Overlooked in the debates about former Vice-President Al Gore’s global warming films, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017), is the fact that truth is not possible in science. Scientific hypotheses, and even scientific theories, are not truth; they can be, and often are, wrong.
Truth applies to mathematics, chess, and other endeavors in which we write the rules. It never applies to our findings about nature, which are educated opinions based on scientists’ interpretations of observations. Philosophers since ancient times have recognized that observations always have some degree of uncertainty and so they cannot prove anything to be true. Not only are our methods of observing imperfect but, as human beings subject to many influences, we all have biases that affect how we interpret what we think we see.
At first, it was mostly activists and politicians who made claims to certainty about climate change. But increasingly, more scientists now take such an approach as well. A prime example is scientists who work with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has repeatedly claimed that some of their major conclusions are “unequivocal,” in other words, ideas that cannot be wrong.
For instance, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report Synthesis Report starts, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of…”
Although a supporter of the dangerous human-caused global warming hypothesis, Lehigh University philosophy professor Steven Goldman explained in a personal communication that the IPCC statement is faulty. It is “an attempt to persuade extra-logically,” said Goldman. “Strictly logically, no observations can lead to an ‘unequivocal’ interpretation.”
David Wojick, a Virginia-based Ph.D. in the logic and philosophy of science, disagrees with Goldman about climate change but agrees that the IPCC made a serious mistake in the Synthesis Report. “Reasoning from evidence is inductive logic,” said Wojick. “As for unequivocal, that is never the case in inductive logic.”
Yet, in speaking about the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group I co-chair Dr. Thomas Stocker asserted that “warming in the climate system is unequivocal.” Canadian historical climatologist Dr. Tim Ball calls Stocker’s statement “nonsense.”
The promotion of absolute truths in science has impeded human progress for centuries. For example, when the Greco-Egyptian writer Claudius Ptolemy proposed his Earth-centered system, he did not say it was physical astronomy, a true description of how the universe actually worked. He promoted it as mathematical astronomy, a model that worked well for astrology, astronomical observations, and creating calendars.
It was the Catholic Church that, relying on a literal interpretation of the Bible, promoted the Ptolemaic system as truth to be questioned at one’s peril. This was why Nicolaus Copernicus, a Canon in the Church, waited until he was on his death bed before he allowed his revolutionary book showing the Sun to be the center of the universe to be published, even though the text was completed three decades previous. This is also why Galileo had so much trouble when he claimed that the Church was wrong and that Copernicanism was the truth, a position that Galileo could not really know either.
Later, the assumed, unquestionable truths of Isaac Newton’s laws eventually acted to slow the advancement of science until Albert Einstein showed that there were important exceptions to the laws. When authorities preach truth about science, progress stops.
Einstein once said, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” It might be humorous to the gods, but when eco-activists like Gore succeed in suppressing debate about climate change—one of the most important issues of our age—we all lose.
Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.