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  • Writer's pictureCharles Hinckley

If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong ...

“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong…”

Charles Hinckley

July 4, 2023

"If it [a “guess” representing a theory] disagrees with experiment, it's wrong," he asserted, craning his neck forward and adroitly pointing his left hand at the chalkboard to accentuate the point. "In that simple statement, is the key to science."

"It doesn't make any difference how beautiful your guess is," Feynman proclaimed, gesticulating in wide, circular, somewhat flamboyant motions. "It doesn't make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. That's all there is to it." (R. Feynman, 1964 lecture at Cornell University, as reported in Steven Promeroy, Scientific American November 13, 2012, also lecture available at

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The climate change denial thesis disagrees with experiment/observations.

Every single person that has any interest in any scientific subject should watch the youtube of Dr. Feynman’s 1964 lecture. Dr. Feynman was a famous American physicist who was awarded the Noble Prize in Physics in 1965 and the father of quantum electrodymanics.

Skepticism toward scientific theories, even those that reached the threshold of being “widely accepted” is very much a part of the scientific process. Debate rages in areas of physics, for example. Rodger Penrose, a Noble Price recipient, wrote a book called Fashion Faith and Fantasy (Penrose 2017) largely driven by his skepticism (shared by Dr. Feynman) on the widely accepted string theory and the standard model of quantum mechanics. The fact is scientists can be arrogant, media presents “facts” through political perspectives (and that goes both ways certainly), and politicians do lie. We need to appreciate our skeptics and answer their concerns.

As it faces climate change, of course there are skeptics. Natural systems can be very difficult to model as they are very complex multi-fractal, chaotic phenomena. See Benoit Mandelbot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, 1977, or a more readable D. Sornette, Critical Phenomena in Natural Sciences. This is a long way of saying, physical phenomena such as temperature, wind and rain forecasts are likely to have far more volatility and fatter tails than that which is normally predicted by models used to forecast uncertainty.

On the one hand have a theory that man is affecting the climate and the consequences of this change are expected to be large and harmful to mankind. See my favorite summary of the subject: W. Steffen, et. al., “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Perspective of the National Academy of Science, July 2018.

“The models are wrong”, of course they are “wrong” no model of the future is perfect; these models surely appear to have gotten far more right than wrong, I would observe.

We heard, “I don’t believe the data”, well see the Charles Koch Foundation funded the Berkely Earth project and Dr. Muller, “I was wrong on Climate Change”, We heard, “it’s the sun spot activity”. No its not, see Dr. Muller’s work, for example.

My favorite denial claim is that about 10 years ago, it was possible to take the 1998 hot year as a reference period and claim, “the Earth isn’t warming”. Well, no, the Earth is warming as the subsequent years proved conclusively, and this has not been true since 2015! Hear it all the time.

“There was an ice age, there were dinosaurs, the naturally climate changes …”. Yes, true but on the time scale of hundreds of thousands of years, not tens of years! People still repeat these inaccurate claims that have long been superseded with objective evidence.

Here we are in 2023, and we are well past models and theory. Physical reality has emerged on climate change, and what do the observations say? The data clearly substantiates the climate change thesis.

We don’t need to talk about sulfur dioxide emission and their cooling effect, volcanos, decadal natural cycles, etc. the data has made those arguments moot.

1938 – last year that global temperature was at the time series population mean.

1983/84 – some really cold years of my youth. No, we will never see that level of coldness ever.

1998 – a really hot year, those temperatures were not exceeded until 2014 – and have not looked back since.

2000 – last year where global temperatures were within one standard deviation of the population mean and having less than a 25% chance of occurrence.

2015 – last year where global temperatures were within two standard deviations of the population mean and having a less than 1% chance of occurrence.

2015 – 2013 – EVERY year temperature less than 1% probability of occurrence.

Zero – the probability that there can be ten years in a row two standard deviations from the mean – or ten years in a row of a 1% probability occurrence; I am using less than 1.0 with ten zeros as meaning zero.

Global temperature time series:

Data for USA:

In Texas. Is the current 2023 heat wave climate change, or just weather? Just the numbers: it is far more likely that this year’s 3-sigma event is climate change driven, rather than a series of 2 to 3-sigma events 20 years in a row – something not heretofore observed in the time series, a nearly uncalculatable low probability.

And here in Connecticut, one can see why I am so concerned about climate change: I am experiencing it.

Few observations as it faces climate change:

1. A priori, there is physics and science that suggests that man made CO2 emissions would cause the Earth to heat. This was first observed by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier in the early 1800’s. Our modern communication, cable TV, and the internet work because of his mathematical advancements. He was Napoleon’s scientific advisor.

2. Were the models right or wrong, who cares? It is a given, natural phenomenon can be very difficult to model. The Earth is warming, and this waring is entirely correlated to CO2, see Muller’s work for example. The data is in. The models are certainly accurate enough to frame the issues accurately.

3. Has there is role for decent - of course. Even as recently as ten years ago, we were explaining away the 1998 anomaly. In the past five or ten years, the data just overwhelmed any plausible alternative. To move this matter forward as a political matter, both sides should not disparage each other. 20 years ago, I would have been a skeptic, for example.

4. Back to Feynman: the climate change thesis clearly agrees with observation. Until and unless there emerges another theory that better fits the data, the climate change claim is the settled science.

5. Nearly every scientist who is an expert in this area supports the climate change thesis: over 99%, that is past wide acceptance, and does form scientific consensus. The denial group is formed by a handful of people, all in their 60’s and 70’s who frankly don’t appear to have reviewed the recent data. Dr. Koonin in Unsettled refers to the 2013 UN research, for example. He worked for BP for many years, and clearly has very strong views regarding government regulation, a sentiment I well understand and am sympathetic towards; I would ask Dr. Koonin to sit down with Dr. Muller. Judith Curry is out with a new book which I read over the weekend. Very short on science, an area for which she is an expert, and very long on policy framed with a lack of perspective of our current energy alternatives, for which I am an expert. My main takeaway of her book is that she thinks that this issue is “very complex”. Well back to Mandelbot and Sornette, yes it is, but so what, every year’s additional data makes our course of action ever more so clear.

6. Underlying the denial scientists is a world view that large scale government action is inefficient and a poor way to run an economy. I share that worldview. The scientific arguments have been peeled away to revel the root cause of the denial – a denial of the political process, not the science itself. Unfortunately mankind cannot be so

7. Penrose writes of fashion in science; as it faces climate change, we are past that, but are dealing with a real issue of entertainment as science. This climate change science is settled, but notwithstanding that, there are a large group of people for whom climate change is the subject of their entertainment shows. I was asked last week to watch a youtube by Anthony Watts of the Heartland Institute. Interesting entertainment, but zero science. Mr. Watts went to Purdue but never graduated. It was not even clear he was well read on the issue, but full of talking points and politics. We must take our climate science advice from actual physicists and other scientists and not a non-degreed weatherman, regardless of how entertaining he may be.

8. Finally, the medicine is not worse than the cure – over the past 20 years renewable energy and battery storage has undergone generations of evolution to where is really is cheap and ready for prime time. More on this later.

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