Science, Ptolemy and Global Warming

Ptolemy was a Greek in Roman Egypt in the 1st Century AD. He was one of the pre-eminent natural philosophers of the ancient world and he is a wonderful example of what science isn’t.

Ptolemy attempted to address one of the major scientific problems of the ancient world (and the pre-modern world as well), the retrograde motion of the planets. Simply put, although the stars move in a great circle in the sky and the sun and moon move in a steady circle through this stellar background, the planets, those great wanderers, would occasionally move backwards against the stars. This was very difficult to explain in an earth-centered universe and even more difficult to predict. Along with predicting solar eclipses, this was one of the main problems of pre-modern astronomy.

Ptolemy created a model of perfectly nested spheres with the earth at the center and all the bodies of astronomy radiating outward. You can see a simplified version of it here. He solved the problem of retrograde motion with “epicycles” smaller spheres within spheres which would sometimes make the always perfect circular motion appear to run backwards. But the perfect, spherical motion was always in the same diirection, always at the same speed and always and ever circular.

Why circular and uniform? Because Ptolemy knew that the universe was perfect and circular. In modern parlance, that was the paradigm within which he operated, one greatly developed by Aristotle centuries before.

The problem was that his predictions were often wrong. He would be a little early or a little late with a predicted eclipse or the start of Mars’ retrograde motion. Every time he made a mistake, he would tweak the model a bit and add another “epicycle” to his model, one more circle within a circle to make up for the last mistake, anticipating the still additional adjustments to be made again and again down through the centuries until someone finally realized we weren’t the center of the universe, and though it might be perfect, the universe or at least the planets, moved in ellipses, not circles.

The observations did not match the models, the predictions never accorded with the results. But he knew the answer and so his model just needed a bit more tweaking to finally approach the perfection of the universe. Ptolemy and his followers knew the answers because their entire philosophical system was tied up in them. Their “theory of everything” was Aristotelean in nature, but had been adopted by the Catholic Church and all of Europe by the time the Renaissance was kicking off. The assumptions of Aristotelean physics were tied into the Christian world view; the perfect circle, the finite universe, the geo-centric universe, the four plus one elements. All of these things were tied together with logic and theology so that by the time Copernicus and Galileo showed up, to challenge the music of the spheres was to challenge the truth of scripture.

Yeah, sure, but what has this got to do with Global Warming? Just Read On McDuff…

Ptolemy wasn’t a scientist, indeed the word “science” as we’re using it here wasn’t developed until the 18th Century. He was a natural philosopher. He started with some premises and then thought about the world about him, how it appeared to him, and then developed models to explain the world as he thought it was. He, and Aristotle, and many others before and after him, did not take the final step and compare their models to the actual world as opposed to what they thought the world was doing. Aristotle taught, and the world maintained until Galileo’s time, that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. Galileo proved this to be false 2000 Years after it was first proposed. In 2000 years no one tested it.

Theories abound today about what actually constitutes a science, what qualifies and what doesn’t. What are the fundamental princples of science? It’s a thoroughly overwrought debate. Whatever one’s position, testing must be a bedrock of the modern scientific endeavor. One thinks about the world (hypothesizing), one formulates a theory (theorizing) and then one observes rigorously the world. If the world doesn’t match the theory, it is very likely that something in the early hypothesis has misled the scientist in the development of his theory. At this point, falsified, the theory must be discarded and a new one developed, perhaps after re-examining the world view that led to the hypothesis in the first place. This short description is very close to Karl Popper‘s “Falsification” view of science. It’s not well loved by philosophers, but scientists seem to like it (at least that’s what I’ve heard).

Unlike the falling objects problem, for 2000 years people knew that the Ptolemaic system could not accurately predict eclipses and retrograde motion of the planets. But for 2000 years, it was easier and safer to tweak the model rather than challenging the underlying assumptions that made it necessary. The world view of the philosophers made it impossible for them to imagine the real shape of the universe.

Now, fast forward to the modern world. One of the great, unheralded changes in the modern world is the ascension of Science to almost god-like status. We have cured most diseases, we can cool and heat our homes amazingly cheaply, transportation and sanitation are truly modern miracles. All thanks to Science. In some ways they are our Priests, holding the keys to a secret collection of esocteric knowledge dispensed to the credulous people. If it has the tag “science” it is true and unchallengeable.

Freud was as scientific as Jane Austen (which is not to say that they both didn’t have great insight into the human spirit), but because he claimed the mantle of Science, his theories still have weight with the masses today. “The plural of anecdote is not data” as they say, and Freud took anecdotes and a world view and his own powerful mind and created a theory, but he never got to that final part, actually testing it against the world. When future generations of scientists actually did, they found no correlation between the world and Freud’s ideas, no matter how powerful they were. Freud was not a scientist, he was a pseudo-scientist.

Sure, Lane, great, knock on Freud, but what has this to do with Global Warming?! Patience, just a little while longer and I promise, it’ll all come together.

Another great gift of the modern world is the ability to see the wilderness as more than just an enemy to be conquered. For most of human history, we were too close to the wilds to apply romantic ideals to them. One has a hard time idealizing the tiger when it’s chewing on one’s leg. But Blake was able to digest the tiger from a sufficient remove to give us his “tiger tiger burning bright” and the 19th century Romantics and the American Frontier gave the world a truly new idea in the idealization of the Wild. National Parks are products of the late 19th century. Mountain climbing as recreation is a 19th century invention. Camping, the boy scouts, all that is new because prior to the modern world we were all a bit too close to nature to really want to “get close to nature”.

This attitude towards nature was at least partly a reaction to the horrors of the modern industrial city. The “Black Country” in England or “The Jungle” in Chicago could make anyone want to get away from the grime, the crowds, the soot and the filth. As the truly modern world of the 20th century developed we also learned that our industries were producing poisons that were killing some of us and lots of animals. The scientists showed us the evils of the Love Canal and organic mercury.

The marriage of science with “environmentalism” (a term coined in the 60′s) has always been uneasy. DDT did not kill any birds. It did kill quite a few mosquitoes and wiped out malaria in the United States. But Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring convinced a generation that “science” said DDT would kill all the animals in the world unless we stopped it. “Science” said no such thing, but people weren’t listening to science. They were listening to “Environmentalism” which combined a Romantic idealization of Nature with a socialist critique of the modern world (the dehumanizing nature of global capitalism).

So now (finally) Global Warming.

Environmentalism has become a totalizing world view. Man is bad for Nature. Anything man made is bad, anything natural is good. And man is, must be necessarily harming nature through his evil, capitalist society. That is the premise.

Starting from that premise, anything that is happening in the world that can be construed as bad is man’s fault (strictly speaking, Western-Industrial-Capitalist man’s fault). In the early 70′s the world was cooling, and it was Man’s fault. Then the trend reversed, the world is warming; man’s fault. And both cases were sold as catastrophes. Not only is man changing “the environment” but those changes are necessarily bad. Nothing good can come of it. If the globe is warmer; storms, famine, drought, flood. Strangely, if the globe is cooler, the same catastrophes would follow. As long as it’s man’s fault, it’s bad.

And here come the scientists. They know the globe is warming/cooling, and they know it’s man’s fault. Now all they need is a hypothesis as to how it works. Pollution cools the globe by blocking out the sun. Until the globe starts to warm, then we need a new theory. Pollution, in the form of CO2, insulates the earth making us warmer.

It is a matter of faith that man is the cause, as it was a matter of faith with Aristotle, Ptolemy and Pope Pius that the earth was the center of the universe. It is a matter of faith that any changes we make are bad, just as it was a matter of faith that the heavens moved in perfect circles.

And just as the ancients had models, so do the moderns. The IPCC has dozens of computer models simulating the earth’s climate on many variables and many time scales. These computer models are the basis for all the doom and gloom coming out of the UN and Al Gore. The actual change in temperatures has been minimal and benign. It is only the modeled extremes that pose any hypothetical dangers.

Sadly, there is one other similarity between the ancients and the moderns, their models are wrong. None of the IPCC computer simulations acurately predict the behavior of the global climate. When they first came to prominence in the 80′s, they predicted that major portions of the world would already be under water by 2000. Instead sea level rise has been so small as to be reliably unmeasurable. Every iteration of the IPCC models has been too hot within a few years after coming out. And every iteration has been “corrected” with the addition of epicycles after the fact. The new name of epicycles is “forcings” by the way.

Now, as their models diverge further and further from reality and more extensive measurements reveal more and more shortcomings in their predictions, the modelers are challenging the measurements. Thermometers whose measurements prompted all this concern in the first place are now labeled inaccurate and unreliable. Satellite data, which shows the globe cooling for the last ten years, must be discarded. A huge new program to measure ocean temperatures must be thrown over as well as the historical records recorded by ships for more than fifty years, all because they don’t correspond to the model

We must discard our instruments and trust in the models, much as the Church required of Galileo when he dared to spy spots on the perfect sphere of the sun. The same hidebound orthodoxy which stagnated science in the middle ages is at work today, it’s just a different orthodoxy. It is easier for these Psuedo-Scientists to throw over their data than it is to challenge the fundamental maxims of their Environmentalist world view.

If we’re not harming the planet, then not just this theory, but their entire philosophy is under attack.
What if, miracle of miracles, Western Industrial Capitalism is actually good for the world, and not just all the people in it?

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