Monday, May 12, 2014

Krauthammer Disappoints

Charles Krauthammer and George Will, two of what passes for the right's intellectual giants in the commentariat, recently participated in an "All-Star Panel" on climate change hosted by Fox News.

Both Krauthammer and Will opined about the meaning and significance of the oft-stated fact that 97 percent of scientists support the current scientific consensus on climate change.

Krauthammer was dismissive:

"99 percent of physicists [were] convinced that space and time were fixed until Einstein working in a patent office wrote a paper in which he showed that they are not. I'm not impressed by numbers. I'm not impressed by consensus."

But Krauthammer's analogy falls flat, and works at cross purposes to the conclusion he is trying to reach. By implication, the physics that came before Einstein was suddenly wrong, but on this Krauthammer is mistaken. By Krauthammer's logic, the theories, assumptions, and models physicists used before Einstein didn't work because Einstein changed everything. That's just not so.

Science is always, in some sense, tentative. New insight and understanding inevitably arises that supersedes the old. But that doesn't mean the old was wrong or useless. It was incomplete, perhaps, but still a workable and useful model for the purposes for which it was employed.

Einsteinian relativity is essentially a theory of gravity. It describes the interactions of large bodies at some distance, such as planets in the solar system. ("Large" actually means bigger than subatomic particles, and "some distance" actually means greater than subatomic scales.)

Einstein's equations can be used to describe the trajectories of planets through space and time, with exquisite precision. Before Einstein, scientists used Newtonian physics to do the same thing. And guess what? They still do. Einstein's equations are more precise, but that extra precision is negligible and useless in the applications where Newtonian physics is employed. The material difference between the two arises in unusual situations, such as when bodies are traveling near the speed of light, or are in the presence of a massive gravitational object such as a black hole, or when clocks must be synchronized to an extraordinary degree never before imagined. Those situations never existed in the problem domain of Newtonian physics.

Einstein extended, enhanced, and, in some sense, completed Newton. But when NASA needs to calculate the path a spaceship must travel to a distant planet, it still uses Newton's equations. Newton is still taught in high school physics classes.

Interestingly, physicists well know that Einstein is also incomplete. Einstein's equations fall apart at the minute subatomic scales where quantum mechanics is used instead. Conversely, quantum mechanics doesn't work at larger scales. Physicists have long been searching for a grand "theory of everything" that unifies Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics into a consistent and all encompassing whole.

Perhaps they will one day find it. When they do, will that mean Einstein was "wrong"? Of course not. Nothing in science has been more thoroughly verified empirically, and found to be correct (in terms of the predictions that it makes), than Einstein's theory of relativity—or, for that matter, the bizarre and bewildering theory of quantum mechanics.

One of Einstein's amazing insights is that time itself is not a fixed quantity: distant observers will "see" each others' clocks running at different speeds. Time proceeds slower for someone close to a large mass than for someone farther away. Today's global positioning system (GPS) would fail in short order if it did not account for that remarkable fact*. That's because minutely precise synchronization of clocks is required for the system to work, and clocks in the orbiting satellites that are further away from the earth's center run faster by a vanishingly small amount than clocks on the earth's surface. But that incredibly minute difference, if not accounted for, would doom the system almost instantaneously.

On the other hand, what if you want to know where a planet will be 10,000 years in the future, or calculate the date and time for the next thousand lunar eclipses? No need for Einsteinian precision; Newton is all you need.

The true implication of Krauthammer's analogy, even it it isn't what he intended, is that today's climate science is like Newtonian physics: An Einstein may explain more later, but in the present we're doing passably well with what we've got.

This is how science works. This is what scientific consensus means. It means that for the purpose at hand, science has concluded with high confidence that the system under study works in a particular way. Greater insights may arise in the future, but they tend to build upon, not negate, what is already known.

What's behind Krauthammer's smug dismissal of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change? Does he know something that tens of thousands of working scientists do not? What would that something be?  "I'm not impressed by consensus," he says. What would impress him? Suppose we could get Krauthammer to imagine, as a simple thought experiment (Einstein used "thought experiments" all the time), that climate change is actually happening. How would the science elucidating that look different to Krauthammer than what he perceives to be the phony science being conducted today? How could he tell the difference?

Moreover, in disparaging consensus, Krauthammer gets to have it both ways. When there's consensus, scientists are sheep. But if there weren't consensus, the science of climate change would be ridiculed for being a fringe theory. Neat, huh?

On the same panel, George Will was disdainful of The New Yorker saying the recent IPCC report was "the last word on climate change." A subtle red herring, that: The New Yorker doesn't speak for science, even if it was correct but ever so slightly inarticulate in underscoring the authoritative nature of the IPPC report. Better would have been to say "the most definitive word to date." But Will ran with it: "Now, try that phrase, 'the last word on microbiology, quantum mechanics, physics, chemistry.' Since when does science come to the end?"

Like Krauthammer, Will was making the point that science is tentative. That it's always incomplete. Or, if you're a "glass half full" person, scientific knowledge is always increasing. Does that mean Will would like to see a hiatus on sterile practice in hospitals until we have further advances in microbiology? Is he unimpressed by the consensus that doctors should scrub before surgery, and wear masks and gowns? That nurses should use sterile needles? That blood for transfusions should be screened for infectious organisms? Because, you know, future advances in microbiology might negate all the things we're currently doing. Science, you see, never comes to an end, and you can use that banal insight to advance any absurd position you want.

The right always argues that we should not act on climate change until we have met some unspecified standard of certainty. Science, on the other hand, says it's pretty darned certain now, as exemplified by the overwhelming scientific consensus. Science also says that we are rapidly approaching the point of no return, where cascading feedbacks make catastrophic climate change inevitable and unstoppable. The certainty demanded by the right is on the other side of that point of no return. What good is that?



Postscript: In the same panel, George Will was disdainful of the claim of 97 percent scientific consensus, saying: "Who measured it? Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether. I do not." You might hope that an "All-Star" panelist would master his material, but Will's command of the facts is often lacking. For a comprehensive look at the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, and the multitude of ways that it is "measured", see my "Reckoning The Scientific Consensus on Global Warming."

*On GPS and relativity: There are actually two Einsteinian relativity effects that are important to GPS, and they partially but not completely negate each other. Because the satellites are moving at high speed relative to observers on Earth, Special Relativity says the orbiting clocks will run slower than Earth-bound clocks. But because they are farther from the earth's center (a large gravitational mass), General Relativity says that orbiting clocks will run faster than Earth-bound clocks. The General Relativity effect is larger than the Special Relativity effect, but both must be accounted for. The system becomes unworkable very quickly if they aren't. For a nice explanation, see this.

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