Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Vincent Gray, the philosophy of science and the beef substitute

With a hat tip to Sou, I now know of Vincent Gray, physical chemist and climate science denier.  Since Sou has chosen not to concern herself with the musings of Gray on the philosophy of science, I thought I would.  Actually, like Sou, I won't bother with the stuff on the scientific method because it is a bit like the conjuror's beautiful assistant, there to distract the eye.  The real philosophical meat in this sandwich is a bit more hidden.  So where is the beef?

The aim of Gray's article over at WUWT, just like all deniers, is not to advance learning but hinder the truth about an impending reality which he, amongst others, doesn't much like.  In order to do so, deniers do not hesitate to misrepresent reality, while at the same time pretending to be in favour of discovering what reality really is.  Gray's trick for hiding the incline is hidden in this paragraph (in my bold):

Scientific observations have to be repeatable and there has to be full information on the circumstances of the observation, the apparatus and the instruments used, and the name and qualifications of the observer.
 You see, it just isn't true.  Scientific observations are often not repeatable.  Let me take you on a magical history tour.  Let's dial our time machine back to 23 February 1987.

On that day, something happened that has not happened since the seventeenth century: a naked eye supernova was observed.  Supernova SN 1987A.  Over the next few months, the supernova reached magnitude 3, easily observable with the naked eye.  Telescopes and instruments were aimed at the star all over the southern hemisphere so that measurements and observations could be made.  Before the first human observations of the supernova were made, however, an unrepeatable event was observed.

Neutrinos, those superlight particles, were detected as they passed through the Earth.  Because they have such little mass, they don't interact easily with matter, passing straight through the Earth most of the time.  Occasionally, one neutrino will interact with an atom, causing a detectable event if the interaction occurs within a detector.  Luckily, such detectors were available in 1987 and three of them made observations of bursts of neutrinos pretty much synchronously that are interpreted as coming from the supernova, arriving before the first burst of light.

This was good science.  But according to Gray it isn't, because the observations are not repeatable.  The supernova won't go bang again, not now, not ever, so we cannot repeat those observations.  The next supernova, perhaps one within our own galaxy, might not be preceded by a similar burst of neutrinos, or we might not detect them.  Actually, it's Gray that's wrong. 

Hundreds of scientific observations are unrepeatable.  In fact, all those temperature readings are unrepeatable.  We can't rewind the clock and take them again.  We trust that they are correct or we make adjustments, including removing a reading from the record, if they are in error.  It isn't difficult to understand but presumably a physical chemist of such long standing as Gray has become immune to the reality of much of science.  A lot of it is clearly unrepeatable. 

Astronomers would be instantly out of business if Gray were correct.  There would be no point trying to detect gamma ray bursts because they are such transient events.  For decades, transient lunar phenomena were treated with scepticism because they were unrepeatable, but they are fully accepted now and there are videos taken through telescopes to demonstrate their truth.  They are, clearly, unrepeatable observations.  They happen one at a time, are detected rarely and, let's face it, you would be lucky to see one even if you had a powerful telescope and observed the Moon nightly.

I suspect Gray knows full well that his line about scientific observations having to be repeatable is bunk.  That's not why he said it.  His aim is to debunk climate science by making people think that the unrepeatable day to day observations of temperature and other weather phenomena are not science.  If they are not science, the analysis of the data is also not science and....

Since we have taken our personal TARDIS back to 1987, we might step into a bookstore and see if we can find any creationist literature.  This is the realm of the evolution deniers.  In an effort to deny that evolution is a fact and not "just a theory" we might come across a similar argument.  Evolution can be seen on a day to day basis but you have to look closely, because one of the places you might see it is in the superfast life cycles of bacteria.  In the world of much bigger organisms with life cycles measured in decades, evolution is much slower.  But the denier argument is that evolution cannot be true because you cannot see it happening and, well, you can't repeat those observations because speciation happened in the past. 

Indeed it did, but the record of speciation is in the modern organism as much as your biometric data is in your passport.  More so.  In the 1980s this science was in its infancy but the science of whether evolution happens was settled.  Anyone denying it had to deny huge chunks of science and so it proved.  Carbon dating - rubbish!  An ancient Earth - pants!  And so on.  Climate science deniers use many, if not all, of the same discredited arguments, in different fancy dress outfits admittedly, as the creationists used all those years ago.  Gray is doing nothing more nor less than I was encountering as a fresh graduate all those years ago.

It isn't surprising that evolution denial has crept out of its crypt and made a mummy like comeback on Watts's conspiracy rich pages.  Here's the edited highlights of one comment:

TheLastDemocrat says:
This observation aspect sets the situation so that predictions and forecasts are not scientific. They can be based on good science, but they are a matter of, at best, good logic and reason.
This “forecast” issue also applies to hind-casting. It is very easy to find some hard-nose scientist declaring that evolution is a scientific fact. but it cannot ever be. Zebras and jellyfish came from somewhere, but it has already happened. Any explanations are after-the-fact.
This has been duly noted by some believers in evolution. They have thus set up the task of observing evolution happening. Some declare that they have developed news species by running through many generations of one type of bacteria in differing conditions, and having two population emerge that can no longer inter-breed.
This is as close as evolution gets, in the present day, to being “fact.”
The theory of evolution may be well-reasoned. it may be where all of the species came from. It is a fact that there are many species. But how they came to all be so different is not a matter of scientific fact. There are great, logical theories, however. That is it: conjecture.
We scientists do need to reflect on what science is so that we are all clear about this, and can thus spot limits and errors when someone tries to throw the “settled science” meme at us. Or at policy makers.
 I am not sure what TheLastDemocrat means by "we scientists" but I would not be so sure he or she is a scientist based on what is a pretty insight light version of evolution.  Perhaps TheLastDemocrat should put Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True or Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show On Earth, or go to this site to find the experiments on bacterial evolution that TheLastDemocrat so offhandedly dismisses.  It's not as if "we scientists" can't find these resources. 

Anyway, this is by the by.  Gray has set up a false distinction and knows that no one at WUWT will challenge him and even if they did, the playground bullies will form a circle and shout childish insults at the one who understands. 

If what Gray said were true then crime scene investigation would be pointless.  Unrepeatable observations of a murder would mean the guilty would go free.  We couldn't prove them guilty, therefore they are let go.  We wouldn't need a trial.  Gray has said that observations need to be repeatable and forensic observations are just as scientific as any others.  Thank goodness he isn't correct.

The more I have read climate science deniers, the more I see myself wishing Stephen Jay Gould were still here.  He'd have irritated them, being truly a man of the Left.  Gould had more learning in his lunchtime coffee than Gray, Monckton, Eschenbach and more have in their entire lives.  He wrote exquisitely well.  There is no collected edition of his essays debunking creationists (I link to one of his classics earlier in this post) but I, for one, would welcome it.  Such a book would be a standard text for anyone wanting to understand the denier's arguing techniques.  And Gould would have written a better essay than this one, and included a baseball reference that us Brits would not understand.

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