Writer, Editor, Storyteller

The Earth is Round, and Global Climate Change is Happening

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Science is What?

The common understanding of science is that it looks at the world, constructs a hypothesis, and tests it. If the hypothesis checks out, we've got a new fact. 

This is a fine introductory description of science, say for middle school, but it fails to capture the reality of the scientific discipline. The scientific process begins, yes, by observing a phenomenon and constructing a hypothesis about it, but the process is a bit more complicated than the typical understanding.

Take the shape of the Earth for example. In ancient Greece, Pythagoras observes the terminator of the Moon (the line demarcating the visible from the invisible section) as it revolves around it. Using his observations, he determines the Moon must be spherical. He then reasons that if the Moon is a sphere, then the Earth should be, too. Here we have a claim about the physical universe based on observation (of the terminator) and deductive reasoning (the Moon, a celestial body, is round, and thus the Earth, also a celestial body, must also be round): the Earth is round. Fine and good. But what makes it a scientific claim is that it’s falsifiable. For a claim to be a scientific hypothesis, it must be able to be disproven. We can’t say proven, because of the problem of induction (which we’ll get to soon enough). So, to recap, we have an observation of a phenomenon and a falsifiable claim about it. 

Given Pythagoras' claim, it’s easy to imagine someone else coming along and saying, “You know what, I think the Earth isn’t round. I think it’s square and I’m going to prove it. I'll do so by observing constellations as I travel further and further away from the equator.” Which is what Aristotle did, except without the square claim bit, and low and behold ol' Pythagoras’ claim checks out. After this, we get Magellan and his sailing and so on and so forth, and finally Newton who determines the Earth is actually an ellipsoid, which is still spherical(ish), and also happens to be useful for geodesic calculations, although with periodic updates, and so boom: the Earth is round. 

Scientific fact. 

The Problem of Induction

Except – well, it’s not a fact, because, again, the problem of induction. The opposite of deduction, determining particulars from universals, induction is the logical process that begins with a particular thing and then extrapolates from it to try to understanding all the other things that resemble it.

Let’s say you’re dying to know everything about swans. After looking at 100 – actually, better – after looking at 1,000, all you’ve seen are white swans. This seems like a good representative sample to you, and thus you're confident claiming that, yup, all swans are indeed white. Induction. Except you can’t really be certain that all swans are white because there’s always the possibility of that damn pesky black swan. You can’t, in fact, be certain about all swans until you’ve seen all swans. And this is the reason no theory in science can be “proven.”

Gravity is a fact, is a fact, is a fact. Unless, of course, someday it’s not. The reason gravity is a solid scientific theory is that it’s falsifiable. Each time I jump or you shoot a basketball or an airplane takes off or the tides shift, the theory of gravity could be proven false. But so far it hasn’t. It’s a damn good theory. I’m willing to bet my life on it; you should be too. 

So, technically speaking, there are no facts in science, only theories. But if a theory is falsifiable, and if it’s been tested time and time again, and found to be solid in light of such tests, then we can speak of it as scientific fact. It also helps if the theory opens up new avenues of scientific inquiry and, at least in the popular imagination, enables new technology. (“You trying to tell me microwaves don’t exist?! I just used a bunch to heat up this tasty burrito.”) But bad theories, like phlogiston, have worked for that, too, so maybe let’s just stick to falsifiability.

If a theory is capable of being falsified and has been tested numerous times by various rigorous methods, and if – and this is important, so pay attention – the scientific community has agreed these methods are appropriate for testing this type of theory, then the scientific community is happy saying, “Yup, that’s a fact!”

Once the scientific community agrees on something, the idea begins to disseminate among the rest of us peons and eventually you’ve got everyone walking around an Earth that we all agree is round. In fact, if I were to run out today and tell you it’s not a fact that the Earth is round, that it could, in fact, at this very moment, be square, you, along with everyone else in the world, would probably think I was crazy. And for good reason. And yet, again, because of the problem of induction and the connected issue, which David Hume was the first to point out, that there’s really no reasonable justification for assuming the uniformity of nature, I wouldn’t technically be being unreasonable. It could actually be true. But you’d still consider me an idiot. And you’d be right.  

Don’t Be Dumb

And here’s the crux for all of those who deny Global Climate Change or think race still exists or think the earth is 10,000 years old: their arguments rest on there being a dichotomy between scientific theories and scientific facts, a dichotomy that doesn’t exist. 

Climate science is incredibly complex, dependent on computer models constructed from massive troves of data, gathered by numerous governments for a multitude of reasons, including weapons testing, and over many decades. The models vary in precision, but they, along with the general theory that the climate is, indeed, changing, are falsifiable. And, so far, instead of being falsified, the general theory that the climate is changing and that humans drive this change has been confirmed time and time again. We don’t know, yet, which forecasting model, in particular, is correct. They may all be off a little bit. We’re dealing with a complex system, which includes thresholds and phase transitions, and we don’t have the data nor the power to crunch it with complete precision. Not yet. But overall, the theory is solid. Those who don't trust it are either fools or frauds. 

The analogous can be said for race. If whites, or "white culture" (whatever that means), were superior to blacks then the Haitian revolution wouldn’t have happened and Fredrick Douglas wouldn’t have existed. In fact, we would have neither Muddy Waters nor Harriet Tubman, Souls of Mischief nor Huey P. Newton, Nas nor Malcolm X, The Roots nor Dr. Cornel West, Kendrick Lamar nor Jean Baptist Aristide.  Nor would we have Chimanda Ngozi Adichie nor Marlon James, both beauties with beautiful voices. Their work’s so good that when I read it, as a writer, I want to take six slugs of whiskey, cry myself to sleep on my living room floor, wake up the next morning, face the facts and enroll in a coding academy. We wouldn't have Edwidge Danticat nor Richard Wright nor Te Nihisi Coates nor James Baldwin nor Paul Beatty nor James Cone nor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor— my God, the list goes on and on. We wouldn't have Regina Evans, one of my personal favorites. We wouldn't even have Elvis.

If race were indeed determinative in a biological sense at all, we would be able to locate it at a genetic level. But we can’t. And it’s not because we don’t have the ability to. It’s because race isn’t there. Race is a social fiction, a very powerful one, but a fiction nonetheless. Anyone who still believes it’s determinative should be seen as I would be if I ran around saying the earth is square – as either a buffoon or a swindler. 

Don’t even get me started on the 10,000-year-old earth theory. 

It’s time for us to stop our magical thinking, to wake up to the world as it really is, and to be thankful that over the last millennia we’ve learned to wrestle some truth from it.

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Daniel Olson