Guest essay by Eric Worrall – One of the most common arguments against suggestions that Climate Science is dysfunctional, is an attack on the credibility of the suggestion, that a large group of scientists are wrong. Why, of all the fields of science, is Climate Science special? Why is it different? How can it be credible to believe that mainstream Climate Science produces defective results, when the scientists involved are as much a part of the scientific establishment as any other mainstream branch of science?
The answer, of course, is that the failings of Climate Science are not exceptional.
“The Trouble with Physics” is a controversial book by one of the giants of Quantum Physics, Lee Smolin. In an eerie parallel to the failings of climate science, Smolin argues that a fundamental error at the heart of String Theory, and rampant groupthink, has diverted uncounted scientific man hours of effort down a blind alley. Physicists are wasting lifetimes of effort constructing ever more elaborate mathematical models, models which can never hope to be reconciled with real world observations.
The fundamental error, according to Smolin, is that String Theory is background dependent. String Theory assumes a Universe in which time and space is constant – a Universe in which Einstein never discovered General Relativity.
The reason for this error goes back to the origins of Quantum Physics. The pioneers of Quantum Physics had to do their calculations by hand – horrendous mathematical transformations, which in some cases took weeks of effort to perform, even when attempted by the most capable mathematicians and scientists on the planet. Adding General Relativity to the mix made the equations impossibly difficult – and for most purposes at the time, for say calculating the shape of the electron field around a hydrogen atom, or designing a transistor, the effect of Relativity on the calculated result was so small that it simply didn’t matter.
The problems with this convenient simplification only emerge when you attempt to reconcile Relativity and Quantum Physics – when you try to create a theory of everything, to calculate what happens in the vicinity of a black hole, to work out what really happened during the Big Bang, to understand why physical constants have those particular values, or say try to build a wormhole – a gateway through time and space, and a possible solution to interstellar travel. In these extreme conditions, a background dependent theory simply doesn’t work.
It is at this extreme edge of reality that String Theory begins to break down – it produces (or fails to produce) solutions which have no applicability to the real world. Trying to eliminate the paradoxes it yields spawns the need to pile on ever more complicated additional dimensions and forces, artefacts which, so far at least, cannot be reconciled with observations.
So String Theorists go model happy. They play with the giant atom smashers when they can, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter that the String Theory models cannot be reconciled with observations, because String Theory is almost infinitely adjustable. Somewhere, researchers hope, in the unimaginably vast landscape of possible adjustments, at the core of this gargantuan edifice of ever more intricate and complex theory, is the kernel of truth which will unlock the final secrets of the Universe.
One of the themes of Smolin’s book, is the unfortunate way that String Theory has choked off other and potentially more profitable lines of inquiry – efforts to go back to the foundations of Quantum Physics, and try to incorporate Relativity into the fundamental assumptions. Because String Theory utterly dominates the Quantum Physics effort, because so many senior professors built their reputations on their contribution to String Theory, anyone who questions String Theory, or challenges it, is looked on as a crank, an outsider. It is much easier to secure tenure and funding by enthusiastically embracing String Theory, than by challenging it, or by pointing out that for the last few decades, Theoretical Physics has stalled.
The truth is, scientists are human, they have the same triumphs and weaknesses as the rest of us. The image of science and scientists as objective seekers of truth was only ever an ideal. Science, it is true, has mechanisms for self correction which are unique in human endeavour – but those mechanisms rarely work smoothly.
For example, scientists were aware of the paradoxes which produced the need for Einstein’s Relativity since at least the 1860s, when Maxwell formulated his famous equations – equations which implied the speed of light is constant, no matter what the location and velocity of the observer. Scientists ignored this issue, or tried to disprove this implication, by testing whether the speed of light varied if you were moving towards or away from the source. It took Einstein, working in the early 1900s, to resolve the paradox, and finally lay the issue to rest.
Climate Science will eventually become a science again. The wider world of academia is becoming increasingly aware of the embarrassing failures and poor practices. Sooner or later students will tire of producing the same defective results, year after year, and someone, somewhere will make the leap – will find a way to produce a model which works, an Einstein moment which transforms our understanding of global climate.