Language, Truth and Logic

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Language, Truth and Logic

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2018-08-06 14:41.

A 'linguistic philosopher' (yes, one of those) at the University of East Anglia (yes, there) tells the readers of The Guardian (yes, them) that 'climate deniers' should not be allowed to express their views in public. WUWT tells us about it (I wish they hadn't, though). 'The science is not in doubt, so the corporation no longer needs to give them a platform', the strapline tells us.

He seizes an opportune moment: we in Europe are currently experiencing the dog-days, the time of year the Classical world associated with the appearance of the fiery Sirius, the 'dog star'. Over two-thousand years ago the Roman poet Tibullus (55? BC-19 BC) wrote of the dog star 'grilling the tilled fields with baking thirst' (Et Canis arenti torreat arva siti, Tibullus, Elegiae 1.4.42 – a frequent theme of his). During our dog-days, under every sizzling rock we turn over there is a climate activist telling us that 'science' tells us we are doomed – as does our linguistic philosopher: 'This summer, of all times?'

Well, we deniers must hear that assertion ten times a day, but coming from someone claiming to be a 'linguistic philosopher' the statement is a bit of a surprise. Still, he's only a Reader in the UEA philosophy department, so we must hope that his lack of intellect will not adversely affect his career. A reasonable hope, actually.

If there is one thing that two thousand years of philosophy have taught us, it is that doubt is good and certainty is bad. Our philosopher from the swamps of East Anglia seemingly hasn't got this message yet. Readers with better things to do should leave now.

That science thing

A good linguistic philosopher would take the word 'science' and ask: 'what does that mean?', or, with more precision, 'what do we mean by that?' One way to answer that question is to do what a good dictionary does and see how people (itself not a simple concept) actually use the word in what context. What do 'people' mean when they use the word 'science'; in what senses and with what nuances do they use the word?

The list will be long. So long, in fact, that the sensible linguistic philosopher will advise careful writers to avoid the unaccompanied word 'science' altogether: the scatterplot of its meanings is so diffuse that there is no reliable consensus at all about what it means. In large measure, 'science' means whatever the speaker wants it to mean at the moment of the utterance.

In contrast, our UEA Reader in Linguistic Philosophy, who uses the insulting term 'climate denier', attributes to the word 'science' a monolithic meaning that implies some sort of incontestable empirical truth. All and any science delivers truth, according to this view, even bonkers climate science. Furthermore, the internal referentiality of science makes it proof from attack by non-science: only scientists can play in this pen – or linguistic philosophers, of course.

In fact, though, there are many sciences and there are many degrees of truth.

The strict disciple of Karl Popper would point out that all scientific theories are merely temporary stages of inductive quasi-falsity, meaning that science never delivers truth in the strictly deductive sense – on the contrary, it delivers falsity. I hope you enjoyed reading that sentence as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Well, these Viennese logicians live in one world, a world of dimly lit coffee houses where they never see the light of day; the rest of us have to put up with the real world of things that work – until they don't, of course.

Credibility and confidence

We mortals hope for the best and our degree of confidence in our knowledge is the basis of our truth. Leaving all the Popperite logic about induction and falsification to one side, we might try listing a few science subjects in terms of the confidence we have in them for delivering truth – their credibility, in a word. For the punctilious: we are not judging the truth of their theories, but the degree of credibility we are prepared to assign to them – there is a difference.

Physics and chemistry are the most empirically credible disciplines. Admittedly there are parts of them that are battlegrounds that are still contested and there are parts that are speculative (hypothetical), but there are also large parts of them that are empirically true in the sense that they are tested millions of times a day and found to be valid. 'Empirically true' is not very Popperite, but it will have to do us real-world types.

How predictively good are the theories of these disciplines? Extraordinarily good. We can launch a rocket from our rotating and orbiting sphere, slingshot it around one or two other orbiting planets in order finally to bring it alongside a comet transiting the solar system at God knows what speed. That in itself allows us to use the term 'empirically true' and our confidence becomes total when we think of the countless other operations of mechanics, celestial and terrestrial, that are performed as a routine in an uncountable number of ways.

On all these occasions the 'laws of nature' hold and with them the laws of physics and chemistry that we rely on to describe them. Every ball of every cricket or baseball match, every hit, every bounce and every catch are validations of the correctness of our understanding of the kinetics of the world. All the trajectories involved can be completely described by theory.

No one, not even a Viennese logician, jumps into a swimming pool thinking that they will sink like a stone, never to surface again, or that they will bounce from the surface of the water like a ball. What happens in practice is accurately described and expected by theory. If a diver did ever bounce off the surface the physicists of five continents would be round there PDQ to have a look.

This is all so everyday. The timing of the recent eclipse of the moon was predicted to an accuracy of fractions of a second and no one nowadays is surprised or expresses wonder at such an astonishing feat.

Similarly, the quality of our understanding of chemistry is proven in countless ways on a continual basis. We drop a vitamin tablet into a glass of water and watch it fizz – we don't feel the need to take cover before we do so just in case it explodes; we drink the resulting solution with complete confidence that, although it may or may not help us, it won't poison us.

We are utterly confident of the properties of the materials which chemistry has created for us: we take a sheet of easy-peel labels and stick the labels down on precious things with complete confidence that we can lift them off again. On the other hand, we stick a self-adhesive stamp onto a letter and confidently expect it still to be there when the letter is delivered.

Aside from the speculative parts of both of these disciplines, anyone who asserted that the basic laws of physics and chemistry were not valid would arguably be insane. The word 'denier' would not be nearly strong enough for them. I heard a man the other day expressing the view that the moon was not solid but a glowing incorporeal something or other, a state which would require the violation of so many well-understood theories of celestial mechanics that we can only call him insane.

Testing belief

The strongest indicator of the credibility of a field of knowledge is our willingness to put our lives at stake on the basis of our belief.

Every day, billions of people use vehicles ranging from roller-skates to aircraft with total confidence that the laws of physics will hold true. There may be quite justified worries about engineering design or manufacturing quality, but no one in their right mind will worry that a skateboard will of its own accord shoot directly up in the air. We thrash our motor cars along roads at high speeds without giving a thought to the careful science behind the tyres on which our life depends and the understanding of nature on which that science depends.

As an extreme example, humans sit on top of rockets filled with hundreds of tons of explosive, confident that the laws of chemistry and physics would continue to apply – that is, that our understanding of nature is correct. When, very occasionally, things go wrong it is engineering – human design – that is at fault: the laws of nature are blameless. The astronauts sitting on top of this tube of high explosive might have some thoughts about the quality of the engineering, but they would not have the slightest doubt that the laws of chemistry and physics will hold, that the fuels will combust not explode, that the gyroscopes will work and the planned trajectory will put them into orbit. That is what is meant by empirical validity: the astronauts without a second thought rely on nature's consistency and our understanding of the laws that describe that.

The scale of sciences

But as we noted at the beginning of this piece, in the house of 'science' there are many mansions. There are many sciences that are not as rigorously credible as physics and chemistry. There are sciences that are only weakly experimental – parts of Geology would be an example: conclusions are derived from classification, analysis and reason. In many sciences, experimental testing of large-scale hypotheses is usually impossible. But these disciplines, too, deliver explanations of physical processes that can carry a high degree of credibility. Geology is not a 'lesser' discipline than physics – it is just harder to achieve conclusions that are completely credible.

The key to high credibility is the interaction between predictive hypothesis and testing. Without the possibility of making falsifiable predictions and testing them under controlled conditions a science is not de facto invalidated, just weakened in its credibility.

Somewhere down at the bottom of our list of scientific credibility is climate science. Why is it so low down the list? It could be argued that it is in fact off the credibility scale altogether and that calling it a science is a misnomer.

The defects of climate science

Firstly, and most importantly, there are almost no non-trivial predictions in climate science that can be experimentally tested: the timescales are too long, the system too complex, the variables too many. The absorption spectrum of carbon dioxide can be determined with great accuracy using a spectrophotometer in a laboratory. But what precise effect this absorption spectrum has in a real-world atmosphere is, in truth, anybody's guess. Bit of warming somewhere? Bit of cooling somewhere else? How much? Well, we currently have an idea, just as we had an idea ten years ago and ten years before that. The trouble is all these ideas are different and their consequences ill-understood.

Even the most enthusiastic climate scientist has to admit that 'climate' – whatever that is – is a highly complex, chaotic system and has further to admit that it is a system that we barely understand. The use of the word 'barely' here is extremely generous – 'do not' might be closer to the mark.

Even where there are empirical procedures in climate science their results are highly questionable. They are arrived at after a long sequence of intermediate assumptions and guesses, whether about temperature proxies or even – my hobby horse – data from the now defunct but soon to be replaced GRACE satellite. In climate science, every theory may have a number of equally credible opposing theories – and there is really no way to decide between them. Into this empirical vacuum the activist with megaphone appears and before we know it we have a 'consensus'.

There are exceptions, the greatest one being the measurement of surface temperatures by satellite, which produces high quality, credible information that has been validated using independent methods. The temperature plot produced is interesting, but, lacking theoretical and empirical context, it is only what it is. We spot some peak temperatures and say sagely 'El Niño', but what this phenomenon really is, why it arises and why it fades, why it is sometimes great and sometimes small, no one has the slightest idea.

Nor do we have any idea what the 'global' temperatures connote, nor what the anomalies and averages we derive from them really mean. The temperature plot goes up, comes down, stays about the same, wobbles about a bit – why? No idea. In physics such an acceptance of ignorance would be an outrage. In climate science it's a funding application.

Failing deeper understanding, the process of our decipherment of the meaning of surface temperatures is not much different from the process of observing tea leaves or coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup. The augurs of ancient Rome would have felt quite at home with climate science. At the end of all these divinations a result is declared, a future foretold and actions planned accordingly. If it turns out to be right – Yeh! If it doesn't – we should have used Earl Grey, Kenya Blend or crow's innards instead.

In climate science, empirical testing is replaced by modelling. Mathematical modelling is a very fine tool in the right hands. In those situations the results of modelling can be derived from reality and tested against reality. In a classic use the behaviour of motor vehicle bodies in crash situations can be modelled and the results of the model tested by crashing real vehicles. In particle physics, models are also extremely valuable and their results can all likewise be validated in one way or another.

The models of climate science cannot be tested against anything. Even when, after ten years, their predictions are wildly inaccurate, the models are considered 'scientific' – their lack of 'skill' is blamed on some other factor and we continue using them and citing them anyway. The atmosphere didn't warm as much as we thought? The heat went into the oceans. But the sea surface temperature hasn't changed. The heat went into the deep oceans, denier!

Just using maths or statistics or cool equipment such as satellites and temperature stations does not make the results true, reliable, or even 'empirical' – we need at least a basic understanding of the context in which these results occur, which in this chaotic system we simply do not have.

In credible sciences, experimental results are replicated by different groups. In climate science a thorough replication is hardly ever possible. No one would go a second time to a particular area of snowline trees, sample them independently, drill out ring samples and then compare the results to the previous samples from that area. For decades the habit was widespread in climate science of not even publishing data, just results, thus preventing anyone from even independently processing the same data.

Cargo cult climate science

Let's take a sociological perspective for a moment.

Climate 'science' is a cargo cult that cloaks itself in 'scientific' procedures such as high-tech measurement, statistical mumbo-jumbo and even the institutional aspects of other sciences: grants of public money, journal publications, peer-review, academic departments, a promotion ladder and conferences. It has expeditions and fieldwork, supercomputers calculating something or other and graphs – lots and lots of graphs.

It may hope that by adopting the rituals of science the cargo plane will circle and land – we must only have faith and patience – but that hope is just as misplaced today as it was in Micronesia after the end of the war in the Pacific.

So it is perfectly intellectually valid and reasonable to express doubt about anything produced by low-credibility cargo cult activities such as climate science (or psychology or sociology or, or…). In this context, the label 'denier' is a badge of honour, a token of sanity. Definition of climate denier: someone who loves science.

It would indeed be insanity to question the solid results of physics and chemistry – the monarchs of science – that are validated every day. However, it is not insanity to question the ridiculous activist nonsense spouted by so-called climate scientists and their running dogs of linguistic philosophy.

But the glamour of the word 'science' irradiates the field to which it is applied with a bright glow. The cargo cult is irresistable: one day the plane will arrive! Perhaps it's time we started calling this fake discipline climate 'studies', not climate 'science', dig up the runway and switch the light off for good.

FoS image, size 708x388

Anselm Feuerbach, The Symposium (Second Version), 1871-74, Image: Nationalgallerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. [Click to display a large version in a new tab, 3125 px x 1714 px.]

Philosophers used to be such fun types. What would Socrates have had to say to our young linguistic philosopher? 'Bend over and think of polar bears – my friends and I are going to show you the real meaning of the word "hot"'. Quite right, too – that'll push some sense into him.