The Difference Between Belief and the Provable

September 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Climate 

I was talking with a colleague the other day when he said something so completely unexpected and uncharacteristic of a man of science you could have knocked me over with a feather. As our conversation drifted into atmospheric physics, he said in all seriousness, “I am not a global warming denier.”

As a PhD physicist he should — and until that moment did — stand as a quintessential example of what every person in the field should be: a dispassionate observer of the physical world, a person unfettered by emotional and political attachments, which have proven time and again throughout history to be the bane of every scientist foolhardy enough to give them authority in his work. Einstein made such a glaring mistake when, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed quantum mechanics, punctuating the folly with his now famous line, “God does not play dice with the universe,” in a letter to fellow physicist Max Born. Today, through reproducible experimental results, quantum mechanics stands completely vindicated in its ability to accurately describe the world of the very small, while Einstein’s quote stands as an example of why one should never allow belief to replace rigorous scientific examination. His belief was so strong that it tainted his work for the remainder of his life, sending him down one blind alley after another in his search for a grand unification theory.

Any scientist worth his salt will avoid the pitfall of predicating theories based solely on belief, because that trap leads to an abandonment of physics in favor of religious zeal. So when my colleague repeated a line more fitting the follower of some spiritual sect that one whose profession demands healthy skepticism, I waited several seconds for the “just kidding” that sadly never came.

I pointed to one of many full-page ads published in several large US newspapers, and signed by hundreds of atmospheric physicists, that flatly reject the notion of anthropogenic global warming. But with a wave of his hand, he dismissed them, saying, “They’re not real scientists.” These tactics of indicting the messenger, because you don’t like the message and of suggesting that to deny a scientific theory is tantamount to the denial of the Holocaust, is one I’d expect from an ignorant politician with an agenda, not a scientist. To be sure, these tactics were beneath him. And I? I was flabbergasted.

How could he so completely abandon the scientific principles that have come to define him as a physicist? Like Einstein, my colleague allowed himself to become blinded by an emotional attachment to an ideal: the very antithesis of the scientific method. Regardless of your position on the theory of global warming, the only reasonable course our society can take is one of peer-reviewed scientific research in which theories and the data used to support them are presented and challenged. If the theory holds up under hostile scrutiny, if its predictions are repeatable and verifiable, and if the data have not been contaminated, or worse, altered, the theory will be accepted. And not before. This is the way it must be in science. There is no room for beliefs. There is no room for politics and even less for politicians. In science there is only the provable.

I come away from the incident with a deeper sense of the seriousness of this issue. When even a seasoned physicist will abandon the review process that stands as the very cornerstone of science and resort to smearing those with an opposing viewpoint, how much more difficult is it for laymen to decide where the truth lies? How much more likely is it that those same laymen will fall prey to the trappings of politicized, junk “science”?  which is no science at all.

To be sure, global warming is a theory far from proven. Until such time as those scientists arguing it can present uncontaminated, incontestable data in support of it, it will remain a theory, and as such should rightfully hold no sway whatsoever in the policies of our society.

So the next time someone asks if you believe in global warming, remind them that belief should not enter into the discussion. It can either be proven or it cannot. Let’s leave beliefs where they belong: in church.

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