randombio.com | science commentary
Friday, October 19, 2018

Global warming is officially boring

Theories die not with a whimper, but with a yawn


O ver at Takimag last week, some guy named Joe Bob Briggs told us how he once belonged to the Apathy Party in college. Their platform was that all the candidates sucked. If fewer than 20% of the students voted, his party would claim victory.

Read the whole th- . . . oh, never mind.

Apathy is a sound, if underrated, philosophical standpoint, and it has surprising relevance to science. It turns out that Thomas Kuhn was wrong. It's apathy, not a paradigm shift, that plays the biggest role in scientific change. So I'm right behind you, Mr Briggs. Well, okay, I'm on the couch, raising a beer to you.

In science, nothing is ever really settled. It just becomes uninteresting. If some scientist tried to write a paper on hemoglobin, or vitamin C, or some other topic that's been researched to death, very few journals would publish it. Not because it's “settled science,” but because there's very little that's new or interesting to say about it, and so people don't want to listen.

Apathy is how bad theories get forgotten. There's no specific moment when everyone decides they're false, and like a school of fish undergo a “paradigm shift” to something new. Fewer and fewer people just show up at seminars describing it, and soon it's forgotten as something newer and shinier comes along.

Bored blue caterpillar
This caterpillar has turned blue because of global warming, but nobody really cares.

A perfect example is string theory: it was exciting for awhile, then it was boring, and now it's new and exciting again. Another example was the link between cholesterol and heart disease. At first it was unchallengeable dogma. It hung around in the textbooks for awhile, but gradually the textbook writers are softening the claims; soon the last surviving paragraph will disappear entirely.

Apathy seems to be the response the average person has to global warming. And it looks more like the warmers no longer care either. The latest claim last week was that AGW will make beer more expensive. Before that, it was some Oxford prof claiming that AGW was going to bring back the bubonic plague, aka the black death.

That one goes like this: warming will thaw out the permafrost, releasing the deadly plague bacteria from their 672-year slumber, and then rats and fleas will happen, somehow, and it will be 1346 all over again. The warmers are running out of things to scare us with, though I have to admit that the thing about beer is a little scary.

Then there's the latest IPCC report, which says we now have only 12 years until “climate disaster,” as the UK Guardian calls it, and the only way to avoid it is to cut CO2 emissions by forty-five percent before 2030 and by one hundred percent—that is, to zero—by 2050. The main response among skeptics seems to be to quote Ronald Reagan: There you go again.

So, why are so few people listening? Part of the reason is the crying-wolf syndrome. It's a well-known human response: the warmers believed the audience wasn't listening, so they compensated by talking louder and adopting a more extreme viewpoint.

Another reason is the name-calling. Whenever you hear someone accusing someone else of being a “denier,” it tells you one thing: the accuser is not a real scientist. The term is inherently unscientific. It's the logical fallacy of assuming the conclusion. Suppose you claimed to have three cases of beer in your fridge and I said you only had two. If you then called me a beer denier, it would mean you had given up on using logic to prove your point.

By demonizing their opponents, warmers were actually just admitting that the evidence was not strong enough to convince skeptics. Without realizing it, they turned the question from fact-finding to enforce­ment, and thereby turned AGW from a scientific question into a tribal one. Climate became a social construct.

It's a shame: the basic theory of AGW is superficially plausible. Last week I had to explain the Stephan-Boltzmann law to somebody, and it reminded me of how AGW should have been presented. But in science the best way to get a paper (or a theory) rejected is to overstate your conclusions. The warmers went way beyond that, and turned to name-calling and scare-mongering. Then, thanks in large part to the use of the term “deniers,” it became boring. The battle is pretty much over, and the skeptics have won.

This is the way theories die: not with a whimper, but with a yawn.


oct 19 2018, 5:38 am. revised oct 20 2018, 7:56 pm. last edited oct 21 2018, 9:35 am


Related Articles

How to lose a scientific discussion
Browbeat your opponents, call them names, and use lots of pie charts.

What is the value of computer modeling?
If mathematical models are done badly, they will discredit an entire branch of science. It's happened before.

Happy global warming!
In our post-empiricist world, it's actually warm outside, baby. Shivering is just a form of denial.


On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

back
science
book reviews
home