This is a thoughtful and broad analysis of the climate change debate well worth reading. It is presented here in full because it has been removed from the ABC website.
Oct 30, 2009
In praise of the sceptics
In a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900, the most famous scientist of the day, Lord Kelvin, declared, “Physics is essentially complete”.
“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now,” he said. “All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
He did note a couple of “dark clouds on the horizon” but expected they would be erased without much trouble.
One cloud was the puzzle about the constancy of the speed of light; the other how matter absorbed and emitted light. Just five years later Albert Einstein‘s theories about both would shatter Lord Kelvin’s world view.
In the summer of 1919, Popper says he was “thrilled” by Arthur Eddington‘s eclipse observations which were the first confirmation of Einstein’s theory of gravitation. But it made him wonder about his other pet theories.
“I began to feel dubious about their claims to scientific status,” he said. “My problem perhaps first took the simple form, ‘What is wrong with Marxism, psycho-analysis, and individual psychology? Why are they so different from physical theories, from Newton’s theory, and especially from the theory of relativity?”
He noted, “my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power.
These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, open your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirmed instances everywhere: the world was full of verificationsof the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still “un-analysed” and crying aloud for treatment.Popper became famous for his epistemological work demarking science from pseudo-science. It boiled down to testability. If a theory could be falsified by experimentation it was science, if it couldn’t it wasn’t.
So Popper would argue that to say any theory is “settled” means that you are not talking about science but pseudo-science.
By now it should be clear that I am building towards an act of heresy. In mainstream political and scientific debate today what held true for Einstein does not hold true for climate science. Climate science we are endlessly told is “settled”.
But to make the, perfectly reasonable, point that science is never settled risks being branded a “sceptic” or worse a “denier”.
“Denier” is one of those words, like “racist”, which is deliberately designed to gag debate. And what is wrong with being a sceptic? The Greek root of the word means “thoughtful” or “inquiring” and that used to be a virtue.
If to question a science which relies so heavily on computer generated modelling is to be a denier or a sceptic, then stack me up with the heretics and go find the matches. Because modelling is a black art and the models will be wrong. They might understate or overstate the outcome but they will change over time. Model failure is so common there is a name for it: model risk.
If you doubt how badly things can go with impressive models then consider for a moment the recent financial crisis. A lot of very big companies paid a fortune to a cadre of mathematics and physics PhDs, called “quants“, who developed models that were supposed to eliminate risk. Turns out they got it hideously wrong and some believe they made a bad situation a whole lot worse.
So, here is another piece of modern heresy, anyone who puts their faith in computer predictions of the future, is dealing with digital astrology.
But the climate change debate is worse still. You can be branded a denier if you accept the problem and question the solutions.
This really began to concern me last year when I included Professor Warwick McKibbin in a television news story about emissions trading. He was critical of the Garnaut Report and I got a complaint from a PhD student in economics. She said McKibbin was a well known climate change denier and the ABC should not be running anything from people who did not believe in climate change.
Leaving aside the all-too-typical, and deeply disturbing, demand that dissenters be silenced the other issue with the complaint was that McKibbin is internationally renowned for his work on climate change. He’s also a Reserve Bank board member and one of this country’s pre-eminent economists. He just doesn’t think much of the Government’s climate change solutions and believes he has a much better plan. He’s a smart guy; he might just be on to something.
So I come to praise sceptics not to bury them. Long may they prosper.
And here’s a final thought from Popper about the dangers of being too “credulous”.
“A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation – which revealed the class bias of the paper – and especially of course what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasised that their theories were constantly verified by their “clinical observations”. As for Adler, I was much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analysing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. “Because of my thousandfold experience,” he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: “And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.”
I was allegedly written by a well known ABC Journalist, who may or may not wish to have it attributed, so I shall leave it anonymous for the time being.