The Prophets of Doom and Disaster

You don’t have to go far around the internet on the anniversary of Earth Day, now 47 years old, to recall all the wrong (and not just wrong, but comically wrong) predictions made at the original Earth Day back in 1970.

One of the reasons that scientists get taken seriously is that, well, they are scientists. However, science is a discipline that very little to say on predicting the future. Science is actually no better at predicting the future than “Madame Cleo” of psychic hotline fame.

Science, is a descriptive field, not a predictive field. There are predictive disciplines within science, such as genetics describing what the normal distribution of phenotypes for the follow on generations within a particular population, but that level of prediction falls into a statistical range and doesn’t say that “for sure 25% of offspring will exhibit this trait.” The actual reality is whatever happens happens, and the predicted distribution rarely matches reality exactly.

Looking back on the original Earth Day predictions which came from scientists who taught at prestigious colleges and universities it is easy to see why people took them seriously. They had all the right credentials, and they had a public platform to express their predictions, and they expressed those predictions in such a way as to impress upon the recipient that danger of not changing their sinful ways. In short, those scientists abused their positions and made a mockery of the scientific process to say something that science doesn’t actually support.

Now, don’t misunderstand, we can build models that predict future conditions based on historical observed data, but those predictions are essentially meaningless once reality has come into being and the future has become the past. But, unless you can validate your model to have relevance (by actually reproducing a historical output from a historical input) you don’t have a model, you have a toy.

And unfortunately for the Prophets of Doom and Disaster, things like “the weather” are not easily predicted. In 1987 the book “Chaos: Making a New Science” by James Gleick entered the market, and began the process of upending the “deterministic” worldview that previously dominated the western view of science. For those not familiar, “determinism” is the belief that if “we just know enough detail, all things will become transparent.” The observations about the nature of chaos have shown that even simple, easily understood systems, can have chaotic output.

Often times “chaos” has been shorthanded as “sensitivity to initial conditions” so that any minor change in initial conditions produces large changes later on in the prediction. This is just one aspect of chaos, another is measuring how quickly two models diverge based on the changes to initial conditions. The faster the models diverge the more “chaotic” behavior they exhibit.

So, especially in the fields of climatology where we want high confidence predictions, we are not likely to get high confidence predictions any time in the near future (a prediction, I know). So when I read that people are actively trying to block the EPA from basing policy on science that doesn’t meet the standard criteria for science, I chuckle a bit:

And just in case someone thinks that I’m a big meanie who doesn’t care about all the dangers of “climate change” I’d like to point out that I do care about pollution and the human conditions on our planet. However, any potential impacts of climate change are outweighed by the very real conditions of poverty, and the accompanying conditions of malnutrition and improper sanitation. Those issues we can work on now, and good people ARE working on now.

The world has problems, but I’m not losing any sleep over climate change. After all, the Earth Day guys told me that I’d be dead by now from smog and starvation.


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1 Response to The Prophets of Doom and Disaster

  1. B says:

    If memory serves correct, the learned folks in ivy league towers in the 80’s claimed that we MUST put carbon on the north pole to warm the planet to close the hole in the ozone layer and prevent the impending ice age or we would be dead by 1999….cue the prince song. I firmly believe in second opinions but sometimes you gotta completely ignore professional advice or face your own peril in life and business


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