Friday, December 02, 2011

The Possibility and Moral Relevance of Absolute Certainty in Science

A Wall Street Journal opinion piece discussing global warming states that "absolute certainty is not scientific".

(See, Wall Street Journal Absolute Certainty Is Not Scientific.)

And the first question that came to my mind was . . . .

"Are you absolutely certain of that?"

The article tried to use this as a criticism of global warming claims - criticizing scientists who say that they are absolutely certain that human CO2 emissions are caused by humans and they are contributing to rising global temperatures.

What this question points out is that, while some elements of a scientific claim are uncertain, some can be quite certain.

I am absolutely certain that the earth is round - or an "oblong spheroid", as they say.

I am absolutely certain that water is made up of 2 parts hydrogen and 1 part oxygen.

There is this small thread of doubt that I have that maybe, some day, scientists will come up with a whole new way of looking at matter - one that makes no use of the concepts of "atoms" or even "planets:", and these claims will have to be discarded. It's possible. But the possibility is so slight that it has no practical weight. Anybody who bases a public decision (e.g., decides how to vote on legislation) on the basis that the world just might be flat or water is not composed of hydrogen and oxygen can be viewed as being irresponsible.

The article applies its principle that absolute certainty is not scientific against a claim by Paul Krugman:

For me, the extreme limit of this attitude was expressed by economist Paul Krugman, also a Nobel laureate, who wrote in his New York Times column in June, "Betraying the Planet" that "as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn't help thinking that I was watching a form of treason—treason against the planet."

Even if some of the science on global warming contains uncertainties, it is still the case that some of the arguments used against those claims are utterly contemptible.

I have spoken against some of these arguments before.

They include the recent "quote mining" of some emails to generate impressions about the claims of scientists working on climate change that are simply and blatantly false. One can call this "a form of treason" without exaggeration. Yet, it does not require saying that the science of climate change is absolutely certain. It requires saying that this quote-mining is deceptive and the desires that would motivate this type of behavior warrant utter contempt.

(See my earlier post, The New Climate Change Email Fraud)

Another is the claim that the current science cannot be trusted because news magazines (not peer-reviewed scientific journals) 40 years ago contained articles warning about an upcoming ice age. The claim is that the scientists were wrong then, so their claims now can be dismissed as probably wrong as well.

There are three errors in this form of reasoning.

(1) Scientists were not wrong then - the articles were written by journalists, not scientists. It is simply false to claim that these articles represented the claims of scientists.

(2) The scientific peer-review literature contained no predictions of an upcoming ice age.

(3) Even if scientists were wrong at time 1, this does not imply that their claims at time 2 are wrong. Scientists once thought that malaria was caused by "bad air". One can hardly argue that, since scientists were wrong 200 years ago that all of the current research and knowledge related to malaria can be thrown out.

Here, once again, we can inquire as to the moral character of those who would use these obviously flawed arguments again and again against in order to manipulate the public towards certain political and economic ends - namely, to profit a small segment of the population at a risk to everybody else.

Another point that I have made before is that the moral condemnation does not depend on certainty - it depends on creating risk. I cannot say for certain that the drunk driver will kill somebody as he tries to get home at 2:00 in the morning. He might make it safely. But, he is creating a risk for others that he has no moral right to create. Others have no moral obligation to accept that risk.

I do not need to make absolutely certain claims about global warming to condemn those who refuse to take action against it. It is sufficient to argue that those who contribute to global warming are creating a risk. Their behavior, in fact, is worthy of orders of magnitude more condemnation than we would give to the drunk driver - because the drunk driver is risking only a fraction of the harm as the global warming denier.

This "uncertainty" argument is another morally reprehensible argument. It fails on two counts. The first is that there are, in fact, a great many scientific claims that are, in fact, "absolutely certain" for all practical purposes.

The second is that the lack of absolute certainty is not an excuse for inaction - it is not an excuse for putting things off. Risk and uncertainty still have a great deal of moral weight.

It is utterly, morally irresponsible to pretend otherwise.


kipkoan said...

Alonzo —

I'm a co–leader of a Philosophy Club here in Dallas. Right now we are going through "The Fundamentals of Ethics" by Russ Shafer–Landau. In chapter 4 he talks about the "Desire Theory" of values. My co–leader thought this might be a good opportunity to add some outside readings on Desirism.

You used to have quite a few essays on your "" website. That doesn't seem to be available anymore, though. Do you have some good introductory writings you could send me for the group to read and discuss?


Kristopher said...

he has some good stuff in the blue box to the right.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, my work with Luke in the podcast "Morality in the Real World" was supposed to provide the most recent summary of desirism.

I suppose the transcripts of eposides 1 through 10 still provide the best summary.

Meanwhile . . . I know . . . I need to get an updated version written up.