Thursday, December 03, 2009

Global warming and the trouble with data.

In the current brouhaha about fudged climate data I actually haven't seen or heard the TV experts mentioning glaciers. To be honest, I haven't been to check on the glaciers but I have faith that the photographs haven't been photoshopped. The obvious status of the glaciers: significant shrinkage. The arctic ice is in fact melting. The snow cover on Kilimanjaro and many other peaks is receding. Without glueing myself to every channel 24/7, I have faith that a few TV pundits must have mentioned the glaciers, but why quibble?

The trouble with data is that when science requires absolute statistical, quantifiable fact as definitive proof that a hypothesis is true, or false, it places itself on a pedestal where its position is precarious. Like Tiger Woods. When someone fudges the data, the hypothesis is weakened or discredited entirely. Science itself is discredited, and this is something that Science should work to avoid. At any cost one might say, because there is no coinage that will reverse damage to life and nature due to misjudged climate change. On the other hand, preventive measures and their results will be tallied and appreciated. Does it offend the principle of scientific parsimony that I just said climate change instead of global warming? Does parsimony matter to those whose ice floes are vanishing, or those whose islands are being submerged?

So what if the greatest evidence of global warming is circumstantial? In law, compelling circumstantial evidence is considered a reliable guide in forming good judgment when empirical, quantifiable evidence is unavailable. Do they count every single body before they convict agents of genocide? No. Indeed there usually is plenty of empirical evidence. But if, hypothetically, the trials were based on absolute numbers, would errors in data absolve the accused? What if Solomon had based his timeless decision exclusively on hard data rather than good judgment? An innocent life would have been lost. If faith in 'compelling circumstantial evidence' was good enough for Solomon, it's good enough for the permafrost. And for you.

Think about it. If, generations from now, victims of environmental degradation put suspects on trial for the effects of climate change, and the accused get off because the numbers don't add up, would you really like to be in the shoes of those wishing the case had been less scientific?

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