Thursday, November 06, 2014

It's Complicated

Ideas in science are often pretty simple. The details of the facts supporting these ideas rarely are.

Like ancient civilizations, religions, and primitive cultures, modern science has constructed an elaborate cosmology. Modern cosmology, for example, has constructed a detailed picture of what was happening in the universe 13 billion plus years ago, when it was less than a millisecond old. Why should we take this cosmology, or any science, more seriously than the various myths aforementioned?

The answer of science is that the scientific cosmology is supported by an intricate web of measurements, predictions, retrodictions, and interrelationships which are remarkably consistent, not only with each other but with the whole structure of modern physics, from thermodynamics to quantum field theory. That web is complicated, and nobody can comprehend it without extensive and detailed study.

It's probably worth noting that perfect consistency is an ideal that is never perfectly achieved, at least not until there are no scientific questions left to be answered. None of these points ever seem to be understood by the various critics of evolution, cosmology, or climate science who think that they have achieved a scientific triumph when they find some fact or argument which seem to contradict their (usually confused) notion of what that criticized theory says.

I have spent some time arguing with various critics of modern climate science and the idea of anthropogenic global warming. Many, despite having achieved degrees in science and engineering, really seem to have no idea how scientific theory is constructed or supported. One guy, a meteorologist with a degree in geology, thought he had disproven the link between CO2 and sea level change because he found a few examples of of places where sea level appeared to be higher in Medieval times than today.

This argument is wrong on so many levels that it becomes complicated in itself. Of course there are many reasons why an individual location may rise or fall relative to sea level. Many such reasons are geologic - volcanism, isostasy, etc. I presented him with examples of ancient cities now drowned (geologic causes). I showed in detail how his favorite example of a once sea side castle having moved inland was due to the fact that the local people had built dikes to wall off the sea and reclaim tidal swampland for farming. He was unmoved and unpersuaded. Certain kinds of deliberate and studied stupidity are invincible in the face of fact and logic.

Of course I had to spend many hours to reconstruct the complicated details of exactly why his argument was wrong. I learned a little about history and a lot more about the futility of trying persuasion on ideological nutjobs.