Michael Mann Understands Science

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, the tale of the fateful mission of astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. Their hopes to land on the moon were dashed when an on-board explosion crippled the spacecraft, so that only the most extreme measures, the best of human ingenuity and determination, enabled them to survive. At one point they have to turn off their navigation computer because they simply don’t have enough power to leave it turned on. When they do, Lovell says “We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.”

He was referring to the fact that in order to survive, they were depending on Newton’s law of gravity. If it was right, they might get home alive. It sure seems right, in fact it did enable them to get home alive. These days, we can launch a spacecraft toward Mars (millions of miles away) and, using Newton’s law of gravity, hit our target with stunning precision. We’re so confident in it, and it’s so useful, we still call is “Newton’s law.”

But nobody ever succeeded in proving Newton’s law of gravity. In fact you can’t, in fact we’ve learned enough about the subject that we can prove it’s wrong! Despite its incorrectness, it’s good enough to enable us to get to the moon and back — alive. Nowadays we could talk about “Einstein’s law of gravity” and how it’s different from, and better than, Newton’s. Maybe it’s even right — but we can’t prove it. Maybe, someday, we’ll manage to prove that it’s wrong.

That’s the nature of science. “Proof” is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages, not for science.

The best we can get are credible theories, those that explain the facts with such precision that they might enable us to do something useful, like navigate in space or build a skyscraper or eradicate the scourge of smallpox … or minimize planet-wide chaos from man-made climate change.

Michael Mann understands this. He understands science.

Rich Trzupek does not. When Mann correctly stated that “Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. It’s not for science,” Trzupek had a conniption fit. Trzupek so severely fails to understand science, that he accuses a real scientist of his own failure. Trzupek’s criticism is nothing more than a cheap ad hominem attack, an attempt to discredit climate science by discrediting a climate scientist. Worse yet, it’s a pathetic attempt.

Trzupek actually says “When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truth and proofs at the end of the day.” If they really taught him that then he should ask for his money back, because this is an appalling misrepresentation of science. In fact it’s one of the horrible, but commonplace, misconceptions that real scientists have to work hard to correct. Yet Trzupek makes it the foundation of his criticism of climate science and of Michael Mann.

Trzupek makes a lot of other mistaken (or perhaps just dishonest) claims in his article. I considered taking the time to dissect them, but sometimes it’s better to reserve one’s efforts to criticize scientific claims which come from real scientists … or at least from those who have an inkling of what science is really about.

105 responses to “Michael Mann Understands Science

  1. Just the famous Rich Trzupek?

    Anthony Watt does not.

  2. Heartland keeps trying. Maybe Trzupek is the next new face.
    I wonder if he’s related to Larry Trzupek, chemistry prof at Northwestern, whose (few) student ratings seem to say he’s very good, but not easy, a very good combination.

    • John, I was in the same research group as Larry in Grad School. He’s a good guy and given how we operated at MIT, I can’t imagine him endorsing what Rich has said. According to Richard’s Linked in profile he has a BS in Chemistry from Loyola, not a Ph.D. from MIT from an extraordinarily brilliant professor as Larry has.

      • Thanks, just curiosity, as the named Googled well.

      • Unfortunately, I think you might be wrong


      • Which includes “…Dr. Timothy Bell, a former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg received numerous hostile emails, including 5 death threats, after participating in the BBC documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle”.”

        Untrue as written, since it’s “Ball,” not “Bell.” Gotta love such careful fact-checking and care for details.

      • Richard Simons

        Untrue as written, since it’s “Ball,” not “Bell.”

        And he wasn’t a climatology professor. His main area of expertise was the fur trade in northern Canada.

      • Right, although Ball himself has claimed that he was ‘one of the first PhD’s in climatology’ or some such–a much debunked claim.

        Venturing slightly OT, I’m very curious to see how Dr. Andrew Weaver’s libel claim against Ball goes. The falsehood of Ball’s statements is not really in question, and harm should be demonstrable. But I think that malice, or reckless disregard, also has to be shown, which is not easy in general.

      • David B. Benson

        Maybe not in Canada.

      • You are correct according to Wikipedia, DBB: [Canadian] “Plaintiffs need not prove falsity, malice or damages.” Technically, I think that’s really defamation [a civil tort], not libel [a criminal offense], so I was wrong on that terminological score, too. So much for dissing Trzupek for lack of attention to detail! Karma is such a…

  3. Best part of the movie is when the capsule emerges minutes late from the radio blackout on re-entry. Everyone thought they had burned up in the atmosphere. All of it broadcast live, with the whole world watching. It brings tears to my eyes every time I see it. Also, best “engineer” movie ever made. The can do spirit and ingenuity of those NASA guys was amazing. Almost all of them were young, in their twenties. No one had ever done this before. There were no experienced elders to look to for answers or advice. Amazing story.

    [Response: And to top it all off, it’s a true story! I remember begin glued to the TV to catch every bit of news … and worrying they were lost when it took so long to emerge from radio blackout at the end. Hats off to Ron Howard (director) and Tom Hanks (star), and to the whole cast, for a great film.]

  4. Shelama–Thanks very much for posting those court rulings.

  5. Horatio Algeranon

    “Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages”

    and if you mix mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages, you get a crocktail

    “de Nier’s Last Theorem”
    — by Horatio Algeranon

    I have discovered
    A marvelous proof
    Global warming is bunk,
    A mammoth goof!

    But alas, this blog
    Is simply too small
    To contain the proof
    So… that is all.

    — Pierre de Nier

  6. It’s pretty lame attack piece when the first shot goes so far astray, and the rest is just breathless repetition of denialist nonsense…

  7. As a scientist–geologist–I still am surprised and continually dismayed by how many scientists really don’t get this point. Semantics count, and in today’s world, those who insist on finely-tuned definitions are looked at as just being bothersome anoraks.

    Guilty as charged! I await Horatio’s paeon to the point..:)

  8. If I may nitpick, instead of “credible”, I prefer the term “efficient”.

    I may be the only one, but for example for me thermodynamics was not very “credible”, as you had to postulate two principles to make it work : the first one may be seen as logical, but the second ? A mysterious function you did not know where it came from (Shannon came later, remember) but mysteriously increase because it has to make things work ?
    But this mysterious function bolstered the industrial revolution, and damn thermodynamics is useful even today (no need to do statistical mechanics to make a geothermal heat pump work)
    Personal opinion, open to debate – after all, now we have some theories to back up the second principle, a sure sign that scientists were bothered enough to find explanations to make it “credible”.

    I was tempted to say that “wrong” is not quite a correct term for a theory, but then I remembered the nutcase theories emerging with blog science … I’ll keep “wrong”, thanks.

    • I realise I have to define “efficient”.
      For me, science is all about predictions using theories build from “measurements”, These predictions can be tested to measure their accuracy. For example, in military history, the theory that in 1940 german high command was not convinced by the Manstein plan, speculated by the eviction of Manstein from high command, produces the prediction that the attack plan will not let tank divisions the complete freedom needed – and you can test that prediction against initial deploiement and first operational orders.
      I know that, with my definition, a mathturbation without a clue can possibly become an efficient theory if it produces good predictions. In my opinion A monkey can also type a good novel by sheer luck, but a monkey knowing vaguely how to type will have far better chances.

  9. When Trzupek says “When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truth and proofs at the end of the day.”, it makes one wonder if he has an undergraduate degree, and is talking about the courses he took as a teenager.

    • even for an undergraduate degree, I find it unacceptable. And I fear that it may come from the teachers he got – unfortunately some teachers are lazy enough to appeal to authority.
      I was fortunate not to have this kind of teacher – and I hope I didn’t do this mistake myself.

  10. Trzupek “….we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truth and proofs at the end of the day”

    Well he was badly misinformed. One can not prove anything in science, once can only disprove. Moreover, science is not grounded in absolutes.

    Science has served humanity well. In stark contrast, Trzupek et al. are intent on doing humanity great harm.

    • In my scientific education I was taught that science was about impartiality, objectivity, and that it was about experimental support or refutation.

      Trzupek’s spin is just pseudo-scientific propaganda intended to prey on the lay person’s vague recollections from high school, and to take advantage of apparently synonymous concepts in order to manipulate the lay person’s lack of understanding so that they arrive at a very different conclusion to that of reality. This deliberate concept creep is despicable and abhorrent, and has nothing to do with being scientific.

      Either that or he was badly misinformed, as MapleLeaf suggests. In this case Trzupek is, as a result of his inadequate education, incompetent to comment on scientific matters and he should withdraw from any involvement in scientific policy where a minimum level of functional competence is required.

      • “…he should withdraw from any involvement in scientific policy where a minimum level of functional competence is required.”

        A Platonic ‘should’? Well, he isn’t advancing the conversation in any meaningful way–or is he? After all, we’re taking the time to [re]consider some scientific epistemology. Maybe that’s useful, from time to time, both for folks who have some background in this stuff, and for folks who have not been exposed.

        I’m uncomfortable, though, with the idea that ‘functional competence’ is required for any involvement in ‘scientific policy.’ Uncomfortable on two counts:

        1) “Policy” questions are always values questions in part, not just questions of fact. Ethically, how can folks who may be affected by ‘policy x’ be excluded from some say, even though they may lack ‘a minimum level of functional competence?’

        2) Who assesses the ‘minimum functional competence?’ How? I have a ‘dog in this fight,’ since my scientific credentials are awfully damn slim. I should think there’d be a very good chance that Mr. Trzupek–or Dr. Morner, for that matter–would qualify before I would, if assessments were conducted as per usual! Yet I would really miss my ability to mouth off freely and learn thereby, should it be abridged–and I’m not convinced at this point that ‘policy-making’ would thereby be any better than it is; in fact, I think it would be worse.

        I guess it’s like the old saw about democracy being the worst system, excepting all the other ones we’ve tried so far. Mr. Trzupek may not actively advance the conversation much, except as a provocation, but excluding him would actually harm it more. (NB–‘excluding’ is meant here in a global sense–local exclusions may be required sometimes to allow a relatively ‘noise-free’ space here or there!)

      • Kevin, I very much agree with your take on democracy, which is why I used the term “withdraw” rather than “exclude”.

        Having said that, there are many contexts where competence/incompetence is formally, validly and necessarily assessed – which by way of example is why we have examinations, job interviews and performance reviews. If Heartland was an organisation with integrity they would recognise that Trzupek’s statements demonstrate sub-standard understanding of his subject matter and they would retract or at least correct his commentary on this basis.

        None of this excludes people from debate on the basis of having (or not) formal qualifications. It’s simply to point out that functional competence is a necessary criterion for credibility, and that a conspicuous display of incompetence is a strong reason for one’s credibility to be forfeited. In Heartlands’ and Trzupek’s case there is a demonstrable case for retraction/correction and yes, even for Trzupek’s withdrawal from further discussion unless and until he can indicate to others that he actually knows what he’s talking about.

      • Well-said. Thanks for clarifying.

        “Should withdraw” is right; the prospect, unfortunately, brings to mind the title of the old SF ‘tall tales’ feature–“Probability Zero.”

        Ah, well, the real world is always messy.

      • “Probability Zero.”

        Too true.

        Alas, such is human nature.

  11. Andy Jackson

    A less well known fact about Apollo 13 is a second-stage engine failure. The other engines were sufficient to achieve parking orbit. The space shuttle also had one airborne launch abort on STS-51F when a center engine failure resulted in an Abort to Orbit to a lower than planned orbit.
    I can’t ‘prove’ either of these ‘facts’ though.

  12. Trzupek is receiving an absolute belting in the comments at the Heartland thread. Very entertaining. Wonder how long that post will remain up?

    As Victor points out, Anthony Watts does not understand science either.

  13. David B. Benson

    One of the famous software failures ended up with a lost Mars orbiter because the small forces computation used so-called English units and of couse JPL uses metric. The small forces computation locates the spacecraft several times during the journey to apply trust in the appropriate direction so as to acheive Mars orbit (or landing). So no, JPL does not trust Newton’s laws enough to launch and forget.

    Its not that Newton’s laws of motion and gravity are not good enough; they are. It sthat the distribution of mass in the solar system is not well enough known to precompute the orbit; it is necesssary to keep (correctly) correcting the course.

    As a footnote, as best as one could tell from Arroyo Seco, Pasadena, California, that orbiter crashed if it didn’t burn up in the thin Martain atmosphere.

    As Ray Ladbury often writes, “Everything in space is hard.”

    • Reminds me of the famous/infamous Gimli glider incident–though that’s taking us even farther off-topic; that wasn’t software, but human error. Like the JPL Mars orbiter incident, metric/”English” units were confused; like it, course correction was needed; unlike it, a soft landing was managed. I bet the folks attending the drag race felt they got way more than their money’s worth! It’s remarkable that the crew were both punished and honored for their parts in the incident. (Maybe the honors were ‘metric?’)

      Anyway, we now return to previously-scheduled programming…

    • JPL (and everyone else) trusts Newton’s laws quite well; however, to know your path precisely you need to know exactly where the spacecraft starts, including exactly which way it was pointed, and exactly how much force the rocket imparted on it, and exactly where all the gravitational influences are.

      None of that is known to the required accuracy: if you were just trying to smash randomly into Mars you’d need accuracy on the order of 1 part in 10,000 — and they were trying to skim the atmosphere at a particular altitude.

      With our carbon trajectory, we have a lot more uncertainties. That means we have a lot less leeway to cut things close to the danger zone.

  14. I’ve had many an argument with denier types who simply do not understand induction. The “Aha you cannot _prove_ global warming then” is quite true and seems to excite them somehow. But it is, as pointed out, totally irrelevant and truly nonexciting.

    As for “absolute facts” The only absolute facts we have about temps, for example, are (historically) eyeball measurements of where mercury is at a particular time in a particular tube or more recently varying amounts of current in various transducers measuring infra red radiation, microwaves, etc. Getting to the theoretical fact of temps in all these cases is an _induction_ not a deduction as well. As we’ve seen repeatedly in the microwave data, sometimes the inductive steps are numerous and require a lot of processing.

  15. I feel uneasy with talk that we are allowed to use the term “proof” only in my area of mathematics, that we are not allowed to use the term in areas like science, since the term has plenty of uses outside mathematics, most notably the two major uses in legal contexts with respect to burden of proof, these being proof by a preponderance of evidence (the standard in civil law) and proof beyond all reasonable doubt (the standard in criminal law).

    Since the term has many legitimate uses outside of mathematics, it seems to me to be a concession to the crackpots that we are not allowed to use the term with respect to the many claims of fact that science does in fact correctly make. That is, it seems to me to only encourage the crackpots – I think that shying away from using the term “proof” when it is perfectly legitimate to use the term while making clear that it is not used in the mathematical sense makes the case for the facts of science much weaker than it really is. I mean, how could we ever say that a proposition is a fact if we can never say that said proposition has been proved or established to be a fact by at least one of those two standards of proof in law?

    I for one will continue to tell any crackpot who tries to get me to agree that evolution is not a fact that evolution is a fact precisely because science has in fact proved or established it to be a fact not only by a preponderance of evidence but beyond all reasonable doubt.

    Same for AGW.

    • You are correct enough, it’s just that–unlike deductive reasoning–inductive reasoning can never provide infallible truth. Being “forced” to “admit” this is a common tactic among denier types. An “admission” that apparently only goes one way, not both ways.

      Saying a thermometer of whatever provenance/accuracy registers “temperature” is an induction.

      Legal proofs are also inductions and as such in the same (very) broad category as scientific proofs.

      • Martin Vermeer

        Eh, when deductive reasoning starts extending over more than five pages, I’m sort of starting to smile at claims of ‘infallability’ :-)

    • Dick Veldkamp


      I could not agree more. One can go on and on about never being able to prove anything in science (except in math), and of course that is formally absolutely right. Still the fact of the matter is that if we use the common sense, everyday meanings of the words ‘proof’, ‘fact’, and ‘true’, then science has proved many things. Hence these things are now facts, and we can refer to them as being true. We know that AGW is a fact because that has been proved over and over again.

      See Asimov’s well written essay ‘On the relativity of Wrong’

  16. Trzupek, doesn’t care about understanding science. All he cares about is that his readership is more ignorant than he is so that he maintains a false patina of credibility. Fortunately, the astounding and overwhelming ignorance of the US population gives him a target-rich environment. In the zoo of denialists, he is in the cage where they claim to revere science and that somehow climate science is a postmodern perversion of science. It’s a pretty crowded cage, and many of the denizens are scientists and engineers.

    He may actually be sincere in his belief that science is about proof. A lot of silly-assed profs maintain this absurdity in front of undergrads or high schools students.

    Science is about evidence and the theories that explain that evidence most succinctly and with greatest probability. Come to think of it, the Incompleteness Theorems may even call into question the idea of proof for mathematics and so for any logical system as complicated as arithmetic.

    • You’re right, in an important way, about mathematics and incompleteness. When we try to consistently formalize a theory as powerful as arithmetic, we can’t settle every sentence in the language–that’s incompleteness, in the sense that the only formalization that will prove all the results we’d like to settle would be one that actually allows us to prove every sentence in the language.

      The key move in Godel’s proof of this is to show that,

      1. If we can do arithmetic in a language, we can produce names for all the sentences of the language and specify the proof rules for the language, so that we can pick out (recursively enumerate) the sequences of sentences that constitute proof.

      Proceeding from there:

      2. If we can do that, we can produce a “diagonal” sentence (the Godel sentence) which, on an acceptable reading (interpretation) of the language, says of itself that it can’t be proven.

      3. If the language of arithmetic is consistent, then this sentence can’t be proven.

      4. But, since what it says, on this admissible reading of the language, is that it can’t be proven, if we can prove it can’t be proven, then we can prove it.

      5. Therefore, if the language of arithmetic is consistent, we can’t prove that the Godel sentence can’t be proven.

      6. But to prove arithmetic is consistent we would need to prove that the Godel sentence can’t be proven.

      7. So we can ‘prove’ arithmetic is consistent if and only if it isn’t, i.e. if and only if our proof rules allow us to prove every sentence.

      Of course an inconsistent arithmetic isn’t really the ‘truth’ about anything (at least for any kind of classical or intuitionist mathematician). So a ‘proof’ in any strong mathematical theory doesn’t settle what it proves in a fully satisfactory way, since the theory might actually be inconsistent.

      • Pete Dunkelberg

        Whoa! Slow down, you two. Why not use the real numbers, for instance?

      • Pete Dunkelberg

        Getting back to the naturals and ordinary arithmetic aka Peano arithmetic, the issue is that there are “ordinary” arithmetical statements whose truth or falsity we cannot decide. Yet it seems incomprehensible to us ordinary folks that an ordinary (without the scare quotes) arithmetic statement can’t be decided.

        5 + 7 = 12
        5 + 7 = 13

        It is obvious that one of the above is true and the other is not. Aren’t other integer arithmetical statements just more of this sort of thing? How could there be an undecidable one? And if there be such, why haven’t those mathematicians given us arithmetic examples, hmmm?

        But since they haven’t, we’re on our own. Let’s have a go.
        Consider this function on the positive integers:
        f(n) = n/2 [if n is even] but
        f(n) = 3n + 1 [if n is odd]
        The orbit of n under this function is the sequence of numbers until you reach 1 or give up. Your computer will reach 1 for any starting n you have the patience to wait for.

        example: f(5) = 16, then f(16) = 8, then f(8) = 4, then f(4) = 2, then f(2) = 1.

        Everyone who thinks about Gödel and all that should have the experience of checking the orbits up to n = 30 or so by hand before you write a program. [Warning: don’t go too far.]

        So what’s the deal? The deal is this: you can’t tell how high the orbit will soar, but it appears that all orbits descend to 1. Appears. After 80 years or so, the smartest mathematicians still don’t know.

        Our test sentence is: For every n, f(n) iterates to 1. Is it true or false? How could you tell?

        To help you appreciate the severity of the problem, notice that all numbers are small. (small means that most of the other numbers are larger).

        Seriously, they’re all small. You can only check small starting values. Even a supercomputer can only check small numbers. No matter how many starting values you check, you are just barely getting started.

        The lengths of the orbits follow no regular pattern.
        Can you check the function for every starting n? No, you can’t finish.
        Can you discover a counter example, an orbit that soars forever? No, the orbit might start a fatal descent on the next iteration. And if the orbit really does go on forever you’ll never know. All you know is that it hasn’t descended yet. (If there is a closed loop way out there somewhere, in principle it is discoverable.)

        Could our test sentence be undecidable? Yes! It could be.
        I’m not saying it definitely is. I can’t decide ;). But it shows how a simple, understandable arithmetic sentence really could be undecidable. And it shows that undecidability grows naturally out of the endlessness of the integers.

  17. Horatio Algeranon

    “Skeptical” Hacksiom”
    — by Horatio Algeranon

    The hacksiom of “skeptics”
    Is “physics doesn’t matter.”
    They focus on statistricks
    To make the warming flatter.

    A “hacksiom”, like an “axiom”, is “a self-evident truth that requires no proof” [at least not to “skeptic” hacks], “a [mathematical] proposition that is assumed [in this case by “hacks”] without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow from it.”.

  18. Thomas Lee Elifritz

    Washington, we have a problem.

    Read it and weep. Or call or write your congressional idiot, not that it will help much, NASA is buying into this crap like lemmings running off a cliff.

    All is lost, ALL IS LOST!

    [Response: This issue should be discussed elsewhere.]

  19. Looks to me like Trzupek is there to get people upset enough that he can wring his hands in concern over how nasty they are to him.
    He’s tossing out stuff like “Oh yeah, brilliant equivocation buddy.”

    It’s bait, chum.

  20. FWIW, Newtonian mechanics is not incorrect, it is incomplete, which is something a lot of people have trouble with about science.

    • Eli – and there is the difference between us and those who pursue other goals. For me at least, the launch out into the unknown is every bit as exciting as any fishing-trip. I suspect the age-old hunting instinct is still alive and well in many of us, be it in hitting the beach in search of a bass or two, exploring an old mine in search of mineral specimens or trying to work out what’s really going on on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. In all three cases cited, there is no absolute answer but we can make the odds work in our favour by simply being objective.

  21. Tamino — I am deeply in awe of your work on this blog.

    However I detect a bit of waffling here although you basically get it right.
    You write:
    ” But nobody ever succeeded in proving Newton’s law of gravity. In fact you can’t, in fact we’ve learned enough about the subject that we can prove it’s wrong! … Nowadays we could talk about “Einstein’s law of gravity” and how it’s different from, and better than, Newton’s. Maybe it’s even right — but we can’t prove it. Maybe, someday, we’ll manage to prove that it’s wrong.

    That’s the nature of science. “Proof” is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages, not for science.”

    You strongly suggest that we can prove scientific theories wrong: that we’ve proved Newton’s theory of gravity to be wrong and and that someday we may prove Einstein’s theory of gravity to be wrong.

    Proof is a strong concept — too strong for empirical matters.

    So, proof is actually the wrong word to use for showing that a scientific theory deserves to be replaced. If we discard Newton for Einstein it isn’t because we’ve “proved” the theory to be false, its because we’ve found a more coherent theory (one that has a better concept of mass, for example) and that seems to fit the observed phenomena better than the old theory.

    We will never manage to prove Newton’s law of gravity false because that logically entails that we have proved that its competing theory is true.

    [Response: I disagree.]

    KeefeAndAmanda makes a good point about ‘proof’ having multiple meanings and uses besides the logical-mathematical meaning-use.

    • As I’ve tried to say above “proof” in the way deniers and probably most of the general public uses it is generally the notion of _deductive_ proof. That is, when something is proved it is actually true 100% for all time. Certainly that is what the denier-at-hand here states with his absolute statement: “When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truth and proofs at the end of the day.”

      In point of fact, almost all of the proofs we actually use for most purposes involve induction. This includes science as well as law, most rhetoric, etc.

      For my part I would suggest it’s time to invent 2 different words. And Mann is right, “proof” in the deductive sense is a very, very limited concept with very, very limited applicability to the real world.

    • David B. Benson

      In principle, we demonstrate that a hypothesis is wrong via an experiment. For example, the caloric ‘theory’ was demonstrated to be wrong by boring brass cannon and in that sense ‘proved’ wrong.

      The inductive ‘proof’ is best described by asking which of two (or more) competing hypotheses is best supported by the weight of the evidence. This is Bayesian reasoning. It would be handy to have one unique word to describe this concept.

  22. > never manage to prove [X] false because that logically entails
    > that we have proved that its competing theory is true.

    Not so. When I took plant physiology, we studied the theories about how water moved up tall trees, and every single one of the theories to that date had been tested and proven false. (Is it straight tubes connected end to end? Nope, they cut overlapping notches with chainsaws interrupting the connections; is it living tissue transferring water around interruptions? Nope, they irradiated large sections of tree trunk til they were dead, dead, dead. And so on. Each theory contained the idea of what could disprove it, each one got tested.

    It was a bit frustrating there at the end, this was in the 1960s — and the professor grinned and said, well, there’s work to be done yet, as obviously the plants do know how to do this even though we don’t.

    Maybe they’ve figured it out, I lost track.

  23. Horatio Algeranon

    Horatio will admit to being among those (apparently deluded) who are under the impression that Newton’s laws are actually wrong/incorrect — and that they have actually been proven wrong countless times.

    Newton’s laws are based on the assumption of absolute time (time is the same for everyone everywhere independent of their relative motion ).

    Hasn’t that assumption been proved “wrong/incorrect” by experiments? In fact, isn’t it disproved, in effect, every time someone uses the GPS system to navigate and actually ends up in the right place? (If GPS used Newton’s absolute time, we’d all end up in the wrong place)

    If an assumption upon which a physical theory is based is wrong, isn’t the theory also simply wrong/incorrect?

    Isn’t that the case even in math? (being the basis for proof by contradiction)

    Some might argue that “Well, Newton was right in the low velocity realm”.

    But if one can measure to enough decimal places, it can be shown that even in the latter realm, Newton actually does not give the correct answer. The answer might be “good” enough for practical purposes, but that’s a different issue.

    People like to quote George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Doesn’t that also apply to scientific theories?

    • Horatio Algeranon

      should have said “Newtonian mechanics depends on absolute time” rather than “Newton’s laws are based on the assumption of absolute time”

    • You are right Horatio. All scientific theories are wrong. The current theory is just the one that seems to work best. I’m just terribly impressed at how wonderfully good some theories are…

  24. Trzupek was apparently educated by Jesuits.

    His blog is a clear example of the dangers of the religious in education. If you learn both your science and your religion from the same people, they are liable to become confused.

    Ironically, the Jesuits have produced some good scientists. Some of Galileo’s Jesuit contemporaries were quite willing to accept Copernicus’ and Kepler’s theories as “aids to calculation” (i.e. new epicycles) but not as “truth”.

  25. Hank Roberts I don’t think there is any disagreement between your views and mine.

    Tamino gets it exactly right “The best we can get are credible theories… Mann correctly stated that ‘Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages’….”

    Karl Popper focused our attention on the impossibility of inductively proving scientific theories true but claimed that theories could be falsified. His views are actually fairly complicated — much too complicated to get very far into here. But a certain basic understanding of Popper’s views might be of interest.

    The Wikipedia article on falsifiability is a good place to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability or better: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/#ProDem

    The example of how water moves up a tree is exactly the sort of problem that led Popper to reject what he called naive falsificationism.

    One of the standard examples of Popper’s sophisticated version of falsification is the orbit of the planet Uranus. According to Newtonian principles Uranus should have a particular orbit. Observation showed that it didn’t have that orbit. No one, at the time of the discovery of the anomalous orbit viewed it (nor did Popper view it) as a falsification of Newtonian principles. Instead various background assumptions were examined: could there be another unknown and unobserved planet affecting Uranus’ orbit? Maybe our observations are wrong. Maybe our calculations determining the orbit are mistaken. Theories are not discarded (and according to Popper should not be discarded) when they begin having problems explaining observations or when observations seemingly falsify the theory.

    Theories are only discarded when another better theory comes along that is more coherent with our other theories, fits or explains the phenomena better than the old theory and, more importantly, points out new here-to-fore unnoticed phenomena that it can also explain.

    The theory here is that water moves up a tree.

    Various sub-theories are postulated as possible mechanisms for moving water up the tree. Each of these sub-theories have backgound assumptions built in to them which are largely ignored (a tube works by …; cutting a tube will prevent it from …). All observation is theory-laden, i.e. laden with background assumptions.

    Observation leads us to reject one proposed mechanism after another. But we don’t reject the theory that water moves up a tree merely because these proposed mechanisms don’t seem to work– I emphasize “don’t seem” to work. Popper writes: “no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced … if you insist on strict proof (or strict disproof) in the empirical sciences, you will never benefit from experience” (LoSD, p. 50). The parenthetical comment on disproof was added by Popper in the English edition of the book to resolve an irritating misinterpretation of his view.

    Again, we don’t really prove theories false just as we can’t prove theories true. We simply discard them when we can replace them with a better theory. Everything we believe about the world is tentative and subject to revision.

  26. David B. Benson

    This is related to two subtopics on this thread:

    Platonism in the Philosophy of Mathematics
    is the mainstream view these days, at least among mathematicians. However note that platonism must be distinguished from the view of the historical Plato. Also note that accepting platonism means one accepts a portion of reality which, in some sense, lies outside the physical universe.

    Eugene Wigner wrote
    The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences
    on a relationship between mathematics and physics. I’ve only just now read it and I recommend it to you as more fascinating than the first link.

    • Indeed, the Wigner is really interesting. We do, however, have to live in the reality we see in our normal day-to-day life. One of the things I like about the chaotic nature of life is that it is both ordered and unpredictable.

  27. The best we can get are credible theories, those that explain the facts with such precision that they might enable us to do something useful, like navigate in space or build a skyscraper or eradicate the scourge of smallpox … or minimize planet-wide chaos from man-made climate change.

    Ask the science deniers: “Do you feel lucky?”

    As you say, planet-wide chaos is what’s at stake here. How sure do we have to be about the projections of climate science before it’s worth taking some pretty serious action to avert such an outcome?

  28. “All observation is theory-laden…”

    I wonder. I think it’s a profound statement, but is it really true–especially with that all leading off the sentence so confidently? Is there not such a thing as naive observation?

    But I do think that the more penetrating a particular observation is, the more theory-laden it is apt to be–theory provides context (is context?) and allows greater–even fantastically greater–discrimination and discernment.

    OT musings, I know–but it’s not every day that you get an epigram that good.

    • David B. Benson

      It is really true. Study a bit of neuroscience to understand why…

      • Still working to get a better grasp of physics, chemistry, meteorology, and statistics. (And if I really meant to get serious, I’d study me some math.)

        So–if you’re referring to the amount of pre-processing that goes into decoding the inputs that eventually result in the experiences we term ‘sight’ and ‘sound’, I know a little bit about that. And I know a little bit about the apparently inborn deep ‘proto-grammatical’ structures that seem to underlie speech. Am I at all close to what you are thinking?

      • David B. Benson

        Right directrion but also consider memory.

  29. Horatio Algeranon

    All “skeptics” are wrong, but some are boastful.

  30. John Maashey

    Newton wasn’t wrong, just wasn’t as good an appoximation to the real world as Einstein.

    1) The world is flat … is not such a bad approximation for a local area, say in Kansas. Energy costs for travel are reasonably similar in all directions, unlike riding bicycle in the mountains, where elevations matter.

    2) The world is a sphere, not “right” but a better approximation.

    3) The world is an oblate spheroid. Better.

    4) The world is an oblate spheroid whose mass density varies geographically, which sometimes matters.

    Computer modeling of the real world is rarely “right,” and sometimes an approximation is good enough and sometimes it must improve to get very useful.

    All this argument about right and wrong is like arguing about 2 lines on a graph that are different, but with strongly-overlapped confidence intervals. This relates back to the MBH99 hockey stick, and why I’m very fond of the 3rd part of IPCC WG I AR4 Fig.6.10.

    • Horatio Algeranon

      Some things are simply wrong.

      For example, an assumption that ‘the universe has only two spatial dimensions” would actually be wrong. It wouldn’t just be a poor approximation.

      Many of the assumptions upon which Newtonian mechanics (including Newtonian gravitation) is based — absolute space, absolute time, action at a distance, limitless speed, etc — are simply not correct. In fact, they are wrong — demonstrably so.

      And it’s not just that Newtonian mechanics gives less precise results (fthan general relativity, for example), but that it actually completely fails to account for some of the observable results (precession of the perihelion of mercury that is not due to other planets, gravitational redshift) and gives other results that are not even close to being correct in the realm of the very massive, the very small, and the very fast. This is a direct result of the incorrect (wrong) underlying assumptions.

      Newton himself recognized that some of his assumptions were most likely wrong. In fact, he called the action at a distance upon which his gravitation was based ‘absurd”.

      Of course, this does not mean Newtonian mechanics is not useful. But that’s another matter.

    • Martin Vermeer
      • John Maashey

        Yes, Isaac was good, and I almost quoted that as well.
        The point is that wrong/right commonly implies a binary 0/1 view, which is fine for some kinds of things, but useless for others.

        For instance, in computer design, people use lots of models … and they are all incomplete, hence “wrong” but that is just plan useless terminology.

      • Horatio Algeranon

        Thomas Kuhn has some interesting things to say about the question of whether Newton was wrong in his essay <a href="http://www.philosophy.org.vt.edu/files/8813/4455/4391/Kuhn.pdf"Scientific Revolutions" published in The Philosophy of Science".

        Among other things he says

        “From the viewpoint of this essay these two theories are fundamentally incompatible in the sense illustrated by the relation of Copernican to Ptolemaic astronomy: Einstein’s theory can be accepted only with the recognition that Newton’s was wrong. Today this remains a minority view.”

        He also discusses the (apparently common) claim that “Newton was not wrong, just an approximation to Einstein.”

        But perhaps Kuhn’s view is still a minority view — and a “useless” one at that. :-)

      • I’ve always liked the scene from The Big Bang Theory, where Stuart tells Sheldon he couldn’t be more wrong:

        Stuart: Ooh, Sheldon, I’m afraid you couldn’t be more wrong.
        Sheldon: “More wrong”? Wrong is an absolute state and not subject to gradation.
        Stuart: Of course it is; it’s a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable, it’s very wrong to say it’s a suspension bridge.

      • Horatio Algeranon

        “Space and time are independent”

        The above statement is

        1) correct
        2) partly correct
        3) incorrect/wrong
        4) it is useless to even consider whether that statement is correct or not

      • David B. Benson

        Horatio Algeranon — 2).

      • Horatio Algeranon

        OK, David.

        Should have said, “With regard to the dynamics of moving bodies, space and time are independent” since that is the context one is discussing when one talks about mechanics and gravitation (specifically Newton vs Einstein)

      • Horatio Algeranon

        The title of Einstein’s famous paper on special relativity was “On the Electrodynamics of moving bodies”

        …and of course he was talking about relative — not absolute– motion.

        And, BTW, the case of a universe without movement — and without mass — is not particularly interesting or realistic)

      • David B. Benson

        Horatio Algeranon — With regard to the dynamics of moving bodies it is still the case that space and time are not independent and the faster the more the curvature of both: General Relativity.

      • Horatio Algeranon

        David Bensen says “With regard to the dynamics of moving bodies it is still the case that space and time are not independent”

        No disagreement there!

        Perhaps I was not clear, but that space and time are not “independent” (as indicated by Einstein’s special and general relativity theories and experiment) was actually my point.

        I can only assume that your giving #2 (“partly correct”) as the answer to my question about the statement “Space and time are independent” derives from the fact that the amount of interdependence (“mixing up”) of time and space depends on relative speed and the strength of a gravitational field (with no mixing when there is precisely zero relative motion and zero gravitational field)

        But my question was actually about a claim of (complete) “independence”.

        And two (or more) things are either “independent” or “not independent”.

        There is really no “in between”. “Independent” is an absolute term as are Newton’s conceptions of time and space. Newtonian mechanics assumes time and space are (absolutely) independent.

        It is precisely such “Newtonian absolutes” which make it possible to say that Newton’s mechanics is simply “wrong.”

      • David B. Benson

        But Newtonian mechanics and gravity are extraordinarily useful approximations. The right/wrong dichotomy is inappropriate here. A multivalued (more than two) logic is required.

      • Horatio Algeranon

        I was educated as a physicist and have used Newtonian mechanics in enough over the years to know how accurate and useful it is for most practical purposes.

        But that’s actually not the issue.

        What really sets Einstein apart from Newton — what is “revolutionary” about it — is the entirely new and different “world view ” it provides.

        I quoted Thomas Kuhn above (from an essay that is well worth reading if you have not already):

        these two theories are fundamentally incompatible in the sense illustrated by the relation of Copernican to Ptolemaic astronomy: Einstein’s theory can be accepted only with the recognition that Newton’s was wrong.

        Kuhn was not talking about Newton being wrong in the “nth” decimal place on a calculation.

        He was referring to the fact that the “world view” provided by Newton –one where space and time are absolute and “live” an existence that is completely separate from one another and from all matter in the universe — had to give way to one that is in keeping with the universe we inhabit.

        Einstein — and observation and experiment — tell us that space and time and matter are all inextricably linked.

        From a scientific standpoint, the importance of such a transformation in world view should be obvious.

        And it’s really not clear how one can hold the two diametrically different world views of Einstein and Newton simultaneously.

        Not in Horatio’s frame of reference at least. :-)

      • David B. Benson

        Horatio Algeranon — What did the Red Queen state about impossible things again?

        In a more technical vein, start by considering what is called intuitionistic mathematics, sometimes constructivism. On begins with a
        and continues to construct

        While I have yet to see a topos which contains both Newton’s approximation and the better one by EInstein, I have little doubt that in the
        it is there.

      • Horatio Algeranon

        Perhaps we should let Einstein have the last word (as Robert Frost said, “We dance round Relativity and suppose, but Albert sits in the middle and knows.”

        From “Ideas and Opinions” (Albert Einstein)
        “Physics and Reality” (p 307)

        The success of the Maxwell-Lorentz theory has given great confidence in the validity of the electromagnetic equations for empty space, and hence, in particular, in the assertion that light travels “in space” with a certain constant speed c. Is this assertion of the constancy of light velocity valid for every inertial system? If it were not, then one specific inertial system or, more accurately, one specific state of motion (of a body of reference) would be distinguished from all others. This, however, appeared to contradict all mechanical and electromagnetic-optical experimental facts.

        For these reasons it was necessary to raise to the rank of a principle
        the validity of the law of constancy of light velocity for all inertial
        systems. From this, it follows that the spatial coordinates X1, X2, X3 and the time X4 must be transformed according to the “Lorentz-transformation” which is characterized by invariance of the expression ds^2 = dx1^2 + dx2^2 + ds3^2 – ds4^2
        (if the unit o f time is chosen in such a manner that the speed of light c = 1)

        By this procedure time lost its absolute character, and was adjoined to the “spatial” coordinates as of algebraically (nearly) similar character. The absolute character o f time and particularly of simultaneity was destroyed, and the four-dimensional description was introduced as the only adequate one.
        In order to account, also, for the equivalence of all inertial systems with regard to all the phenomena of nature, it is necessary to postulate invariance of all systems of physical equations which express general laws with respect to Lorentz transformations. The elaboration of this requirement forms the content of the special theory of relativity.
        This theory is compatible with the equations of Maxwell; but it is incompatible with the basis of classical mechanics. It is true that the equations of motion of the material point can be modified (and with them the expressions for momentum and kinetic energy of the material point) in such a manner as satisfy the theory; but, the concept of the force of interaction, and with it the concept of the potential energy of a system, lose their basis, because these concepts rest upon the idea of absolute simultaneity. The field, as determined by differential equations, takes the place of the force.
        Since the foregoing theory allows interaction only by fields, it requires a field theory of gravitation. Indeed, it is not difficult to formulate such a theory in which, as in Newton’s theory, the gravitational fields can be reduced to a scalar which is the solution of a partial differential equation. However, the experimental facts expressed in Newton’s theory of gravitation lead in another direction, that of the general theory of relativity.

      • “Incomplete” seems a useful description.

  31. Sorry if this scares the dimmer witted type of denier, but we cannot even prove to ouselves that reality is, in fact, real. We might just be nothing more than a brain in a vat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_in_a_vat

    • For a dizzy spell, you might enjoy the Hindu concept of Maya and Zen Buddhist enlightenment. Get your head around that, and then work on six impossible things before breakfast, and then get back to whatever it was you were doing, and hopefully enjoy touching the world you think you inhabit, which is the ultimate zen.

  32. Anton Szautner

    Trzupek’s disquietingly common misconception is that he conflates the concept of ‘proof’ with ‘Truth’, of a potency that warrant the kind of certitude reserved for god-like beings.
    His problem isn’t that he hasn’t gone to school for a nominal education (although he may not have been paying much attention to it…that is at least a hypothesis that is consistent with his error). His problem is that he’s steeped himself in a boorish and loutish culture of semi-literate, anti-intellectualist and anti-science ideologues who enjoy making things up to resonate with their preconceived political views. Insofar as they portray their views as scientifically and historically correct (with a certitude mimicking mathematical ‘proof’, but more to the point, as a means of exerting their manufactured authority), their deceit and dishonesty is a disgrace to centuries of hard-won human enlightenment in the sciences.

  33. Chris Grealy

    These days we can indeed launch a spacecraft towards Mars, and when it gets there, it burns up in the atmosphere because we couldn’t convert kilograms to pounds. Hmmm.

  34. I don’t recall any particular emphasis during my schooling (60s & 70s) that science cannot “prove” anything, it can only confirm or refute. This includes a BSc in engineering. The emphasis seemed to be just learning what was in front of you and not the philosophy of science. So, I can understand if the general public does not make this distinction, especially older genererations.
    However there may be a more insidious flaw made by the general public, which is the idea that as long as you can construct an idea that seems to make logical sense, then you are finished and correct, and then everyone else has to disprove your idea. The public at large does not grasp the concept that ideas, ho matter how much they seem to be true, are only “hypoteheses” and they requresome kind of objective or experimental confirmation before they should be taken seriously, no matter how much they “make sense”.

    • Also, the converse–if, at first blush, it doesn’t seem to ‘make sense,’ then we’re excused from considering it further by some form of hypothesis testing. And anyone who has the temerity to go ahead and test it anyway ‘must be’ a damn alarmist and/or sponger!

      Note that ‘make sense’ and ‘must be’ are primarily feelings, not thoughts.

    • JBar.

      In my schooling it was “support or refute” – but there was certainly no emphasis on “absolute truth and proofs” and indeed we were explicitly warned against reliance on the notion of absolute truth, and that proofs were for mathematics… just as Mann observes.

      In fact more than one of my teachers/lecturers pointed out that hypothesis testing can continue for decades and centuries, returning ever more support, before finally being refuted. In that process there is never any “proof”, there is only ever the possibility of disproof.

  35. Chris–the probe burns up not because we couldn’t convert kg to lb, but because we didn’t.

  36. Please, start with Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations” as your baseline bottom foundation regarding proof of theories. This has been common knowledge now for what, sixty years? Sheesh!!

  37. But go beyond the starting point, e.g.

    “… Arthur C. Petersen, was a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and works as chief scientist at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency….. The book centres on the notion of uncertainty connected with computer simulations in the first part (pages 1-94) and on the same analysis applied to the simulation of climate change, based on the experience of the author, in the second part (pages 95-178)….”

    “… The philosophical questions of interest therein are that a computer simulation of reality is not reproducing reality and that the uncertainty(ies) pertaining to this simulation cannot be assessed in its (their) entirety. … The author also covers the more practical issue of the interface between scientific reporting and policy making….

    “… the philosophical aspects do not seem very deep: the (obligatory?!) reference to Karl Popper does not bring much to the debate, because what is falsification to simulation? “

  38. Scott mcdonnald

    Fwiw a link on Einstein and gravity, pretty amazing guy Einstein was

  39. What I see in Trzupek is a BA (not even a BS) in chemistry from a Jesuit Catholic University, some air compliance work @ Huff & Huff, and an association with Heartland,

    “Air compliance manager” is an almost meaningless title which most likely meant that he prepared air monitoring reports. That is a clerical function. Or, it may mean that he sold air monitoring services.

    My guess is that his work at Trinity is mostly Business Development as a result of his contacts in the oil/chemical industry. Again not a technical activity.

    Which brings us to an interesting question. Do the smart, technical people at Trinity know what Trzupek is saying about Mann? Does Trinity want to be associated with Trzupek’s libel of Mann? Does an environmental consulting company want to be associated with Heartland?

    I think we should ask: [edit]

    As a matter of sampling protocol, a several queries may result in a different answer than just one query. : )

    [Response: Not interested.

    I’m delighted to refute his silly notions about science. But interfering with his business relationships is not, in my opinion, kosher.]

  40. What makes you think that Trzupek’s rants are “silly notions” rather than paid disinformation in the tradition of “Merchants of Doubt”?

    For a while, I ran technical groups at various environmental consultants. Our stock-in-trade was technical and scientific credibility with regulators.

    When I ran a technical group, we encouraged our people to write and teach, but if they used the group’s name, everything was peer reviewed, Our reputation for technical competence was hard won, and we were not about to let some loose cannon damage it. Every time a regulator sees Trzupek’s rants, the technical and scientific credibility of Trinity, and all environmental consultants goes down.

    If Trinity has peer reviewed Trzupek’s rants, and endorses them, then shame on Trinity. However, I very much doubt, this is the case. If Trzupek is using Trinity’s name and reputation without authorization, then that is theft and fraud. When I see theft and fraud, I report it.

    I would not be surprised, if if one way or another, Trzupek was being compensated for his rants. In which case, the theft and fraud would be to provide apparent legitimacy to libel Mann. This may put (Heartland or other front organizations) in the category of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations.

    I have no ethical problem putting gangsters out of work.

  41. Well, this one’s interesting:

    Increased “Unconventional Enforcement”
    EPA officials have announced plans to use new tools to search for local violations of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and toxic pollutant “hot spots.” When discovered, they plan to use its enforcement authority to go after sources deemed to be significant contributors to such hot spots. This represents a departure from their traditional approach of using stationary monitors to determine compliance with ambient air quality standards.

    http://www.cpilink.com/01-01-13-catalytic-products-international-enewsletter.html (article by Trzupek)

    This puts more risk into one longtime standard method of complying with emission regulations — mapping the stationary monitoring sites and throttling your pollution source when the wind is blowing toward one of the nearby monitors, and ramping up emission when the wind direction changes so there’s no stationary monitoring point close downwind. (Other tactics abound, such as running the smoke-emitting processes only at nighttime if people complain about seeing the smoke in the daytime.)