Eclipsing Predictions

While eclipse fever hasn’t quite done for science what Saturday Night Fever did for disco, it’s fair to say that yesterday’s celestial event has assumed its own special place in the public’s consciousness.  Millions of people across the country whipped out their x-ray specs at the same time and headed outside to witness the moon passing between the Earth and the sun, forgetting for a moment all the rancor and division that has grabbed the headlines lately, and joining together in the common realization that nobody could remember all the words to the last song on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

The media, though, couldn’t just leave a tender moment alone, and insisted on trying to leverage everyone’s new fascination with astronomy into a propaganda blitz worthy of Baghdad Bob.  Take the New York Times, for example:

The last time I saw a tie-in attempt this bad, Kendall Jenner was throwing a can of Pepsi at the riot police.  Apparently the Times editors who green-lit this particular story have the same eye for content as the people who approved that Bill Nye “My Sex Junk” bit.  You get an A for effort guys, but in this case your reach exceeds your grasp just a tick.

Let’s go to the article itself for a taste, shall we?

Thanks to the work of scientists, people will know exactly what time to expect the eclipse. In less entertaining but more important ways, we respond to scientific predictions all the time, even though we have no independent capacity to verify the calculations. We tend to trust scientists.

Indeed we do, in large part because people tend to respond that way to authority figures–a fact known by the media, and reinforced by their news coverage.

So what predictions has climate science made, and have they come true?

The earliest, made by a Swede named Svante Arrhenius in 1897, was simply that the Earth would heat up in response to emissions. That has been proved: The global average temperature has risen more than 1 degree Celsius, or almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit, a substantial change for a whole planet.

Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it?  And there is actually a grain of truth in this statement.  The only problem is that temperature increases have not kept pace with the rate of carbon emissions.  In plain English, this means that carbon dioxide doesn’t trap heat nearly as effectively as climate scientists thought.

By the 1960s and ’70s, climate scientists were making more detailed predictions. They said that as the surface of the Earth warmed, the temperature in the highest reaches of the atmosphere would fall. That is exactly what happened.

In the 1970s, climate scientists were also predicting a new ice age.  I guess it pays to cover all your bets.

The scientists told us that the Arctic would warm especially fast. They told us to expect heavier rainstorms. They told us heat waves would soar. They told us that the oceans would rise. All of those things have come to pass.

At the same time, Antarctic sea ice has reached record high levels–something for which these same climate scientists have a tough time accounting.  As to rainstorm predictions, they also predicted increases in hurricanes, tornadoes and other violent weather.  So far, we haven’t gotten any more twisters than usual and the United States hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane since Wilma back in 2005.

Considering this most basic test of a scientific theory, the test of prediction, climate science has established its validity.

Sure, in the way that a guy who flunked the bar nine times out of ten has established his ability to practice law.  He might win a case here and there, but you probably don’t want him defending you against a capital charge.

What all this scientific authoritarianism doesn’t tell you is that the planet’s climate is an almost incomprehensively complex system.  It’s not just that we don’t even fully understand all the variables that affect how the climate changes;  we don’t even have any way to determine the variables we don’t know about.  And yet, somehow, there are scientists who would tell you that the time for debate is over–that the planet is heating up, it’s an existential threat, and that human activity is the definitive cause.  In this, they’re a lot like central planners who think that they have the expertise to run an economy consisting of millions of individuals engaging in millions of transactions every single day.  There is simply no way to account for all that information, much less direct it.

Compared to all that, predicting eclipses is easy.  And a lot more accurate.

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Marc Giller

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