Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dichotomy of Certainty

In my previous post I shared my thoughts regarding how we acquire knowledge about the natural world. My position leans heavily toward science as the best method toward that end. But like many things, even science is sometimes not always entirely adequate.

My father-in-law, Melvin is a retired professor of Agriculture at Oregon State University. He literally “wrote the book” on Pears as well as being the “go-to guy” for encyclopedia editors regarding that subject. Highly published, his research work involved collaborating with entomologists, biochemists, plant physiologists and climatologists, to name a few.

Back in the mid 1970’s Melvin attended a lecture about global climate change; so impressed was he with the speaker that Mel bought his book which Mel then ensconced in his library with his other reference materials. The author was not a scientist but a science writer (unfortunately I cannot recall the title).

This book on world climate explained that data taken from ice core samples in the Polar Regions showed distinct cycles of global heating and cooling over the millennia. The graphs and charts showed the cycle up to the current time (mid 1970’s) and projected the trend into the future. It showed that the earth would enter a period of increasing warming followed by another ice age. Based on this book, Melvin, the acclaimed scientist, is convinced that we are perched on the brink of global COOLING! The coming ice age is overdue.

Mel has talked to me about this coming trend for the last 25 years. I never really formulated an opinion until the global climate change (global warming) issue came to the forefront of public attention in recent years. Always up for discussing things of a scientific nature with him, I found myself, in my support of the indication of Anthropomorphic Climate change, placed in total opposition to his views. I set about to try and bring Mel “up to speed” on the latest science.

Mel had been retired from the university years prior to my meeting him, but he has continued to do his own research. Several times a year he walks through the neighborhood near his home and inspects specific species of plants, recording their “bloom date”. His data shows that bloom dates are occurring later every year – an indication of a progressively cooling climate.

When Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth", was released, I took Mel to the theater. After seeing the film demonstrating that we were entering a period of increasing global mean temperature rise due to the influence of greenhouse emissions, I thought it might convince Mel to alter his hypothesis. However Mel’s only comment after the film was that a quotation incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain should have been attributed to Will Rogers.

I dearly love my father-in-law but on this issue we have had some heated discussions. With the wealth of information available on the Internet, I researched dozens of opinions regarding Global Climate Change and printed selected papers for Mel to read.

Mel has read (or maybe just looked at) them all; yet he then returns to the position of his 1970’s book asserting that the earth is instead overdue in entering its next ice age.

He points to his bloom date data to substantiate his view. I point out that Corvallis Oregon is smaller than a pin point on the scale of the entire globe. He points to the 11-year sun spot cycle; I point to contrary data I researched from current climate sources. He remains unconvinced.

I find this situation extremely frustrating. Melvin is (was) a highly regarded scientist, yet it seems as though the science he practiced and learned in 1974 is “stuck” in his brain. That the overwhelming consensus of scientists supports the hypothesis of Anthropogenic Climate Change, cuts no influence with him – Mel is having none of it. At one point in a moment of exasperation I asked him "if he thought that science stopped advancing after 1974"?

Recently on the car radio I heard a biographer talking about Charles Darwin and how much grief his publication of “On the Origin of Species” caused him; not merely from the predictable religious sources but also from his professional contemporaries. Many scientists at the time were completely unconvinced and adamantly opposed to Darwin’s now well proven theory. So then how did Evolution become finally universally accepted among scientists: what caused the opposition to die out? The opposition died when his opponents died!

My son-in-law recently shared with me this quotation by Max Planck:
"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." - Or in short: "Truth never triumphs – its opponents just die out."
That new ideas are challenged and held up to scrutiny is one of the core strengths of the scientific method. But we should recognize also that it's practitioners are human and therefore prone to the same bias and prejudices as are we all. Science is a way of thinking - but thinking almost always involves an emotional component as well... it's impossible to separate the two whether we recognize it or not.

Mel and I still talk about a myriad of subjects. But one thing we no longer discuss is the weather.


Gorilla Bananas said...

But in the long-run he's right about a future ice age. The Earth is currently in an interglacial period which is due to come to an end. Global warming must be timed to counter this or we'll all freeze our nuts off. That's why the Earth has a global climate control system in Star Trek.

TechnoBabe said...

He's a tough guy. It sounds like it just might be as you say, that Mel is stuck in the 1970s. You do a good job of writing this post showing the differences but also showing your acceptance of a good father-in-law, just refraining from any more discussion of weather.

The Mother said...

This is Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science.

There are two kinds of science: the plodding, day to day, chipping away stuff that is done in labs; and

The revolutionary stuff that comes from visionary thinkers.

Revolutionary science challenges the current paradigm (Kuhn coined the word); those indoctrinated in the current paradigm simply don't buy it. It takes a new generation of scientists, indoctrinated into the New Paradigm, to move the new stuff into mainstream.

Interesting idea; anti-science types often point to Kuhn as evidence that science is stuck in the mire and unwilling to listen to pseudoscience claims.

I tend to think he was right.

(But I will point out that opposition to Darwin hasn't totally evaporated. There are even some trained biologists who work for the Discovery Institute. So our indoctrination systems might not be working up to snuff).

James said...

I have a distant acquaintance with a degree in archeology who not only rejects global warming, but rejects the idea that ANY warming is occuring at ALL.

I know that change happening this fast, and terrifying the folks who made the original projections because they're happening twice as fast as they predicted, will soon reach a tipping point where we'll all be converts.

As I see it, the mechanisms to deal with global warming should have been put in place and adjusted at the same pace as industrial growth.

Since we're still debating what hot is, I'm not too high on anything turning this around until the water rises over our heads.

Rain said...

There was a book out awhile ago on the idea that it took one generation dying off for new ideas to take root. I tend to think that is less true today as things shift so fast. And many believe that global warming will lead to a mini-ice age in some places; so both can be true.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas Hmmmm, I suspect you've been hanging around a bit too much with Rachel at The Cake is a Lie.

TechnoBabe The reality is that Mel has contributed significantly to increased production of many fruit species, which was his life goal. For that he should be regarded.

Dr. Mom If you can stand it, you should watch the interview between Michael Shermer and the PhD at the Creation Museum. She adroitly (attempts) to link observed data with LITERAL Biblical interpretation. Remarkable.

James Welcome to the blog! Well Climate Change doubters don't refute that the planet is warming, they just refute that it will CONTINUE to warm... at which time the temperature will begin to cool. Indeed, some think that the increasing greenhouse gases will affect the "albedo" thereby causing a cooling trend. One thing for sure, the planetary climate IS dynamic, change of some sort WILL occur.

Rain The theory does state that Global Climate Change will cause certain areas to become cooler. The UK for example has a temperate climate at that latitude due to the deep currents in the Atlantic. If/when that changes, Europe in general can actually expect cooler temperatures.

By the way, this year the Mean Global Temperature was the highest on record.

secret agent woman said...

There was an article in the paper recently about the record-breaking heat this summer and it went on to say we can expect far worse. So even a very conservative paper like the local one here is coming around to it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent That was in the TV news the other night, the teaser: "are we seeing global warming"? They interviewed two climate scientists THEN they interviewed Oklahoma senator James Inhof, former business man of a life insurance company that went into receivership under his command before he went into government, and a dipso global warming denier

I honestly think that if you interviewed ANY Republican about the Titanic they would deny that it sank claiming it's really a submarine; it'll be popping up to the surface any time now.

GutsyWriter said...

I have a friend, Kimberly Keilbach who published a book last year, "Global Warming is Good for Business." You can check it out on Amazon.

DJan said...

I am always torn when I run across a blog like this one (came over from the Professor's place) because I cannot help but follow you. I worked for thirty years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and knew many famous meteorologists, and it was interesting to see how many of them cling to their theories, partly because they are THEIR theories. I do think we should change the name of the current global change to "global weirding" because warming is only part of what is happening to the planet. Rainfall patterns are changing rapidly, for one. I could go on, but I'm glad I found you. Now off to become a follower.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy I will check out her book, thanks.

DJan I think a lot of the public (including some not so bright politicians) think that if there is cooling or increased rainfall, that refutes the theory of Anthropogenic Climate Change. It is a complex dynamic with areas of the globe cooling in some cases. But there the word "complex" is the anthesis of what most people expect - simple answers.

KleinsteMotte said...

Since climate affects agriculture how shall we manage food production? This years' extreme floods, snowfalls and droughts in USA and globally will have a significant impact on availability.Change will happen and we do not have the ability to change that.

Murr Brewster said...

I think you know what I think about global warming deniers, so I'll just relate something I find fascinating that won't make me overheat. The fellow who first figured out that there had been catastrophic floods down the Columbia River from the periodic breaking of an ice dam on a prehistoric lake in Montana met with enormous resistance. Scientists of the time had so thoroughly absorbed incrementalism as espoused by Darwin that they utterly disdained a hypothesis that sounded like Biblical cataclysms. So old-fashioned!

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte Oh it should all work out great; we'll be growing pineapples in the Artic and get our bananas from you farmers up there in Canada. It will all work out I'm sure.

Murr I recall hearing about that upper Columbia ice dam; from what I understand it happened at least three times. But yes, it almost seems like in the scientific community there is automatic denial and refutation to the point where the authors should probably add "nayhh, so there!" at the end of their papers.

I read your post, you included my favorite senator from Oklahoma... where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. Come January you'd think that the Okies would be praying for a bit of warm weather about then. Oh well, too bad global climate change is just a Liberal Anti-Business Communist Socialist plot.

Entre Nous said...

Oh gosh, I was reading on a reputable research site (based at a pole) that regardless of the fact that ice shelves are cleaving off and floating away in great number, it does nothing to diguise the fact that the tops of the poles are accumulating more ice than is floating away.

Phew. Too much actual thinking for me. Back to packing boxes...!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Entre Nous I would be curious to see that site! I have two friends who teach at Oregon State and travel to the polar ice caps each year to do research (bacteriology). They said recently that they no longer need Russian ice breakers to get to their research destination due to all the open water.

I don't know what the situation is in the Antarctic.

The Mother said...

Literal interpretation of an iron age document fascinates me. Especially in the hands of Christians, who pick and choose. Homosexuality is an abomination, but eating shrimp is just peachy.

The orthodox Jews, however, do not pick and choose. They believe every word. Today in the bar mitzvah we learned that leprosy was caused by blasphemy. See, that was news to me. I always thought it was caused by mycobacteria. Huh. I guess those squiggly pink things under my microscope were put there to test my faith.

I think I uttered a few blasphemes the first time I saw a leprosy case in the late 20th century. So far, though, my nose has not fallen off.

Kiwi said...

As the wife of a scientist, I've observed that "theoretical orientation" plays a huge role in a given scientist's acceptance of any new conclusions in their field. Another problem for science is methodology; e.g. if you always date archaeological sites by the style of ceramics present, how will you ever know whether you've come across a site where the typology is unique? Also, just because someone is a scientist doesn't mean they know ALL SCIENCE; they just know their narrow corner of it really, really well. And finally, meteorologists are not climatologists and should just shut up about climate; they can't even get the weather forecast right. :P

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom It puzzles me that strong adherents to holy books eschew them and seek modern medical attention when they become ill. Why is that?

Kiwi I have encountered similar experiences; scientists having a strong opinion because they are scientists but not familiar with the issue at hand. My father-in-law holds a number of quasi-paranormal views regarding precognition, UFSs and BigFoot. To my thinking he should know better.

kiwi said...

Re: Bigfoot - that reminds me of the X-Files motto "I want to believe". I'm sure we all walk around believing unwarranted things, because they happen to answer a particular need/desire, or because it aligns with our theoretical stance on a topic. That's probably okay, so long as we are willing to sit down and have a good think about any new evidence that challenges our preconceptions. Oh, and occasionally seek out such evidence.

@DJan: I like "global weirding" - that's a great term for it!

The Mother said...

I got no answers to that one, either.

I will tell you that patients we have been working diligently on/with to save them generally give the credit to the guy in the sky. Conveniently forgetting that that same guy in the sky gave them their near terminal event to begin with.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom So often in the news... people "praying" for victims of disasters. Whaaaaa!!??