Bad Astronomy

Global Warming Denial Is Science-Proof

Every time I see an opinion piece written by a global warming denier I think to myself, “Well, this’ll be painful, but at least it can’t get any worse than the ones I’ve already read.”

And then I read it. And I find out I was wrong.

So here I am again, shaking my head after reading yet another in a long line of global-warming denial articles making bizarre claims. This one was written by Rich Trzupek and is entitled “Michael Mann Redefines Science”. The title alone told me I was in trouble—Mann is actually a respected climate scientist (except in the antireality-o-sphere, that is)—and then I saw where this gem was posted: on the Heartland Institute’s blog. You remember the Heartland Institute, right? They’re the ones who put up billboards comparing climate scientists to mass murderers and dictators, which caused such a foofooraw that they hemorrhaged sponsors. They had to take the billboards down, but then declared the campaign a success.

So it’s no surprise they’d publish such astonishingly wrong blog post. There are too many claims in it to go over one-by-one, but the author has kindly made one claim that is such a howler that it’s really the only thing one need read:

In a post over at Peter Guest’s blog, Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann is quoted making one of the most remarkable statements that I’ve ever heard coming out of a supposed scientist’s mouth:

“Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. It’s not for science.”


Now it seems pretty obvious that Mann’s attempt to separate proof from science stems from increasing public awareness that the warming predicted by the high-sensitivity models that Mann and others have championed just hasn’t occurred over the last fifteen years. No matter. You don’t need “proof” when you have “credible theories.”

That comes as something of a shock to me. When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truths and proofs at the end of the day. “Credible theories” is how you got to those truths, not an alternative to them.

Oh, deniers are nothing if not ironic. It’s clear from these statements that Mann understands science quite well, and it’s Trzupek who’s let a very basic truth slip past him.

Science is not about proof. A proof is when you know something for absolute 100% certain, and that never happens. However, as I’ll show, in real life you don’t need 100% certainty to still be reasonably sure about something, sure enough to take action.

I hear this is a good place to find proof.

Photo by Shutterstock/MSPhotographic

If you want to be concise, science is all about testing hypotheses, checking to see if observations support (not prove, support) the idea, or disprove it. The reason behind this is pretty simple: You can have an idea that seems right, and is supported by some observations, but may eventually be shown wrong (or incomplete) by better tests. Ideas are tentative. Provisional.

Of course, some ideas are better than others. It turns out some do an excellent job describing reality, and some not so much. And even the ones that are good can be better. The obvious example is Newtonian mechanics versus Einstein’s relativity. If you use Newton’s physics you can send probes to the planets, but the equations for relativity are more accurate. However, you don’t need relativity for most things (which is way more complicated and more difficult to use), so Newton’s way is good enough to get the job done. It’s important to note that Einstein didn’t show Newton was wrong, he showed Newton was incomplete.

Therefore, sometimes, the science is good enough even if it’s not proved. And sometimes that science has tremendous evidence to support it, so much so that even though it’s not proven by definition, it would be ridiculous to simply say it’s wrong.

Here’s a concrete example: If I stand in a room in my house and drop a rock, it will fall and hit the floor every time. It will also take very close to the same amount of time to fall every time, over and over, even if I drop it a million times. We understand gravity well enough to state that with pretty firm conviction.

Now imagine that rock is quite heavy, and I hold it over my foot. I know that our understanding of gravity is not 100% perfect, that Newton’s laws are an approximation, and that Einstein’s rules are more accurate. I can even argue over proof versus evidence versus reasonable doubt, but in the end, once that rock is falling, the science is good enough to know I should move my foot.

And that’s the real point here. From climate science we know the Earth is warming; the evidence for that is overwhelming. We know humans are at least partially if not mostly to blame for these increasing temperatures; the evidence for that is overwhelming. We know the ramifications are costly at best and catastrophic at worst; the evidence for that is overwhelming.

When it comes to climate change you can argue about proof and credible theories and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin for all I care, but in the end the evidence is so strong it’s well past the point where we have to move our feet.

You can read more about Trzupek’s wrongness at Climate Asylum and Open Mind.