Tim Blair

Jan 4, 2010

Blair fails Philosophy of Science 101

Guest post by Michael Slezak Tim Blair's

Guest post by Michael Slezak

Tim Blair’s most recent attack on reason came in the form of a post that argues that we shouldn’t appeal to scientific consensus when devising policy. Behind Blair’s rhetoric is a very common argument that, while faulty, is surprisingly powerful. Debunking it is worthwhile, especially when this faulty logic is used to justify doing nothing about climate change.

Blair lists a bunch of things that have been mislabeled as science (like Marx’s social theory) and a bunch of things that scientists have said that have been proven to be wrong. In each of these cases, the arguments that relied on the so-called “science” were bad. Blair concludes that appealing to science, in general, is therefore a rhetorical trick that ought to be avoided.

Science is a powerful word, now more so than ever, which is why it’s so often invoked by non-scientists (Engels, Kevin Rudd, Al Gore, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong, angry emailers) seeking authority. Mention “science” and you’ve won. Which might explain Penny Wong’s recent comment on The 7.30 Report:

“I looked to where the weight of the science is, where the consensus science is, and I look to the fact that our own scientific institutions in Australia, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the international scientific community.”

How could one dare oppose someone so awesome that they can cite science four times in a single sentence, even if that sentence is scientifically short on verbs in relation to nouns?

As a champion of science and evidence-based policy, you might be surprised to hear me agree with two of Blair’s supposedly anti-science premises.

  1. Our current scientific theories are almost certainly wrong.
  2. You shouldn’t believe scientists.

Let me start with the second issue. Blair takes great pleasure in making fun of the supposedly silly things that scientists have said. (He’s running a series of posts about it.) Among the list are scientists saying quirky things that nobody else has ever agreed with as well as the results of studies that were unable to be confirmed.

Blair is exactly right that it would have been a mistake to make policy based on the advice of these quirky scientists or studies that appeared to reveal something that was never confirmed.

Nevertheless, Wong is expressing the right attitude: policy should be based on scientific consensus. Scientific knowledge is not made up of quirky scientists and lone studies, it is made up of broad consensus.

So, while you shouldn’t believe scientists, but you should believe science. And the scientific consensus around climate change is very clear.

Ok, but none of that seems to matter if we accept the other premise above, right? If our current scientific theories are wrong, then why should we make policy based on them?

Firstly, it’s true: our current scientific theories are almost certainly wrong. If you look through history, all of our most successful, most beautiful and most explanatory theories have been wrong. Based on that evidence, we’d be mad to think our current theories are right. Philosophers of science call this argument the Pessimistic Meta-Induction. (Comedian Dara O’Briain makes some funny jokes about misuses of this form of reasoning.)

The question is, what follows from the Pessimistic Meta-Induction? If our theories are false, should we ignore them?

The answer is a clear “No”. If you look through the history of science, successful scientific theories that garnered consensus yielded good advice. Although Newtonian mechanics is wrong, it still yields the right advice for any situation you’re likely to come across.

Newtonian mechanics will tell you that if you want your car to go faster, you should make it less heavy. Just because the theory behind that advice turned out to be wrong, doesn’t mean the advice was wrong.

Similarly, even if climate science turns out to be inaccurate in some way, the advice it is giving us is clear. Cutting emissions is essential for stopping global warming.

So, the two premises I originally agreed to can now be appended:

  1. Our current scientific theories are almost certainly wrong, but you should do what they say anyway.
  2. You shouldn’t believe scientists, you should believe science.

Neither of these two observations about science form a sound basis for arguments against acting according to our best scientific theories. Anyone who tells you otherwise is pushing a dangerous agenda.

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67 comments

67 thoughts on “Blair fails Philosophy of Science 101

  1. Shabadoo

    If you believe that turning anything off for Earth Hour, monkeywrench, will do anything to “save the planet”, then I think Peebee has a number of other odd beliefs for you to sign up for as well.

  2. monkeywrench

    shabs @47, retreading the denialist memes around the CRU hacked emails….my, hasn’t that earthshattering scandal fizzled out! And the plaintive refrain about his poor little lightbulbs reminds me of the dopes who leave their appliances on for Earth Hour; almost like burning down their own homes sends a witty message about bushfire protection. You really have to laugh.

  3. Michael Slezak

    Evan Beaver writes: “… I think wrong implies complete incorrectness… Using the Newtonian example, I just didn’t follow this argument. Of course your car will go faster if you make it lighter. Newtonian mechanics are essentially correct until you approach VERY high speeds;”

    Yes, that’s right. I believe I made the same point. The fact is that it is very hard to explain in what way a theory like Newton’s could be “essentially” or “almost” or “approximately” correct. (There’s a big literature on this in philosophy of science.)

    So, I went with the strategy of accepting that our current theories might be wrong and asking “So what? Should we ignore the advice they offer?” As you point out, the answer to that question in the case of Newtonian mechanics is “no”. The advice is still good. My argument is that if other theories turn out to be a bit inaccurate too (and thus “wrong”), their advice should still be followed.

    But I accept your point that there is some intuitive sense in which “wrong” theories are “approximately” right.

  4. Shabadoo

    John, if I’m a petulant child because I can’t choose how I light my home, I presume you’re OK with Rudd’s Great Firewall?

    Was the Australian “hottest decade on record” put together with dummy weather stations, as the CRU emails reveal (oh wait, I’m just a patsy for thinking there’s something wrong when researchers admit that data is made up from whole cloth, that FOIs are to be avoided at all costs, and that it’s not right to set the peer review process up so that only your friends review your work)? In any case, again, one time period out of a hundred years, when the climate is so much older, is hardly a basis for re-engineering the economy.

    PeeBee, folks like you do your cause the most harm: Dear opponents, you are morons! Follow us! And in terms of my belief structure, well, one out of ten ain’t bad.

  5. PeeBee

    Shabadoo, do you realise you are a patsy to the denialist camp. They love gullible people who are esentially not very bright, but think they are such as yourself, to spruik their cause.

    You fit the denialist ‘willing helper’ mould of NOT being in control of your life and see consipracies around every corner to manipulate you.

    You are being manipulated but don’t see it, because it is by the denialist camp. You are oblivious to any other input and simply evade thinking about the many contrary points given to you.

    You distrust just about everyone as having other motives, but happy accept without question what the denialists put out.

    You do NOT have an ounce of doubt about what you are saying. Despite not being a scientist, you do not accept what the vast majority of scientists, who have spend their lifetimes in their chosen field, are telling you. This doesn’t appear to worry you as somehow you know better.

    My bet is that you believe in:

    Astrology
    Reflexology
    ESP
    God
    Smoking does not cause cancer
    Jewish manipulation of the internal monetary fund
    Ghosts
    UFOs
    Crop circles created by creaters from other worlds
    Creationism

    Because I find the the denialist quiet easily slip between one set of beliefs into others that do not need any evidence.

  6. Evan Beaver

    I’ve come in late here, but I didn’t find this post very helpful. There is deep subtlety to the argument, which I believe is lost completely by the statement:
    “Our current scientific theories are almost certainly wrong, but you should do what they say anyway.”

    Mostly because I think wrong implies complete incorrectness; like the theories have been proposed over the years and then almost always found to be completely the opposite. This could not be further from the truth.

    Using the Newtonian example, I just didn’t follow this argument. Of course your car will go faster if you make it lighter. Newtonian mechanics are essentially correct until you approach VERY high speeds; somewhere above .999 C or something like that. F still equals m x a; bodies in motion tend to stay in motion and forces continue to be balanced. I’m so hung up on this I’ve missed the point of the original post.

    Having just read Blair’s post I suspect it was all tongue in cheek in any case. I know he’s a halfwit, but the only ‘scientist’ he mentions is Marx (classic punching bag of the Right) and bases that on what someone else said about him.

  7. bertus

    Dave C @ 33 – it’s 1950s-70s Big Tobaccy Mk II.

    Obfuscate, mislead, deny, confuse, denigrate, belittle, wilfully misunderstand, misrepresent, misuse evidence (all-time classic example being the “it hasn’t warmed since 1998 – right, take literally the biggest statistical outlier in history, and use that as the start of your ‘statistical’ series), etc, etc,

    Etc.

    In other words, filibuster, for all you’re worth, while the interests you represent continue to make a profit.

    I really don’t know how these people sleep at night.

  8. Dave C

    Telling people they can’t fly/drive/use whatever bloody lightbulb they want is, I think, an assault on freedom in my book.

    It looks a little ridiculous when you try to invoke “freedom” on matters of collective responsibility.

    Suppose, just for a minute, that the science is right; that AGW is real and the economic and humanitarian consequences are dire. Just suppose, hypothetically. Then, would it still be an “assault on freedom” to tell people to use energy-saving light bulbs? If it were really happening, would you still rail against attempts to mitigate it?

    If “no”, then your principles are quite rubbery indeed. If “yes”, then you’re saying that the loss of such “freedoms” trumps economic and humanitarian catastrophe.

  9. Adam Rope

    Shabadoo @ 28 “If temperatures are rising, and I don’t think they are, we are talking about something occurring over a very tiny period of time, and the data is compromised.”

    Interesting you don’t think temperatures are rising on the same day that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reports that 2009 was the “Second warmest year for Australia.”

    http://www.bom.gov.au/announcements/media_releases/climate/change/20100105.shtml

    “Data collected by the Bureau of Meteorology indicate that Australia’s annual mean temperature for 2009 was 0.90°C above the 1961-90 average, making it the nation’s second warmest year since high-quality records began in 1910. High temperatures were especially notable in the southeast during the second half of the year, with Australia, Victoria, South Australia and NSW all recording their warmest July-December periods on record.”

    Oh, and how exactly is what specific ‘data’, and in what way & by what method was it ‘compromised’? Actual details please.

  10. John

    Telling people they can’t fly/drive/use whatever bloody lightbulb they want is, I think, an assault on freedom in my book.

    Just the kind of thinking you’d expect from a petulant child who’s never been told “no”.

  11. fredex

    On the subject of science always being wrong, Isaac Asimov has a few valid points to make.

    Here is a reference to such via PZ Meyers.
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/12/isaac_asimov_and_the_fuzzy_nat.php

    A few brief extracts [out of context so check out the whole]
    ” …in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong ……The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

    However, I don’t think that’s so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so. …”

    Which is recommended reading.

  12. confessions

    [Why don’t you start a Teabugger-style campaign, Shabs….how about “The Eureka Campaign”, using the Eureka Stockade freedom-mythology.]

    LOL, and their catchcry can be “Heed this farce! End this fraud!”

    However that would take too much effort though – much easier to just throw out baseless assertions and outright lies.

  13. Shabadoo

    p.s. Go play Follow the Money with Ravi Pauchuri sometime and get back to me about the money angle.

    G’nite boyos.

  14. Shabadoo

    Telling people they can’t fly/drive/use whatever bloody lightbulb they want is, I think, an assault on freedom in my book. Other than that, I sleep very well indeed my friend.

  15. monkeywrench

    ” Assaults upon freedom”. FFS!!
    Why don’t you start a Teabugger-style campaign, Shabs….how about “The Eureka Campaign”, using the Eureka Stockade freedom-mythology. It would also be a nice insult to that famous scientist Archimedes! How apt! Don’t let those subversive Greens control our lives! To the barricades! etc etc

  16. Dewgong

    though I would also note that even the question of whether it is increasing as part of the atmosphere or is being absorbed in other systems is also in play

    It is not in play, because we have recorded data of how much Co2 is, and how much has been in the atmosphere, just like we have recorded data of global temperatures, and we also have mechanisms to determine how much was in the atmosphere in the past. The level of Co2 in the atmosphere has increased from around 250ppm or so just before industrial times to around 380ppm today.

    It may very well, but you guys are making the correlation/causation error

    I don’t know how many times this has to be killed, but nobody ever claimed correlation = causation. We Know what the effects of Co2 in the atmosphere are, we know that it causes warming, and we know it is a greenhouse gas. The theory was determined before warming was even observed. The warming that was and is being observed observed is merely a confirmation of the theory, and occurred as it predicted. Had the Earth failed to warm in accordance with the rise in Co1, then scientists would have had to go back to the drawing board to determine the real cause.

    If temperatures are rising, and I don’t think they are, we are tlaking about something occurring over a very tiny period of time, and the data is compromised.

    It doesn’t matter if you “don’t think they are” because 150 years of temperature recordings disagree with you. The heat island effect has been accounted for and it is negligible. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Instrumental_Temperature_Record.png

    The hysterical predictions of the extreme warmenists are just that, hysterical, yet they are used to justify potentially massive transfers of wealth, realignments of economies, loss of freedom, and so on.

    Those are some hysterical predictions of your own there, the conspiracy theorists have you eating right out of their hands. You are so intent on seeing conspiracy and demons where there are none that you have fallen prey to a different set of paranoid teachings. If you want an example of this, check out Plimer and Monbiot going head to head on lateline.

    and the possibility of fame and profit and power for various scientists, politicians, and assorted rent-seekers, is causing a perfect shitstorm of bad policy, bad economics, and assaults upon freedom, which we saw at Copenhagen.

    More hyperbolic nonsense. Maintaining the status quo is more profitable than taking action.

  17. confessions

    [But these and a whole other grab-bag of concerns are, mixed with the desire to control how people live their lives (which is where I part company most from the Greens) and the possibility of fame and profit and power for various scientists, politicians, and assorted rent-seekers, is causing a perfect shitstorm of bad policy, bad economics, and assaults upon freedom, which we saw at Copenhagen.]

    Good grief! How do you sleep at night with all this fear and hysteria? How on earth is providing clean energy solutions controlling how people live their lives FFS?

    And I see you are still peddling lies about researchers. I bet you don’t even know what salary an NHMRC Fellow receives.

  18. Dave C

    Great points Michael, here’s hoping this doesn’t just degenerate into yet another debate about the minutiae of the climate change evidence.

    A noble sentiment, couchy. However, this is the Internet.

    The wider debate (such as it is) rather hangs on the steady accumulation of denialist myths regarding the minutiae of the climate change evidence. The denialist movement has so little foundation in actual science that it’s predominant strategy seems to be to discredit the entire discipline in the eyes of the public.

  19. Mr. Peabody

    Shabadoo, my understanding of sunspots is that they heat the atmosphere at a uniformed rate. That is, that the upper and lower atmosphere are heated at the same rate. But this is not what is happening. The lower atmosphere is heating up at a faster rate than the upper atmosphere. Which suggest that a blanket is trapping heat in the atmosphere. This is evidence that it is the greenhouse effect which is at play here.

  20. Shabadoo

    Michael, there’s a difference between quite reasonable risk theory and the radical warmenist proposition which states that we are absolutely screwed unless we implement an entire green agenda, lock stock and barrel.

    But I’m sorry, after so many times hearing we have X days/weeks/months/years to “save the planet”, one begins to think the emperor has no clothes. And the precautionary principle is perhaps the laziest argument in the book: If it had been in force millenia ago, we never would have invented fire or the wheel. To say nothing of domesticating crops and farm animals (all too close to GM, doncha know)…

  21. Connor

    “Or do you contest the fact that Co2 is a greenhouse gas at all? Now that would just be silly.”

    I’ve seen it happen, people will go to extreme lengths to dny reality. I had one guy yesterday trying to tell me that the entire theory of the planet cooling due to IR emissions was wrong… I told him to come back when he’d published his revolutonary ideas and single handedly rewritten the second law of thermodynamics

  22. Michael Slezak

    On (3), you sound like religious people I know who say, believe what I do, your immortal soul hangs in the balance, and the stakes are too high. This is Pascal’s Wager territory — and you wonder why the cynics and skeptics call warmenism a religion!

    Shabadoo, it is just a simple expected utility calculation. (Chance of event occuring) x (payoff if event occurs). The similarity to Pascals Wager (PW) is merely that PW also uses an expected utility calculation… As does every insurance risk assessor, every rational investor and (arguably) every person every time they make a rational choice. PW is a bad argument for other reasons – not because there’s something wrong with decision theory.

  23. Shabadoo

    Dewgong, I’m afraid you haven’t been reading what I posted above — I’m not arguing the scientific basis of CO2 as a greenhouse gas (though I would also note that even the question of whether it is increasing as part of the atmosphere or is being absorbed in other systems is also in play). It may very well, but you guys are making the correlation/causation error. If temperatures are rising, and I don’t think they are, we are tlaking about something occurring over a very tiny period of time, and the data is compromised. The hysterical predictions of the extreme warmenists are just that, hysterical, yet they are used to justify potentially massive transfers of wealth, realignments of economies, loss of freedom, and so on. Temperatures have been rising and falling forever (cf. Medieval Warm Period, which the East Anglia researchers and so many others have found to be an ‘inconvenient truth’ of their own).

    I have no problem with being responsible about the environment. I like my water and air clean, thank you very much. Nor am I at a loss to see what so many find so unattractive about the vulgarisms of consumer society. But these and a whole other grab-bag of concerns are, mixed with the desire to control how people live their lives (which is where I part company most from the Greens) and the possibility of fame and profit and power for various scientists, politicians, and assorted rent-seekers, is causing a perfect shitstorm of bad policy, bad economics, and assaults upon freedom, which we saw at Copenhagen.

  24. JamesH

    Shabadoo, do you read anything about climate science besides Watts Up With That? Because none of your examples of climate science’s alleged falwes (sic) are valid outside Watts’ parallel universe.
    On sunspots, I suggest you read this Crikey article and the linked statement from NASA.
    While you’re at it, please explain how you would measure the speed of a car exactly, taking into account Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the need for an absolute frame of reference. How have you calibrated the speedometer you intend to use? To what degree of accuracy? What instruments will you use to measure time and distance, what is their error tolerance, and do those instruments use, or were they designed using (gasp) computer models, or even data sets!!???

  25. Dewgong

    Shabadoo, I’ll leave that first bit because it would require talking about the Hockey stick and also the “hockey stick is a lie” lie, but I will say that the heat island effect is negligible, I suggest you look into it further.

    If a very small amount of CO2 can cause such major changes, what about sunspots?

    What about sunspots? We all know that solar output affects the climate, nobody ever tried to claim it didn’t and nobody ever claimed that Co2 was the only thing which affected the Earth’s temperature.

    But solar output had been more or less constant throughout the period of observed warming. But another factor which drives Earth’s temperatures, Co2, has been rising, and the observed warming matches exactly what should theoretically happen with an increase of Co2 in the atmosphere where the Sun’s output remains constant. I probably don’t also need to tell you that just because Co2 only accounts for 0.38% of the atmosphere doesn’t mean that it only accounts for 0.38% of warming, its effects are greatly disproportionate to its amount.

    I’ve put this to you before and I’ll put this to you again. Why is it that you think that an increase of a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere will not have an effect upon the Earth’s temperatures?

    Or do you contest the fact that Co2 is a greenhouse gas at all? Now that would just be silly.

  26. monkeywrench

    [email protected]
    “…and before we go throwing trillions of dollars down the hopper, we should stop and think a bit.”
    The problem is, Blair and all the other denialists can provide no-one who can put up any verifiable evidence to support the contrary view that AGW is not human-related.
    Every straw man, fake scientist, semi-plausible theory backed by no actual observational evidence, eventually gets examined and proven a fraud, or the methodology found to be at fault. You said earlier: “Medical technology goes through a laborious process that includes clinical trials, double-blind studies, and other processes..”; but these criteria are actually applied to climate science where possible ( in the case of a double-blind study, it’s hard to find a twin earth to examine). So far, the only side of the argument that is consistently failing to meet the scientific standards by which theories are established is the denialist side.
    And as for sunspots: go to http://www.spaceweather.com as I do regularly, and you’ll see they have a negligible effect on climate, as the planet has been warming relentlessly whether there are many sunspots or none.In fact, it’s a good time to take up solar observation: the new solar cycle is firing up nicely, thanks to the Bolt Effect.

  27. Shabadoo

    Dewgong, so we’re talking about temperatures for a tiny fraction of the earth’s history, from recording stations that have often gone from being to hell and gone to being in the middle of dense urban heat islands …. I can go on, but really. Please.

    If a very small amount of CO2 can cause such major changes, what about sunspots? Or do they not count because they’re not caused by coal and cars and consumerism?

  28. Shabadoo

    Michael, on points (1) and (2), I’m not really sure where you get that. The mechanisms may be understood, but their effect is far less clear, the models and data deeply falwed and time after time (hockey stick, anyone? Al Gore’s ice cores?) the science has been shown to have been gamed. On (3), you sound like religious people I know who say, believe what I do, your immortal soul hangs in the balance, and the stakes are too high. This is Pascal’s Wager territory — and you wonder why the cynics and skeptics call warmenism a religion!

    Monkeywrench, I think Blair’s column speaks for itself. He’s a big boy and can defend himself, but I note that he does write, “Most scientists are entirely reasonable people who pursue their calling with dedication and resolve. But they are occasionally prone to a certain earnestness, which makes them irresistible targets for fun.”

    In other words, his exercise has been a humourous way of showing that the men (and women!) in white coats don’t always get it right, and before we go throwing trillions of dollars down the hopper, we should stop and think a bit.

  29. Dave C

    These are two utterly different things. The speed of an auto is a factor of a few demonstrable, observable factors, of which weight of the car is one, along with items such as aerodynamics, engine capacity, etc. And speed is also easily measured: There’s no complicated computer models, data sets with contradictory information, shaping of numbers, etc, required.

    Michael’s analogy does not concern the details of the theories in question. Pointing out that climate science uses different (and more complex) tools than Newtonian physics doesn’t address the argument.

    The point is that both theories are products of a large-scale scientific process. We care about this because laypeople (by definition) do not generally possess the specialist knowledge needed to, say, review a scientific paper. In seeking to understand the merits and limitations of a scientific theory, you have two choices: (a) become a scientist and perform the analysis yourself, or (b) defer to the consensus. There really isn’t any other option; at least, none that will do you any good. You can’t expect to be able to make valid criticisms of the science unless you’re actually involved in it at some level.

  30. Mr. Peabody

    Shabadoo, the problem with your speed example is that speed is relative. Not to mention the fact that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity breaks down on the quantum level.

    If you are suggesting that the Greenhouse Effect doesn’t exist on a global scale I would like to see some evidence of this. The idea that CO2 can’t possibly make a difference because it’s such a small component of the atmosphere has always seemed silly to me. The world is full of systems that can be changed drastically by increasing or decreasing minor components. Trace elements in the human body are a good example of this. Medications are given to people in extremely small doses yet their effect on the body can be extreme.

  31. Dewgong

    There’s no global speedo for temperature, and the data that has been used to attempt to construct one appears to be opaque and compromised.

    Yes there is, it’s called “every recorded temperature from around the world since records began”.

    Unless a syndicate of communist conspirators have somehow infiltrated every weather station around the world and are fabricating the data, and have also managed to travel back in time to alter records from the 19th century, the data is in no way compromised.

    Alright, a bit hyperbolic, but that seems to be what you are hinting at, that recorded global temperatures have somehow been falsified.

    If you are referring to “hide the decline”, I suggest you go back and have a look at what that is actually in reference to. Hint: It is not in reference to global temperatures.

  32. confessions

    [Furthermore, it’s also disingenuous to talk about medical technology in this context: again, there’s a difference. Medical technology goes through a laborious process that includes clinical trials, double-blind studies, and other processes]

    This is yet more rubbish. The methodologies might be different, but the process by which medical and climate science is accepted by the scientific community are exactly the same. You can do all the double-blinded RCTs in the world, but if your research is not published in the peer-reviewed literature, available to be assessed by experts, or able to be replicated independently, it is useless.

  33. Jay

    “climate change is still very much in the realm of experimental medicine, for a disease that we’re not even sure we have”

    Yep, but if a bunch of Doctors told you they were 90% sure that you had Cancer I’m pretty sure you’d play the odds and seek treatment.

  34. PeeBee

    Interesting comparison Shabadoo between human health and the health of the planet.

    You are not convinced that the world has a ‘desease’. Despite the nearly overwhelming consensus of experts in climate research telling you the opposite. Despite a known mechanism to explain what we are seeing you do not accept it is a ‘disease’. Well that is up to you. You are entitled to you opinion just like those who kid themselves that smoking is unrelated to lung cancer despite the overwhelming research to the contrary.

    However, if many doctors, who have spent their entire working lives working in medicine, told you, they were 90% certain you had a terminal desease, would you not do something about it?

  35. B.Tolputt

    Shabadoo,

    As an engineer, I must say you are talking bull-puckey.

    Let me use the example of a transistor in a circuit. When using a handful of them in a large circuit, say an audio amplifier, there are rules of thumb for analysing how they will operate and affect the current / voltage passing through them. These work well enough that we’re taught said rules in electrical engineering (memorising them for later use).

    However in a much more compact & more complex system, say the CPU of the computer you are posting from, these rules of thumb break down. At that level of complexity (billions of transistors packed together at nano-metre scales), not only do the rules need to be adjusted to more accurately reflect the true characteristics of a transistor, but you need to take into account the switching of nearby transistors and the behaviour of electrons at such tiny scales.

    The system is magnitudes more complex, yet it is still within the realms of electrical engineering and, hence, science. I could not begin to explain the rules of analysing such a complex system to the layman, but I could explain the rules of thumb for transistors in the audio amplifier.

    Climate change is similar. The simple “rules of thumb” a layman (such as you & I in this context) can understand can no longer apply. It is not JUST whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas – it is also the reflectivity of cloud cover, the varying temperature of the ocean and where the currents flow, the effect of urban environments vs the absorbtion characteristics of (say) forest or grassland environments, etc.

    To continue the analogy, we’re (at best) at the level of your average electrician (weatherman). We might know more about electrical circuits (climate science) than the average guy on the street, but we’re nowhere near the level of active & background knowledge required to analyse a CPU (global climate). Our rules of thumb breakdown and we simply don’t have the computer hardware to run our own simulations to verify anything we do hypothesise.

  36. monkeywrench

    So, Shabadoo, it’s “disingenuous to talk about medical technology in this context” but not disingenuous for Blair to extrapolate a general distrust of science from the fact that he personally disbelieves the science/scientists behind AGW. I believe the word “disingenuous” applies to people who wilfully trumpet theories they know to be wrong, purely for a political posture. This would include you.

  37. Michael Slezak

    Actually, Shabadoo, I think the situation is even more clear in the case of climate science. 1: Consensus about climate change is stronger than with fundamental theories in physics. 2: The mechanisms are well understood and do not depend on controversial issues in the fundamental sciences 3: Even if there was only a 10% chance that the overwhelming consensus of scientists were giving the right advice, we should take serious measures to stop climate change since the potential destruction is so great. (And obviously, the chance that they are right is much greater than 10%.)

  38. confessions

    [climate change is still very much in the realm of experimental medicine, for a disease that we’re not even sure we have.]

    What absolute rubbish.

  39. Shabadoo

    Furthermore, it’s also disingenuous to talk about medical technology in this context: again, there’s a difference. Medical technology goes through a laborious process that includes clinical trials, double-blind studies, and other processes; climate change is still very much in the realm of experimental medicine, for a disease that we’re not even sure we have.

  40. Shabadoo

    There’s a massive logical fallacy sitting towards the end of this piece. You write:

    “Newtonian mechanics will tell you that if you want your car to go faster, you should make it less heavy. Just because the theory behind that advice turned out to be wrong, doesn’t mean the advice was wrong.

    “Similarly, even if climate science turns out to be inaccurate in some way, the advice it is giving us is clear. Cutting emissions is essential for stopping global warming.”

    These are two utterly different things. The speed of an auto is a factor of a few demonstrable, observable factors, of which weight of the car is one, along with items such as aerodynamics, engine capacity, etc. And speed is also easily measured: There’s no complicated computer models, data sets with contradictory information, shaping of numbers, etc, required.

    The cause and effect between CO2 and global temperature is far less clear-cut. Yes, there’s an observable greenhouse effect in a lab setting, which I also believe some hot-house farmers use to their advantage. As to whether much smaller increases in CO2 concentration are doing anything to temperature in a vast, global system with literally countless inputs and variables is another question. There’s no global speedo for temperature, and the data that has been used to attempt to construct one appears to be opaque and compromised.

  41. monkeywrench

    I wish Blair good health, but I wonder, should his health become a concern, whether he will piously refuse such modern scientific advances such as MRI scanning, cytology and blood analysis, and anaesthetic-based surgery. I find it unlikely.
    It always amuses me that the people who crow loudly for the debasement of science happily avail themselves of its fruits. Even his job as an internet loudmouth is thanks to the good scientists at CERN.

  42. PeeBee

    People who deride science as something flawed, never seem to bat an eyelid when they use the outcome of scientific endeavour. They take medicine, drive over bridges, use electricity, use their computers etc etc never realising how it was possible because of science.

    I can only say that it shows their lack of understanding of the real world.

  43. Toaf

    “Scientific knowledge is not made up of quirky scientists and lone studies, it is made up of broad consensus.”

    Spot on and well said.

  44. confessions

    timmy continues the science FAIL this time on medical science.

    [IF ONLY CIGARETTES WERE INJECTABLE
    New York City banned smoking in bars and nightclubs four years ago, and imposes the highest cigarette taxes in the US. But if you’re a junkie, the city will spend $32,000 teaching you how to shoot up]

    Smoking cigarettes in bars and nightclubs causes proven harm to 3rd parties. And in any case, smokers do get the harm minimisation message that costs plenty more in taxpayer funds every year: GIVE UP YOU LOSERS!!!

    What a stupid post from tim.

  45. Michael Slezak

    Dave – You’re right. It’s a bit more complicated than our past theories being wrong. A lot of philosophers try to show that past science is “approximately” true but that’s hard to maintain when our present theories say that the terms used in past theories don’t even refer to anything that actually exists. (What are they approximately true of?) But yeah, many “wrong” theories were basically pretty good.

    And yes, Blair’s slimy rhetoric about scientists and their supporters not having a sense of humour is an old trick, isn’t it. When you accuse someone of the crime of not having a sense of humour, anything they say in response appears to confirm their guilt.

  46. john smith

    It’s going too far to say that all scientific theories are wrong. Imperfect works in progress, maybe, but I think it’s fair to believe in bacteria rather than miasma.
    Tim Blair bases his his ridicule on scientific predictions as reported by the NYT, which is not a really accurate reflection of scientific consensus. In fact it is journalists and the media who are to blame for constantly bombarding us with silly ‘scientific’ predictions based on single studies and/or ‘maverick’ and interest-conflicted researchers who have done a survey of 10 people. His manufactured scorn seems targeted at only one group of scientists. Does he also reject the mad scientists whose theories led to the development of radar, penicillin and non-stick frying pans?

  47. Dewgong

    So what does Tim think we should base policy decisions upon?

    Maybe something like “What would Jesus do?”

  48. Dave C

    I agree with your main points, and I appreciate the nuance.

    However, I feel it’s misleading to say that all our scientific models of the world have so far been “wrong”. In fact, I think this lends too much credence to opponents of the scientific consensus.

    Of course, it’s rare that a scientific theory survives for very long before being amended, reworked, qualified, etc., but “wrong” seems to imply that the theory has been discarded. Newtonian physics (as you briefly discuss) is still immensely useful today. It’s hard to describe it as “wrong” when it still manages to make incredibly accurate predictions over a huge range of scenarios. A layperson will interpret “wrong” to mean that the theory “simply doesn’t work”, and in most cases that’s simply not true.

    You are quite right to say that individual scientists’ proclamations need be taken with a grain of salt. However, certain nuances and caveats may also be lost in translation when media reports are written. This is precisely why we need to look for the scientific consensus, so as to cut through the noise and see the signal. Science is, in a sense, much greater than the sum of its parts.

    Blair conflates science, scientists and the supporters of science, and shows by his silly generalisations that he’s very much out of the loop. What on Earth are these “scientific types”? Are they actual scientists, science reporters, or merely semi-anonymous Internet identities who happen to invoke the word “science”?

    For some reassurance that scientists do indeed have a healthy sense of humour, one need only flick through the IgNobel awards.

  49. confessions

    This irrational fear of evidence based policy seems like it’s only come about since AGW became newsworthy. Can you imagine how far off the deep end these people would hurl themselves if they knew that the vast majority of government policy is informed by research and/or some method of empirical inquiry, be it scientific, economic, social etc?

    Or perhaps they really do know this and are just dumbing themselves down so they don’t get tarred as one of those nasty intellectual elitists.

  50. couchy

    Great points Michael, here’s hoping this doesn’t just degenerate into yet another debate about the minutiae of the climate change evidence.

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