Global Warming, Conditional Truth, and the Rights of Heretics

By Chuck Spinney

[DNI Editor’s note: An increase of even a few degrees in world average temperature over the next several decades could drown populous coastal regions, reduce the world’s stock of arable land, and perhaps accelerate the rise and intensify the effects of pandemics. Any of these could increase the likelihood of armed conflict between states and could lead to the disintegration of marginal states. Solutions, however, based on an inadequate understanding of the world meteorological system could damage economies without solving the problem. So it is important that we think logically and act scientifically when formulating policies to deal with global warming.]

I have been an avid sailor for over 25 years and that experience tells me the climate has changed, seeming to become warmer and certainly more unstable, but I do not like being stampeded into conclusions by slick Pentagon style briefings like the maudlin exercise in self-referencing that got Al Gore his Nobel Prize.

Global Warming, specifically the idea that it is a product of mankind’s activities, has now achieved iconic status in public discourse. Yet, it is a theory based on extensions of scientific knowledge that are problematic at best and science fiction at worst. Nevertheless, thanks in part to the syrupy musings of Gore, it is becoming more and more difficult to have a debate based on the principles of science over the question of global warming because nefarious motives are now attributed to anyone who disagrees with the consensus view.

But the essence of scientific discourse is to question the consensus view. Science revolves around the idea of conditional truth and the principle of falsification — that is to say, the idea that any scientific hypothesis, be it a consensus view or a radical departure from that view, must be framed in such a way that it can be falsified by observation, testing, and/or analysis. If a legitimate hypothesis can not be falsified in a given experimental effort, then the theory predicting the outcome specified by that hypothesis can be accepted as conditionally true, but never absolutely true.

Viewed from the perspective of science, therefore, the theory of Global Warming is not a fact nor is it a truth. At best, it is a theory that is conditionally true, and then only if scientifically legitimate hypotheses derived from this theory can not be disproved by critical observation, testing, or analysis. And this condition can occur only if such hypotheses are constructed in such a way that they can be disproved by a logical contradiction or via anomalous observations or experimental results, should they occur.

For those readers who think this is too high a bar, consider, please, fact that this is, after all, the same scientific standard that Isaac Newton’s theories of cosmology had to meet. And when the anomalies like the test results of the Michaelson-Morely experiment began to crop up and raise the doubts the veracity of Newton’s theory, the principle of falsifiability intervened to force open the door to the advancement in knowledge now known as Einstein’s cosmology. Never, however, did it reflect poorly on the ability of Newton or the elegance of his work.

Indeed, it is clear from the study of the history of science that the principle of falsifiability is the engine powering the great leaps forward in science and the growth of knowledge. And in this context, it is important to remember also that boundaries of knowledge are limited by the suite of falsifiable hypotheses accepted to date — i.e., those that have be subjected successfully to critical observations/tests/analyses. Any attempt to predict or to construct a vision beyond these boundaries falls into the categories of speculation or faith, not science.

So, with these thoughts in mind, lets look at how the question of Global Warming through the scientific lens of conditional truth.

Freeman Dyson, one of our nation’s most esteemed scientists, analyzes this question in the a recent thought provoking essay. His open attitude of intellectual tolerance also illustrates the kind of mentality that produces real science, not bad power point briefings. I urge you to read it carefully.

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