Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Higgs Boson and Climate Change. It's Science, Stupid.

Apparently some blokes in Switzerland have discovered something very, very small and shortlived using lots of magnets and wires and a rather long tube. It only took them 45 years. And it all sounds a bit fishy...

"They claimed that by combining two data sets, they had attained a confidence level just at the 'five-sigma' point - about a one-in-3.5 million chance that the signal they see would appear if there were no Higgs particle."

All sounds very unlikely doesn't it? This combining two data sets trick? One data set wasn't enough for them, so they went and got another one, which they might have just made up.

"However, a full combination of the CMS data brings that number just back to 4.9 sigma - a one-in-two million chance."

One in 3.5 million chance down to one in 2 million? Make up your minds! How about "no chance at all" ?

"We have a discovery - we have observed a new particle consistent with a Higgs boson. But which one? That remains open. It is a historic milestone but it is only the beginning."

They don't even know what they've discovered! "Its only the beginning" ? Yes - the beginning of a massive job-creation scheme for scientists, paid for by your tax dollars. Higgs boson is a myth. No-one has ever seen one, because like the Emperor's new clothes, it doesn't exist. It's a massive money-making conspiracy. There's no evidence you can discover anything that small.

The above is what I imagine people like James Delingpole would make of the obscure and complex science that is going on at Cern, if their attitude to science is consistent. Strangely enough, the BBC hasn't asked Delingpole for his opinion on Higgs Boson. And why would they? He isn't a scientist, and knows nothing about sub-atomic physics.

Yet for some reason, the BBC does want to ask him about climate science, a discipline of which he is similarly ignorant. On the Daily Politics, Andrew Neill had the aforesaid climate change denier pitted against Andrew Pendleton of Friends of the Earth. For some reason best known to the BBC there were no scientists at all present in this debate about science, although there was a second science-denier, Peter Hitchens. However, Hitchens does ride a bike and has said he wants to "plough up all the motorways in the country, and rebuild the rail network that Beeching trashed. Motorways are a horrible idea. They have ruined our countryside and our cities, and it’s no surprise to me that Adolf Hitler liked them so much." So we'll cut him some slack.

Anyway, back to the Daily Politics. Andrew Neill set the participants a challenge: to make the case for or against the idea that the planet had warmed since 1995.

To make such a case, all you need to do is refer to the BBC's own  science reporting, which said in June 2011, "Climate warming since 1995 is now statistically significant according to [Dr] Phil Jones...[the temperature dataaset] HadCRUT shows a warming 1995-2010 of 0.19C - consistent with the other major records". The report goes on, tellingly, to inform us that (with my emphasis) "nothing has emerged through mainstream science to challenge the IPCC's basic picture of a world warming through greenhouse gas emissions."  And that "a new initiative to construct a global temperature record, based at Stanford University in California whose funders include 'climate sceptical' organisations, has reached early conclusions that match established records closely."

Delingpole, inexplicably, chose not to refer to the work of any scientists in his submission. Except for the work of Dr Phil Jones, whose comment on the subject I've quoted in the above paragraph, which confirms that warming is happening. The rest of his argument is classic denial - it seems to rest on the datasets not being "reliable and trustworthy", or the temperature not "being measurable with any accuracy". But again, my previous paragraph shows even a climate-sceptic-funded study confirms the accuracy and reliability of the data. Perhaps Delingpole's response would be that the BBC itself has been taken over by "warmists", as he terms supposedly rational people who are cruelly misled by  "evidence" and "facts".

You can argue about matters of opinion, such as whether gay marriage is right, or how best to fund the NHS, or whether Coke is better than Pepsi. Climate change, on the other hand, is science, and as such is not a matter of opinion - it's a matter of fact, at least by any reasonable test. Delingpole, instead of setting reasonable tests (which he is incapable of doing, being too ignorant of the science), attempts to attack science with mockery, with baseless assertions, denials, or personal attacks, like someone trying to win a chess match by punching his opponent. See here for his attack on Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel-prize-winning scientist, also known for making Delingpole look a prat on television. (Delingpole has thus far escaped the gaze of the Nobel committee).

Why is it easy to attack science? Scientific research exists at the boundary between the known and the unknown. At this point, competing theories, conflicting data and divergent streams of research give the impression of a world in which no-one can agree on anything. Add into that the intagible nature of the phenomena being studied - like particles no-one can see, or temperature fluctuations of a fraction of a degree - and the use of advanced statistical techniques to make sense of seemingly random patterns - and the whole thing looks impenetrable. But science exists to make sense of the apparent chaos, contradictions, inconsistencies and uncertainty that we observe in the world. If you take the science away, all you have is the apparently random phenomena that you observe with your senses. And human senses are remarkably selective and unreliable, so you are able to establish very little for certain, and you're back to the pre-enlightenment age of superstition and witch-hunting. That's what the science-deniers want, because they don't like the message that science is delivering, and they can't engage with it on a rational basis. Yet most climate-change-deniers aren't sceptical about science when it suits them - they own mobile phones, computers and cars, all goods that could not exist if it wasn't for some very unlikely-sounding science.

The theories of electromagnetic waves and semiconductors that underpin today's gadgets and enable us to play "Angry Birds" and tweet while driving a car, were once cutting-edge science. And similarly, thoeries that are currently novel will become tomorrow's facts. Science-deniers would have you believe that scientists are incredibly gullible, and any wild-ass theory just passes into the domain of accepted science overnight. That, of course, is not the case - novel  theories are repeatedly challenged and reviewed by other scientists, using new data and diverse approaches. As Sir Paul Nurse puts it, "You make your reputation in science by overturning [theories]". Only those theories that repeatedly prove sound establish credibility and pass into consensus, which is constantly renewed as old theories are overturned and more sophisticated ones take their place. In this way, the body of established science has been accumulated over centuries. One person alone could never derive all this knowledge from first principles, but one person can build upon it knowing it is a sound foundation. This is what Isaac Newton described as "standing on the shoulders of giants" - a phrase you can find on the edge of a £2 coin.

Climate science deniers could be described as "squatting on the toes of dwarves, in a deep, dark hole, into which the light of knowledge cannot penetrate". You could write that (in very small letters) on the edge of a 1p coin, which is worth rather more than the total of their work.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article, I do worry of the amount of anti-science that is given credence, particularly in the mainstream media/tabloids.

    A couple of notes.

    "you're back to the pre-enlightenment age of superstition and witch-hunting": which would suit Dellingpole et al. just fine.

    "they can't engage with it on a rational basis": well no, of course they can't... ;-)