All too often we are “treated” to yet another story about some ‘study’ that has definitively refuted Evolution or Anthropogenic Climate Change. Generally the mere claim tells you with 99.99% certainty that the ‘study’ is wrong or grossly misrepresented.
The very idea that a single study could disprove either is improbable in the extreme. The naive belief that it could betrays a profound misunderstanding of science in general, and most particularly the science supporting both concepts. The popularity of these claims with their respective audiences tells us a lot about how little they understand what they are talking about.
While it certainly happens that the science supporting a particular idea is disproven, the probability decreases as the volume of data accumulates and the sources and types of data multiplies. The scope and scale of science supporting both evolution and anthropogenic climate change is huge and most Deniers seem utterly oblivious to this.
The problems break down into four areas, misunderstanding: i) the existing evidence, ii) how science works as a process, iii) what science even is, and iv) the concepts of evolution and/or climate change and how they integrate with science as a whole. Bonus round v) the social politics of science.
i) the existing evidence
Deniers seem not to grasp the very nature of the evidence for the concepts. An analogy might be comparing if you have 2 reports of an elephant. In one case it is a small group of reliable witnesses who swear they saw an elephant in the back garden.
In the second case you have thousands of unrelated people who variously have photographs, videos, sound recordings, foot casts, thermal imaging, dentition samples, x-rays, ultrasound images, radar and sonar images, samples of DNA , tissue, hair, saliva, stools etc. Further, all of of these data samples had been analysed multiple ways, all yielding the same result.
Then along comes someone with a handful of pictures of a mouse and claims that it proves there was no elephant in the garden. How likely is it that this evidence will prove conclusive in the first example? in the second? Possible of course, but not very likely.
The Deniers seem to think they face a scientific basis as in the first example, a small amount of data of a single type. In fact the situation is of the second type, a vast amount of data of many different types.
ii) how science works
Deniers usually seem highly offended when all of the existing evidence is not immediately tossed out the moment they show up with some ‘new study’. Usually accusations of of some sort of conspiracy to maintain the orthodoxy are made. If they understood how science works they would not be so surprised.
If we go back to our analogy and the first example: the evidence provided by a group of reliable witnesses is not automatically discounted just because someone is waving a handful of pictures. The more recent claim is not assumed to be more correct simply because it is newer or involves some fancier technology. Technology often just means you can screw up more thoroughly and on a grander scale.
Any reasonable person wants to understand how you can have both the testimony of reliable witnesses and pictures that seem to contradict it. Are they from the same garden? at the same time? Are the pictures really of a mouse? Were the witnesses drunk? Was it a trick of the light perhaps? Perhaps there was both an elephant and a mouse in the garden at the same time.
Scientists will examine both sets of evidence in detail as well as seek new evidence that will corroborate one or the other of the stories. They might check the garden for mouse and/or elephant tracks. Scrutinize the pictures in minute detail to be sure it is the same garden. Interview all of the witnesses separately asking them to give detailed descriptions of what they saw.
They will try to come up with evidence that rules out one or the other possibility. Is the back fence trampled into splinters? probably not a mouse then. Are there no tracks of any kind? in that case it is more likely that it was a mouse than an elephant. And so on.
Regardless of whether they conclude that there was really an elephant, or a mouse, or both, or neither, scientists will want to understand how both sets of data could exist. Scientists will not be happy until all of the data is rationally explained.
That is how it would play out in the first, simple example in the analogy. In the second case involving thousands of different studies and types of evidence how much more likely is it that it is the ‘new evidence’ is actually flawed in some way? Not that it should automatically be rejected, and in science it never is, but scientists will regard it with a lot of skepticism until it has been thoroughly verified.
Not to stretch the analogy too far, but to date all of the evidence supposedly refuting the elephants
of evolution and climate science have turned out to be mistaken in some way, or in many cases nothing more than a metaphoric picture of a mouse puppet badly grafted on to a picture of a garden (ie lame frauds).
iii) what science even is
Actually science is many things, but let’s focus on a couple of important elements. At heart “science” is a really just set of rules of what is acceptable as a way of knowing the world. Your stoner cousin’s claim to have seen Bigfoot is not considered on the same level of credibility as Watson and Crick’s experiments with DNA. By common consent it is understood that these rules and methods are the only way we can rationally learn more about the world and advance human knowledge, hence the Scientific Method.
In science we accept the simplest hypothesis (explanation) that explains the data (or as much of it as possible). All of the climate Denier myths about sunspots and natural variation etc are simple, but they don’t explain a great deal of the data. So we say those explanations are false.
We also insist that a hypothesis be testable. That is to say there must be a way to check the explanation through experimentation and/or observation, and be able to rule out other explanations. So called “Intelligent Design” is both simple and it does explain the data, but it is not testable so it is not science.
This is why it is a Red Herring to claim that scientists object to the teachings of Creationism or Intelligent Design. Teach away … but not in science classes, because it is not science. Such an objection is not surprising. Shakespeare should not be taught in Mathematics classes, nor calculus in Drama, nor the Periodic Table in Religion classes.
Another frequent objection is that evolution/climate change has not been “proved.” Actually because of the problem of induction science abandoned the fiction of proofs many decades ago.
Except in pure mathematics nothing can be proved. Not gravity, not thermodynamics, not the existence of the sun, nothing. So it is no great surprise that neither evolution nor climate change have been proved either, nor is it meaningful or relevant. All the claim demonstrates is the naivite of the person objecting.
To date all of the supposed refutations of evolution and climate change have been bad science, pseudoscience and/or nonscience.
iv) the concepts of evolution and/or climate change
Evolution and climate change are theories, which in science means they are very credible. What “theory” means in science is well expained elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it. The link provided refers to evolution, but you can just substitute ‘climate change’ in the text and it is just as true. Here again the person objecting is just demonstrating how little they know about science.
Evolution and anthropogenic climate change are not testable hypotheses in the same sense that the strength of the force of gravity is. Rather they are meta-concepts that are the simplest, most rational overall explanation for the huge masses of data from thousands of studies across many disciplines. There is no one test that could potentially falsify either in and of themselves separate from the rest of science.
Of course each of the studies that they rely on is testable and has followed the proper scientific method. Any of these could potentially be shown to be wrong, but that would be unlikely to have much effect on either theory except in specific details. They are based on such a broad array of data across many disciplines that the only way to overthrow either completely is something that falsifies one or more of the fundamentals of modern science.
For example, the discovery of a fossil of a modern species in ancient strata would do it; say a Puffin that could be shown to have definitely existed in the Permian. That would bring down evolution. And pretty much everything we think we know about geology, chemistry, physics, biology, etc. Pretty much all of science actually.
Equally the discovery of some foundational error in science could topple climate change theory; for eg demonstrating that CO2 is in fact not a greenhouse gas at all. That would do it, with similar consequences for all of the sciences.
The reason is that we “know” CO2 is a greenhouse gas based on very basic chemistry and physics. The only way CO2 could turn out to not be a greenhouse gas is if our fundamental understanding of basic chemistry and physics is wrong. If they are wrong, pretty much all of modern science is down the tubes.
It could happen of course. Nothing is certain in science. There are no “proofs.” But how likely is it? And if it were to happen it would be the only subject of special issues of every scientific journal on the planet. Definitely not found only in some obscure paper posted as a *.pdf on a Denier site somewhere.
Naturally details of both evolution and climate science are being modified all of the time as our understanding and knowledge increases and improves. Specific aspects of particulars are being falsified and refined continuously, but that is quite different from falsifying the entire concept.
Knowing this, is it any wonder that scientists are so skeptical every time they hear another claim that evolution or climate science has been disproved? Even so, as Eric Steig writes, scientists check’s each one out, just in case.
v) the social politics of science
Even if science as a whole had a vested interest in preserving the status quo, individual scientists do not.
The premise that scientists are suppressing data that could undermine evolution or climate change is ridiculous for the numerous reasons. In the first place many scientists do have a sincere commitment to the truth regardless of what it may be. Further, there is a tremendous (although sadly not universal) commitment to integrity. There is also ego and self interest.
Anyone who could actually completely overturn either evolution or climate science would go down in history as one of the truly great geniuses. Galileo, Newton, Einstein, “You”! The Nobel Prize, MacArthur Genius grants, Presidential Medals, Legion of Honour, Knight of the Empire, book deals, maybe even an appearance on Oprah or The Colbert Report … all yours.
Yes, Darwin is revered. Yes it would be a pity to chuck out most of current science, but anyone who imagines that most scientists would hesitate more than a second given the above has obviously not met many scientists. This one is what you call a “no brainer.”
Guildenstern: “I’m sorry it wasn’t the unicorn. It would have been nice to have unicorns.”
Denier “Challenge” aka Deathwatch Update: Day 29 … still no evidence.
1As I discuss here I do not use the term “Denier” to refer to all climate change doubters. Those who thoughtfully and intelligently address the facts I call ’skeptics’.
Those who irrationally deny the existence of the science and instead propagate the lies and distortions such as those discussed above and linked to the right under “Debunking Denier Nonsense” are “Deniers”.
The choice of the correct term is based on their actions, not their conclusions.