October 24th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Labor proposes expanded role for infrastructure fund

CANBERRA OBSERVED Crossbench unity plugs Coalition water spill

EDITORIAL Deplorable attack on Sir Peter Lawler

LITIGATION Appeal to freedoms will not avail for Archbishop

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Europe generous in face of Middle-Eastern influx

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Europe's refugee crisis was much worse last time

CULTURE WARS The PC left is saving us from ... Tintin and Twain

SCIENCE AND CERTAINTY No safety in numbers as variable as these

EUTHANASIA Belgium, Netherlands in the grip of the small laws

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Marriage redefinition will feed government business

PUBLIC POLICY A wake-up call from land of rocky highs and lows

CINEMA Respectfully intended to make you laugh: The Intern

BOOK REVIEW Clearing the head


Books promotion page

No safety in numbers as variable as these

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, October 24, 2015

The question “what can we know for certain?” is one that has occupied the minds of philosophers since the birth of the West in ancient Greece. The answers over the ensuing centuries have been many and varied.

Not happy, Jan: A change of

name has turned the dingo

from a domestic dog into a

wild wolf.

Plato supposed that we obtain real knowledge by virtue of our intellects’ reference to the eternal “forms”, or “ideas”, of which all earthly things are but copies or representations. Aristotle, on the other hand, posited these “forms” within earthly things, not beyond them so that they were directly available to our intellects. In other words, there was a certain conformity between things “out there” and with our intellectual ability to apprehend them “as they really are”.

Then along came René Descartes (1496–1560) and with him, the birth of modern scepticism. “Suppose”, said Descartes, “that everything around me is but an illusion, perhaps planted in my mind by some evil spirit. Of what, then, can I be certain?” His answer was the famous Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am”.

Ultimately, though, Descartes’ solu­tion was unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, his seeds of doubt concerning the validity of human knowledge blossomed forth in profusion, helped along by philosophers like David Hume (1711–1776). So much so that, in our own era, no less a figure than Bertrand Russell could produce a little book, called The Problems of Philosophy, in which he persuades us that the very table at which he is writing his little book may not even exist, except in his mind!

Of course, Russell goes on to explain that such scepticism concerning human knowledge is not just unhelpful but downright dangerous. In the end, he says, we must have recourse to common sense. Which, of course, prompts us to ask, “how reliable is common sense?” There was a time when “common sense” dictated that the sun revolved around the earth and that humans, lacking the wings of birds, could not hope to fly. Moreover, Russell’s own “common sense” led him to believe that there was no God, that numbers had an existence independent of human minds, and that marriage vows were not binding (he married many times and had numerous affairs in between).

So, what about certainty in science? Is there such a thing? This is a very important question today, as politicians and other policymakers are called upon to make decisions regarding such things as global warming, environmental degradation and a huge range of other issues dependent on technical data, all of which have some bearing on our future.

Most of the time, these decisions must be based on the available scientific evidence. But, of course, it is the duty of scientists continually to question existing theories (that is why they are called theories) and to improve or even radically change them.

Some philosophers of science turn scientific truth into a somewhat subjective affair. Thomas Kuhn, for instance, speaks of “paradigm shifts” in the history of scientific knowledge, such that each shift opens up new approaches to understanding – approaches that scientists would never have considered valid before. Hence, the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of a scientific community.

This is a dangerous proposition in my view, because it can lead to a rejection of the idea that we are capable of certain knowledge. Once science is deprived of this, we enter the slough of subjectivity.

Karl Popper is another philosopher who has written on scientific knowledge. His famous “falsifiability” theory may have application in some areas of science today, although it is not without critics. His idea is that if a scientific theory is incapable of being proved false under any circumstances (that is, if no conceivable evidence could refute it), then it is not scientific.

One could, for instance, regard the global warming issue in this way. When data are presented that seem to show that temperature increases have not occurred for many years now, it is always possible to say that this is just a “short-term anomaly” or, alternatively, continually to modify the existing climate models such that they accommodate the new observations. In this way the theory is impervious to any radical change.

In many areas of science today – and climate science is an excellent example – the complexity of the problem being analysed is such that the “common sense” of ordinary people cannot be brought to bear on the problem and, of necessity, we must rely on experts. Now, if there were total agreement among these experts on the particular matter under consideration, our “common sense” would dictate that we ought to believe them, even though we cannot arrive at their conclusions by our own independent analyses of the scientific data. But what if some experts – even if only a minority – disagree with their peers? This, in short, is the very problem we face in the case of the global warming debate.

Why do some scientific experts disagree with the official version of the climate change story? Surely science is based on facts not opinions, and upon facts no one can really disagree? The problem here has to do with the enormous number of variables that impinge upon the climate of the planet. It is a question of how much weight is given to each of these variables, how well they can be measured and, indeed, whether we can be sure that we have included all of them in our estimates (that is, that we know of their existence).

In addition, many of the variables that are under consideration in climate change models exhibit a great deal of variability – that is why they are called variables. Scientists overcome this by the use of statistical analyses that give us some measure of confidence in the data under consideration. In other words, the level of probability is all-important.

This means of gaining knowledge is called induction and certain philosophers (starting with Hume) have given it an undeserved bad name. After all, if we know that the sun has risen every morning for the past N million years, we have very good reason to suppose that it will rise tomorrow morning. It’s all a question of degree. It would be dangerous to assume that, because Malcolm Turnbull has been Prime Minister for the past few weeks, he will be Prime Minister in six months’ time!

It is important to note that induction is not quite the same as extrapolation. The latter usually refers to the projected relationship between parameters over time.

Suppose we know that, by a series of past measurements, parameter x increases by 2 per cent every week in relation to fixed parameter y. By extrapolation, we assume that parameter x will keep on increasing at that same rate in the future, so that we can say what its value will be in, say, eight weeks’ time. This, of course, is a very dangerous assumption because we know that, in nature, sudden and unexpected changes occur all the time.

Another problem has to do with definitions. Since I am by training a biologist and not a climate scientist, I will give an example from biology. For many years now, the status of the dingo in Australia has been a hot topic. The animal, almost certainly originating in Asia, is generally regarded as a native species (it has probably been here for 4,000 years or so) but is also a pest to pastoralists, killing sheep.

Some scientists and many dingo enthusiasts regard the “purebred” dingo as an endangered species and seek to have it officially proclaimed as such throughout Australia. The consequences for farmers in the high country can be imagined.

However, a problem arises because, until a few years ago, the dingo was officially recognised as being in the same genus and species as the domestic dog. Indeed, the two interbreed freely and this, traditionally, was the main method of determining whether two particular animals belonged to the same species. That is to say, if two animals could interbreed freely and produce viable and fertile offspring, they were to be regarded as of the same species.

If the dingo is merely a “type” of domestic dog, obtaining endangered species listing for it would be very difficult. The solution was to change the taxonomic status of the animal from Canis familiaris dingo to Canis lupus dingo. In other words, the dingo is now regarded as a wolf, not a dog!

No doubt the scientists responsible will explain that the change is due to the use of other discriminatory tools – DNA profiles for instance. But the fact remains that one traditional discriminator has been jettisoned in favour of another (which gives the desired result). How to you “weigh” the relative merits of the two? In fact, I would claim that this is little more than a subjective decision, not unconnected to human emotions.

Now, how much of this might apply in the climate change debate I do not know, but it is certain that future funding (and therefore scientific careers) will depend critically upon the notion of anthropogenic global warming being an undisputed scientific fact. I am unsure whether this is a strong factor in the whole issue, but I do believe it is very difficult for scientists to be absolutely dispassionate in this area when their own reputations and prospects are involved. We are, after all, only human beings, with all the frailties and shortcomings that that implies.

So then, what should be our stance on the global warming issue? I’m afraid I cannot give an answer. I would like to suggest the old motto, “hasten slowly”, but my critics would immediately point out that we may not have much time left in which to gain more certainty regarding the projected increases.

If you are a religious believer, I would suggest prayer as the best way in which to contribute to a solution. If you are not a believer, then I have to ask you how you can even believe in the validity of human knowledge at all. Without some point of reference above and beyond the human mind, it is simply another act of faith to believe that your own mind can deliver up the truth.

Materialists, after all, are wholly dependent on the Darwinian explanation of human life. In which case, we need to point out that the human mind evolved for survival and efficiency, not truth. Survival of the truthful, alas, is a rare event these days, especially in politics and advertising!

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