From a perspective of elementary epistemology, the difference between practice of religion and practice of science is really quite simple: in religion, one changes one’s observations about reality to fit one’s conception or model of reality ; in science, one changes one’s model of reality to fit one’s observations about reality. At the heart of this distinction are the notions of incontrovertible truth on the one hand and conditional (or convertible) truth on the other. Each has its place in the human affairs, and differences in place implies acceptance of one does not necessarily mean rejection of the other.
Of course the real world is more complex than this simple distinction implies and the different notions of truth coexist and overlap. Indeed, notions of Truth revealed though religious study, for example, have in fact changed over the long term, often in unwilling response to the progress of science. The causes of thunderstorms in antiquity were in realm of religion and explained as acts of gods; today those causes can be explained by advancements in scientific knowledge. The Catholic church successfully suppressed the views of Galileo in the short term, but in the long term adapted its religious dogma to them, ditto for the ideas of Darwin. In contrast, the practice of science views “facts” in the context of a conception of truth, be it convenient or inconvenient, that is by definition conditional or controvertible in the short term and always subject to refutation. All scientific theories are conditional hypotheses about reality, and as the historian of science Thomas Kuhn has shown, these hypotheses may be accepted as truth during the normal practice of fleshing out scientific knowledge, but they are nevertheless alway subject to refutation. In fact, to be a valid hypothesis, a scientific theory must be stated in a form that can be falsified by logic or experiment or both — and while its truth may be accepted by the scientist, he recognizes that his/her acceptance is always conditional and subject to change. Indeed, many of the greatest experiments in science are those that falsify generally-accepted theories of reality, like Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons or the Michelson-Morley experiment. The other necessary condition for the practice of science, namely that its efforts must be transparent and subject to replication by other scientists, flows naturally from the notion of conditional truth — hiding data, suppressing competing views, and political or hidden agendas have no place in the scientific ideal.
Now, I urge you read the attached letter by 16 scientist/engineers, and ask yourself if the theory and practice of the incontrovertible “truth” of global warming is evolving along a religious or scientific vector of knowledge creation? Are its practitioners treating it as as a theory — an hypothesis — subject to falsification or as a dogmatic truth that should not be questioned?*
* Of course, you can dismiss this letter. After all, it appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by the arch climate denier (itself a revealing epithet) Rupert Murdoch. On the other hand, if you are more openminded and want to determine for yourself if the anti-scientific behaviours alluded to in this letter are atypical isolated examples, I recommend you start by reading A.W. Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion,” which goes to the core of the question of whether or not it is an incontrovertible truth that the temperature increases since 1850 are unprecedented. But there is more — a lot more — readers interested in learning about alternative scientific hypotheses might explain the dynamics of climate change since 1850 can start their journey by reading Professor Akasofu’s paper on the subject [here].
There’s no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy.
Wall Street Journal [ op-ed], 27 January 2012
Note: The following has been signed by the 16 scientists listed below:
Claude Allegre, former director of the Institute for the Study of the Earth, University of Paris; J. Scott Armstrong, cofounder of the Journal of Forecasting and the International Journal of Forecasting; Jan Breslow, head of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism, Rockefeller University; Roger Cohen, fellow, American Physical Society; Edward David, member, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences; William Happer, professor of physics, Princeton; Michael Kelly, professor of technology, University of Cambridge, U.K.; William Kininmonth, former head of climate research at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric sciences, MIT; James McGrath, professor of chemistry, Virginia Technical University; Rodney Nichols, former president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences; Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer, designer of Voyager and SpaceShipOne; Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. senator; Nir Shaviv, professor of astrophysics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Henk Tennekes, former director, Royal Dutch Meteorological Service; Antonio Zichichi, president of the World Federation of Scientists, Geneva.
A candidate for public office in any contemporary democracy may have to consider what, if anything, to do about “global warming.” Candidates should understand that the oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true. In fact, a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed.