The GroundhogŐs View


Between a Rant and a Ramble


By Brantley Thompson Elkins


Not too many months ago, Velvet and I watched a Teaching Company DVD course, New Frontiers: Modern Perspectives on Our Solar System. Like other courses from the same company we have since taken, it was both entertaining and informative.

But one of the points that Frank Summers of the Space Telescope Science Institute made most forcefully had to do with the evolution of knowledge. Most of us were taught in school that Ptolemaic cosmology – the theory that the Sun and the planets as well as the Moon revolved around the Earth – was not only wrong, but so obviously wrong that only an idiot could have believed it.

The fact of the matter, Summers stressed, was that the Ptolemaic system, with all its epicycles and other fudge factors to account for observations that were later seen as proof of the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus and Kepler, was quite plausible in its time. The idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun was counterintuitive, and calculations based on Ptolemaic cosmology actually worked in a predictive manner. Aristarchus had proposed the heliocentric theory in ancient times, but he didnŐt have any way to prove it. Neither did Copernicus himself some fifteen hundred years later. It was only Kepler, with his law of planetary motion, who clinched the case.

A more recent example is the theory of Continental Drift. I remember reading about it when I was a child in the 1950s, when it was still considered a dubious notion. Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) had noticed that the coastlines of Europe and Africa on one hand and North and South America on the other seemed to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. In 1915, he proposed that Eurasia and the Americas had once been part of a super-continent he christened Pangaea. But Wegener couldnŐt come up with a mechanism to account for continental drift, and his theory was dismissed by nearly all scientists of the time. It was only decades later, thanks first to rock samples that showed India had once been in the Southern hemisphere, and then the discovery of plate tectonics, that his theory was finally vindicated.

The universe remains the same, but our knowledge and understanding of it evolves. And it is an evolutionary process. Ptolemy was right that the Sun and the Moon and the planets were heavenly bodies, whose movements were governed by a universal law – he was simply wrong about the details of that law. Einstein did not overthrow Newtonian physics; NewtonŐs laws still apply to the phenomena that Newton observed – itŐs just that later observations showed that Newtonian physics had to be part of a greater whole. The science of plate tectonics hasnŐt discredited all previous knowledge of geology.

But most of us arenŐt scientists. How are laymen like most of us supposed to judge, and perhaps make decisions on, claims of scientific truth? Isaac Asimov pondered this, in a 1968 review of a book about the purported evidence for sea serpents.

ŇNo one can personally investigate all statements, all suggestions, all theories,Ó he wrote. Asimov therefore suggested two general guidelines for educated rational laymen:

1) As far as possible the person making the statement ought to be competent to judge to worth of what he is saying.

2) As far as possible, what he is saying ought to be consistent with the basic body of scientific knowledge built up over the last three centuries.

Relying on competent authority isnŐt foolproof, of course. During the Renaissance, scholars relied on Aristotle as an authority on everything, including the idea that large objects must fall faster than small ones. It seemed to make sense at the time, and anyone who has watched a falling leaf and a falling rock can see why it was counterintuitive to believe otherwise. But AristotleŐs idea, as sensible as it appeared, simply wasnŐt true – as Galileo demonstrated dropping rocks from the Tower of Pisa. Such modern notions as wave-particle duality and quantum uncertainty are even more counterintuitive, yet they have stood up time and again in experiments.

But Ňcompetent authorityÓ isnŐt necessarily reliable even today, as the Climategate scandal has demonstrated. It seems that leading climate scientists were so convinced that the threat of global warming was at once imminent and catastrophic that they fudged their calculations to support that thesis when actual data failed to support it. Yet many, perhaps most climate scientists still insist that anthropogenic global warming is a looming threat in the near future, even if the planet is presently going through a cooling phase, and it doesnŐt help that the media covering the issue are as partisan as scientists themselves. HereŐs how Fox News, relying on a British newspaper, the Daily Mail, reported on the apparent backpedaling of a climate scientist on the global warming issue:

From Miami to Maine, Savannah to Seattle, America is caught in an icy grip that one of the U.N.Ős top global warming proponents says could mark the beginning of a mini ice age.

Oranges are freezing and millions of tropical fish are dying in Florida, and it could be just the beginning of a decades-long deep freeze, says Professor Mojib Latif, one of the worldŐs leading climate modelers. 

Latif thinks the cold snap Americans have been suffering through is only the beginning. He says weŐre in for 30 years of cooler temperatures -- a mini ice age, he calls it, basing his theory on an analysis of natural cycles in water temperatures in the worldŐs oceans.

Latif, a professor at the Leibniz Institute at GermanyŐs Kiel University and an author of the U.N.Ős Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, believes the lengthy cold weather is merely a pause -- a 30-years-long blip -- in the larger cycle of global warming, which postulates that temperatures will rise rapidly over the coming years. 

At a U.N. conference in September, Latif said that changes in ocean currents known as the North Atlantic Oscillation could dominate over manmade global warming for the next few decades. Latif said the fluctuations in these currents could also be responsible for much of the rise in global temperatures seen over the past 30 years. 

Latif is a key member of the UNŐs climate research arm, which has long promoted the concept of global warming. He told the Daily Mail that Ňa significant share of the warming we saw from 1980 to 2000 and at earlier periods in the 20th Century was due to these cycles -- perhaps as much as 50 percent.Ó 

But hereŐs how Latif himself responded to the Daily Mail report in an interview with another British paper, the Guardian:

It comes as a surprise to me that people would try to use my statements to try to dispute the nature of global warming. I believe in manmade global warming. I have said that if my name was not Mojib Latif it would be global warming. There is no doubt within the scientific community that we are affecting the climate, that the climate is changing and responding to our emissions of greenhouse gases... What we are experiencing now is a weather phenomenon, while we talked about the mean temperature over the next 10 years. You canŐt compare the two.Ó

Assuming that both newspapers quoted him accurately, one might infer that Latif was telling both the Daily Mail and the Guardian what they wanted to hear. Indeed, he had earlier told National Public Radio that the current cooling would last only until about 2015 or 2020 at the latest. So what are we to believe? One piece of primary evidence is a chart for a Power Point presentation Latif gave at the U.N. World Climate Conference-3 Aug. 31:



What are us groundhogs, popping out of our burrows to take a look at the future, supposed to make of this? A layman naturally has no way of judging the accuracy of LatifŐs projection. Its accelerating upward curve may or may not be valid. But itŐs easy to see that it shows a temporary phase of global cooling until nearly 2030. Before Climategate, nobody in the Global Warming movement was talking about even a temporary reprieve. ŇThe fact is that we canŐt account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we canŐt,Ó Kevin Trenberth of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research complained in an e-mail to Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University last Oct. 12. ŇOur observing system is inadequate.Ó

Based on LatifŐs own projection, the sky isnŐt falling – yet. What this means is that, at the very least, we have a window of opportunity for an independent review of previous research on global climate trends, and for whatever further research may be needed to resolve the debate over anthropogenic global warming once and for all. There is still time to develop prudent policies based on the results of that research, and let the chips fall where they may.  

For the layman, there is an object lesson here: beware of hidden agendas. Politics makes for bad science. Global warming activists and global warming skeptics alike have hidden agendas that lead them to stretch the truth or even ignore it entirely, and we canŐt rely on the media for ŇobjectiveÓ reporting. We have to compare accounts, read between the lines, and sort things out as best we can. Is it all about Chicken Little? Maybe itŐs about The Boy Who Cried Wolf – only in the latter folk tale, the wolf did finally come.