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July 8, 2012 by Tony Noerpel filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet No Comments

The U.S. surface temperature map from Unisys at 4 pm, June 29,2012, shows 100° temperatures stretching almost continuously from California eastward to the Carolinas. (Source: Capital Climate) “If we did not have global warming, we wouldn’t see this.” Doug Kammerer [1].

“Whenever people sense the presence of a puzzling and momentous force, they want to believe there is a way to comprehend it.” Richard Wright [2].

Ideologues on both the left and right would probably agree that “ideology makes smart people stupid” without actually agreeing on what an ideology is. Both can recognize the ideological intellectualism of the other side and find plenty to criticize. For example Thomas Sowell in his book Intellectuals and Society [2] scathingly critiques liberals and Chris Mooney in his book The Republican War on Science [3] does the same to conservatives. This begs the question: “how do we know who is right and what is true?”

Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously pointed out that the human comprehension of reality can be divided into known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns [5]. We know that baryonic matter comprises 4.56 percent of the known universe and we known what this stuff is as we can measure it and analyze it. It is the stuff we are made of. We know that dark matter comprises 22.7 percent of the universe and dark energy comprises 72.8 percent of the universe. These are known knowns. But we do not know what dark matter or dark energy is. Whatever constitutes this stuff is a known unknown. We do not know how complete a picture of the universe we have. If the Higgs boson isn’t discovered by the Large Hadron Collider we do not have any idea what might be responsible for particle mass instead. We have no idea what might have taken place in the first faction of a section of the birth of our universe or what might have preceded the Big Bang. We do not know what is beyond the visible universe or if the laws of physics that we do know might still apply. These are also known unknowns [6]. And of course we have no idea what we don’t know we don’t know. But there is a fourth category which Rumsfeld overlooked in his speech (and nearly all of the various talking heads and pundits missed in their analysis as well) but was made painfully apparent by reality and that is “what we know for sure which just ain’t so [7].” We can designate the latter category the “Rumsfeld category” in remembrance of those WMD which didn’t exist but which continue to cause us no end of hurt into the foreseeable future. It is this category which causes us the most trouble.

Humans have evolved with two methods of thinking: evidence-based and faith-based [8]. Evidence based thinking is the foundation of the scientific method. Everything we know is a consequence of this type of thinking. It is the source of our innovation. About 500 years ago, we formalized the scientific method and this is most likely what initiated the subsequent exponential growth in human knowledge and population. There is another school of thought that the remarkable rise in humanity’s impact on the planet is due to the discovery of how to exploit fossil fuels. There is truth in this as fossil fuels are the low entropy which fueled the expansion of the human enterprise. But of course, the evolution of the scientific method and its application led us to this innovation. All right, it is a chicken and egg thing. I will not quibble. Something as remarkably transformative as the industrial revolution rarely has a single cause. Applying the scientific method enables us to discover how to exploit fossil fuels. The excess entropy we derived from exploiting fossil fuels allowed us to dedicate more resources to invention and discovery in a rapidly expanding positive feedback loop. Many more people could participate in science and mathematics. It was not due to the discovery of free-market capital as economists like to believe.

The scientific method is simply put the collection of data by observation; analysis of that data and the formation of hypotheses which might explain the observations. The scientific method demands that these hypotheses can be tested. The tests involve more observation, experimentation and analysis. Hypotheses are discarded, modified or accepted as theories depending on the outcome of continued testing. The scientific method is a collective endeavor. Individual scientists like everybody else are persuaded by their own biases and beliefs but the peer review process works that out. The scientific method has evolved to take advantage of human foibles such as jealousy, ambition and animosity but also most importantly cooperation. The lure is not wealth and power but discovery. Ideas based on belief which are not supported by evidence do not survive. Everybody’s a skeptic until the evidence is compelling. Testability is the key. It requires that scientists are willing to be wrong. We now begin to see the huge difference between evidence based science on the one hand and the set of all ideologies on the other. Ideologies are all systems of thought such as philosophies, religions, politics and economics which are faith-based and not evidence-based. Ideological beliefs are rarely testable and never tested. Ideologues do not go in for self-examination and are rarely willing to be wrong. And since evidence is not required, very little is accomplished. From this definition, we can formulate some testable hypotheses.

Hypothesis one: All human knowledge is derived from the application of the scientific method.

I’m including knowledge accumulated before the scientific method was formalized, which is one reason we accumulated it so slowly by trial and error, analytic thinking and observation before the sixteenth century. The scientific method is responsible for pushing the boundary between the known knowns and the known unknowns and expanding the boundary of the known unknowns. This hypothesis is falsifiable as demanded by Karl Popper [9]. All one need do is discover exceptions, known known which are not evidence-based.

Hypothesis two: Ideology cannot discover truth.

Again this hypothesis can be falsified. Economics is a perfectly good example of a collection of ideologies which are not capable of discovering universal truth and which between them cannot agree on even one rule. I am excepting ecological economics and biophysical economics as these do employ the scientific method and are not based on false assumptions. Behavioral economics is at least interesting and corrects several of the erroneous assumptions of economics. But these more recent branches of economics are legitimately science [10].

Hypothesis three: Ideologies based as they are on faith rather than evidence are subject to exploitation and cooption by wealth and power.

Examples abound even today and in the United States. “Power corrupts!” is the unremarkable conclusion of the Christian authors of the book Hijacked, Responding to the Partisan Church Divide [11] when considering religion. So far science has never been corrupted for very long or everywhere. The implementation of science is corruptible and put to harmful use. That is certainly true. But science consensus itself has rarely been corrupted. In fact, America’s Nobel laureate Richard Feynman pointed out science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves. The fossil fuels industry has managed to corrupt two Supreme Court justices, most of congress, a presidential candidate, the mass media, the conservative religious right, a handful of scientists, most economists and much of America’s population regards global warming denial without making a dent in the scientific view. While industry funded lackeys throw myriad lies, money and power around, they have no credible evidence and therefore nothing that can possibly influence the scientific consensus.

Here’s the thing, everybody is an ideologue. We all have beliefs. We cannot escape our evolutionary heritage. Our brains are wired to believe and there are many reasons why this type of thinking has been selected for. The problem we face is that over dependence on belief-based thinking does not appear to be adaptable or flexible enough for the challenges posed by the extremely rapidly changing world we are creating.

If you disagree with me, that’s fine. These hypotheses can be tested. Write down a few of your beliefs, things you assume are true. Separate them into those that are known from science and those that are not. As an example, “the earth is 4.54 +/- 0.05 billion years old.” This is not an outcome of ideological thinking but the scientific method. It is a pretty bloody impressive scientific measurement and within well defined error bounds is true [11]. This age turns out to be consistent with Darwin’s Law of Evolution. Scientists know that as good a measurement as this is a future more precise measurement might improve our estimate of the age of the earth. We are willing to be wrong in that sense. Knowledge is subject to continued modification. By the way, measuring the age of our planet was a remarkable accomplishment for our species. When religion tries to determine the age of the earth it is off by six orders of magnitude. Politics and economics do not fare much better.

As another example, the belief that “resources are unlimited at some price” is a consequence of economic ideological thinking. While a foundation stone of Milton Friedman’s free-market capitalistic ideology, it is one of those beliefs we know is true which just ain’t so. It inherently makes the assumption that the human economy is a linear system ignoring the dynamic non-linear nature of complex systems. Worse than that, it violates the second law of thermodynamics. And it certainly violates the observation that the earth is finite. I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader for now, though I’ll return to it in a future article.

My first example is true and it is derived from the application of the scientific method. We know it is true because there is substantial evidence. My second example, though widely believed, is false and is derived from economic ideology. Everything that I know is true is a result of science. I cannot think of anything that I know is true that we have learned from an ideology.

It would be interesting to receive reader feedback on this. A few readers of drafts of this article objected to my hypotheses. Some claimed that science is just another ideology or that science isn’t the only way we can discover truth but could not offer counter examples of any truth which any ideology has been able to conjure. Science is not an ideology though there are various ideologies which subscribe to some or all of science. It is not materialism, modernism, scientism or any other ism. It is hard work and curiosity.

Let’s return to the question we started with: “how do we know who is right and what is true?” In his masterpiece Roger Penrose [12] writes: “I believe it is more important than ever, in today’s technological culture, that scientific questions should not be divorced from moral implications. … We need to address the question of separating true from false before we can adequately attempt to apply such understanding to separate good from bad.” We know human-caused global warming is true as it is the result of science and we know denial is false as it is the result various ideologies corrupted by the wealth and power of the fossil fuels industry complemented by our own selfishness. Thomas Sowell is a global warming denier as well as an economist who never saw the housing bubble bursting or the subsequent credit crises coming and is therefore at best unreliable even in his own specialty. Chris Mooney accepts global warming and is scientifically literate so is at least plausibly correct. There you go.

[1] NBC Washington’s Chief Meteorologist, Doug Kammerer. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/06/30/509246/nbc-meteorologist-on-record-heat-wave-if-we-didnt-have-global-warming-we-wouldnt-see-this/

[2] Richard Wright, The Evolution of God,

[3] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society

[4] Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science

[5] “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know, we don’t know. ” Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002 at a press briefing where he addressed the absence of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. See this discussion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unknown_unknown or this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efrpWdh9qi0

[6] Lisa Randall, Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

[7] “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Attributed to Mark Twain and Will Rogers and possibly others.

[8] This is distilled from neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology. I recommend Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Paul Munoz, Brain, Mind and the Structure of Reality, Michael Schermer, The Believing Brain, and Wallace Matson, Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs, and Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools. Kahneman review http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/storytelling-our-energy-future/500

[9] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

[10] Debunking economics demands more of our attention. For a description of ecological economics I recommend the textbook by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics. Biophysical economics is described in the text by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard, Energy and the Wealth of Nations. For an understanding of behavioral economics there is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman founded this discipline. And to understand how bankrupt and nonsensical neo-classical economics is read Steve Keen’s appropriately named Debunking Economics. And if you have the heart for it, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process is a masterpiece. After digesting all this, read Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics. This is the most widely used undergraduate economics text book in the US. It is a bit of pompous ideological puffery.

[10] Charles Gutenson and Mike Slaughter, Hijacked, Responding to the Partisan Church Divide.

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_Earth

[12] Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality, Knopf, 2004

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