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Skeptics – Nature of Science

February 16, 2010 4 comments

DC Snow Storm

Does the Snow-pocalypse this past week disprove Global Warming?
No
Does the heat wave in Brazil prove GW?
No

The whole Climate Change debate is way off kilter here. The language being used by both sides, and I’m as guilty as anyone, doesn’t do anything to advance the knowledge on what is actually happening.

I see the whole Climate Change/Global Warming/AGW debate a different way.

You have to separate what we are actually debating here. There are two distinct and separate issues going on. The first question that needs to be asked is, is the Earth getting warmer?

I think the answer to that is yes. The earth is getting warmer over the past hundred years. This is natural warming that should be expected by anyone, since we came out of the Little Ice Age in the late 19th century. Obviously, if the Earth were still cooling, we’d still be in the ice age, but to paraphrase Newton’s Third Law; what goes down must come up!

The second question that needs to be asked is; is the warming due to Man, i.e. Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW)?

This is where the debate starts and were it gets tricky. Personally, I say no. The way I see it, is that there isn’t enough evidence to support that claim. Proponents of AGW say otherwise. This is the crux of the debate and the cause of all the confusion.This is also where the skeptics come in.

Nature of Science

Science and the scientific method are tools that can be used to increase our level of knowledge about the world around us and the universe. Like any tool, it has it’s pros and its cons. Also, like any tool, it can be used for good or evil (and no I don’t mean a Sith Lord type of evil).

The nature of Science Method is to be skeptical. The different steps involved, evolved around a certain amount of skepticism in both the hypothesis being tested, methodology used and the results from which we draw our conclusions. We test our hypothesis because we are skeptical that the hypothesis is correct. That seems kind of obvious, but it’s the foundation of the whole methodology being used. If we were to take the hypothesis as true (non-skeptical approach), why should we even test it? It would be much easier to just assume something happens the way we say so and go about our business.

Skepticism

The nature of a scientist is to be skeptical of the answers being given. That is why they try to verify other people’s work. Reproducibility is just another name for testing other people’s hypothesis. Why do you do that? Five points if you said, because your skeptical of their work.

They way we do that in modern science is through a peer review process. The way a peer review should work, is that a scientist submits their; hypothesis, methodology, results and conclusions to another scientist, which doesn’t exactly have to be in the same field but that helps. The peer, then goes through the first scientist’s work for errors. Why does he spend so much time; reviewing, auditing and reproducing the first scientists work? Three points if you say, because he is skeptical of the first. (No more points because you should have guessed the pattern here by now.)

After multiple rounds of peer reviews, the hypothesis sits in a special place. It sits waiting for someone to come along and show that it is wrong.  Why? Yeah I don’t even need to ask that question anymore right?

Take Einstein’s General Relativity for example. When Einstein first proposed his landmark theory in 1915, most of his peers out-and-out rejected him. They didn’t see any evidence to support Einstein’s hypothesis. So in 1919, Sir Eddington observed during a solar eclipse that light was being bent by the gravity of the Sun. It wasn’t until after this observation that any one in the scientific community took Einstein seriously. something we do almost reflexively now. The reason behind that was and always is, skepticism. The scientific community was skeptical of the claims being made by Einstein and want to a way to test Einstein’s hypothesis. What would have happened if the eclipse would have shown no light being bent? Well then, we probably wouldn’t know who that scruffy haired man was right now.

Gravitational Lens

Only a select few hypothesis actually go long enough to become a Theory. Even fewer make it long enough to become a Law. At anytime, hypothesis, theories or laws can be shown to be false.

Well how can you show a law to be wrong? Doesn’t the word law mean that it is in fact been proven true? Well to answer that look no farther that the Biogenetic Law that has been thoroughly dismissed by modern scientist in light of the evidence. At one time though, it was a well established Law that most people in the field subscribed to. What caused it’s demise? Some damn skeptic came along and didn’t think it was quite right and did his own experiments that showed that the biogenetic law of embryo development was rubbish. Damn those skeptics, how dare they increase our knowledge because they don’t trust other scientists word.

One consequence of the scientific method is that everything can be falsified. Einstein said it best with, “”No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Karl Popper made the point that a scientific theory is only “scientific” only if it is falsifiable. I don’t want to get into Popperian vs Bayesian, but I think it’s fair to say we live in a Popperian scientific world. In fact my whole rant here is based upon my Popperian notion of science.

I’m going to wait for another post to talk about how the Climate Change debate has moved away from actual Popperian science to the realm of religious fury in part II.

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