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Friday, August 2, 2013

Michael Mann understands science. Rich Trzupek clearly does not

by tamino, Open Mind blog, August 2, 2013

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, the tale of the fateful mission of astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. Their hopes to land on the moon were dashed when an on-board explosion crippled the spacecraft, so that only the most extreme measures, the best of human ingenuity and determination, enabled them to survive. At one point they have to turn off their navigation computer because they simply don’t have enough power to leave it turned on. When they do, Lovell says “We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.”

He was referring to the fact that in order to survive, they were depending on Newton’s law of gravity. If it was right, they might get home alive. It sure seems right, in fact it did enable them to get home alive. These days, we can launch a spacecraft toward Mars (millions of miles away) and, using Newton’s law of gravity, hit our target with stunning precision. We’re so confident in it, and it’s so useful, we still call is “Newton’s law.”

But nobody ever succeeded in proving Newton’s law of gravity. In fact you can’t, in fact we’ve learned enough about the subject that we can prove it’s wrong! Despite its incorrectness, it’s good enough to enable us to get to the moon and back — alive. 

Nowadays we could talk about “Einstein’s law of gravity” and how it’s different from, and better than, Newton’s. Maybe it’s even right — but we can’t prove it. Maybe, someday, we’ll manage to prove that it’s wrong.

That’s the nature of science. “Proof” is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages, not for science.

The best we can get are credible theories, those that explain the facts with such precision that they might enable us to do something useful, like navigate in space or build a skyscraper or eradicate the scourge of smallpox … or minimize planet-wide chaos from man-made climate change.

Michael Mann understands this. He understands science.
Rich Trzupek does not. When Mann correctly stated that “Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. It’s not for science,” Trzupek had a conniption fit. Trzupek so severely fails to understand science, that he accuses a real scientist of his own failure. Trzupek’s criticism is nothing more than a cheap ad hominem attack, an attempt to discredit climate science by discrediting a climate scientist. Worse yet, it’s a pathetic attempt.

Trzupek actually says “When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truth and proofs at the end of the day.” If they really taught him that then he should ask for his money back, because this is an appalling misrepresentation of science. In fact it’s one of the horrible, but commonplace, misconceptions that real scientists have to work hard to correct. Yet Trzupek makes it the foundation of his criticism of climate science and of Michael Mann.

Trzupek makes a lot of other mistaken (or perhaps just dishonest) claims in his article. I considered taking the time to dissect them, but sometimes it’s better to reserve one’s efforts to criticize scientific claims which come from real scientists … or at least from those who have an inkling of what science is really about.

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