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Timothy F Ball
environmental consultant, and former professor of climatology at the University of Winnipeg
The scientific method - how science proceeds from theory to law

Albert Einstein would have regarded celebration of his famous formulae as premature. Celebrating the centenary of the publication of the equation E = mc2 is commendable, but premature, because the equation may not be correct. To understand this statement, you must understand the scientific method - how science proceeds from theory to law.

Any formula is only as valid as the assumptions upon which it is based, and the theory of relativity is no exception. This theory is a logical mathematical extrapolation, from fundamental assumptions, and those assumptions may or may not be valid. It is not Einstein's law of relativity, it is his theory of relativity. And it remains a theory to this day.

The American historian of science Thomas Samuel Kuhn explains the scientific method clearly and concisely, in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Ironically, in this age of science, people - including too many scientists - do not understand how science proceeds. Quite simply, a scientist hypothesises, based upon a series of assumptions, and other scientists test the hypothesis and the assumptions.

Isaac Newton produced the theory of gravity in 1666, and this theory was then tested, over many decades. No conference or announcement said that it had been a theory long enough to become a law, but as the phenomena and outcomes it predicted proved to be accurate, it eventually gained broad acceptance. Prediction is the key - without prediction, science does not advance, and theories cannot become laws. In fact, the ability to predict is a good definition of science.

Testing theory takes a long time. The Copernican theory of planetary motions was not proven or accepted for centuries. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, published in 1857, remains a theory even now. Einstein's theory of relativity is 100 years old.

Besides the due diligence required of scientists, in order to prove a theory, there is the problem of political interference and social implications. All new theories are controversial, because they challenge the prevailing wisdom. Nicolaus Copernicus, as a canon in the church, knew the implications of his scientific theory, and he delayed approving publication until his deathbed. Darwin's theory was equally challenging to religion, but it also addressed the heritage of every person, and hence was especially controversial.

There is currently a controversy over global warming. The American meteorologist and atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen explains that the supposed 'scientific consensus', that supporters of the Kyoto Protocol claim exists, was reached before the research had even begun. Lindzen underlines a major problem confronting science today - namely, that through the media and political exploitation, theories become law before they are tested.

The hypothesis that human-caused or anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are leading to dramatic climate change, was quickly accepted as fact - a law - by the media, and by many special interest groups in society. Even more disturbingly, the hypothesis was accepted without question by government, at all levels - up to and including the heads of Western governments, and the United Nations.

Scientists who try to test the anthropogenic climate change theory - a normal and expected course of action, in any real scientific endeavour - are marginalised, and derisively called 'sceptics', as if such a label were unscientific. They are chastised for not being in agreement with some sort of scientific consensus - as if a worldwide poll of climate experts had been taken, and as if such a consensus would represent scientific fact. Nothing could be further from the truth. Science advances by questioning, probing, and reexamining existing beliefs. With the approach prevalent in today's world, the scientific method is effectively being blocked.

Ironically, at a government hearing several years ago, a member of the Canadian parliament informed me that Galileo Galilei would have been ashamed of me, for opposing consensus on a scientific issue. While it was certainly an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as the famous Tuscan scientist, the member of parliament's charge merely illustrated that she did not understand Galileo's role in the history of science, and nor did she understand the scientific method.

Too many people - in politics, in the media, and in the public at large - have no idea what constitutes real science, and so are left wondering whom they should believe, when scientists disagree about so much. Things are made even more difficult when opportunistic politicians promote public policy based more upon what is fashionable than upon what is real, when it comes to emotionally hot topics such as the environment.

Einstein loathed the public adulation that his scientific career brought him, and he never thought his theories were sacrosanct, admitting that 'no amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong'. He would have applauded today's scientific sceptics, and he would have strongly supported the notion that we must have the courage to allow science to be science, devoid of contemporary fashion and political interference.

Einstein summed up what science should be all about, when he said: 'To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.'

Timothy Ball is coauthor of Eighteenth-Century Naturalists of Hudson Bay (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).




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