January 30, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Global Policies Can Trust Fake Science

Some matters are just too complicated to know with certainty. Here’s another “whoops” moment in climate science.

Look at this headline in Nature by Fangqun Yu, analyzing a recent paper: “Atmospheric reaction networks affecting climate are more complex than was thought.” Those last two words are telling. Beware scientists who think they “now know” something. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they only “thought” they knew. They study phenomena, measure things, analyze things, and draw conclusions. An unsuspecting public or policy official trusts that scientists know what they say they know. Laws ensue that can affect nations for good or ill. Sometimes they can affect the whole world.

This instance involves measurements of particles in the air emitted by plants and/or human industry. One doesn’t need the details about isoprene, VOCs, and such to get the gist. Previous scientists made a simple logical mistake. They assumed that they could measure the volume of “secondary organic aerosols” (SOAs, the particles in the air that condense moisture into clouds) by adding up the contributions of individual sources separately. It turns out, a new study in Nature by McFiggans et al warns, that when measured in combination instead of separately, these sources act in unexpected ways. They “scavenge” each other and reduce the number of aerosols. That’s why Yu writes that the atmospheric effects are “more complex than thought,” changing what climate scientists thought they knew about clouds – and climate. Sheepishly, Yu writes,

It will be necessary to include the HOM [highly oxygenated organic molecule] scavenging observed by McFiggans et al. in global models that explicitly consider particle formation and growth, to understand the climatic implications.

Finally, the suppression of SOA formation by the mixtures of compounds studied will depend on the relative concentrations of those compounds and, for isoprene, on the acidity of pre-existing particles, both of which are changing in the atmosphere as a result of emissions associated with human activities. Further research is needed to understand the potentially large effects of such emissions on the magnitude of SOA suppression, and therefore on climate change.

The lessons here apply to all science, not just climate science. Simplistic ideas often work their ways into grand deductions, which can work their way into global policy. Many processes in nature are too complex for simplistic ideas. Errors in the foundations can be aggravated in the conclusions. Yu admits that the effects of the reported errors in this case can have “potentially large effects.” We don’t understand the climate, he says. Further work is needed, he says. We don’t understand the magnitude of these effects on climate change. And that’s just in the observable present. What about climate change in the unobservable past? What about climate in the future? McFiggans et al end their paper,

It is likely that both background oxidant concentrations and VOC emissions (and hence OH• reactivity) will change in the future. Without a reasonable representation of SOA yields in different atmospheric VOC mixtures it will not be possible to predict the SOA contribution to atmospheric particulate matter effectively.

Given the uncertainties revealed by this paper, how can any scientist possibly compute the anthropogenic contribution to effects that they “thought” they understood? How can they predict what the temperature of the earth (if there is such a thing, 16 Jan 2015) will be a hundred years from now? Fake science prophets won’t have to be held accountable, because they will all be dead.

This entry is not about climate change. It is about epistemology. In many areas of science, educators and governments rely on what “science says.” They cannot speak the language and do the math that scientists can. This gives scientists a shaman-like authority. Scientism has created a political climate that too easily dismisses those who challenge the consensus as “science deniers” who “don’t understand science.” Remember what the late author Michael Crichton said: “consensus is not science, period.” Science rises or falls on the evidence. That evidence must be gathered systematically, without bias, analyzed rigorously, and presented tentatively. When a scientist tells you that your SUV is causing global warming and you need to walk to work, you should ask, “How do you know that?” Don’t fall for the “97% of scientists agree” line. That’s the bandwagon fallacy.

Not from any “climate denier” source, but from the pro-climate-change research itself published in leading science journals, we have been collecting quite an assortment of cases like this, where things “affecting climate are more complex than was thought” (see 21 April 2018, 16 May 2017, 19 Sept 2016). The purpose is not to take sides on the climate controversy, but to learn how science works. If climate scientists keep finding this many things they thought they knew in the observable present that aren’t so, what about scientists who speak pompously about things that they claim happened millions of years ago? Biological change, without doubt, is far, far more complex than climate! To claim anything with credibility about evolution, a biologist would need to understand genetics, epigenetics, population genetics, genetic drift, ecology, natural selection, sexual selection, kin selection, niche construction, mutation rates, mutation sources, botany, mycology, biochemistry, molecular biology, pathology, fossils, marine biology, geology, and much, much more. Plus, the Darwinian needs to understand the relative contribution of all these factors in a particular situation. This is clearly beyond the capabilities of the human mind. But it IS within the capabilities of the human imagination! – and that is why, with copious bluffing, and ample Darwin Flubber on hand – Darwinism survives.

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  • barclay says:

    The topic here is news, not climate change.. just the same, I saw this in article just out in Science News:
    “We need to rethink everything we know about global warming”
    “For a while now, the scientific community has known that global warming is caused by humanmade emissions in the form of greenhouse gases and global cooling by air pollution in the form of aerosols. However, new research published in Science by Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Daniel Rosenfeld shows that the degree to which aerosols cool the earth has been grossly underestimated, necessitating a recalculation of climate change models to more accurately predict the pace of global warming.”
    journal reference Science, 2019; eaav0566 DOI: 10.1126/science.aav0566 Rosenfeld et.al.

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