and the non falsifiability of any claims regarding the future made for 50-100 years from now, the most common and ironically least credible argument made by both sides revolves around attacking the credibility of your opponents. Arguing that a study or result is less credible because of its source is one of the well known and understood logical fallacies. a list of others can be found here.

In short the idea of attacking your opponent rather than the statements is not the same as defending your arguments or attacking your opponents rhetoric. It is known as an ad hominem attack. Reviewing that list you should honestly take a look at the arguments you have used or fellow supporters have used to defend your stance. Its pretty easy to see that most of the arguments used in the climatological debate are logical fallacies.

Everyone knows that environmentalists are going to support investigations and studies that support their argument and the petrochemical industry is going to finance studies that look into factors that undermine them. that doesn't mean those studies are incorrect. Any theory that does not incorporate contradictory or conflicting arguments is not a scientifically valid argument. In fact contrarian arguments hold much larger sway than do non contrary arguments. It is and always should be easier to disprove a theory than it is to prove one.

The point is that neither side of the debate, particularly the extreme sides are arguing a completely sane or scientifically grounded position. Assuming the opponents are all shills or dismissing their arguments is not just disingenuous to the debate but its actually blatantly wrong. So what we all need to do is sit down and examine the methodology, and the data to try to figure out what to do. We need to acknowledge our inherent biases and understand how effective the technologies were arguing about are. I intend to do this at this blog. Its going to take a large amount of time effort and energy. I will try to be as even handed as possible and not dive too deeply into the body of work that surrounds each argument simply because most people are not scientifically literate enough to make sense of it. So to begin Lets start with the mainstream argument, its methodology and why the approach is used in part 3 of Lets Have a Frank Discussion of Climate Change.

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