About Dr. Keating’s $10,000 challenge to prove that man-made climate change is not occurringPosted: June 29, 2014
I foolishly accepted a chore that turned out to be more work than anticipated: to follow a discussion about Dr. Keating’s $10,000 Challenge and to put together an IBIS as well as a few Issue and Argument maps about it. Physicist Dr. Keating has offered $10,000 to anyone who can produce, via scientific method, a proof that man-made climate change is not occurring. He invited such submissions to be entered on a blog, and to offer his reasons as to whether and why he would accept or reject a submission. There were some such submissions, some of which were quickly rejected, others still awaiting judgment, but a flood of posts offering a variety of opinions — about the challenge and about submitted entries.
Taking a break from slogging through this material to ferret out essential information for the IBIS and maps, some thoughts occurred to me that I just have to write about, ‘to get them out of my system’.
These thoughts amount to not only raising some questions about the challenge as it was presented, but also about the nature of many of the responses offered. Many have to do with the concept of ‘proof’ Dr. Keating invited. He defends the choice of terms by referring to claims by ‘deniers’ of man-made climate change that such proof exists and is easy to provide. Perhaps his certainty in offering the reward stems form the knowledge that ‘proof’ is not appropriate term for evidence in favor of scientific hypotheses, especially for issues involving matters of degrees of several different sources contributions to an effect. The argument of offering evidence in support of a hypothesis is an inductive kind, not a deductively valid one that deserves the label of ‘proof’.
So while the ‘deniers’ should perhaps not have used the term (he did not cite any such claim specifically), in the larger interest of the controversy his use of the word ‘proof’ in his challenge is not really helpful either. Not because, as some of the posts claim, ‘it is not possible to prove a negative’. Isn’t it the scientific way to disprove a hypothesis by showing, by valid ‘scientific means (experiments, observations verified by repeatability, measurement etc.) that a piece of evidence that constitutes a necessary consequence of the hypothesis is NOT true, is indeed a deductively valid one (known as ‘modus tollens’) that can be accepted as proof? But because if the issue is one involving matters of degrees, acceptance or rejection of a hypothesis hinges on the degree of certainty — for example, of the probability that the ‘null hypothesis’ (the negation of the hypothesis) could have occurred under the conditions of the evidence data or arguments provided is too small to be believable. So this would have required specification of that level of confidence.
The choice of ‘weight of evidence’ or ‘argument’ instead of ‘proof’ may have been avoided for several reasons: the difficulty of ‘weighing’ the evidence, or because ‘argument’ is perceived as something unduly (unscientifically?) adversarial. like a brawl, with win-lose outcomes not necessarily based on the merit of the arguments. The significance of the overall issue (at least as seen by Dr. Keating and his laudable effort to get it ‘settled’) should suggest that such a win-lose outcome is not in the best interest of humanity.
It is no wonder that many posts therefore tried to represent the challenge as ‘meaningless’. But they also did not acknowledge the elephant in the room: the question of what should be done about the problem — if it is indeed a problem serious enough to worry about, and if ‘we’ (humanity) actually can do something about it. Getting ‘the right thing’ done is NOT the likely result of a win/lose brawl.
Getting the right thing done would require re-framing the understanding of ‘argument’ as the mutual attempt to
a) identify and acknowledge the ‘real’ underlying issue;
b) identify possible solutions (‘what should be done’)
c) reaching into each others’ minds to show how one’s proposed ‘solution (conclusion to the argument) really follows plausibly from beliefs the other already holds, or that the other would accept as plausible upon being shown the arguments or evidence (validated ‘scientifically?) for it;
d) changing the proposed solution to the point that it becomes acceptable to the other — ideally of course ‘better’, but at the very least ‘not worse’ than before, or if nothing is done.
So the question becomes one of determining what is ‘acceptable’. That includes not only the plausibility of the scientific data presented as evidence in the pro and con arguments — which of course are important, — but also the consequences of whatever action or inaction is chosen as a result of the allegedly ‘basic’ issue, in this case whether and to what degree man-made climate change is occurring. Specifically: does ‘acceptability’ include such aspects as whether some parties will lose income, property, security, property, respect, ‘face’?
As long as proponents on either side of the issue feel that they can legitimately suggest that the other side is not entirely without ‘hidden agenda’ interests (funding, reputation, payments from certain industry segments, political entities etc…?) in order to influence public assessment of the purity of the scientific arguments offered, would it be appropriate and helpful is all such could be brought up and discussed? For example: re-framing the challenge to explore what actions ‘we’ ought to take depending on the various outcomes of the ‘scientific issue: what if MMCC IS occurring? what if it is NOT occurring? and what if it does occur, but to some degree (to be estimated..) — such that the respective actions will have ‘acceptable’ outcomes for all affected parties even if the resolution of the scientific issue were NOT as expected?
As long as these issues are kept off the discussion table, I am afraid it will not only prevent a proposed ‘proof’ or hesitancy of people to present it to Dr. Keating’s exclusive judgment, from ‘settling’ the issue and allow humanity to proceed towards working out feasible and acceptable action solutions; it will poison the entire discourse in a way that not even the most complete and representative argument maps of its contributions will be able to clarify let alone remedy.