Wired has published a lengthy piece by Jonah Lehrer on scientific experimentation and perception of the future called “Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us.” While the bulk of the article deals specifically with perceptions of certainty on the biological level as perceived through our understanding of pharmaceutical research, I found it interesting how many of the same concepts that Lehrer espouses can be applied to the climate change debate. A few excerpts:
This assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system—is not limited to the pharmaceutical industry or even to biology. It defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients…
The problem with this assumption, however, is that causes are a strange kind of knowledge. This was first pointed out by David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher. Hume realized that, although people talk about causes as if they are real facts—tangible things that can be discovered—they’re actually not at all factual. Instead, Hume said, every cause is just a slippery story, a catchy conjecture, a “lively conception produced by habit.”…[Searching] for correlations is a terrible way of dealing with the primary subject of much modern research: those complex networks at the center of life. While correlations help us track the relationship between independent measurements, such as the link between smoking and cancer, they are much less effective at making sense of systems in which the variables cannot be isolated. Such situations require that we understand every interaction before we can reliably understand any of them. Given the byzantine nature of biology, this can often be a daunting hurdle, requiring that researchers map not only the complete cholesterol pathway but also the ways in which it is plugged into other pathways. Unfortunately, we often shrug off this dizzying intricacy, searching instead for the simplest of correlations. It’s the cognitive equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight.
David Hume referred to causality as “the cement of the universe.” He was being ironic, since he knew that this so-called cement was a hallucination, a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations. No matter how precisely we knew a given system, Hume realized, its underlying causes would always remain mysterious, shadowed by error bars and uncertainty. Although the scientific process tries to makes sense of problems by isolating every variable—imagining a blood vessel, say, if HDL alone were raised—reality doesn’t work like that. Instead, we live in a world in which everything is knotted together, an impregnable tangle of causes and effects. Even when a system is dissected into its basic parts, those parts are still influenced by a whirligig of forces we can’t understand or haven’t considered or don’t think matter.
Lehrer is not a skeptic when it comes to climate change and wrote in a separate piece that this is the wrong kind of claim of which to be skeptical. Even with that disclaimer, I can’t help but read his words and think that we should have the same level of skepticism and humility when approaching global warming science as he does in the space of pharmaceutical research. Global warming skepticism asks many of these same questions and should be viewed within a similar context. So when models attempt to predict the planet’s entire natural system as projected decades into the future we should process that information as another data point in an evolving base of scientific knowledge, and not as the universal truth that it is often portrayed to be.