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  • The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact”

    Posted on June 12th, 2015 Helian 10 comments

    The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier.  That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin.  It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more.  Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists.  These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.

    Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him.  However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well.  For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF.  In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state.  Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.

    For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal.  It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.  It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.”  It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview.  It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter.  Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”

    As it happens, I am a scientist myself.  I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present.  I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming.  However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.

    In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface.  Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena.  A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art.  It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data.  The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.

    In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built.  The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate.  These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems.  In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions.  The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values.  The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.

    In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades.  If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment.  However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities.  Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives.  Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger.  To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?

    For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm.  The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources.  Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized.  Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas.  Instead he was bullied and vilified.  A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn.  In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth.  There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.

    Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism.  Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it.  Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.”  I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist,  here.  There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist.  No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff.  Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.

    Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk.  I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten.  Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website.  In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures.  And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  Go figure!  One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.

  • Kerry, the Democrats, and the Demagoguing of Global Warming

    Posted on March 16th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    Secretary of State John Kerry appeared quite concerned about global warming during a recent visit to Indonesia, telling students,

    The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the worlds most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.

    A bit later, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrat senators pulled an all-night talkathon to sound the climate change alarm.  According to Reid, climate change is “the worst problem facing the world today.”  All this left reporter Susan Davis at USA Today scratching her head:

    The Democratic effort is cause for some confusion because these senators are calling for action in a chamber they control but without any specific legislation to offer up for a vote, or any timetable for action this year.

    As noted at Hot Air, the talkathon and Kerry’s bloviations were nothing but PR stunts:

    In other words, this is nothing but a stunt — and transparently so. Senate Democrats control all of the Senate committees, and what comes to the Senate floor. Boxer herself is the chair of the committee on environmental affairs, and could push through legislation any time she wants to the floor.

    In other words, it’s business as usual when it comes to environmental activism.  The pose is everything, and the reality is nothing.  The reality is that Kerry, Reid, and the rest are transparently indifferent to the problem of climate change, except as it serves them as a political tool.  If they really cared about it, they would have put a stop to illegal immigration long ago.  The carbon foot print per capita of the United States is four times that of Mexico, and the ratio is much greater for most of the other countries of origin.  If they really cared, they would put a stop to Nuclear Regulatory Commission stonewalling of innovative nuclear plant designs, not to mention grossly excessive litigation hurdles for plant construction.  If they really cared, they would get behind the shale-energy revolution which has cut 300 million tons of US greenhouse gas emissions by replacing heavily polluting coal with natural gas, a contribution greater than that of all the worlds solar and wind power installations combined.  In other words, they don’t care.

    It’s sad, because climate change actually is a potentially serious problem.  Kerry is just blowing hot air himself when he makes statements like,

    We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact.

    The idea that someone like Kerry could distinguish “shoddy scientists” from “scientific fact” when it comes to climate change is beyond ludicrous.  What qualifies him to even make such a statement?  Certainly not the faintest understanding of current climate models.  The most powerful computers on earth couldn’t even come close to achieving a deterministic solution of the problem.  It involves billions of degrees of freedom in atmospheric and ocean conditions, and the necessary initial conditions are mostly either unknown or of limited accuracy.  The only way we can even begin to address the problem is with serious (and potentially inaccurate) data interpolation, and probabilistic computer models, the equivalent of “throwing dice” on a vast scale to see which numbers come up.  The statistical noise alone in such models renders it impossible to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change, but only a range of possible outcomes.  In other words, Kerry’s crude “alarmism” is an easy mark for the climate “denialism” on the other end of the ideological spectrum.  That’s too bad, because denying that any problem exists is just as bad as demagoguing it.

    We may not be able to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change.  We do know, however, that solar radiation passing through a simplified model of the atmosphere and striking an “average” patch of the earth’s surface will raise the temperature of that atmosphere in proportion to the concentration of greenhouse gases.  The best computer models we have are not perfect, but they’re not useless either, and they predict that significant warming will occur over the coming decades.  In other words, we can’t speak of “facts” or certainty here, but we can say that there is a substantial risk that significant human-induced climate change will occur.  The effects might be benign, outweighed by the same factors that have driven variations in the earth’s climate throughout its history.  They might also be disastrous.  Given that earth is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, it seems foolhardy to rock the boat.

    Under the circumstances, Kerry, Reid, and the rest might want to think twice about the value of crying “wolf” to score cheap political points, when it’s clear that they have no intention of seriously addressing the problem.  Particularly at the end of a 15 year pause in the rate of increase of global temperatures, the result, already much in evidence, will be an increase in cynicism and skepticism that the problem is real.  The resulting reluctance to sacrifice other priorities to address it may come back to haunt the alarmists if, as the boy in the story discovered, the “wolf” turns out to be real.

    What to do?  Some of the most effective solutions are precisely what the alarmists who bray the loudest don’t want to do.  End significant immigration to countries with the most emissions per capita, for one.  Lead in the introduction and adoption of more efficient and safer nuclear technologies and the expansion of nuclear capacity instead of blocking it for another.   Instead, the wildly misnomered “Greens” in Germany are shutting down the nuclear plants in that country, with the entirely predictable result that Germany is currently planning to build 26 new, heavily polluting, coal-fired power plants to replace them.  Divert heavy subsidies for existing solar and wind technologies to investment in green technology research and development.  As those famously “green” Germans discovered once again, taxing the poor to finance the solar energy hobbies of the rich in a cloudy country whose capital lies above the 52nd parallel of latitude is a dubious proposition.  The cost of electricity there after years of massive subsidies to solar and a nuclear shutdown is now twice as high as in heavily nuclear France.  As noted in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the burden of these skyrocketing costs is falling disproportionately on the backs of those least able to afford them.

    Beyond that, we might want to get serious about finding another habitable planet, and developing the technology to get there.  We’ve been doing a lot of rocking the boat lately.  It would behoove us to have an alternative in case it eventually tips over, and the sooner the better.