I’ve been turning over something that US Secretary of State John Kerry said recently:
Secretary of State John Kerry argued Thursday that the science showing Earth’s climate is warming because of human activity is as clear and settled as the science that shows gravity will force an apple to fall out of its tree and down to the ground.
“When an apple falls from a tree, it will drop toward the ground. We know that because of the basic laws of physics. Science tells us that gravity exists, and no one disputes that,” Kerry said in a climate speech before the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“Science also tells us that when the water temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns to ice. No one disputes that,” he said. ”So when science tells us that our climate is changing and human beings are largely causing that change, by what right do people stand up and just say, ‘well, I dispute that, or I deny that elementary truth?’ ”
“And yet there are those that do so,” he said.
Kerry has routinely called for steps to reduce human-based carbon emissions, and said Thursday that the issue is “personal to me.” Kerry’s devotion to the issue has led some to criticize him for focusing on climate issues instead of spending more time on Ukraine, Iran or other global hotspots.
Kerry spoke for nearly an hour at the Atlantic Council, and insisted that the science behind climate change is settled.
“It may seem obvious to you, but it isn’t to some,” he said. “The science is and has and long been crystal clear when it comes to climate change.”
There seemed to be something a bit screwy about what he was saying here, and I was trying to put my finger on what it was.
My best shot is to say that, no, it’s not that “Science tells us that when the water temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns to ice,” but that the temperature at which water turns to ice is defined as 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius). Just like the temperature at which water boils is defined as 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius). There’s really no “science” to this. It’s purely a matter of definition. The freezing and boiling points of water have been used for centuries to calibrate thermometers.
And what about the apple? “When an apple falls from a tree, it will drop toward the ground. We know that because of the basic laws of physics. Science tells us that gravity exists, and no one disputes that.” No, we don’t know this because of the basic laws of physics. We know it because we see it happening. It’s an observed fact. Just like it’s an observed fact that water freezes and boils. Empirical science starts with the observed facts, and proceeds to state laws which describe those observed facts.
For example, it was found (by Galileo, I believe, experimenting with balls rolling down ramps) that falling bodies like apples accelerated at a rate of 32 feet per second every second. They fell faster and faster. And a few years later, Newton suggested that this acceleration was caused by the mass of the Earth somehow attracting the apple towards it (he didn’t know how). And again, that came from observation of apples and lots of other projectiles, including the planets going round the Sun.
In both cases, we start with observed facts. We know that water boils when it’s very hot, and freezes when it’s very cold. And we know that apples fall downward from their trees. Everybody knows these things, because everybody sees them. Science only starts when what they do starts getting accurately measured, and general laws produced
On to climate change. ”So when science tells us that our climate is changing and human beings are largely causing that change, by what right do people stand up and just say, ‘well, I dispute that, or I deny that elementary truth?’ ”
Well, science didn’t tell us that apples fall or water freezes: it was just something we saw happening anyway. Do we see climate change happening around us, like we see water freezing or apples falling? Not really. Some people claim to see it. And some people say they can’t see any. I’m one of the people who can’t see it happening. Climate change isn’t an “elementary truth” like falling apples or freezing water. We don’t see it every day, or every decade, or every century.
No, climate change hasn’t become a talking point because we’ve noticed that the climate is changing, and we don’t know why. It’s become a talking point because some climate scientists have been predicting that it’s going to change, and that in 50 or 100 years the Earth will be a few degrees warmer than it is now. And they’ve made these predictions using computer simulation models with hundreds or maybe even thousands of equations and variables. These computer simulation models are supposed to behave just like the Earth’s atmosphere behaves, using the known laws of physics.
So the climate change scare is being driven by theoretical physics, not observed empirical facts.
And it seems like the computer simulation models the climate scientists are using aren’t too good, because for about the past 20 years the Earth hasn’t been warming like they expected it to do.
So finally, “By what right do people stand up and just say, ‘well, I dispute that, or I deny that elementary truth?’ ” Because it’s not an “elementary truth”. Climate change is not an observable fact like the fall of apples or the freezing of water. It’s a prediction made by theoretical physicists using very complicated computer models. And it’s a prediction that has so far turned out to be wrong – because we’re not seeing the predicted climate change.
And John Kerry was really conflating empirical science – the science that grows from watching apples fall and water freeze – with theoretical science – the explanatory models that physicists construct to explain the observed behaviour of things – and calling it all “science”.
I get the feeling that Kerry never studied science. After all, he studied political science at Yale. You don’t learn much about science in political ‘science’ (which isn’t a science at all).
And also he’s a politician. And if politicians start talking about climate change it’s probably because it has a political dimension. And if senior US politicians talk about it (e.g. Al Gore), it’s because it’s highly political. And it’s most likely much more about politics than it is about science.
Particularly when, by opening is mouth and talking about it, John Kerry has shown just how little he really knows about science.