Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

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Cargo cult climate science

Jerry Stratton, January 27, 2016

Thomas Sumner, in the December 26 Science News end-of-year round-up of the “Top 256 Science News stories of 2015”, writes in the round-up of story 5:

A supposed pause in global warming that has been fodder for climate change doubters never really existed, researchers reported in 2015.

The fuss began when studies showed that decades of warming appeared to have level off in 1998. From that year through 2012, Earth’s yearly average surface temperature increased at one-third to on-half the average rate from 1951 through 2012. This warming “hiatus,” as it came to be known, had climate scientists scratching their heads and climate doubters gloating.

In June, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that they had finally found the cause of the hiatus, and it wasn’t shifting winds or pint-size volcanic eruptions as some scientists proposed… The slowdown never existed. The biggest culprit, the scientists found, concerned measurements of ocean surface temperatures.

That’s all horribly not science. Evidence that contradicts theory is not “fodder for doubters”, it’s fodder for the theorists, if the theorists are scientists. Scientists are joyful when they find something that doesn’t fit their theories, because altering theories to fit the evidence is how scientific fields advance. Altering evidence to fit the theory isn’t science. But according to Sumner, instead of looking for where their theory has gone wrong, climate researchers been jumping from demon to demon trying to find the demonic interference that keeps nature from proving them correct. It can’t be that there’s something wrong with their theory because they don’t acknowledge the possibility of being wrong.

But in science, if you don’t acknowledge the possibility of being wrong, you’re also disavowing the ability to be right. Being wrong is how you advance.

Imagine if the tobacco companies’ theory that smoking was good for you (seriously, go back to their literature in the fifties) had been treated this way. Rather than take a second look at the theory after the clear measurements, they instead pointed to bad winds and then volcanic eruptions and then hidden cancer in the waters and then after all of that turned out not to help them, just decided, well, you’ve been measuring it all wrong. We’re going to stick with our theory, because our theory is true and any attempts to prove it false are just “fodder for tobacco health doubters”.

We would have discovered a new propulsion mechanism: they would have been laughed off of the planet.

Because even if this latest explanation of global temperature is correct, it still doesn’t provide any proof or strength to the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory. Even if the NOAA’s conclusion that we’ve been measuring ocean temperatures incorrectly is correct, you don’t get to make a prediction using one method of measurement, discover that the measurements falsify your prediction, and then change the method of measurement. Even if the NOAA is right about the measurements being faulty, all that their discovery can do is create a new theory predicated on new measurements—and thus make a new falsifiable prediction going into the future. The theory under the old measurements has already been falsified, and should be treated as such. The theory has to include the measurements or all you’re doing is searching for a measurement that proves your theory, and stopping before your search disproves your theory. That isn’t science, it’s madness.

Rising temperatures were one of the few falsifiable predictions made by catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theorists. Most of their predictions of catastrophes are pushed a hundred or more years into the future, but we were still supposed to see specific temperature rises before the catastrophes occur. Now, though, even that, and even going forward, they’re trying to deny any application of the scientific method to their predictions:

Even without the bias correction, the warming hiatus was on flimsy footing, says Stanford statistical climatologist Bala Rajaratnam. In November, Rajaratnam and colleagues argued in Climatic Change that the supposed stalling could have been explained by natural variability and didn’t negate the long-term trend anyway.

“Even though we were wrong, we’re right if you change the way we make measurements, and even if those measurements are wrong tomorrow, well, it’s all within natural variability anyway. We’re still right even if our predictions don’t come true.”

No problem. Publish the variability beforehand, too, and explain how the theory predicts that variability. Make predictions that can be falsified, and then wait for them. That’s how the scientific method works: you make a theory, and then you try to disprove it. If there is no falsifiability, there is no science. If you’re trying to prove your theory correct, rather than trying to prove it false and helping others to prove it false, you are not doing science.

In Surely You’re Joking, Richard Feynman describes this as cargo cult science. For example, Robert Millikan measured the charge of the electron early in the history of modern physics. He measured it wrong. Subsequent researchers kept reworking their measurements in order to get numbers closer to Millikan’s. It took a long time to find the right answer.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong.

And then, of course, they would stop looking, guaranteeing a result that matched their preconceptions. Feynman’s description so closely fits Sumner’s description of what global warming researchers have been doing, I almost wonder if Sumner is trying to echo Feynman’s description of cargo cult science in his reporting in order to get climate scientists to recognize their scientific failings.

Scientists, when they learn they’ve been deliberately avoiding the scientific method, become embarrassed. Religious zealots become indignant or question the motives of those who doubt them. The same people who rail against skeptics today, were in 1613 trying to explain that the sun was an unblemished sphere, that sunspots didn’t exist and even if they did exist, they weren’t on the sun.

In response to I believe in Global Warming (and other conversion stories): Conversion stories aren’t meant to convert skeptics; they’re a bonding tale for the converted, a sign of a religion; science needs theories that make predictions about what happens when they’re right and how to falsify them if they’re wrong. Proof for human-caused global warming is always whatever happened last month or last year, never tomorrow. No application of the scientific method can ever disprove it because hindsight is 20/20.

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