#53 – Bob Barkley: Fact vs Theory

I play golf at a private club where those I play with, quite predictably, are predominately conservative to right-wingers.  And I am the vocal counter agent to all of their views.  Many of them would be surprised, however, at how many of the silent ones come up to me privately and encourage me not to let up.  They needn’t worry. I won’t!


Nevertheless, in a recent exchange the subject of global warming came up.  And the gentleman who raised the issue said – using it as a parallel example to another we had been debating – that “it’s sorta like all that Al Gore stuff on global warming where half the scientists believe one way and half believe the other way.”  Then he added, apparently to astonish me, “And the earth’s temperature is actually lowering!”


I responded with, “I think Gore is supported by considerably more than half.  And I believe the earth’s temperature is actually declining precisely because of global warming.”  This last statement threw him completely, but it was time to tee off and we left it at that. He ended up, I think, more astonished at me than me at him.


But I decided to do a little homework when I got home. And it brought me to the point of a better understanding of the whole area of fact versus theory.


Most of what we argue about these days is based upon theory, although we take our positions as though we know the “facts.”  As it turns out, global warming is a very good example of just that.

Wikipedia tells us: “A theory, in the scientific sense of the word, is an analytic structure designed to explain a set of empirical observations. A scientific theory does two things: 1) it identifies this set of distinct observations as a class of phenomena, and 2) makes assertions about the underlying reality that brings about or affects this class.”

“In the scientific or empirical tradition, the term ‘theory’ is reserved for ideas which meet baseline requirements about the kinds of empirical observations made, the methods of classification used, and the consistency of the theory in its application among members of the class to which it pertains. These requirements vary across different scientific fields of knowledge, but in general theories are expected to be functional and parsimonious: i.e. a theory should be the simplest possible tool that can be used to effectively address the given class of phenomena.”


Given that definition, I would have to conclude that global warming may be approaching classification as a theory, but may not be fully there.  For example, the “simplest possible tool” for explaining global warming may yet be the normal cycles that have occurred over the eons of the earth’s existence.  For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that all that is true.  It means that no matter how convincing all the global warming arguments may be, we are still left to believe what we find most appealing, and that may be a long way from “fact.”


Fact, on the other hand, is defined in the dictionary as, “1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences, 2. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed, 3. A real occurrence, 4. A thing that has been done.”


Well, global warming is “based on real occurrences,” and it “can be demonstrated to exist.”


But I have to conclude that global warming is certainly more theory than fact.  So where does that leave us?  Where it leaves me is that we need to lighten up a little and quit trying to take absolute positions on things that are at best still marginal theory.  After all, not too long ago, in the long existence of this earth, most people were convinced beyond doubt that this place was flat. [And Thomas L Freidman still thinks it is.]


Here’s what I learned so far on global warming. There are petitions, garnered by the pros and cons alike, signed by thousands. To quote a Yahoo Answers response I got, “There is a very large majority of scientists whom support the idea of global warming and anthropogenic climate change in general. Hundreds of surveys and studies and meta-surveys have long since confirmed that this is occurring and that mankind has contributed to the concern.”
”However, there is a minority viewpoint held by several dozen climate scientists who feel – for various reasons – that the climate is not changing or that the change is not primarily human-caused, however, personally speaking, I find that a lot of the scientists – appear to have been “compromised” at some point.”


There is a lot more, and it certainly appears that there is better scientific consensus on global warming than on many other current debates.  But the skeptics remain, although it seems they are gradually falling away. Most scientists do agree that man is contributing to this phenomenon, although many are not as alarmed as some.  Then, as always, there’s the corporate interest at play – as the quote just above suggests when using the word “compromised.”  As one guy says, “Follow the money.”  The Exxon/Mobils of the world spend untold millions on pooh-poohing the whole thing while the so-called green industries are advocating that global warming will kill us all in a few months.  We are being spun to death on this issue like many others.


It seems that a new study on this topic comes out almost weekly.  But from it all, I believe man’s contribution to global warming is real and substantial.  I believe that “theory” holds more water than any countervailing one.  That said, while action is justified and necessary, panic may not be.


We are a long way from “fact” in much of this.  We need to pay attention, react, but not over-react.  We need to share information but not preach.  We need to rid ourselves of reliance on fossil fuels no matter global warming or not.  This phenomenon may not be killing the earth, but it is killing many of us on it.


And then there’s this from Phil Chapman writing in “The Australian.” Chapman is a geophysicist and astronautical engineer who was the first Australian to become a NASA astronaut. “All those urging action to curb global warming need to take off the blinders and give some thought to what we should do if we are facing global cooling instead,” he writes. Then he adds, “It will be difficult for people to face the truth when their reputations, careers, government grants or hopes for social change depend on global warming, but the fate of civilisation may be at stake.”


And on top of all this out comes a new study telling us that there is a large gap between what scientists think and what ordinary citizens think. One article covering the release of this Pew Research Center survey states, “And while almost all of the scientists surveyed accept that human beings evolved by natural processes and that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing global warming, general public is far less sure.” It adds, “Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.” Further, it concludes, “The report said 85 percent of science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem. And by large margins they deride as only “fair” or “poor” the coverage of science by newspapers and television”


So I suspect from that we must assume that most of us are arguing over things we really know very little about whether it be fact or theory. Apparently we believe what we wish to believe – what makes most sense to us and what we’re most comfortable believing.  But often it’s not fact, and often not even real theory that we seem to argue about so vociferously.  It’s all mere supposition.


Supposition: “A guess: a message expressing an opinion based on incomplete evidence,” or, “a hypothesis that is taken for granted.”  I guess we should all begin our arguments with the phrase, “I suppose…” and let it go at that.  And then maybe we should also lighten up, but certainly listen.


Now, back to improving my golf game – where I have all too many theories at play all at once.