William M. Briggs

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Bill Nye The Science Guy Confuses Scientific Uncertainty Versus Doubt

Uncertainty versus Doubt.

Uncertainty versus Doubt.

On the road, so something quick.

Reader Paul Mullen writes:

Briggs,

A fellow at the salt mine was thoughtful enough to leave a copy in the break room of April’s issue of *Men’s Journal*. The back page features a short interview with Bill “The Science Guy” Nye. One of the questions was, “What do you think the average American needs to understand about science?” His reply:

The seriousness of climate change. It’s serious, serious business. Do not screw around with it. The fossil fuel industry has been very successful—using techniques pioneered by the tobacco industry—introducing the idea that scientific uncertainty is equivalent to doubt, which wouldn’t matter if we weren’t all going to die.

Ignoring his failure to answer the question, it seems to me that if you’re feeling uncertain while simultaneously not having any doubts, you’re doing it wrong. Does his statement make any sense from a formal epistemic standpoint?

No.

That’s too telegraphic, so here’s a more expansive answer. It’s Lent, so I’ll interpret Nye’s response in the most generous way possible. Even given that, what he said is a mixture of falsity, confusion, and error.

Nye’s global warming conspiracy theory is either a direct lie on his part or blank ignorance, and anyway something close to the opposite of the truth. The fossil fuel industry is scarcely shoveling money into the hands of non-governmental scientists. Indeed, as Alex Epstein showed in the Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, they’re working against their own interests to appear to be good global citizens.

I’ve had my hand out, but have not received penny one from any fossil fuel company, nor any of their affiliates. I’m far from alone. Many global warming activists, on the other hand, are earning a tidy living pushing doom. I’m sure Nye gets something for his sky-is-falling speeches.

Suppose what is false: that I and my fellow skeptics have been as lavishly funded as Nye claimed. Not to the extent that research professors awash in the millions and millions of government—and activist and even fossil fuel industry!—grants are funded, just that we got money.

Are fossil fuel companies acting immorally or unscientifically when funding research which might provide information useful or amenable to them? If so, then isn’t the government as immoral and unscientific in funding research which provides information useful and amenable to them? What makes the government so pure? Nothing.

Isn’t it true that however scientific information comes to be known its source of funding is irrelevant to whether that information is true or false? Yes: yes of course.

About the phrase “scientific uncertainty is equivalent to doubt”. It appears—and this is only a guess on my part—that Nye equates “scientific uncertainty” with “highly probably true” or “mostly true with negligible indeterminateness on matters scientists will mop up in time”. And he implies, or appears to imply, “doubt” is tergiversation, purposeful evasion of known truths.

Epistemologically speaking, uncertainty is the measure of how probable some proposition is with respect to given evidence. Doubt is to say the proposition is not certain, or, familiarly, that it is improbable, or not likely on that same evidence. Nye is saying, or seems to be accusing, that because somebody finds uncertainty (given some evidence) that they are equating that uncertainty with doubt, or improbability. In other words, that global-warming-of-doom skeptics insist any probability less than one is automatically equivalent to a very small probability.

But nobody is saying this about global warming. Well, no scientist is. Lord only knows what the Internet holds. What some of us say is that, given the twenty-some year failure of climate models to make good predictions, it is rational to doubt them and the theories which created the models. It used to be a well known and accepted-by-all scientific principle that bad forecasts imply wrong theories. That principle, which Nye denies or is ignorant of, was abandoned in the face of strong politics.

What to make of Nye’s we’re-all-going-to-die hysteria? Well, it’s true. All of us will die. This should not be particularly newsworthy given the solid evidence that tens of billions of those not now alive have already died. Unless Nye means to claim that we’re all going to die because of global warming.

That is preposterous, utterly ridiculous, grossly irresponsible. It can only be doubted. Give what we know about model performance, it seems almost impossible any man even the least bit familiar with climate science would suggest such a thing. Yet it has happened. Why?

22 Comments

  1. Nye hasn’t heard anything but dire predictions for the climate from NPR, ABC, NBC, etc. Therefore, anything else is “denial of science”.

  2. ” Unless Nye means to claim that we’re all going to die because of global warming.”
    “That is preposterous, utterly ridiculous, grossly irresponsible.”

    That is beyond preposterous. Even if it were true that global warming would sterilize the surface of the earth 30 seconds from now, someone would manage to die of something else in the next 10 seconds.

  3. I think Nye was pointing out the confusion about science some people take advantage of to score political points. You see this very clearly in the evolution/design “debate.” There is no debate, of course, but lacking every single remain of everything that ever lived, one could say there are “gaps” in the evidence, which becomes “uncertainty” which becomes “doubt.” Meanwhile, all they want to do is convince you a magic God created the universe and don’t ask any more questions about it. In this case, gaps=uncertainty=doubt becomes “shut up and let polluters keep polluting.”

    JMJ

  4. Mr Nye is in an obvious state of moral and intellectual darkness. Anyone who has worked with government agencies in atmospheric modelling (as I have) knows that they work to achieve the numbers they want by any means necessary. Actual numbers do not matter t them – only the end result – money and power.

  5. @Jersey McJones — “Let the polluters keep polluting”.

    I see it as, “Let us keep polluting less than we would if we don’t use fossil fuels”.

    The very uncomfortable truth the greenies don’t want to see is that the fossil fuels are greener than they can be.

  6. I think Nye was pointing out the confusion about science some people take advantage of to score political points. You see this very clearly in the CO2 is/isn’t pollution “debate.” There is no debate, of course, but ignoring the biochemistry of CO2, one could say there is no evidence, which becomes “certainty” which becomes “no doubt.” Meanwhile, all they want to do is convince you a magic President can generate electricity from zephyrs and don’t ask any more questions about it. In this case, admitting no evidence =certainty= no doubt becomes “shut up and let fantasizers keep fantasizing.”

  7. Bill de Nye – de Science Guy (he says it’s NOT CO2 –
    It’s Humans – EXTRA Humans – he says it in the first 15 seconds)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McsZ1U20W0M

    So, JMJ, you’ve got it from the source of all TRUTH
    EXTRA Humans cause Global Warming
    Are you “EXTRA”, extraneous or just irrelevant?

  8. Bill Nye is a formally educated Mechanical Engineer (BS, Cornell). His work experience mostly involves being an engineer for Boeing, before getting into the entertainment business. I thought his television programs were great in helping to get kids to learn basic science. But his scientific qualifications are barely beyond those of a high school science teacher, if even that. Why he has any influence on this topic, or even think that he should, is ridiculous.

  9. “…it seems to me that if you’re feeling uncertain while simultaneously not having any doubts, you’re doing it wrong. Does his statement make any sense from a formal epistemic standpoint?”

    Epistemology has nothing to say about a claim such as this, ‘formally’. Although I don’t think epistemology says anything ‘formally’ in the same way, say, formal logic *specifies* the structure of logic. (Which ultimately boils down to boolean algebra.) Although as characterized above, it does have the flavour of a false dichotomy, which is a type of informal logical error. That is, for example, the claim that if we are not 100% certain of claim X we must completely reject claim X.

    Of course, the devil is in the details. This is not, what I think ‘the science guy’ would claim he is asserting anyway. Jersey’s evolutionary theory example is as good as any to consider. Contrary to his understanding, there are legitimate questions in evolutionary theory over mechanisms, and many who accept the theory (such as myself) may find the neo-Darwinian characterization as unsatisfactory. Note the argument isn’t over whether evolution happened or not. That’s not debated any more. But if we stick to arguing over the ‘mechanism’ that drives evolution, most of us will reject ‘guided evolution’ or ‘intelligent design’ as a useless scientific concept. Injecting a bit of magic into your theory doesn’t help solve problems. The point of science is to get away from ‘God did it’ type explanations.

    On the other hand, if you’re going to compare global warming to evolutionary theory, then skeptics don’t argue that climate doesn’t change, nor do they tend to reject commonly agreed principles in radiative physics. I.e., the ‘mechanism’. The debate is over ‘extensions’ to the ‘mechanism’. And some of the ideas about these ‘extensions’ are either not well understood or highly speculative. It’s not highly speculative to political and social activists of course. It’s just speculative to scientists. If I wanted to turn evolutionary theory into a theory of eugenics – which is what actually happened in the early part of the 20th century – and start talking about the ‘generic superiority’ of people with white skin and blue eyes, etc., then I’ve moved into speculative territory. I’m also probably leaving the science behind. But of course none of this would have felt speculative to political or social activists at that time. There was a widespread social consensus that Westerners were socially, morally superior. It would have made sense that science reinforced those beliefs. It may not have been very good science, but it would have been popular.

  10. Milton Hathaway

    March 31, 2015 at 4:19 am

    As an engineer, I find Bill Nye to be an embarrassment.

    Evolution – I don’t see much difference between those that believe absolutely in the hand of an intelligent designer, and those that believe absolutely in the hand of natural selection. Both of these require belief in something unfathomably complicated with no hard evidence. I do understand the desire for the scientifically inclined to attempt to decipher what sort of naturally occurring optimization algorithm could create a species. I do understand how those engaged in this elusive pursuit sometimes become more open toward the intelligent designer point of view. But I don’t understand those who become so hardened by their failure to find the elusive explanation that they just declare it a fact that no intelligent person could possibly doubt.

  11. @Milton Hathaway — Two thumbs up. I finally realized that I could present evolution as a tool in my pocket that helps me evaluate the world around me more effectively. It isn’t a perfect tool. It lets me assess things a little more smoothly than the “intelligent design” tool. There are times though when that ID tool can be useful to short circuit conversations you want to avoid.

  12. “I don’t see much difference between those that believe absolutely in the hand of an intelligent designer, and those that believe absolutely in the hand of natural selection.”

    I’m guessing you don’t have the same skepticism towards the same type of rational/empirical methods used to invent the computer you are typing on, or, say modern medicine. Unless of course you feel that “belief” in scientific medicine is equivalent to other types of beliefs, such as belief in magic.

  13. Milton Hathaway

    March 31, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    @Will – Ok, I’ll bite. By what mechanism does natural selection create a species?

    If you say “random mutation”, bear in mind that a universe full of quantum computers operating since the big bang would have only a vanishingly small chance of creating even a simple species.

    If you say “genetic optimization”, my ears will perk up a bit, since I find it an interesting topic, and I’ve even had some success using it to solve simple engineering problems. But it’s no magic bullet – you still have to understand the underlying problem and guide the algorithm toward a solution. And there’s still that all-important cost function that makes or breaks any optimization algorithm.

    I’m not writing this to convince you of anything. In fact, what would be really cool is if you could convince me that your belief in natural selection as the underlying mechanism behind the creation of species is indeed a rational scientific conclusion, with details that don’t defy known scientific principles or involve leaps of faith that the science will eventually get us there.

  14. @Milton

    Neo-Darwinists would argue generic mutation is sufficient to explain all forms of adaptation. The driver being natural selection, which is the part of the process that is NOT random. People who object to evolutionary theory on religious grounds invariably mix this up and assume it’s a completely random process. It isn’t.

    Now, if you want to get into the nitty gritty of the ‘mechanisms’ I’m very sympathetic to some of the points you’ve raised. As I’ve already stated, I’m not in the neo-Darwinist camp. I’m inclined to suspect there are ‘optimization algorithms’ as you would say, that are built into the generic make-up of animals, a type of biological software, that might combine with random mutation and natural selection. Of this mechanism, we currently know nothing.

    However, don’t confuse not knowing something with refutation of a reasonable extrapolation. We don’t know how life comes from non-life. (Biogenesis.) But we seem to know enough to suggest that is possible for the organic to derive from the non-organic. At least in principle. I’m not going off and believing in magic because I know don’t the answer to a particular problem. The discovery of Neptune was predicted on logical (mathematical) grounds before it was discovered also.

  15. “I’m guessing you don’t have the same skepticism towards the same type of rational/empirical methods used to invent the computer you are typing on, or, say modern medicine. Unless of course you feel that “belief” in scientific medicine is equivalent to other types of beliefs, such as belief in magic”

    We can equate apples and oranges and then disprove anything and everything.

    Science cannot disprove the existence of an intelligent designer therefore all that is left to science is to leave the issue open to discussion otherwise science becomes a religion unto itself.

    One can easily be skeptical of the “science” behind many current THEORIES and given the side effects of many modern prescription medicines we should also be skeptical of them.

    Modern “science” is the defacto secular man’s religion. It is less able to prove the nature and origin of the universe as we know it than intelligent design and it’s believers are less able or willing to address it’s shortcomings.

  16. Science, or just plain old reason, can’t absolutely disprove anything. Nor can it absolutely prove anything. So really, you’ve stated nothing interesting at all.

    The question is: since no claim is ultimately provable or disprovable, what evidence do you have? Being skeptical of the big bang theory is not in the same class as people who might be skeptical of the existence of gravity, or that the world is round. If you have lots of lines of evidence for X but you are skeptical of X, your position starts to become irrational. (That’s the part where you are going astray.) Note: That doesn’t mean because I know something about X, I’m claiming to know everything about X. Doing the opposite is also a mistake: claiming that because I don’t know everything about X I can’t know anything about X.

    Andrew, I’m sympathetic to those who point out the many follies of Scientism. And yes, science can become and often does become a form of religion for many people. Lots of people are 100% certain about things they shouldn’t be 100% certain about. Actually, people who believe in Scientism are slightly more clever than that and pay lip service to skepticism. When James Hansen, the famous climatologist, declared that the climate was on an apocalyptic doomsday path, he asserted he was 99% certain. Because, of course 100% certainty suggests you’re a crazy religious zealot. But being 99% is, apparently, fine.

  17. To me, the problem is that there are different levels of belief. If an outcome is 90% likely, then I might be willing to bet on it at even odds, but that 90% likelihood is still not a statistically significant result. I wouldn’t bet a scientific career on it, though if asked I would agree it was the likely outcome. Similarly, when there are two candidates in a race, and one has only a 90% chance of winning, reporters call it “a statistical tie”, or “within the margin of error”, that margin of error typically being the 95% confidence level. Scientific claims have a high bar that journalists don’t often recognize.

    The IPCC has long held that it is extremely likely that the Earth is warming, but it was only in the most recent report that the likelihood of its being human-caused was raised to the 95% level, typically considered the floor of significant likelihood. Certainly, most people thought it was going to turn out to be true, even back when the IPCC evaluation of the likelihood was only 67% or the 90% of the previous report, but that level of likelihood was really only at the level of “I would be willing to bet that it will turn out that way, but I wouldn’t stake my career on it”.

    But the IPCC still hasn’t been definitive on whether warming is harmful (and typically the warm periods in Earth’s history have been called climate optimums). It is also the case that CO2 levels are rising, and it is not entirely clear whether this is, on balance, beneficial or harmful. Certainly any change will create winners and losers, but warmer climate and higher CO2 levels are typically associated with more abundant life on Earth.

    I believe the Earth is warming, but I think that the popular case for it has been made very poorly out of a desire to stir the public to action. The desire to teach has been replaced by a desire to taunt. A problem is that the warming is actually very gradual, by human standards. A lot of what is really weather has been miscast as climate change, and when the weather pattern changes again this appears to refute (wrongly) the premise that the Earth is warming. The argument shouldn’t be made from facts that wouldn’t weaken the conclusion if they turned out to be wrong, they should be facts that matter. I think such facts exist, but I don’t think they are generally a part of the discussion.

    I think we need more discussion where the arguments on both sides are taken seriously, even if one side is utterly wrong. To me, the standard for such discussions was the Bohr-Einstein debates, between two people who, despite disagreement, took each other seriously. In those debates, Einstein took the role of the modern warming denier. In his view, quantum mechanics was incompatible with locality and realism, and though his views have been largely discounted by a consensus of physicists, later evidence seems to shore up Einstein’s side of it (perversely by refuting locality or realism rather than by refuting quantum theory). Bohr certainly held his own, though.

    I tend to take the IPCC conclusions at face value, and thus I am willing to believe that human activity contributes to warming (though I suspect they have underestimated the forcings due to cleaner air), but I really don’t see what difference it makes if we caused the warming, other than to our understanding of the mechanism. If the climate is warming, and if this is harmful , then humans should do something about it, regardless of whether we are the cause of it.

    Finally, I am appalled that among those who think warming exists and is harmful there is so much resistance to technological solutions to the problem. Why are the only acceptable answers political? In the Earth’s history, at the end of the Eocene epoch, CO2 levels fell from 3500ppm to 650ppm with no political action whatsoever (the Azolla event). It is hard to believe that a technological solution could not be found that would not require a political takeover. I could understand a belief that such a solution is not possible, though that seems to conflict with the notion that humans caused the warming, but I don’t understand the resistance to the idea of such a solution.

  18. WMBriggs,

    One can make claims with 100% certainty and prove some things beyond doubt. For example: It is possible for me to say with 100% certainty that truth is eternal and that it is absolute rather than relative. These assertions can be easily proven with logic.

    You can see this by picturing Stephen Hawking contemplating the origins of the universe – pushing the basket of truth all the back on the timeline to the very beginning of the universe and attempting to determine what is in basket. Odd that he never contemplates that the basket (symbolically containing all that is true) predates the event he is concerned with. He seems disinterested in what came before the event, what caused it, and what predated it.

    Science can only prove what it actually measures without bias. When bias enters the equation true science ends and scientism begins. This is true when any scientific theory is regarded as beyond question. It is foolish to question the existence gravity but it is not foolish to question the nature, origins and properties of gravity.

    People need to question “settled science”. This is where discoveries are made and historically there is a large body of settled science that has fallen prey to discovery.

  19. The phrase “settled science” is meaningless without context. Activists use it as a rhetorical device and always without context. What does it mean to say that “physics” is settled science or “medicine” is settled science? It means nothing until you apply the phrase to a specific claim.

  20. “Settled science” can refer to anything that science declares to be beyond question. Science when it coincides with realty can be settled – physics as you pointed out.

    Anthropomorphic climate change or evolution are far from settled science and in most cases border on scientism. Where politically correct or expedient “settled science” is concerned skepticism is often treated with contempt rather than with scientific method or healthy discourse. This is because there is a great deal of money to be made on the latter and in the case of the former there a few evolutionists who relish the thought of having their pet alternative to a deity swept away.

  21. Andrew,

    You’re making exactly the same mistake as your opponent. Firstly, a clarification. Science does not declare anything beyond question. That’s why science is different from most other dogmatic belief systems. (However this may not be, and frequently isn’t, a principle that is always followed. However, it is a principle this is always paid lip service to.)

    When you write:

    “Anthropomorphic climate change or evolution are far from settled science and in most cases border on scientism. ”

    You take a leaf out of the activist textbook which is highly hypocritical. That evolution happened, and that natural selection is our best theory, and that there are no other contending theories at this time, is about as settled science as it is ever going to get. If you don’t accept this as true, that is to say, if you’re prepared to ignore the overwhelming body of evidence (which in the case of evolutionary theory actually does exist), then you are being obstinately irrational. That humans can alter the climate, by burning fossil fuels, is also reasonably settled science. Of course, we don’t know if the planet will warm eventually by 0.5C or 1C or 2C or 12C. Although the further you move below 1C or above 2C the more unlikely this becomes based on the best evidence we have right now.

    What is not settled science is that evolutionary theory produced inferior and superior humans. That is to say, eugenics. This is no longer a popular fad, so I won’t spent time on this.

    And what is not settled science is apocalyptic climate change. The claim that an additional 1C of warming or so will lead to the planet’s doom. This is a popular fad right now, hence why it’s an active topic of discussion.

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