Science Is Never Settled

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In his 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore promotes the view that anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW) is fact and has caused nearly every malady in recent history from hurricane Katrina to the spread of malaria. What’s more, things are going to get worse; it’s not a question of if but when and how much.

The film’s inaccuracies and the failure of its predications to materialize have not deterred 29-year-old bartender-turned-Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), from weighing in with her answers: “twelve years” and “the end of the world” respectively—unless, that is, we implement the fresh democratic visionary’s umpteen trillion dollar New Green Deal to transform American life, making it “carbon-neutral” in ten years by eliminating everything from fossil fuels to flatus.

One has to wonder, though, if man-made warming is real, why is Earth’s closest neighbor, Mars, warming? Could it be that sun spot cycles and solar winds are the major drivers of climate?

Settled Science?
Red flags should go up every time we hear “There is no longer any debate, the science is settled.” History is full of “widows” who were wedded to the science of the age. Adherents to Ptolemaic geocentrism, Newtonian determinism, and spacetime absolutism come to mind.

 

Consider the medicinal use of leeches. The practice of bloodletting with leeches began around the fifth century BC and continued until it fell into disrepute around 1850. Then, about 20 years ago, it was revived as a medically approved procedure. Similarly, the winds of climate change pointed toward global cooling as recently as three decades back.

My technical expertise is in nuclear science, which shares some important features with climate science: both deal with highly complex systems and both rely on computer models to make decisions. As a 30-year veteran in the nuclear industry who was responsible for developing radiation transport models, I know how easily models can be misused, whether intentionally or not.

For example, every calculation involves unknowns which must be dealt with. Within what is legally permissible, an engineer can make a host of assumptions that can lead to a range of results depending on what he is trying to accomplish. If his goal is to maximize safety, he’ll shape his analysis to support closing the plant. If his goal is to minimize cost, he’ll tweak the model to justify the adequacy of current controls. And if he wants to optimize safety and cost, he’ll configure his calculation to help determine what controls are necessary for a reasonable level of risk.

The same is true with global warming. Some folks use models to prove that our situation is so dire that unless we commit to Draconian measures all is lost. Others are using them to demonstrate the biosphere sufficient to handle anything we pump into it. Then there are those seeking a reasonable balance between the risks and benefits of an industrialized society.

What’s a Layman to Do?
For the layman this can be frustrating. I’ve had folks tell me that if the scientific consensus supports warming “it’s good enough for me.” That’s an understandable but dangerous stance.

Consider the case for Intelligent Design. If tallies of expert opinions and peer-reviewed papers are the ultimate criteria, ID is a hands-down loser. To adequately sift fact from fancy, one must also consider the philosophy behind the science.  That is because science is not as objective as commonly believed.

Mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle once offered this fitting warning: “It is a mistake to suppose that science is an unswerving pursuit of objective truth. Partially it is, but only to the extent that the truth does not turn out to contradict what has already been taught in the educational process.” This should give us pause the next time we hear “The science is in!”

Specifically, we should be wary of claims which presuppose man as a cosmic happenstance, sin as transgression against Gaia, salvation through science, or a coming judgment from Mother Nature. Through that lens man is just another beast—albeit in Calvin Kleins—with no inherent worth above that of his hairy kin on the savannah. As a result, New York City residents or villagers in Sudan are on equal footing with a school of snail darters.

It’s also important to realize that every group has its special interests, be they financial, political, or spiritual. Al Gore once noted, “You can’t make somebody understand something if their salary depends upon them not understanding it.” That’s well said, but it applies equally to him as it does to his critics.

Evaluating the Merits
We often hear the charge that global warming skeptics are bankrolled by Big Oil. While it is true that energy industry lobbyists hire climate specialists, that, in itself, does not invalidate their position. The charge has a whiff of smugness in its assumption that global warming proponents are objective with no vested interests of their own. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every research project is in competition with every other project for research dollars. In a marketplace economy, those who capture the public interest and convince funding institutions of their technical merit generally come out on top. A proven formula involves promoting one’s project with a sense of urgency and visions of the apocalyptic, combined with negative campaigning against the opposition.

This is played out daily in the intelligent design controversy. Science gatekeepers insist the only thing separating us from our Bronze Age forebears is adherence to materialistic science. “There is no debate,” they wag, “about Darwin’s theory—evolution is FACT!” Then they portray ID theorists as “out-of-the mainstream” and their studies as “pseudo-science.” See how this works?

The same machinations are in play in the global warming debate. Well before people like Al Gore began claiming “the debate is over,” advocate Steve Schneider tipped their hand: “we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

Picking up the baton, AOC claims that “Our planet is going to face disaster if we don’t turn this ship around,” then questions whether it is right (does she mean morally? prudentially?) to have children.

And negative campaigning? That’s something Dr. Jasper Kirby, a prominent researcher at the prestigious Geneva-based CERN institute, knows all about.

Over ten years ago, Kirby announced a project to determine the role of solar activity and cosmic rays in global warming. Despite the ground-breaking potential of his research, Kirby was soon attacked by an establishment fearful that his study would challenge the “settled” science of human causes. In the firestorm that followed, funding for Kirby’s study—which was thought by many of his CERN colleagues to be profoundly important in understanding climate trends—was canceled.

Doing the Right Things
Only in a climate of open inquiry can we hope to unravel this complex issue in order to responsibly balance our mandate to “fill and multiply” with our charge to manage and enrich creation.

Having said this let me add that I agree with many of the recommendations of climate change activists: recycle more, drive less, adjust our thermostats, reduce consumables, plant trees, and the like. All are in keeping with biblical stewardship, regardless of global warming.

What I question are measures, like The Green New Deal, which are artificially driven by speculative cataclysmic scenarios, drain resources away from addressing the very real, global needs for clean water, health care, and human rights, and give government increasing power to control our public and private lives according to the lights of social visionaries like AOC.

Regis Nicoll

By

Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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