Considering Science as Truth using Climate Change as an Example

We rely daily on science and it’s models to guide everything from what we eat, to the medicines we take, to the construction of the machines we use to get to work and back.

But are the models 100% certain?  Are they True with a capital T?

That question misunderstands how science works.

  • There are all sorts of stories about how the world works.
  • If your story is going to be science you need to be able to use it to generate bets.
  • The bets need to be bets you can settle using something observable.
  • The outcome has to be defined clearly enough that all parties agree it settles the bet and are willing to pay up. Even folks that do not like your story have to admit you won the bet.
  • If your story productively generates enough bets and then wins those bets,  your story is considered a ‘robust’ explanation of how things work.
  • Scientific Theories are the stories. They need to be able to generate Testable Hypothesis: the bets. Experiments test the hypothesis and declare the winner. Some theories win a lot.
  • We call the robust big winners ‘true’…but it’s more complicated.

Newton’s theories were incredibly robust until they got reframed by Einstein. Now they’re consider ‘true within limits.’ Big components, eg gravity itself, mean something very different to Einstein than to Newton.

Einstein’s Theories of Relativity are considered incredibly robust. And, along with most of physics (the most precise science we’ve got) there’s evidence that they’ll be reframed again within the next decade or three.

Net net, Newtonian mechanics aren’t ‘100% certain’…just true within the limits of our current understanding…but you bet your life on them every time you get in a car.

Science: being 25 years past my pre-science life expectancy, I’m a big fan!

The theory that we’re seeing potentially catastrophic human-caused climate change is, unfortunately, extremely robust at this point.

The models, also, point to ways we can mitigate that if we act in time.

Theories about climate change are contained in big models with precise mathematical relationships between the working parts. Globally there are 26 different research groups building competing climate models.

The models are in broad agreement on the big picture and are battling the fine points.  On that front, they’re duking it out in peer reviewed journals for glory and funding. Yes, scientists do want glory and need funding.  They are competing for attention and get glory and funding by winning bets, ie making accurate predictions. There’s an argument that this is harmful to the overall progress of science but, for now, winners win and losers lose.

It’s easier to shrug off the scientific evidence for climate change if you don’t dig into the modeling. This article from Bloomsberg Business Week, “What’s Really Warming the World?”, shows the detail and complexity being modeled better than anything else I’ve read. I think it makes the evidence much more compelling.

A final observation: if you do not have a model that’s winning bets against the others then you haven’t made table stakes. I don’t care if you’re some yahoo on talk radio or Freeman Dyson, one of my heroes.

 

 

 

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