What if they are wrong?

Judith Curry has a marvelous and uncanny ability to ferret out interesting subjects and writing from a variety of sources. Her current post – What if they are wrong? – builds off a Mike Stopa post by the same title. Mike is a Harvard-based physicist with a background in computation and nanoscience. He asks the question, “Suppose it turns out that CO2 has essentially nothing to do with the earth’s climate. How will the history of this colossal mistake be written?”

Stopa looks for a historical parallel. He mentions Lysenko and Lysenkoism. An abominable episode in the history of “science” and the uptake of that science by society (in this case, Stalin’s USSR). A great example.

As you might expect, he (and now Judith) have triggered a lot of fascinating comment on this. You might want to read some or all of what’s now out there.

Here are a couple of (small) additional offerings to the discussion.

The first goes back to my junior-high woodshop instructor. You might recall his earlier mention here, in another context, on February 13. He talked about planning our work and working our plan.

He also instilled in us another lesson. He taught us that in woodworking, everything we did would be a mistake. And it followed, he would tell us, that we should therefore make correctable mistakes. There was a huge difference between not cutting quite so much off a piece of wood as we needed to, and cutting off too much. So we should always leave a little excess. And then we could simply plane off that excess. But again, not all the way. He wanted us to file off most but not all the excess remaining after we used the plane. Finally, we could use fine sandpaper to remove the excess we left from the filing.

Much of science progresses in that same way…or maybe we tend to look at it that way from the perspective of history. Take Newtonian mechanics. With some over-simplification, the view of classical mechanics is that there’s matter, and there’s energy. The two are distinct. There’s no limit to how fast something can go, velocities translate from one moving frame to another in a straightforward way. There’s no limit to how small you can divide material, and still have it retain the properties of the larger mass. Write the Hamiltonian of the system, and there’s no remaining uncertainty – only determinism.

Well, along comes Einstein and modern physics. Matter and energy are interchangeable. The speed of light is a fundamental limit[1]. Relative motions viewed by different observers become more problematic. Cut things fine enough, and you reach an atomic, and then a subatomic level, where life is different. And uncertainty, particle-wave duality, and a lot of other vertigo-inducing ideas emerge.

Was Newton a bozo? Incompetent? Wrong-headed? Did he and his contemporaries seek to mislead? Were they in cahoots with one or another political faction at the time? Were technologies introduced on the basis of this science and technology it spawned entirely misplaced?

We don’t say that. We see Newton as brilliant. We just no longer see his ideas as holding universally. They pertain, but only approximately, given certain limits on speed and size. And we see Einstein as brilliant too.

[By the way, we don’t see them as perfect human beings. Newton had it in for Hooke, savaged his reputation whenever he had a free moment. Since he was independently wealthy, this was often. And Hooke, history notes, was no better. In many ways, he was his own worst enemy. Einstein too was human. All of them, like us, flawed. All of them, again like us, dabbling in politics of the time. Oh…come to think of it, don’t we say “to err is human?” Shades of my junior high shop teacher.]

Perhaps we can find another historical illustration or two to gain more perspective.

The first is more recent. It only goes back one or two hundred years. But it’s well-known to our community. It’s the theory of atmospheric tides. Here’s the short version (still a bit pointy-headed, and takes a few short cuts and liberties – forgive me for both).

Ocean tides were explained satisfactorily two hundred years ago by Laplace and others. But atmospheric tides remained a mystery. To oversimplify…the dominant atmospheric tide observed at ground level at many locations is the solar semidiurnal tide. The puzzle? If gravitational forcing were the source of atmospheric tides, then they, like the oceans, should show a dominant lunar semidurnal tide. If solar heating were the important forcing, why wasn’t the solar diurnal tide dominant? A long chain of fairly distinguished scientists, working over a century or so, got themselves wrapped around the axle of a so-called resonance theory. The idea was that gravitational forcing was dominant, but the temperature structure of the atmosphere was such that it resonated preferentially to the period of the solar semidiurnal forcing. Since the two periods are only half an hour different (out of 12 hours), this resonance would have to be fairly sharp. The resonance theory waxed and waned in favor for a century with each new discovery about atmospheric thermal structure (the stratosphere, etc.). Finally, in the 1960’s Richard Lindzen (yes, the Richard Lindzen) showed that the primary heating was in the ozonosphere, that it excited a solar diurnal tide quite evident at stratospheric heights, but that this mode was trapped at those heights, so quite diminished in amplitude at ground level. This was a brilliant piece of science detective work and is one reason why I and many others admire him profoundly to this day. Those other scientists, caught up in debating the resonance theory? They included some pretty big names. We don’t think any the less of them for it. They just failed to get this bit right.   

The second example goes back quite a bit further – the pyramids of ancient Egypt. They may hold not one but two lessons for us.

The first has to do with the engineering of pyramids. Today you can find speculation that some of the collapsed pyramids, e.g. the Pyramid of Meidum,  show evidence that the Egyptians had to learn about pyramid construction as they went along through trial and error; they weren’t born with this coded in their DNA. Couldn’t find any information online about those first architects; this leaves room for conjecture. Do you think they were forgiven? Allowed to live but scorned and ridiculed the rest of their lives? Were their failures mocked in hieroglyph-graffiti in some blogosphere of the time? [And you have to wonder…what if a pyramid collapse were followed by any notable change in the level or timing of the seasonal Nile flood? Would Egyptians have attempted to link the events?...Pyramid collapse causes climate change…] Or were those who failed quickly executed, sent to the afterlife? We probably treat our errant, human scientists and engineers more gently today, their suffering at the hands of bloggers notwithstanding.

The second has to do with the idea of pyramids. They were tombs for the dead; we’re told that the people of the time may even have viewed them as “resurrection machines” for speeding the transit of the pharaohs to the abode of their fellow gods. We’re also told they consumed the labors of tens of thousands, perhaps many tens of thousands of workers. They point to a society that was focused on glorification of the pharaohs as opposed to any larger public welfare. Certainly they suggest that that the idea of winner-take-all society often decried today may well be coded in our DNA (in contrast to engineering technique).

Maybe the pyramid-building was good for Egyptian morale. Maybe it stimulated their economy. Possibly the sense of accomplishment carried over into the battlefield and helped them defeat their enemies. Nevertheless, it’s hard for us to look back on the Egyptian pyramids as “humanity’s best idea.” This distant example suggests that scientists and their errors are consigned to history’s ashbin, but we do remember, and judge, ancient societies and their leaders as a whole. Did they generate wealth? How was this wealth distributed? Were Egyptians democratic? Were they strong? Weak? Moral? Did they endure? This and similar questions intrigue us.

Coming back to greenhouse gases and climate variability and change, it doesn’t take too much imagination to forecast that when future generations look back on this time, they’ll  formulate similar views of us and our society. To them, climate science will be well-known and its conclusions and implications accepted as a given. Science controversy will have moved on. Only a few historians of science will take the trouble to look at Climate Gate, and Heartland, and all the rest.

But future generations will have some ideas about the fossil-fuel economy…and they will likely regard it much as we regard the stone age. They’re likely to see its shortcomings, as opposed to the strengths of whatever energy economy will have supplanted it.

My forecast? They’ll view it more favorably than we view those pyramids and that culture…but they’re unlikely to see it as “humanity’s best idea.”

[1] or maybe not…keep your eye on those neutrinos

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18 Responses to What if they are wrong?

  1. BLouis79 says:

    I think history records that the “big projects” are orchestrated by power brokers who manage to coerce others to do their bidding. When the “peasants” can manage to ensure their own safety, they tend to revolt against such coercion.

    “The wisdom of crowds” is more likely to be correct and thankfully, the internet gives power and safety to the crowds.

    So whether CO2-based warming will go the way of the flat earth society (a good idea at the time) or the terracotta warriors (how can one person wield so much power?) is up for grabs.

    The biggest difference is that we are likely to have a scientific answer within the lifespan of the people involved in pushing CO2-based warming, as opposed to historical figures who turn out to be wrong long after they have died.

  2. kim says:

    Releasing some sequestered carbon as the dioxide to the biosphere will be seen as a good thing. It’s climate effect, to be determined, is probably to the good side, since warmer is better than colder.

    • William Hooke says:

      Glad you’ve brought this up…I admit to wondering fromtime to time, when people talk about sequestering carbon anew, whether we mightn’t be smarter to sequester it in a way that would make it more or less readily available for einjection into the atmosphere, versus sequestering it so thoroughly that we’ll face enormous energy costs for its recovery.

      • Anteros says:

        Now there’s an interesting thought.
        I toyed with the idea of enormous semi-permanent logpiles being assembled around the world [decay is a headache..] or charcoal mountains. I realised soon enough that the scale of the problem was two orders of magnitude greater than the feasible solution.
        As fossil fuels are having their carbon re-united with oxygen atoms at a rate of about 3 cubic miles of matter per year, our clever thoughts of sequestration sanity are surely only ever tinkering around at the edges.

        • Anteros says:

          And of course, there comes a point, when you’ve collected a few million tons of charcoal [to hold on to the carbon that photosynthesis has very kindly split from some Co2 molecules] that burning the pile of charcoal is way more sensible than digging half a mile into the ground to look for some smelly sulphurous coal.
          Except that it cost 7 times as much to go the charcoal route as it did to dig up the coal – which is why we do that in the first place!

          Something, somewhere, is amiss :)

          • kim says:

            Read D. Defoe for an account of coal seams meeting the sea, used for making salt from the sea water, then the salt was used to preserve the superabundance of herring caught prolifically in the North Sea.

            Concantenation of coastal circumstances.

          • kim says:

            ‘cat’. For eating mice, not for being eaten. How barbaric.

      • kim says:

        Short of merely pressurizing the gas, carbon sequestration schemes involve the input of energy(yes, @ enormous cost), so recovering CO2 if needed might actually be an energy source.

        The most generally efficient means to so sequester is already happening without us doing a thing, that is by photosynthesis; the earth’s plants engaged in this Sisyphean task.

        Lie back, and think of Gaia.

  3. Andrew says:

    I like this! Thank you for sharing, Bill. Interesting thinking.

  4. David L. Hagen says:

    William Hooke
    Re “But future generations will have some ideas about the fossil-fuel economy…and they will likely regard it much as we regard the stone age. . . .they’re unlikely to see it as “humanity’s best idea.”
    While your other considerations are though provoking, I recommend you reconsider your final comments. Consider the rapid growth that resulted from using fossil fuels. See Tad Patzek Exponential growth, energetic Hubbert cycles, and the advancement of technology Archives of Mining Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences, May 3, 2008

    He shows that the US grew at 9%/year for 60 years from 1880 to 1940. Then it continued at 3.3%/year for another 60 years from 1945 to 2005. During that time, the US went from what today we would consider a 3rd world economy to the world’s superpower. Similarly, global crude oil grew 6.6%/year for 90 years from 1880-1970.

    In 2005 the world hit a ceiling on crude oil production at about 75 million bbl/day resulting in highly inelastic price responses.

    The reason you are able to post that article with the great economy and complexity supporting you is directly because of the major use of fossil fuels. Yes it is a transition to solar based fuels and power. Restoring growth to help developing economies will require developing new/alternative fuels cheaper and more abundant than petroleum.

    • William Hooke says:

      David, this is a terrific comment, and I totally agree. I guess the way I was looking at it is that in a century or so, two things will be true: (1) life will be better than it is today (just as most of us would prefer to be alive today versus to have lived 200 years ago), and (2) that “better” will include some improved energy economy. So they’ll look back and see what we have today as transitional…say the way we look back on water wheels and horse-drawn barges on canals…great ideas at the time…but just steppingstones…

  5. DocMartyn says:

    I think this is a cross between N-Rays and Eugenics. N-Rays were ‘discovered’ when new technologies were allowing scientists to make new tools for investigation. Computers are playing this role today. Many scientists believe that they can ‘solve’ a problem by computational brute force, but do not think that their simulations should be treated as experiments with the requite positive and negative controls, instead their outputs are given the worth of the words of sages.
    Along with the computer revolution comes compassionate coercion. ‘Just the right number of me, but too many of you’ manifests itself in many forms. The Eugenics movement, along with the Nazi racial supremacist beliefs and policies has a softer, but just as nasty, counter part. If you think there are too many people, the obvious solution is to destroy the social, economical and political systems that underpin the global population. Western societies consume power, grow, innovate and drive the population rise. Destroy that expansion and stop Gaia being over-run.

  6. Marcel Kincaid says:

    What if aliens really did build the pyramids? What if astrology is really true? What if the sun really does revolve around the earth, which is stationary? What if all AGW deniers are intellectually dishonest? Oops, odd man out.

    • William Hooke says:

      Aliens? If you want to know the truth, I actually tried to work that angle in, but after a couple of experiments decided it was a bridge too far. Thanks for giving me a second chance… :)

      …and if I understand the your point (there are enough layers of irony here to give me pause), I think I agree with you…and why I started with the example of Newtonian physics. When the full history of this subject is written, it’s far more likely to speak to adjustments to where the science is now versus major revisions.

  7. Pingback: What if they are right? | Living on the Real World

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