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Thursday, October 28, 2004


global warming and the limits of science

global warming is taken for a fact in the modern age. i know few who would challenge the concept that our planet is growing hotter and that human civilization is the cause. but i know yet fewer who understand the profound power of myth and culture on their outlook.

scientific method is an extremely powerful weapon for the recognition of reality -- truly, it is the powerhouse that drives techne and, to some degree, western civilizational development. but that is a very different thing than "science", that unfortunate catchall under which we agglomerate a great many things. science, imo, has come to mean a point of view, more than anything, in which the world is recognizable, rational and explainable.

it should be noted that this is not necessarily the whole truth; what it is, however, is a deep, fundamental belief of the modern west -- one that has grown to underpin the way we see everything. it's difficult for a modern westerner to conceive of a medieval viewpoint, to whom existence was metaphysical and mythological. objects were ethereal to the medieval man, and their physical presence only a manifestation of their spirit. the entire world and everything in it was mysterious, beyond explanation and driven by angels and devils whose inscrutable and capricious methods were examinable only in the reflections of catholic philosophical scholarship.

most moderns see this as silly -- as though medievals were stupid, or at least brainwashed by a catholic conspiracy. but were they?

modern thought from the renaissance forward (hitting stride in descartes and bacon) increasingly examined the world in a different light -- one that attacked medieval mythos by reviving and elevating classical notions of logic and physicality. the philosophical detrius that had accumulated around the physical world started to be cleared away. a new world, in many ways, was built by scientific method.

but the method has limitations. its application to complex processes relies on analysis -- by which one assumes a complex process can be broken into simpler parts that can be explained on established principles; that the explained parts can be reconstituted and the explanations interact in predictable ways; and the complex mechanism thus explained. an apple, for instance, consists of skin, seeds, meat and stem. we can explain how each component functions individually, how they interact with each other, and reassemble them into a working, explained apple.

this is, however, not always true. the parts reassembled do not have to behave as they do independently, and their combined behavior does not have to change in ways we can explain.

moreover, application of principles depends on abstraction -- the defining of the qualities of an object or process by defining similarities to known quantities. one abstracts an apple by saying it is red, round, soft and sweet; but it isn't any of those things strictly. red is a wavelength; round a mathematical definition; soft a structure; sweet a chemical reaction. in describing an apple abstractly, one only approximates the apple -- in other words, abstraction is reductive and does not fully capture reality. and this reduction underlies all of science. one of the tricks of good experimental science, in fact, is close approximations.

but in running experiments that are reductive abstractions of reality, it is often impossible to control all variables, to understand all the differences between the experiment and the reality. it is a fundamental weakness of science that cannot be fully resolved.

and beyond that, there are also our limitations in mathematics. few who haven't studied higher math know that the equations we know how to solve -- and therefore, the systems we can abstract into usable mathematical models -- are far outnumbered by those we don't know how to solve. it is a fact that most natural phenomena are beyond really effective modeling. this of course includes complex systems, whose outcome is widely variable dependent on immeasurably small changes in initial conditions.

little of this is considered by the modern westerner as he analyzes his apples. it is assumed by many of us, when someone says something has been "proven scientifically", that thorough analysis has been done, close abstractions made, and significant experimental verifications have been observed to remove doubt.

increasingly in western society, however, this is not the case with "science". the rise of scientism -- the now widespread belief in science as an avenue to determine the mechanisms of all things definitely -- has led us to apply scientific method to processes it cannot explain. stock markets, psychology, and global environment are all systems which defy effective application of scientific method because effectively abstracted and controlled experimentation cannot be conducted on them. the systems, or some important parts of them, are irreducibly complex and unpredictable. they are, on some level, unknowable.

but that doesn't stop myriad believers in scientism from abstracting loosely, ignoring reproducible experimentation for empirical observation, and modeling complex systems in vastly reduced linearity. they thusly derive conclusions that -- while sounding "scientific", couched in jargon and math -- are at best philosophical and at worst deceitful.

what motivates such scientism? and why is it widely believed? i'll philosophize on that another day, but i think it quite fundamental to being human.

the rise in scientism has become so pervasive that much of what we think we know "scientifically" constitutes a popular mythology. i pick on global warming today because some poor statistical analysis has been shown to be at the heart of all the scientism that underpinned global environmental concern over civilizational greenhouse gas emissions and led directly to the kyoto protocol. but i could be ridiculing elliott waves or what has been found to cause cancer today (but will be reversed tomorrow) -- any bit of the suffusion of scientism in which we live.

sadly typical context is added by ronald bailey at reason:
Earlier this year, I spoke with Ross McKitrick, one of the researchers who questioned the "hockey stick." McKitrick was surprised (dismayed?) about how much resistance his analysis was getting from the "scientific community." McKitrick also told me that climatologist Michael Mann, the creator of the "hockey stick," started pulling his data from his website when he found out that McKitrick and McIntyre were re-analyzing it. So much for scientific reproducibility and openness.

The fact that the "hockey stick" is hooey, doesn't mean that there is no man-made global warming, but it may well mean that natural variations in global climate are much greater than the perturbations caused by human activities. As many scientific papers often conclude: Further research is needed.
unfortunately, what mr bailey leaves out is that "further research" will be highly unlikely to effectively explain the random small fluctuations of a ridiculously reductive metric like "global temperature" or the relationship (if any) between it and the amount of fossil fuels mankind consumes.

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