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Check your assumptions :: Science is comprised of theories that have yet to be disproved (aka “Roll your own express elevators”)

September 19, 2011

Mainly, I am a bystander in the global warming discussion.  In many circles, catastrophic signals of global warming seem to be incontrovertible fact.  Many pseudo-scientists weigh in on the discussion, and of course, brow-beating and other impolite forms of debate ensue.  In the wake, real scientists on either side of the issue (namely: Are humans irrevocably changing the environment of this earth in ways that will make it unsuitable for human life in the relatively not-to-distant-future?) get caught in a perilous cross-fire of politics, religious fanaticism, and debate trolls.

My gut feeling is that the environment is changing, and to the detriment of humans living on the earth.  This was my gut feeling before Al Gore began his crusade.  It was my feeling before Al Gore invented the internet ;).

I was thinking recently of how sometimes data acts to reinforce myths as fact.  Information that could be analyzed in a positive light toward the theory at hand are used to bolster said theory.

Take for example, a theory that I held regarding elevators in tall buildings, specifically ones that stop, it seems, on every floor imaginable on the way to the floor you are trying to get to.  These elevators lack an “express” button.  The theory was simply this:  if I held down simultaneously the “door close” button and the button for the floor that I was trying to get to, it would keep the elevator from stopping.  (Let us disregard whether this is a polite thing to do in a building where many people need to change floors frequently, that is a different debate.  Also,  let us debate whether or not taking the stairs instead of the elevator might function as a low-tech “stairmaster” and improve my overall health.  Again, a different debate.)

Armed with this theory of the “roll your own” express elevator, I could put it to the test.  Every time I needed to get to Floor 12 from the Lobby, I performed this action.  Going down?  The same.   For a solid week.  And you know what?  Evidence suggested that I was correct.  Wow!  I figured it out!  No more waiting for various passengers, I was the master of the building’s vertical transportation!  Mwu ha ha ha…

Except: the theory was wrong.  One day, assuming I could express my way downstairs and head to the parking lot, it stopped on floor 10.  And then 9.  And then 2.  What went wrong?

I had gathered evidence for my theory, but theories are never proven.  They remain theories until disproven (disproved?).  Science works like this.  What went wrong is that, when dealing with scientific theory, it is the data that disproves that is sought, and constantly re-sought.  Theories are proposed.  The model environment for experimentation is one where data is cast in the role of skeptic.  Theories that stand the test of time (rigorous experimentation  and data gathering) are stronger theories, but they are still theories.

Climate science (and the “Climate Science” debate) lacks this perspective, by and by.

I am not saying that there are not serious scientists trying to figure out if we have irrevocably horked up our “operating environment”.   The (not-actually-in-the) background chatter is noise.  And I think that the issue needs serious scientific discussion to be of use.

An aside…  I have not given up the idea that there is a “roll your own” express elevator — just came to realize that the “floor+close” method does not work 😉

PS: Many times, when I author a post like this, I spend a great deal of time fashioning and re-fashioning my thought.  This post kind of got drafted and written in a 5 minute window, so I hope it holds up to my normal “post-blogged review” standards.  I don’t intend to edit it.
PPS: Also, when writing a blog, I generally try to incorporate links to what I read that inspired me at that time to write something about a topic.  Today I tried something different.  I deliberately sought out some topic to blog about today, as I have been remiss in updates to this blog.  As such, these places are not my usual blog hangouts.  Still, referencing (linking) is the glue that holds the internet together.  So, for this blog post, they are here:

  • This is a blog I saw featured on the wordpress dashboard, as a popular wordpress blog.  It is a little more “the end is nigh”-ey than I normally would find myself reading.
  • This is a blog post that mentions some scientists that have taken abuse and/or have chosen to dis-associate themselves with “reputable” science organizations due to the lack of science in  Climate Science (it asks if Climate Science can be considered a science)  (also from scouring the wordpress blog links on the dashboard)
One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 9:39 am

    Just to clarify things a tiny bit more…

    I think the theory that human beings are affecting the earth and effecting potentially catastrophic changes to our living environment is really very plausible (in fact, highly likely.) I worry that the quality and style of the “Global Warming” debate, and the browbeating of scientists (people who have spent their lives studying their particular fields, gathering data, etc…), only makes the argument more cult-like, and less scientific.

    The people shouting from the rooftops need to ground their activism in science. If they truly want to get something done, and not just shout at the acid rain, then they need to welcome well-thought-out scientific debate, and let the facts carry the day…

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