Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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

Climate priests cry wolf one more time?

Jerry Stratton, July 6, 2016

Spinner dolphin jumping

There’s a wolf in the water! Run! (photo by Magnus Kjaergaard, CC-BY-3.0)

It’s getting a bit tedious comparing the occasional global warming article in Science News to the real science articles they run, but the contrast is often so wide it’s hard not to discuss them. In the April 30, 2016 issue there is an amazing juxtaposition between three articles: a nearly-literally fuzzy article about cute white bunny rabbits, a serious article about a potential discovery of a new white dwarf in astronomy, and what looks for all the world like an article from some apocalyptic prophet about how we will not see any sea level rise (unless we do, or unless we see a sea level drop) until about two and a half decades from now when it will SUDDENLY SHOOT UP AND DROWN US ALL UNLESS WE REPENT IMMEDIATELY!!!

I’m going to ignore the white fuzzies article. It’s just “aw, nature is mean & evolution is stupid”, although if you’re interested it does have a cute photo of a snowshoe hare. It doesn’t have bad science in it; it doesn’t have any science at all. Below it, on the left page, is Christopher Crockett’s Odd white dwarf offers peek at core. It’s about the discovery of what is potentially a smaller white dwarf than one would expect to find, with a much different atmosphere. And after describing the potential benefits to finding a low-mass white dwarf, the article ends with some serious caveats:

Dufour says the idea is plausible, but he’s skeptical. “It could work,” he says, “but I doubt it would leave a low-mass white dwarf.”

In 2007, Dufour and colleagues reported a similar strange sighting: several white dwarfs whose atmospheres were loaded with carbon instead of hydrogen and helium. Those also appeared to be missing mass, he says, though the problem was found to lie not with the stars but with the mass estimates. The white dwarfs are heavier than initially thought, and Dufour now suspects that each one arose from a collision between two white dwarfs.

It’s too early to draw strong conclusions from a single oxygen-laden white dwarf. “There are lots of open questions before we can say that this changes our view of white dwarf evolution,” Dufour says.

And that’s not even all of the contrariness in the very short article about the potentially surprisingly small white dwarf. There’s nothing like that in Thomas Sumner’s global warming article on the facing page. It, instead, ends with an apocalyptic warning about the “dire” consequences of ignoring the graph of rising sea level. But take a closer look at that graph, from a scientific standpoint. That is, the graph is a prediction. In science, we test theories from their predictions. That’s what science is: the study of theories that can be proven false if they are false. So when do we know that the theory behind this prediction is correct?

Projected sea level rise 2016

If rolling five-to-seven-year predictions have become too embarrassing, spread them out to twenty-year predictions. (Science News, April 30, 2016)

This graph shows no change until sudden rapid change in 2040. Before that, if I’m reading the graph correctly, sea level could drop, stay the same, or go up. The graph provides no means of knowing whether the theory is correct until after we’re supposed to have believed it and repented. Now, it could be that this apocalypse really is going to happen, despite rolling climate predictions failing so often in the past. But if so, this is the wrong graph for the article. It does not add to the science of the story, and this is, after all, Science News.

Somewhere in that theory is something that can be used as a measure of the theory’s accuracy. There has to be, or it isn’t science. That’s what should have been used in place of that graph.

This graph is little more than Harold Camping changing his end-of-the-world prediction from May 21, 2011, to October 21, 2011. Actually, it’s worse than Camping, because several days before his October date failed to bring the rapture, Camping “admitted to an interviewer that he did not know when the end would come” and later:

…“humbly acknowledged” that he had been mistaken, that his attempt to predict a date was “sinful,” and that his critics had been right… [and] he was searching the Bible “even more fervently… not to find dates, but to be more faithful in our understanding.”

If climate prophets were to acknowledge that they have failed to perform science, and try to be more faithful in their application of the scientific method, it would bring global warming out of religious apocalypticism and into something that can be trusted as actual science. Instead, it’s as if they’ve recognized they can only cry wolf a few more times before people start completely ignoring them, so they’ve moved all their apocalypses far out into the future so there are no predictions left to fail during the current debate.

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.

  1. <- Drink a train