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Sorry, But The Science Is Never ‘Settled’ April 12, 2009

Posted by honestclimate in Discussions.
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Sorry, But The Science Is Never ‘Settled’


By David Deming

President Obama has said that the science of global warming is “beyond dispute,” and therefore settled. This is the justification for the imposition of a carbon cap-and-trade system that will cost $2 trillion. But Obama does not understand science. “Settled science” is an oxymoron, and anyone who characterizes science as “settled” or “indisputable” is ignorant not only of science, but also history and philosophy.

Aristotle taught that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. Over the centuries, a few unreasonable persons expressed skeptical concerns. But the consensus was that the physics of motion were described by Aristotle’s dicta. The science was settled. Around the year 1591, an irascible young instructor at the University of Pisa demonstrated that Aristotle was wrong. He climbed to the top of the tower of Pisa and dropped cannonballs of unequal weight that hit the ground simultaneously. Aristotelean professors on the faculty were embarrassed. The university administration responded by not renewing Galileo’s contract, thus ridding themselves of a troublemaker who challenged the accepted consensus.

Galileo is better remembered today for clashing with the Catholic Church over the issue of whether or not the Earth was at the center of the universe. An Earth-centered cosmology was first proposed by the Greek philosopher Eudoxus in the fourth century B.C. About a hundred years later, an upstart named Aristarchus suggested that the Earth revolved around the sun. Aristarchus’ system never proved popular, and he was criticized for being impious. The Earth-centered system was finalized by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century A.D., and remained unchallenged until the sixteenth century. Everyone knew that the science of astronomy had been settled “beyond dispute.” When Galileo insisted that the Earth revolved around the sun, he was castigated by the church for advocating an idea that was not only heretical, but also “foolish and absurd in philosophy.”

Late in the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton demonstrated definitively that Aristotle’s physics were incorrect. He proposed the Law of Universal Gravitation, and explained how the planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits. Newton is still regarded as the greatest scientist who ever lived. He settled the science of motion in such a conclusive way that his system was referred to as an “invincible edifice.”

But the edifice crumbled early in the twentieth century when Einstein showed that Newtonian physics break down as the speed of light is approached. Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Neptunian School of geology taught that all rocks had formed by crystallization from a now-vanished universal ocean. Although the evidence falsifying this theory was both plain and abundant, Neptunists interpreted every observation as supportive of their hypothesis. Blinded by an immoderate zeal, they selected and magnified any fact in accordance with their theory, while neglecting those that tended to disprove it. Robert Jameson characterized the evidence supporting Neptunism as “incontrovertible.” But the theory collapsed in a few decades, and today is recognized as an artifact of inexhaustible human folly. The End Of History?

President Obama, a lawyer and politician, would now have us believe that the process of history has stopped. For the first time, scientific knowledge is not provisional and subject to revision, but final and settled. Skepticism, which has been the spur to all innovation and human progress, is unacceptable and must be condemned. But in fact, it is our awareness of what we do not know that determines our scientific level.

Socrates was the wisest man, not because he knew more than others, but because he was the only one to recognize that he did not know. Knowledge begins with skepticism and ends with conceit. Read full story here.


1. Magnus A - April 12, 2009

Good criticism.

The other day I blogged a link to the text Copenhagen: Environmental Munich in IBD about the preparation for Copenhagen (I used the headline “The plan economy is settled — its commandments written by UN”).

That’s good information and kind of wake up call!

Br, Magnus

2. Robert Ellison - April 13, 2009


I can supply a couple of more recent examples.

Chemists at NASA’s JPL in 2007 measured the dichlorine peroxide photolysis rate constant at a fraction of what is required to explain observed ozone depletion – http://www.atmosp.physics.utoronto.ca/SPARC/SPARC2008GA/Posters/SessionB_P28_A266_Harris.pdf

In 2006, the World Health Organisation approved DDT for use.

Just finished a website. I am looking to communicate the science of natural climate cyles as widely as possible – as accessibly as possible – and hope that it can help to provide a badly needed reality check.



The website provides images and graphs of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), the Southern Annual Mode (SAM) and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and other bits of analytical science – collated from respected sources. These are the major influences on Australia rainfall. ENSO and the PDO are additionally associated with periods of global warming and cooling – as are solar cycle modulated galactic cosmic rays.

See for yourself – it is very exciting and beautiful science with significant implications for Australian, and global, climate policy.

3. Tim Holland - April 13, 2009

This is technically a correct criticism, but it misses the point.

True, the nature of science is such that we should never claim absolute certainty. So “beyond dispute” was perhaps not the best choice of words.

Nevertheless, the nature of policy (as opposed to science) is that you have to make concrete decisions, in real time, based on the best available information at that time. And that is why Obama’s comments are valid in a policy context, even if not in a purely scientific one (and he is a policy maker, not a scientist). The fact is, the best available information we have at present indicates that climate change is a real and immediate threat, and one on which inaction will cost us greatly. Policy should be based on that ‘best knowledge at present’ – rather than based on the small (and in this case exaggerated) level of uncertainty that exists.

To take a counter-example, all of the arguments you have developed here regarding certainty in science could also be leveled at the claims that smoking causes lung cancer. There is a level of uncertainty there that will never entirely disappear (maybe it’s just a coincidence that death rates among smokers are so much higher – despite all of our best statistics, despite our understanding of physiology, etc). But to fixate on that uncertainty, and as a result to base health policy on the assumption that smoking is benign to human health would be entirely misguided.

Similarly, shackling climate policy because of the negligible level of uncertainty that still exists in the science (and which, by the nature of science, will always exist) would lead to poor, and potentially dangerous policy.

4. erlhapp - April 13, 2009

Tim, Re the “negligible level of uncertainty”

That’s a matter of opinion. In this case some die hard zealots of a certain persuasion posit a theory of greenhouse warming that is not backed up with one iota of observational evidence.

On the other hand there is a long observed relationship between the strength of electromagnetic emanations from the sun and surface temperature.

We have evidence from the recent past that when the sunspots are not to be seen at the end of each 100 year cycle of solar activity the Earth cools.

Let’s just hang on for a bit before we make energy generation unnecessarily expensive so driving down living standards. The current long solar minimum has taken us from persistent El Nino tendencies to persistent La Nina tendencies.

ENSO is not temperature neutral. We observe that when the tropics cool so does the globe, particularly high latitudes in winter. The warming in high latitudes in winter that has been erroneously described as global warming is due to extra energy acquired in the tropics after the ramp up in solar activity in 1978. The change was abrupt.

5. Magnus A - April 14, 2009

erlhapp. Yup. Above the scientific facts, which it doesn’t seem to be enough efficient to criticize only (although that’s also necessary), there’s the politics, which I think is the core element of AGW and has to be revealed. (I suggest reading of Lindzen (*).)

Regarding “the negligible level of uncertainty”, which Tim seems to think equals a very strong consensus, he should know that several authors and reviewers of IPCC does not believe in the IPCC synthesis report for decision makers. Some have resigned because they are not happy about this. (E g I think Patrick J Michaels, well known as anti-climate alarmism and “skeptics”, is still there.)

In professor Daniel Brays and climatologist professor Hans von Storchs research 2003, 70 percent didn’t believe climate models (GCM) can predict climate. See these graphs:

Also only 56 percent of the climate scientists believed humans mainly contributes to global warming (**).

So it’s absolutely wrong to say that a very large majority believes in a catastrophic human caused global warming. The problem with the political part of this is that the newly started group International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), with no distinct responsibility towards anyone, conducts the preparation for Copenhagen, and they say consistently in all their statements that the Earth is in much more bad shape than IPCC says, without any proof of that, and also without being climate researchers themselves (***). IARU, btw, has connections to Research Congress on Climate Change (****). That group seems to be designed for the Copenhagen congress to raise awareness of man made climate change, no matter IPCC/science. There are several dozens of similar new groups (besides the influence of old and new environmental NGO:s). This is politics, all the way from the start in the 80s, and it’s more insane than ever.

We got to reveal this, and stop the insanity. It’s not hard to see that this has otential to cause death to millions of people and discomfort hundreds of millions.

(*) “Climate Science: Is It Currently Designed To Answer Questions?”, by climatologist professor Richard Lindzen:

(**) “Climate scientists’ views on climate change: a survey”

(***) “What message, and whose, from Copenhagen?”, by climatologist, and moderator at meetings in the Congress in March in Copenhagen, professor Mike Hulme:

(****) This connection mentioned e g at speaker info for Katherine Richardson here:

6. Kristy - April 29, 2009

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