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

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

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 Geoff 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 make up 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. 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. 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.

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 put something like this 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
  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 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 (and may never be). 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) is either true or it is not. The die has already been cast. 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 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.

The second problem with Vader’s argument 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.

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.


[1] “Isn’t it that we make up 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.

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

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  2. I think that there are some real problems. If the global warming crew were really correct, we are well past the tipping point, the things we can do are all too little, too late, and it is time for disaster survival planning.

    On the other hand, if we aren’t past a mythical tipping point, if we have actually calculated who wins and who loses from global warming and have decided there are too many losers and not enough winners, the next step is a carbon emission tax. On imports as well as everything else (so that you can’t get around it by exporting the manufacturing).

    CO2 levels going up just doesn’t look positive to me, regardless of the sunspot cycle (I’m really curious to see how the second half of it goes — we may well be facing what would otherwise have been global cooling again — but what do we do when that cycle ends?).

  3. Bruce, you sure write pretty. This whole series has been a great lesson in how to explore a subject and make an argument. As I said on your last series, you have made some crucial mistakes in your conclusions (history shows us that the models certainly will not turn out as predicted) and in your description of “Deniers,” but you still make a cogent, logical argument, and that’s nice to see because so many people are unable to put forward logical arguments these days.

  4. “I think that there are some real problems. If the global warming crew were really correct, we are well past the tipping point, the things we can do are all too little, too late, and it is time for disaster survival planning.”

    No. The correct approach (given that scenario) would be geo-engineering to buy us time. Not survival planning.

    “CO2 levels going up just doesn’t look positive to me, regardless of the sunspot cycle”

    Yeah, agreed.

  5. Geoff,

    I’ve enjoyed your comments and links very much. You’ve made an eloquent opponent too. You really do have an amazing knowledge of the issues even if I think you are making an unwise choice by advocating inaction over prudent action.

  6. I think your approach is a great example. A true example of healthy skepticism.

    I want to say something of your comment on using the scientific method. There are many fields of science which are limited in how experiments are carried out. Astronomy has never created a planet or produced a star. Biologists have yet to create a new species using evolution, yet these are concepts that are on solid footing. Science can still make predictions and then inspect the results of experiments that have been happing in nature for eons. My point is that just because something cannot be done under controlled circumstances doesn’t mean that sound science cannot give us some answers.

    I also want to comment on Anthropogenic CO2 levels. It is easy to understand that human activity is putting large quantities of C02 in the atmosphere. What seems to be lacking from the conversation is that the CO2 added by humans is essentially *new* C02. Carbon from fossil fuels has been sequestered in the earth’s crust since the carboniferous period 300 million years ago. Keep in mind, 300 million years ago there were no humans and in fact only plant life outside of the oceans. I am amused when someone comments that the EPA wants them to stop breathing. It is clear they don’t understand basic concepts of the dispute. We are rapidly reintroducing carbon so quickly that the atmosphere and echo systems don’t have much time to adapt. Given this, I agree that prudence, even if it’s painful now, is our best course of action.

  7. I don’t see the difference in risk to the ecosystem between rapidly adding “new” C02 and rapidly building big cities and industrial cites or huge dams and reservoirs or sprawling cattle ranches and farms and all the waste that goes with them.

    I fear that we elevate climate change to some special status when most likely there has been and will continue to be more stress placed on the ecosystem by the mere physical presence of humanity than a doubling of C02.

    That said, I’m all for greener technology, for doing better in taking care of the environment — but doing it in a way that doesn’t cast a shadow over more pressing concerns in third world and developing countries. I fear that many scientists want us to run faster than we’re able — not out of any sort of guile, mind you. But out of a social naivete of sorts.

    I think the hard sciences tend to brush aside the softer sciences — and ironically so when one considers that human society is even more complex and volatile than the climate. And I think that’s where the science community goes completely off the rails with respect to predictive modeling. You simply cannot begin to model the future climate (indeed, if it can be done at all theoretically) without modeling future society — and attempting to do both would seem to put such efforts out of the realm of possibility.

  8. Oh, and I agree with Geoff, Stan, and others who have enjoyed this series thus far, Bruce.

    I have relished every post.

  9. Stan said: “It is clear they don’t understand basic concepts of the dispute.”

    Okay, first off, let me admit upfront that you just introduced a new idea to me that I had no idea about. I now consider myself as having 16 hours with of research on this topic. ;)

    That is very interesting. And it’s another example of what I found a lot with conservative arguments. The rate at which they literally demonstrate they don’t understand the debate is alarming.

    Please note, Geoff, our main advocate for the conservative point of view has yet to make a mistake like this, so clearly it’s not 100% of conservatives that are speaking up without any knowledge.

    Also, Geoff has often pointed out to me how much liberals argue “well there is a scientific consensus” is the sole argument used by liberals. But this is *way* more rational than using an argument that shows you haven’t a clue what you are talking about. Relying on people smarter than you is not a bad way to go if you haven’t the time to research the topic for yourself.

    On the other hand, here I am advocating for action, and I didn’t know that there were (to put it into my own words) essentially different ‘kinds’ of carbons — new and old. So I will give a nod to the conservatives that it’s often difficult to understand everything and I’ll also admit that it a lot easier to go with the argument ‘well scientists have a consensus’ if those scientists happen to politically agree with you on the topic.

    But then again, if you don’t understand it, debating it makes little sense. So I have mixed feelings on this.

    “We are rapidly reintroducing carbon so quickly that the atmosphere and echo systems don’t have much time to adapt. Given this, I agree that prudence, even if it’s painful now, is our best course of action.”

    I like the way you put that. I’m not advocating for painful actions myself, but I admit anything is better than nothing in a case like this.

  10. I love that word “echo systems.” That is just the coolest typo I have seen in a long time (and this comes from the king of typos, especially as I get older).

  11. I didn’t catch that until Geoff pointed it out. When I read “echo systems,” I thought the writer was talking about carbon reservoirs (ocean, soil, plant) “echoing” changes seen in the atmosphere.

  12. So AGW is probably true. So what? Is it a bad thing? Would it be bad if Greenland was green again as in the days of the Vikings? Would it be bad if England could grow grapes as easily as France, as they did during the last warm age? In fact, lifestyle increased for most in Europe because crops had a longer growing season, etc.

    The last few little “Ice Ages” or cooling periods brought about the plague, which wiped out over 1/3 of the populations of Europe and Asia. One caused starvation in France, leading to the French Revolution. Diseased human carcases lay scattered across the globe. One forced the Vikings to abandon the New World as too cold even for them to survive. The last Big Ice Age wiped out many species (and it wasn’t manmade), including sabre toothed cats, mammoths, and probably Neanderthal man.

    So, while any climate change will affect life on earth, before we start making any major efforts in either direction, shouldn’t we conclude a study to determine what the overall effects will be?

  13. Geoff B had written,

    Bruce, you sure write pretty.

    Heh. :-) Yeah, I’d have to agree. Very well written and an excellent job overall. I’m taking notes.

  14. Rameumptom (cool name) said,

    So AGW is probably true. So what? Is it a bad thing?

    In the overall scheme of things, if you are talking of spans of hundreds or thousands of years, or you are taking a macroscopic or ‘god-like’ view of world history, then probably not. The earth will eventually recover after we stop poisoning it.

    But if you have a more local, selfish view; and you are looking at the near future and the quality of life for our children, yeah there’s some concern.

    Some of the AGW believer extremists say that “it would cause a mass extinction of almost all life and probably reduce humanity to a few struggling groups of embattled survivors clinging to life near the poles.” In addition, dogs and cats will be living together and I’ve heard there will be mass hysteria. :-)

    As you’ve probably gathered from that snarky comment, I personally don’t think the extremists’ worst case scenarios will occur. But there will be some ill effects. Most likely a small reduction in the world’s ability to create food at the level it does now. The most worrying of the effects, though, is probably the acidification of the ocean. (Page 184 has a summary if you don’t want to read the whole PDF.)

  15. Bruce (and others), on the matter of probability, I recommend a NY Times science column, “Chances Are”:

    In one study, Gigerenzer and his colleagues asked doctors in Germany and the United States to estimate the probability that a woman with a positive mammogram actually has breast cancer, even though she’s in a low-risk group: 40 to 50 years old, with no symptoms or family history of breast cancer. To make the question specific, the doctors were told to assume the following statistics — couched in terms of percentages and probabilities — about the prevalence of breast cancer among women in this cohort, and also about the mammogram’s sensitivity and rate of false positives:

    The probability that one of these women has breast cancer is 0.8 percent. If a woman has breast cancer, the probability is 90 percent that she will have a positive mammogram. If a woman does not have breast cancer, the probability is 7 percent that she will still have a positive mammogram. Imagine a woman who has a positive mammogram. What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer?

    [. . .]

    When Gigerenzer asked 24 other German doctors the same question, their estimates whipsawed from 1 percent to 90 percent. Eight of them thought the chances were 10 percent or less, 8 more said 90 percent, and the remaining 8 guessed somewhere between 50 and 80 percent. Imagine how upsetting it would be as a patient to hear such divergent opinions.

    As for the American doctors, 95 out of 100 estimated the woman’s probability of having breast cancer to be somewhere around 75 percent.

    The right answer is 9 percent.

  16. The thing that struck me about Bruce’s post is the question, “What kind of proof would you accept?” That’s a question I had never stopped to ask myself, but will continue to ponder.

    It reminds me of the question I sometimes ask atheists. They say, “If God exists why doesn’t he just appear before me and announce himself?” I answer, “Even if he did that, that would not prove he is what he claims to be.” Having an apparition that tells you it is the omniscient God does not prove he is really omniscient, even if his claim is accompanied by smoke and lightning. The only one who can know for sure whether a being is omniscient, is an omniscient being. So the question for an atheist demanding proof for God’s existence, is “What kind of proof would you accept?” In fact there is no proof they would accept, because there is no proof, period. This is why religious belief is an act of faith, i.e. it’s based on evidence, including testimony as well as logical argument, but is neither proven nor self-evident. Yet this does not render belief foolish or irrational.

    My religious belief, insofar as it is grounded on my intellectual faculties, is based on a confluence of varying strands of evidence (including testimony, argument and experience) all pointing to the same thing, to the extent that it became, for me, more unreasonable to continue disbelieving than to believe. My answer to the question, what would it take to convince me of AGW, probably would have to be something similar: It would have to become, for whatever reason, more unreasonable to continue disbelieving in AGW, than to believe in it.

    I think one thing holding me back is the fact that, currently, belief in AGW in this country is divided so cleanly along party lines. In addition, that skepticism is holding out so strongly despite the fact that the media and academia have overwhelmingly bought into AGW and been ceaselessly browbeating the public over it. I tend to believe that a position that can hold out against those odds (which it has in common with several other positions of mine that have been under siege, such as homosexual marriage) must have something going for it.

    My skepticism toward a position probably increases in proportion to the level of hysteria it inspires in the media, academia and the Hollywood elite.

    Now you raised the point that even AGW skeptics affirm the manmade increase in CO2. I’m interested to see what you make of that in your next post.

  17. Agellius, I think you make some interesting points. Bruce’s point seems to be “you have to believe in AGW because some of the skeptics even believe in part of it.” But that is kind of like saying, “you have to believe in God because even some agnostics acknowledge that they don’t know how the Earth was created and acknowledge it is possible an intelligent being like God may have created it.” We know that is not enough. Agnostics say they don’t know — that is very different than saying they believe in God (believe me, I used to be an agnostic). I would say that Steve McIntyre’s position is closer to an AGW skeptic who is an agnostic on some areas of the issue of climate change.

    The other point I would make is that it is important to “follow the money” on this issue. Who are the people who have all the money? The AGW Believers. Warming alarmists love to claim the opposition is funded by the oil companies, but the reality is that McIntyre, McKitrick, Anthony Watts and most of the skeptic professors, are not getting a dime from any big corporations. Meanwhile, the Believers are getting millions in grants from various organizers including — tada! — the oil companies like BP who want to “look green!”


    To be clear, this does not mean that Bruce’s logical trail in this series in unsound. Just musin’ about some interesting things to think about.

  18. Geoff B opined,

    Bruce’s point seems to be “you have to believe in AGW because some of the skeptics even believe in part of it.”

    Ah, no. That is not at all what he said. Please re-read his posts.

    Geoff B also declared,

    The other point I would make is that it is important to “follow the money” on this issue. Who are the people who have all the money? The AGW Believers.

    They have all the money? Really?

    And Geoff B articulated,

    … the reality is that McIntyre, McKitrick, Anthony Watts and most of the skeptic professors, are not getting a dime from any big corporations.

    That’s an obvious misdirection that ignores where the money actually is. Some examples:

    The Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change is organized and “sponsored” by the Heartland Institute, an extremely conservative U.S. think tank. Heartland claims on its website that no energy industry money was used to support the conference, but did not address tobacco industry funding which was very significant. Still, a substantial number of conference sponsors — including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Independent Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, Frontiers of Freedom and Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy — have received support from energy or tobacco companies, or both. The Heartland Institute itself has received funding from Exxon and Philip Morris.

    Billionaire tycoon David Koch and his brother Charles are the VP and CEO of Koch Industries the second-largest privately-held corporation in the U.S. Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP) received 
$5,176,500 from Koch foundations from 2005 to 2008. 

Beginning in 2008, Americans For Prosperity organised fake ‘grassroots’ local events across the US including the “Hot Air Tour”, featuring a hot air balloon, that was intended to build opposition to US legislation on clean energy and climate change.
 A Koch-funded study claimed that renewable energy in Spain had led to the country losing jobs. This is simply not true and the report was thoroughly discredited. Flawed though the study was, it was used in efforts to influence US politicians against taking climate action. A report, released on March 30, 2010 shows that foundations controlled by Koch Industries contributed US$48.5 million to climate opposition groups from 1997 to 2008. A Greenpeace PDF on Koch Industries can be found here. (Yeah, I know it’s Greenpeace. I don’t like them either. But despite their over-the-top rhetoric and “colorful” screed, I dare you to refute their facts on funding. Their facts, not their rhetoric.)

    These are just two of dozens of other corporations who have spent billions into programs, politicians, the media, the Tea Party and other fake “grassroots” groups who have fueled the anti-AGW engine.

    I don’t refute what you said in your post, Geoff; the believers do get a lot of money too. But your words were extremely misleading.

  19. James wrote: “These are just two of dozens of other corporations who have spent billions into programs, politicians, the media, the Tea Party and other fake “grassroots” groups who have fueled the anti-AGW engine.”

    The Tea Party is a “fake” grassroots group? Really? You know you argument against Adam was going pretty good until you made this comment. And do you really think they’ve spent “billions” on it? Millions, maybe. Right now, I’d say you both are equal: FAIL.

    The reality is, there is lots of money on both sides. And there are lots of qualified scientists on both sides of the argument, and everywhere in between. There are many, for example, who believe in AGW, but do not believe in cap and trade or the Kyoto agreement: very austere actions that enrich a few (like Al Gore), but do almost nothing to end global warming. China just surpassed the USA in energy consumption. Kyoto Treaty and cap’n trade are not going to stop them from out-polluting Americans.

  20. Rameumpton wrote,

    The Tea Party is a “fake” grassroots group? Really?

    More truthfully, the fake “grassroots” organizations that eventually became the Tea Party, were heavily funded and organized by extremely conservative think tanks (AFP & CSE. See below). The current Tea Party movement has since morphed dramatically from its origins, however. And so you are correct by pointing out that my words above were sloppily delivered: the Tea Party should no longer be considered “fake.” The Tea Party has moved on to become more than it’s artificial beginnings.

    Nonetheless, the current Tea Party is still mainly sponsored by two extremely conservative groups: Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. David Koch of Koch Industries (see my previous post) was a co-founder of Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), the predecessor of FreedomWorks, where he served as chairman of the board of directors. The Koch family had given more than $12 million to CSE between 1985 and 2002. Since CSE reorganized as FreedomWorks, Koch Industries has denied any direct funding to it.

    However, the company still heavily funds Americans for Prosperity (AFP). AFP was founded in part by the company’s Executive Vice President, David Koch. He is currently the chairman of the board of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. AFP also strongly advocates pro-tobacco industry positions on issues like cigarette taxes and clean indoor air laws all over the country. In 2009 Americans for Prosperity, along with The 912 Project, was one of the conservative groups involved in organizing “town hall protests” and “recess rallies” where participants oppose health care reform by rambunctiously shouting down members of Congress while they are holding public meetings to inform the public about the proposals. (No, those weren’t a spur-of-the-moment thing, they were skillfully organized. Impressively so, actually.)

    Now these organizations have every right to exist, of course. And there’s nothing wrong with them pouring lots of money into the Tea Party. I’m just pointing out the fact that the Tea Party is not quite as “grassroots” as everyone thinks it is. I’ll agree completely with you that the Tea Party is quite definitely grassroots at the bottom. Almost all of the “mom and pop,” average-Joe Tea Party folks are good people who have little to no ties with the leaders of the group, and are simply organizing for themselves because they happen to believe in what the Tea Party stands for. I have a few of them as neighbors, and they are very good and kind people who would give you the coat off of their backs if you needed it.

    But when you look at the leaders; the “movers and shakers” of the Tea Party, it’s a different story. They are deep inside the Koch family’s pocket.

    Rameumpton typed,

    And do you really think they’ve spent “billions” on it? Millions, maybe.

    I never said billions were spent on the Tea Party. You are bending my words. If you re-read it, I say that billions were spent on a list of things that included the Tea Party. Or, in other words the billions were spent on the group, not on each individual member of the group.

    Rameumpton also typed,

    The reality is, there is lots of money on both sides.

    I did not say otherwise. I agree. I was merely pointing out that Geoff B’s post was highly deceptive and biased.

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