Global Warming needs its own new field

As a scientist, I believe that global warming is happening, and that it’s really bad, and that it’s important that we pay attention to it.  I also agree that there is a significant amount of evidence supporting global warming, to the extent that it’s very hard to offer a reasonable counter-argument.  But, again as a scientist, I’d also like to set something straight: global warming has not been proven using the scientific method.

That’s right.  It hasn’t been proven.

Hold on!  Before you justifiably aim your laser pointer at my eyes in exasperation, give me a few paragraphs to explain myself.  Let’s start out by going back to high school and agreeing on the definition of ‘scientific method’:

  1. Observe the phenomenon.
  2. Formulate a hypothesis as to what is happening.
  3. Identify an experiment that will test the hypothesis.  Include two groups: a ‘test group’ that includes the variables that hypothetically cause the phenomenon, and a near-identical ‘control group’ that removes only those variables.
  4. Execute the experiment and gather data.
  5. Review the experimental data to determine whether the phenomenon indeed occurred only in the test group.
  6. Conclude whether the data supports or refutes the hypothesis.

What scientific hypotheses have been proven by scientific method?  Gravity (Newton), the Laws of Relativity (Einstein), Heliocentrism (Copernicus & Galilei), DNA (Watson & Crick), and many others – but not as many as you might think.  Proving a hypothesis is notoriously difficult, because it’s painfully difficult to isolate the right variables and run the ‘right’ experiment.  Every day, a revolutionary scientific theory is ‘proven’, only to be discovered days, weeks, months, or years later that the experiment wasn’t set up correctly and the data were wrong.

So what does this have to do with global warming?  Here’s the problem: we haven’t performed a true scientific experiment to prove the global warming hypothesis.  For that, we would literally need to generate a second planet earth, identical to ours in every way except for the interference of human-kind.  If, after billions of years of planetary history, this pseudo-earth remains fine in the equivalent of year 2010 while ours is choked by our own fossile-fuel emissions, then we would have incontrovertible proof of global warming.

That is the way the scientific method works.  But a lot of people get grand delusions of ‘science’ from shows like Mythbusters and CSI: Miami, where science is an easy, black-and-white affair: the Death Ray did work when we used modern mirrors!!!  The suspect had incriminating text messages on his phone, so he immediately caved and admitted everything!!!  Ask any real scientists, and they’ll tell you that proving a hypothesis beyond the shadow of a doubt is incredibly difficult work.

Like Jorge Cham says, TV science is not real science.

Here’s the problem with global warming: it’s easy to mistake ‘correlation’ for ‘causation’, especially when we lack the ability to control the parameters that influence each.  If we could turn off every smokestack on the planet, would the climate improve?  ‘Probably’.  But ‘probably’ is not how scientific law works.  It has to happen every time.

Given these difficulties, I think we need a new realm of study separate from the classical sciences like physics, biology, and chemistry.  This realm would include all study of large-scale phenomena where the scientific method cannot be literally applied, such as the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming.  In these topics, we must prove our hypotheses using mountains of evidence and careful reasoning, instead of the classic method of experimentation-conclusion.

Now, for the final and most important point: why does any of this make a difference?  Imagine all of the individuals out there who don’t believe in global warming.  They fall into two groups: religious, and doubters.  From experience, there’s pretty much no way to convince ultra-religious folks that global warming is a fact.  But the doubters have a hard time admitting to the human race being the worst thing that has happened to the planet, and look for the easiest way out of responsibility: by saying that it hasn’t been ‘proven’.  Creating a new field, with a new definition of ‘proof’, would help convince these people that we must view these phenomena differently than gravity or DNA.  We have a mountain of evidence, and that’s ‘proof’ enough.


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