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. 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.”
 or maybe not…keep your eye on those neutrinos