|IS GRAVITY LEFT-WING??
A PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION: 7th JULY 2010
IN THE FOURTH CENTURY BC.......
2350 years ago, Aristotle noted that "there is no effect or motion
without a cause". The cause of the downward motion of heavy bodies,
such as the element earth (remember, back then, the elements comprised
earth, air, fire and water), was related to their dense nature, which
caused them to move downward. In his system, heavy bodies were not
attracted to the earth by an external force but because of an inner
gravitas or heaviness.
does science work. Theories are proposed and they then stand or fall
under the weight of subsequent observations and research. A theory that
was merely a seed in the 4th Century BC, gravity is one of those that
has stood the test of time well, undergoing a modification here, a
modification there and making it through to the present day as a good
explanation as to why jumping off a sheer cliff is not such a good idea.
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.....
go back in time again, this time to the 19th Century. To Victorian
natural historian and alpinist John Tyndall, the evidence,
controversial at the time but now mainstream, that many thousands of
years ago much of northern Europe had been covered by ice-caps and
glaciers was clear. The problem was as follows: how could the climate
change in such a drastic manner in order to permit such a
theory of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions leading to a rising
came from a string of observations, investigations, discoveries and
calculations. Like gravity, it is a developing theory with respect to
minor details. Like gravity it is, as a fundamental concept, accepted
by the vast majority of scientists who work in that particular area -
climatology - in a similar way that plate tectonics is accepted
by most geologists but might not necessarily be fully understood by,
for example, a neurologist.
then: why is the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) left-wing
whilst the theory of gravity is, apparently, not?
A DAFT QUESTION?
It sounds like a daft
question but in fact it is relevant - given that one of the various
accusations frequently thrown at climate scientists is that they are
conspirators in some grand plan to create a socialist World Government.
Now, forgive me if I
have got something wrong, but history has shown that stability - in
terms of society, economics and state - tends to favour non-extremist
governments and far-left or far-right regimes have typically led to
chaos and misery, often involving war somewhere along the line. Why
would climate scientists wish to create something like that?
The answer is, of
course, that they don't: climate scientists are as diverse a bunch of
folks as any other profession from doctors to accountants. Fill a pub
with them and get them engaged on various topics and you'll get plenty
of good arguments going. Pretty much the only thing you'll get good
agreement on are the scientific principles first established over 100
years ago by the likes of Fourier and Tyndall!
SCIENCE GETS OUTED
- July 7th 2010 - the final report into the so-called "climategate"
affair was released. Here are the key findings:
Climate science is a matter of such
importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and
are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against
behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as
scientists are not in doubt.
short, this simply means that they got the science right (1 and 2) but
went about doing so in a way that to outsiders might seem a bit
secretive or even aloof. So let's briefly look back at what led to the
need to undertake these reviews.
sciences have for a very long time progressed via a system in which
discoveries and theories are written up and published in specialist
journals following review by fellow specialists ("peers"). This is not
a perfect system but it can be imagined as a crude "bullshit filter"
that weeds out sloppy or repetitive material that makes no actual
contribution to the knowledge-base. It can be controversial especially
when there is a sense of competition or rivalry between various
research teams and from time to time almighty rows can break out.
Normally, all of this goes on out of the public arena. Up until
recently, I've been aware of it through my work in mineralogy. Believe
you me, there can be controversy even in that area of science!
or rather since over 1000 emails were obtained and posted around the
internet in November 2009, the general public is aware of it too.
Science, that normally did its work largely behind closed doors, has
been outed. Is this a bad thing?
I suspect not: since the 1990s the world has
changed a lot, but science has been slow to catch up. The advent of the
Internet and especially the ever-expanding blogosphere has made a
potentially confusing hotchpotch of information (a highly variable mix
of fact and opinion) available to anybody who has access to a computer
and can read. While the work of climate scientists has often remained
in the realm of the journals - typically sealed behind paywalls - the
blogosphere has allowed an explosion of misinformation to be posted all
over the place, supported by sections of the media that are hostile to
the theory of AGW. Only in the past few years have some climate
scientists realised the importance of a blog presence - the
well-known site RealClimate was started in late November 2004 - but the
well-organised misinformation campaign of the opposition goes way back
before then. The opposition is of a political nature and its proponents
are often very media-savvy: until recently, that has not been a
requirement for the scientists. It is now.
the journals are and always will be the core area in which science is
progressed, we need to develop better public communication strategies
across the board rather than rely on the media to do this job for us.
It is vital that the public understand as clearly as possible where the
certainties and uncertainties lie - in climatology and elsewhere.
Scientific discoveries and theories often have direct effects on our
lives. They have made flight, personal computers and vaccination
against dreadful diseases possible, among many things. In this
particular case, they are warning us that our current levels of fossil
fuel use are unsustainable because they are destabilising the climate.
As a geologist, I can also add that they are unsustainable because oil,
gas and coal are all finite resources and if we start to run out of
them (beginning soon in the case of regular oil) before anything else
is in place as a replacement then economic collapse on an unprecedented
scale can be expected.
in 1995, the scientist Carl Sagan said:
"We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster."
He was right then and remains so now. The media has in some cases helped to perpetuate the situation when they had the opportunity to do otherwise, printing material varying from ignorant nonsense to outright lies. Some sectors have done much better - the Guardian and the Independent in the UK have taken climate change seriously, but with respect to the emails "scandal", there were instances of overly judgmental writing - George Monbiot's immediate (and, fair play, today retracted) call for the resignation of Phil Jones, prior to any in-depth investigation into what was actually going on, being a case in point. Jones is not immune to criticism - he admitted himself that he had "written some pretty awful emails". However, he is a scientist, not a PR man. Anybody who fails to get this point would do well to go through their "sent items" in Outlook and ponder whether they would like any of them plastered all over the Internet. The main job Jones was employed to do - investigate climate - he did well, despite the intense level of opposition harassment that he and other fellow climatologists had to deal with over many years. The science remains intact once the smears are washed off.
BBC has a particularly strange policy when reporting climate science.
In no other branch of the Earth Sciences that I can think of is so much
airspace given to political opponents. In the case of evolution, they
do not include Creationist points of view in every story. Yet in the
case of climate, they frequently include comments from what are no more
than political think-tanks such as ex-Chancellor Nigel Lawson's Global
Warming Policy Foundation. And so more scare stories such as AGW being
a left-wing conspiracy to tax us all more gain public traction.
Meanwhile, out there in the real world,
sea-ice continues to dwindle - it will likely have a melt-season this
year close to the record-breaker of 2007. High temperature records are
being closely approached and in some cases broken in America, Africa
and Asia. Destructively intense rainstorms are increasingly being
reported from various parts of the world including a number in the USA
- an unusual feature outside of the hurricane season. Ice-melt at high
latitudes, heat and extreme rainfalls are all things that the physics
behind AGW predict - for example, warmer seas lose more water vapour by
evaporation to warmer air that can carry more moisture to somewhere
else and dump it as an extreme rainfall - this is very basic stuff.
Unfortunately, due to the delaying-tactics by the opposition, it is
something we are going to have to get used to.
the AGW theory like to look back over the past few million years and
remind us that the climate is always changing. Yes - it is. However, in
each of the drastic changes in the geological past, there wasn't a
civilisation in the way. The development of modern civilisation has
been favoured by a relatively stable climate these past few millennia.
My advice is that it would be good to keep it that way.