Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ockham’s Razor and Global Warming

In the Fourteenth Century, a Franciscan friar named William of Ochkam proposed a new way of looking at the world. Known today as “Ockham’s Razor,” his approach tried to cut through the complexities and convolutions of the Scholastic school of philosophy by suggesting that all else being equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is probably the correct one.

Like many other dangerous thinkers of the Renaissance—including such impious malcontents as Galileo and Copernicus—William of Ockham was ultimately charged with heresy. This fate is all too familiar to anyone who has tried bringing logic to bear upon arguments that are being waged emotionally. And, unfortunately, charges of heresy are not mere relics of history. We see similar charges made today against many whose only crime is being on the wrong side of a political debate—some of which are questions that, like the conception of the Universe in earlier days, are questions of science rather than matters of faith.

Our Place in the Universe: The Renaissance Confronts Copernicus
In the days of Copernicus, conventional wisdom placed the Earth at the center of the Universe (since God would never place us anywhere else), since every object in the heavens moved around us in the sky. But astronomers could tell that the paths taken by the planets seemed to move in uneven patterns across the sky—some, weaving their way through the night sky, while others occasionally crossed their own pathways while performing slow-motion loops. In the days before satellites and advanced rocket science, this offered two alternative explanations to the people of the Renaissance:

Alternative A (favored by Copernicus and Galileo): If the Sun is in the center—and all the planets rotate around the Sun, rather than the Earth—then everything lines up, and the planets' motions are explained.

Alternative B: If the Earth is in the center of the Universe, then for some reason not mentioned in the Bible, the planets are whirling in circles as they move around the Earth.

The conclusion suggested by Ockham’s Razor is that either the Sun is in the middle, or something is missing from the puzzle that we don't understand.

The conclusion of the Church—the political Orthodoxy of the day—was that since we were obviously the center of Creation, the subject was not open to debate and the astronomers were obviously heretics for suggesting otherwise.

From our perch in the 21st Century, we scoff at the early Church for its pronouncements, and salute Galileo and Copernicus for their vision and dedication to scientific truth. But we don’t have to look far to see that while we are more scientifically advanced than our Renaissance ancestors, we haven’t learned much from their experience. For proof, we only need to look at one of today’s hottest issues—the heat generated by our concerns over global warning.

Modern Geocentrism: Global Warming
Today, there seems to be some evidence that our climate is gradually getting warmer. Politicians—in the world of Science, as well as Politics—assure us that they have identified the cause...that the cause is us...and that dire consequences will follow from failing to take immediate steps to stop it. In addition, selected groups of scientists having issued proclamations on the subject, the solution to the problem happens to be beyond further scientific inquiry as well...and anyone who denies these obvious truths wants us all to die.

History tells us that the Medieval Warming Period, which began about the 9th Century, lasted for about four hundred years, even though much of it is undocumented by a written historical record (owing, alas, to the limitations imposed by the Dark Ages). This was followed by a Little Ice Age that lasted from the 1400s until the 1800s, a time of intense cold and advancing glaciers and polar ice caps. And since the 1800s, our climate has been gradually warming. As of the early 21st Century, some of the polar ice on Earth appears to be melting, and glaciers are receding in many areas around the globe. It also seems that polar ice may be receding on the Planet Mars, and recent photographs of the Red Planet suggest that a flowing liquid—perhaps even water—was present on its surface within geologically recent times. In this modern age of satellites and advanced rocketry, this provides two alternative hypotheses for us to consider, with respect to changes in our climate:

Alternative A: Earth’s climate changes over time, and it looks like polar ice is disappearing on both the Earth and Mars. Perhaps something common to both, like the Sun, is the cause.

Alternative B: Humans pollute, and have a dominating impact on their surroundings. Therefore, we are the cause of global warming. Something else must be affecting Mars.

The conclusion suggested by Ockham’s Razor is that we should study the effects of the Sun—particularly whether the Earth’s climate is affected by small variations in the Sun’s output of energy. Once we know this, we may be able to learn what effect humans may be having with respect to global temperatures.

The conclusion of today’s Political Orthodoxy appears to be that humans are obviously the cause of a changing global climate, the matter is beyond debate, and anyone who suggests otherwise is obviously a heretic (and, if the heretic is a meteorologist or other scientist, someone whose credentials should be revoked).

Cooling Down the Debate
In today’s political climate, our concerns over global warming share many of the characteristics that led the Church to condemn the early astronomers. We have imperfect knowledge about our subject, and strong emotions affect our perceptions. We also have forgotten that we are, in many respect, still just big apes. We are brighter and more curious than our cousins, perhaps, but we are just as prone to get into trouble. And we are just as likely to get so excited about some grand occurrence or other that we often misplace what little sense we have, start beating our chests to show how important we are, and forget about using our brains.

Many suggestions advanced as weapons in the fight against global warming are, in themselves, quite sensible on their own merits. Pollution is not a good thing, after all, and most reasonable steps to contain it have much to commend them. But sounding alarm bells, or warning of apocalyptic events in the near future, does nothing to advance human knowledge and only confuses what we know with what we feel. It also overlooks the “inconvenient truth” that similar alarm bells sounded thirty years ago about an impending Ice Age...which proponents insisted was being brought about by the impact of humans on the planet that is our home. And in the turmoil, we seem to have forgotten that forty years before the Ice Age scare of the 1970s---in the depths of the Dust Bowl days in the 1930s---we were too concerned about living through the Great Depression to worry very much about why it seemed so hot.

Ockham’s Razor is a principle of inquiry, not a scientific fact. It suggests a methodology for testing assumptions and analyzing the world but will not, by itself, tell which of several possible explanations is true. It only suggests a course to follow to seek out the truth...and reminds us that because there is much we do not know, we must always be open to new ways of looking at things. But its essential wisdom comes from realizing that complex explanations usually produce unworkable solutions, and that with simplicity comes understanding.

Humans will always have imperfect knowledge. This is as it should be, for the era that sees us lose our quest for knowledge will be the era that sees human society begin descending into another Dark Age. But we should never confuse fact with opinion, and we should always be open to the possibility that we are wrong. In the end, all that matters is the truth; in the thinking about our changing environment we should concentrate on the science of climate change, not on the politics.

For the rest, we should remember that thinking ourselves the center of creation usually leads to all sorts of mischief.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed The Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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