Why Are We Sure We're Right? #1

This question struck me while reading a climate change denial website not long ago.  The language being used, I thought, seemed eerily similar to language I read on pro-AGW sites.  It seemed like a reasonable - and skeptical - notion to explore the idea of why I believe I'm correct when I'm out there on the internet confidently pounding the table over the immediacy of this issue.  Why am I sure I'm right?  How does anyone reading my words differentiate between what I'm saying and what someone else denying climate change is saying?

I posed this question to the authors at Skeptical Science and the responses have been varied, insightful and engaging.  The question itself is provocative and I believe will lead to lots of opinions and discussion.  

What I'm going to do is post the responses of several of the SkS authors here and see where the discussion leads us.

First is Dikran Marsupial:

I don't think that we are sure that we are right, as science is never completely settled; we can be confident we are right because the available evidence very strongly supports our position*; however, I sincerely wish that we weren't! It is fundamentally impossible to prove a causal relationship in the real world (only disprove), so it is pointless and misguided to ask for proof of AGW; instead we should follow the advice of David Hume, who wrote "A wise man propotions his belief to the evidence".  In other words we should judge competing hypotheses according to the strength of their evidential support (I would also include the strength, simplicity and coherence of their theoretical justification), but at the same time strive to keep an open mind.  The balance of evidence suggests to me that it is highly unlikely (but not impossible) that the skeptics are right and mainstream science is seriously incorrect.  There are some things we know with high certainty (for instance that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is purely anthropogenic), there are other things which are only known with substantial levels of uncertainty (such as climate sensitivity).  In my opinion, a rational cost-benefit analysis, when all relevant uncertainties are properly taken into account, strongly advocates action to mitigate the effects of AGW, rather than adaption when it is already too late.  Sadly it seems that as a species we are currently insufficiently rational, and it saddens me that there will be considerable loss of life and suffering as a result, mostly in the developing world, which has not been substantially responsible for the problem (pro rata) and which is likely to be least able to adapt.  However, nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong, as Keynes said "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?", but I will require solid evidence and/or convincing argument rather than rhetoric.

 * The links given here are not intended as a complete or systematic survey of the evidence, there are plenty more in the news archive and list of skeptic arguments.Not only a great philosopher, he could also out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel.

Next response is from Glenn Tamblyn:

Priority list of data/science, in approximately decreasing order of importance, that would invalidate it - punch holes in enough of these and something meaningful is happening...

1. Our understanding of Quantum Mechanics, Vibrational modes of molecules, Basic Spectroscopy is wrong - write off most of modern technology along with it

2. The 2 1/2 million lines in the HiTran database are wrong in some fundamental way- Wow, thousands of spectroscopists, the US DoD and many others screwed up. And also we don't understand why heat seeking missiles work or Early-Warning Satellites, Airborne Laser systems, weather satellite observations, micro-wave ovens and a whole swag of other stuff.

3. The Radiative Transfer eqn is wrong. Ditto. Plus the Astronomers, Stellar Physicists, Planetologists etc are all idiots.

4. Stellar Physics has it ALL wrong. They don't understand stars AT ALL and the Sun hasn't been warming for 4.5 billion years. And the behaviour of millions of other stars we have studied is all misunderstood. So past CO2 levels actually aren't correlated with past temperatures very well at all.

5. Our understanding of geology, isotope ratio studies, paleontology generally is screwed.

6. 2-3 dozen different Radiative Transfer Codes of varying degrees of sophistication are all wrong - see Spectroscopy, HiTran and the Radiative Transfer Eqn above. BUT they still manage to produce pretty reliable predictions of both the Outgoing and Downwelling Longwave Radiation spectrum, for the whole globe, different latitudes and seasons. Four wrongs miraculously make a right. Serendipity or what?

7. Roger Revelle was wrong (and all the researchers since who have repeated and extended the work). So CO2 actually is taken up rapidly by the oceans. And pH still doesn't change that fast. And Carbonate/BiCarbonate ratios don't change much. Which basically says that an entire branch of Chemistry, dealing with Buffered Chemical Solutions, is all wrong - thousands of related chemical reactions of all types and the entire Chemistry profession don't understand them.

8. Measured heat accumulation in the oceans is totally wrong. Or there is a magical source of heat somewhere here on Earth; that supplies 4 times the available heat flowing out as GeoThermal heat, and that is magically heating the oceans from the top down. And we haven't noticed it.

9. Basic Thermodynamics is wrong. Changing the thermal balance of the planet won't do much to change the temperature. So scratch the First Law of Thermodynamics. This would rank #1 except you need to tackle some of the issues above before this is a factor.

10. The Clausius-Claperon eqn is wrong. So warmer air won't hold more water vapour and thus lead to more warming. Even though we see countless examples of this around us every day - our breath misting up on a cold morning, most of our understanding of refrigeration, air-conditioning etc. And seasonal variations in water vapour content observed from the surface and satellites and their correspondence to seasonal variations in the observed (and predicted) Water vapour component of the Longwave Spectrum are just serendipity - again several wrongs making a right.


Bust a few of these and you have my attention.

And now from Ari Jokimäki:

My first thought on Rob's question is: right about what? But in any case, I don't try to be right about anything. My approach to the climate issues has been to offer people the information about climate science and let them decide themselves if they want to do something about it. People are smart. They are perfectly able to decide what they should do when they have enough information about it. So I spend the time I have for climate science pointing out the research to people. And you know what? Lots of the research is very interesting. If you dig into it, there is a good chance that you will end up digging it.

I usually don't go around making lot of claims about climate, so if I'm right or not is a somewhat irrelevant question to me. However, I do sometimes go around pointing out where some climate related claims are wrong. Those claims are usually made by people calling themselves climate sceptics. They make the claim. I check the existing research relating to the claim. I explain why the claim is wrong. In that I am right because such claims are very often easy to show beyond any reasonable doubt that they are wrong. Even if the science on the issue in question would not be clear, it is easy to see that the claims are wrong because such claims are very often presented with absolute certainty. Curiously, in many cases the same people who present their own claims with absolute certainty, go around saying that climate scientists cannot know anything because things are so uncertain. If uncertainty is their product, how come they are making their claims with certainty?

Rob's question might deal with the fact that there are two apparent sides in climate issue - those who believe that mankind is causing strong changes to climate and those who believe mankind is not causing strong changes to climate. In this picture I would be on the side of those who believe that mankind is causing strong changes to climate. So I guess I should be answering if I'm right in that belief. I don't know. I'm the kind of guy who doesn't care much about theories and models, but I like to look at what observations say. So far the observations I have gotten familiar with are clearly pointing out that mankind is causing strong changes to climate. We of course don't know yet how strong it is going to be, but in my opinion "strong" climate change is already upon us. If we have already changed the climate so much that species are clearly responding to it - and the existing body of knowledge suggests that they are doing so in many ways - then I would say that this is already a strong climate change. Well, actually, strong is rather bad word for it. "Rapid" might be more accurate, because it is the speed of change that is causing harm to the Nature, but unfortunately the strength of climate change is what is usually discussed, or just the amount of warming in many cases.

However, I'm not very happy with this usual two sides scenario. Those who believe and those who don't. Generally those who believe seem to say that we have to do something about the ongoing climate change. I haven't made up my mind on that (there's a lot of reasoning behind this but it's too long a story to include here). So I don't really see myself on either of these sides. I think there are a lot of sides here. There are so many sides that I won't even start listing them. I'll just say that I'm on the side that doesn't want to believe anything and thinks that research results should tell us what's happening and possibly what to do about it, if there is such a need.

We can open these for discussion in the comments section and then move on to part 2 where I'll post my own thoughts and some of the other authors will contribute as well.

Posted by Rob Honeycutt on Saturday, 21 April, 2012

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