We told you we told you so
The cold spell that gripped North America through mid-February is a reality check for climate alarmism that it is failing badly. All the usual suspects are currently telling us they actually saw it coming, they just didn’t tell us, and it’s exactly what to expect from warming. If they had instead said look, we think warming is a long-term threat but you’re right that it’s unusually cold right now, and you’re right that it shows that climate change is more complex than we let on, they might retain some credibility. But when they jeer “Yah, told you so” about the opposite of what they actually predicted they look silly and unscientific.
They are jeering it. John Kerry said of this winter storm “it is directly related to the warming, even though your instinct is to say, wait a minute, this is the new Ice Age. But it’s not. It is coming from the global warming and it threatens all the normal weather patterns.” And of course in reporting his remarks CBS went into the chant: “The planet is warming in large part because of greenhouse gas emissions that are pumped into the sky from power plants, cars, planes and industry. It even comes from the way we raise and grow our food. America is the second-largest emitter behind China of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. That warming is believed to make storms stronger, droughts drier and oceans higher. That means certain places on Earth where people currently live will become unlivable. In fact, it is already happening.”
Not to be outdone, Bloomberg hollered “How the Warming Arctic Helped Drive a Deep Freeze Into Texas”. And on Feb. 17 the New York Times proclaimed “A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids” and the next day its “The Morning” feature chirped “Good morning. A Times reporter explains the connection between frigid weather and global warming.” A former Times/Bloomberg/Wall St. Journal writer tweeted “Here is the governor of Texas trying to blame wind power for his state’s power outages – rather than, say, freezing weather that has accompanied climate change”.
It was everywhere. On Feb. 17 NBC explained “How one Texas storm exposed an energy grid unprepared for climate change” and on Feb. 18 sent an email alert saying “FACT CHECK: The main failure in Texas’ power crisis isn’t renewable energy - it’s mostly fossil fuels”. (Which is not true, although natural gas in particular encountered problems.) NBC then predictably quoted “a research associate at the University of Texas in Austin who specializes in the power grid” who “said that accepting scientists’ findings on climate change will be key to avoiding similar disasters in Texas in the future” because “‘The science is telling us we’re going to have more variability in our weather. In Texas, when we think of more variability in our weather, we usually think of hotter, drier summers, but it goes the other way, as well.’” Every which way, in fact.
Thus the National Post, after admitting in a piece entitled “5 Things to Know About the Frozen States of America” that the U.S. was seeing “dangerously low temperatures not seen in decades” with “hazardous amounts of ice and snow” from Texas through Alabama and beyond, indeed “The exceptional cold is affecting about 30 states, with temperatures up to 50 degrees below normal” and fingering a “polar vortex”, insisted that “4 STILL, TEMPERATURES ARE HEADING UPWARD/ The central United States is currently the most unusually cold region on the planet. However, the planet as a whole is still unusually mild, and 2020 was on par with the previous record for the warmest year on record.” And moreover “5 OVERALL, COLD SNAPS ARE GETTING RARER/ As the climate has warmed, cold snaps have become increasingly rare and less severe, while heat waves have become far more common and intense. In Dallas, the lowest temperature reached each year has increased by 7.9 degrees since 1970, according to the research and communications group Climate Central.” Aka the alarmist group Climate Central.
Seriously? An 8 degree warming in 50 years? Even if Dallas is warming faster than average it seems a startling figure. Did anyone check?
As we mentioned last week, in contrast to the naïve epistemology of a beautiful theory slain by a brute fact, philosophers of science, and philosophers more generally, have understood for some time that theories, or what Thomas Kuhn called “paradigms” in science, are complex constructs whose interaction with evidence is complicated. People not only can but must adjust some of their minor premises in the face of unexpected evidence or every idea we hold about the world would shatter at the first unexpected occurrence. The real and tricky problem, of thought as well as of disputation, isn’t telling a “fact” from a “theory”. It’s deciding how to interpret the facts, how to make sense of William James’ “blooming, buzzing confusion” of sensory input.
As Goethe rightly said, every fact is already a theory, including that the sense data entering your eyes come from a 3D physical world. Some are better than others. And the hard part is recognizing the point at which the various adjustments to a theory that has worked for you so far have become so unreasonably complex, baroque and ad hoc that it’s time to abandon it for a more effective rival.
There is no hard and fast rule for doing so. Life is complicated and so is thought. In the famous formulation by Willard Van Orman Quine in From A Logical Point of View, “The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic… impinges on experience only along the edges…. total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field…. But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experience is linked with any particular statement in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.”
If you do not think this formulation is famous, one of us encountered it in Anibal Romero’s La Sorpresa en la Guerra y la Politica published in Caracas, Venezuela in 1992. If you do not think it should be, consider instead the famous formulation possibly by Isaac Asimov, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …’”
For instance “Scientists find unexpected animal life far beneath Antarctica’s floating ice shelves/ The discovery of what appear to be sponges in the pitch-black seawater beneath almost half a mile of ice has biologists baffled.” So not settled after all? No. That’s funny.
What’s not funny is turning scientific inquiry into dogmatic assertion. Science does not proceed by ruthless deduction and certainly not by enforcement of orthodoxy. As Maclean’s just wrote in context of COVID vaccines, “Researchers looking for mRNA were ridiculed by colleagues. Luckily, that didn’t stop them.” And there’s a lesson there.
Specifically, science proceeds by someone noticing an unexpected result and wondering, undeterred by scorn, whether it is best accounted for by refining the current theory or by finding some other way of looking at the problem. But it seems climate change alarmism is no longer open to either possibility which takes it out of the realm of science and into the realm of political science or something even darker.
We will not at this moment push alarmists to abandon their theory. Instead we reproach them for refusing even to consider modifying it in the light of unexpected data, or indeed to admit that it was unexpected. In the true spirit of science they could react to an unexpected cold spell by saying look, we are confident that the evidence shows overall that an accumulation of atmospheric CO2 due to humans is pushing temperatures relentlessly upward over time. But we recognize that other causes can override the trend in the short run. For instance if increased solar activity raises temperature and decreased solar activity lowers it, there could be a solar sine wave laid atop a secular rise so while it really is getting cooler right now and every year is not hotter than its predecessor, over time both cooler and warmer years will be hotter than their predecessors. We also recognize that it’s a very complicated business and that our predictions are necessarily vague.
Instead they resort to claiming after the fact that they predicted things they did not predict. They shout that the next prediction is iron clad. And they engage in the kind of overly elaborate rationalizations for everything being monocausally the result of CO2-driven warming that it reminds one of the epicycles and epicentres even Galileo relied on to preserve the notion that all heavenly motions were perfect circles until someone said oh phooey, orbits are elliptical, at which point the simple, powerful inverse square law of gravity fell into place with a satisfying “Eureka” click.
We concede that in today’s polemicized world it might seem to signal weakness to express genuine puzzlement. For instance a few years ago someone leaped with ferocity on an admission in Nature that “‘There is this mismatch between what the climate models are producing and what the observations are showing,’ says lead author John Fyfe, a climate modeller at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis in Victoria, British Columbia. ‘We can’t ignore it.’” But Fyfe is absolutely right scientifically and morally, and so the leap was not just unprovoked, it was counterproductive. Who will dare admit that their theory needs refinement in a world of “gotcha”?
In the world of science, if the AGW theory is correct, then the models do need refining because the “hiatus” was real. And if the models can be refined so as to account for various recent unexpected observations, the theory may well be salvaged. But if they can’t be, it can’t. And if you won’t try, you’re not a scientist.
In the debate over the philosophy of science, an initial emphasis on the idea that theories could be tested by confirming hypotheses was refined with more attention to “falsifiability”. The really compelling test was to use a theory to predict an unexpected result and then see if you could refute the prediction by gathering evidence. If not, you had at least a provisional eureka.
In that spirit, we ask those who insist that AGW is a crisis to tell us: What evidence would persuade you that it was not? What would have to happen, or fail to happen, before you would consider abandoning the theory instead of refining it? And as a follow-up to those particularly dug in on the front lines, what would have to happen, or fail to happen, before you would consider refining the theory, admitting things were more complex than you had claimed, instead of insisting that it’s perfect as is and only rogues and fools claim otherwise?
For instance an ice storm in Texas during what was billed as the latest, greatest hottest year ever?