Saturday, August 03, 2013

Junk Science: Trzupek on 'Proof'

At "Somewhat Reasonable: The Policy and Commentary Blog of the Heartland Institute", Rich Trzupek takes Michael Mann to task for "redefining science". Specifically, Mann is being made fun of for the following statement:
"Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. It’s not for science."
Trzupeck comments as follows (scare-quotes are his):
He (Mann) goes on to explain that science is all about “credible theories” and “best explanations” and his gosh-darn critics supposedly don’t offer up any of those.
Now it seems pretty obvious that Mann’s attempt to separate proof from science stems from increasing public awareness that the warming predicted by the high-sensitivity models that Mann and others have championed just hasn’t occurred over the last fifteen years. No matter. You don’t need “proof” when you have “credible theories.”
The thing is, regarding the statement for which he's being made fun of, Michael Mann is 100% completely correct. The hallmark of a scientific theory is that it MUST be testable.. what scientists call "falsifiable". In other words, you must be able to identify some condition by which, through experimentation, you can determine whether the theory might fail. For it to be a meaningful test, there must be some realistic chance of failure. (You can't prove that it's "true" because there may be some failure condition you didn't predict).

Scientific theories are ALWAYS open to further testing. Newton's law of gravity worked very well for hundreds of years... it still does under most circumstances. But very careful observations of Mercury's orbit revealed perturbations it couldn't explain, so Einstein offered another theory. Einstein is constantly tested as well. But when a theory is tested, and the test confirms it, that "confirmation" is NOT "proof". Theories are CONFIRMED, NEVER PROVEN. And confirmed theories are always open to further testing, even when they are so well established that we call them "laws". If you ever see a "theory" that cannot be dis-proven in principle, it is never, never, never scientific.

The word "proof" as Mann using it in the mathematical sense is a completely different thing. A mathematical proof is a rigorous train of logic showing that the rules of mathematics lead to a particular result. Mathematics is not an experimental science. "it is a conceptual system possessing internal necessity that can only be so and by no means otherwise." (David Hilbert) Because of this, mathematical theorems can be proven. And since math is rigorous and unchangeable, it can be used to measure the physical world and facilitate science.

What is clear is this: Michael Mann's statement is NOT an attempt to "separate proof from sciences". Rather, the linked article is an definitive demonstration of the fact that Rich Trzupek isn't clear on what science is, and thus has embarrassed himself with a blatant public display of ignorance. That's made more distressing because he has loudly demonstrated ignorance of a subject that should be quite central to his core competency; as he is a chemist and consultant of many years' experience.

Keep in mind that the above statement applies only to that specific criticism of Mann. I have expressed no opinion on any other statements, theories, or observations that Mann may have offered. As a matter of full disclosure, I am NOT a climate alarmist. I think there's plenty of things for which Mann can be criticized (and those properly belong in another post). It just that THIS statement isn't one of them. With all the genuine issues to discuss, Rich Trzupek is doing no one any favors in his attempt to fight disinformation with yet more disinformation. That's why Trzupek is the one who has earned this post the "Junk Science" seal.

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