Evidential Tests for Prophets and Theories Alike

“Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.” – Albert Einstein

I love the Bible. This should surprise nobody – that a Christian would declare his affinity for our book. Still, it covers such a vast breadth of human experience and activity; it is inspired and inspiring.

Today we touch briefly on the subject of false prophets, which will (I think) have implications for the secondary issue we will consider shortly. First, the Bible does not disapprove of prophecy. In fact it tells us to do quite the opposite in 1 Thess 5:20-21: “do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” The first part says not to flippantly cast aside all prophecies … and the second says to test everything. And by what measure shall we test it? Well, this is the Bible we’re talking about – and we can test it by the Bible.

OK, it’s not my intent to ramble down too much of a path on prophetic utterances, merely to point out that in both Old and New Testaments there are prophets and false prophets and a call to examine both. For instance, in Deuteronomy 18:20-22, the Lord tells the children of Israel that a prophet who speaks something (a vision of the future, for instance) that does not come to pass, he is a false prophet and they have no need to fear him. So, if they make predictions that don’t happen, they’re wrong and the Lord has not spoken to them.

He goes further to point out that false prophets have their own motivations. Sometimes they are just looking to line their own pockets (see Micah 3:9-12, Jer 6:13-15, or Ezek 22:25-28).  Sometimes they’re just crowd pleasers, telling the people what they want to hear (see Isaiah 30:9-14, Jer 5:31, or  2 Tim 4:3-4). And, most interestingly, false prophets do not always fail (See Deut 13:1-5, Matt 7:15-23, Matt 24:11-12, or 2 Pet 2:1-3).

With that last one we note that the evidential test is proof of the negative, not the positive. That is, if a prediction fails, then that person clearly has not heard from the Lord, but if a prediction comes true, it does not necessarily mean that he is right. Sometimes people just get lucky. Sometimes the prophesy innocuous stuff and claim victory for anything even closely related. And sometimes they are actually working mischief and deception … but I don’t want to get into that just now.

With that not-to-adept segway, we turn from the world of prophecy to the world of science, theories, and prediction. This is not so much a moral discourse, but just a rehash of the notion that evidence and the predictive powers of theories and models matters. Here things are not as cut and dry, of course. Models and theories can be somewhat right and still predict poorly because they are not broad enough, failing to consider other important aspects of the problem. But a model that is consistently wrong, or a theory that holds the confidence of a predicted outcome as extremely high (e.g., unmodeled factors are miniscule, according to the theory) might be one to reconsider. (Note that we don’t support the old testament notion of “killing a false prophet” in the world of science.)

I bring this up because I saw a couple of interesting articles on global warming recently. The first is a “concerned citizen” letter from 16 scientists to the Wall Street Journal titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” It’s a fair letter, pointing out that there are reasons to doubt the alarmism over global warming, and going further to note that the ardent supporters of man-made-global-warming theories may have ulterior motives (or, there are at least “conflicts of interest” that should be considered). The biggest issue being the connection between government funding for research and the outcome of the research being a call for greater government control over the lives of people.

The next article comes from the Daily Mail in the UK: “Forget Global Warming – It’s Cycle 25 We Need to Worry About.” It’s a quick read with some good charts. The highlights [I’ll add some inference of my own]:

  • The figures show no warming for 15 years
  • Global temperatures correlate to solar activity [just like they correlate to atmospheric carbon dioxide – but correlation and causality are not the same thing … though, while temperatures could cause carbon dioxide concentrations to rise, they couldn’t possibly cause solar activity to change]
  • We are headed into a low period of solar activity
  • Man-made-global-warming models predicted significant warming between 2004 and 2014 … we’re only a few years away from the close of that period and it hasn’t happened yet.

I think the best was the ending quote of the article from one Benny Peister, who is director of something called the Global Warming Policy Foundation: “If we don’t see convincing evidence of global warming by 2015, it will start to become clear whether the models are bunk. And, if they are, the implications for some scientists could be very serious.”

Now, we’re not there yet, and anything could happen. I have long been a skeptic of the man-made-global-warming theories not because of the science, but because of the implicit conflict discussed earlier. The research funding comes from a source that is likely to gain power if the research turns up the “right” answer. That, and dirty, unwashed, volkswagon-driving hippies are not to be trusted. OK, I can’t back that last part up – hippies are actually a pretty trustworthy lot. (Interestingly, if you take a look at the old testament prophets you might find some similarities with the modern hippie – except they didn’t have Fahrvergnügen.)

The good news though is that we are still collecting data and refining models. More people care about the global warming question now because the implications are so big: government control, destruction of the planet, and massive political games of “I told you so” will draw a lot of interest from a lot of parties. That’s good news for an otherwise boring topic. Further, the “CO2 is evil” crowd has laid a massive claim down on warming by 2014. This means we don’t have to wait forever to determine if the theory has credence – a miss on the 2014 call would be a big deal. Similarly, the “solar-activity-drives-temperature” crowd also has an implicit prediction out there in the following decades. If solar activity does plummet and temperatures don’t follow, then perhaps their models are lacking as well.

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2 Responses to Evidential Tests for Prophets and Theories Alike

  1. The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Mail? It seems interesting that these are the sources of this material, neither of which is exactly known for scientific integrity or accuracy. Granted, these may be viewed as opinion pieces that are arguably worth a read whether they contain facts or not, for the reasons of political controversy that you describe.

    But I have to stop at any attempt at precise statements about the science here. 15 years? That means a starting point of, what, 1998? To readers out there, think critically and objectively about what this means.

    If it helps, it might be useful to view “side-by-side” the Journal piece, along with another letter in Science Magazine, which the Journal declined to print: .

    • nomasir says:

      For some reason the link is jacked up – can’t even get it to copy and paste. I was able to find the doc (mildly painfully) but can’t quite get it to link well either. My short comments:

      (1) Sure, the WSJ and Daily Mail pieces were opinion pieces. Well, one was a letter by concerned scientists, much like the piece in the link.

      (2) The article then goes to reason poorly by my estimation. Consider: “The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere.” – this is exactly the kind of causality that is very difficult to prove and is very much contested. That warming and “heat-trapping gases” are correlated may well be, but the quote presumes causation. “Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation” – well, maybe. The statement is true if the model is right, but that’s a touch circular. This doesn’t mean that the argument is wrong – it simply means that it is poorly argued.

      (3) This one is choice: “We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues” – umm, pot, I would like to introduce you to kettle. I find it hard to swallow the notion that those who question the theory of man-made climate change are being accused of McCarthyism. This charge fits much better the other side.

      (4) I stand by the general premise of the post. If the science is predictive, and if the model is useful, and if the consequences are as dire as we have all been told – then the theory better dang well be able to predict what’s coming. If they want to put error bars on the prediction then fine. But if the model is not predictive, or predicts wrongly, but we are still told that we have to undertake dramatic restructuring of the world’s industrial economy anyway, to stave of what might happen if the theory is one day right, then I fail to see the distinction between global warmism and any other theocracy.

      (5) “delay must not be an option” – exactly. We can’t risk finding something wrong with the current reasoning, we have to jump now before it’s too late.

      This isn’t the first time there has been a scientific debate about the greater good and a demand for policy change to make it happen. Sulfur emissions and acid rain come to mind. The issue here is that it IS a matter of public policy, and not merely science. That is, in a democracy, people must vote to choose a policy based on science they may not understand. We should not at all be shocked if they say “I don’t buy it” or “show me the evidence” or “make a prediction so I can check it (and not just a scare tactic)”. If the fight is worth fighting then fight on. But if the theory is right then it ought to be easier and easier to explain as time goes by. It ought NOT be the case that predictions fail time and again. It ought not be the case that we hear dire warnings of irreversible damage in the next 5 years … but no clear indication of a “ramping up” of said damage now. And if it is to be policy, people deserve to vet it on their own, and for better or worse this is often done outside of the confines of scientific journals.

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