We are not prophets. None of us are, but like biblical prophets, we stand on the top of the hill and warn about a coming Armageddon (remember the “self-inflicted genocide” in my first blog post). The tools that we use to try to predict the future are different: the biblical prophets used divine inspiration while we use computer simulations. One attribute that we have in common is that the prophecies are for a relatively distant future beyond the lifetime of the prophets.
In a sense, the Poperian interpretation of the scientific method is about prophecies (see the June 18 blog). It is based on refutability. We develop hypotheses and theories based on everything that we know, then we test these theories. If the tests fail, we change the theory. This amounts to prediction of future results.
One of the best demonstrations of the scientific method came spectacularly to light only recently. On July 4th, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced the experimental observation of the decay of a new particle that resembles the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson was predicted to be the evidence for the existence of the Higgs field, a precursor to today’s elementary particles. The particle and the field are named after Peter Higgs, who predicted the mechanism and the existence of the particle in 1964. At about at the same time, two other teams published papers predicting similar mechanisms. For almost 50 years, experimentalists tried to find such a particle until CERN announced that they found what “looks to be” the long sought particle. The results are still being analyzed to determine the particle’s properties.
Throughout the 50-year wait, many well known physicists made bets about the existence of these particles. A recent article in the New York Times reports on the settlement of some of the debts: Stephen Hawking admits that he lost his $100 bet with Gordon Kane. Guido Tonelli, a CERN physicist that was in charge of one of the groups that did the experiment, said that if he were to collect on all the bets that he made, he would be a rich man. Janet Conrad, a physicist at MIT, admitted to losing her own bet with Frank Wilczek from the same institute. The bet was for 10 chocolate Nobel coins that you can buy in the Nobel store in Stockholm, Sweden.
These are all cute bets on future results, but the stakes are very low. If the Higgs boson had not been found, eventually a new theory would have developed, with different predictions, to occupy the productive time of more physicists. Peter Higgs would probably not have gotten his well deserved Nobel Prize (my “safe” prediction for next year’s prize) but some other well deserving physicist would have been the beneficiary.
I already mentioned another kind of payout in a previous blog (May 7) that describes a letter that was published in the on-line publication Business Insider on April 11, 2012, and signed by 49 former NASA employees. This list included seven Apollo astronauts and two former directors of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, all of whom called NASA to move away from climate model predictions and to limit its stance to that which can be empirically proven. The letter states that, “We believe the claims by NASA and GISS, that man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated.” The writers cite reasons for this doubt:
NASA is relying too heavily on complex climate models that have proven scientifically inadequate in predicting climate only one or two decades in advance…There’s a concern that if it turns out that CO2 is not a major cause of climate change, NASA will have put the reputation of NASA, NASA’s current and former employees, and even the very reputation of science itself at risk of public ridicule and distrust.
The emphasis here is the last sentence. If the predictions turn out wrong – we lose face.
In my opinion, the only way to address future uncertainty of the impact of global climate change is through the “purchase” of a global insurance policy that will put resources in mitigation and adaptation. This is not so different from insuring ourselves against fire, theft, or flood. The difference is mainly in scope and the singularity of the threat. I will try to discuss it in future blogs.
The issue is not so much the accuracy of the prediction as the magnitude of the impact when the predictions come to roost. Our difficulties in predicting the future do not guarantee that the future will be better; there is probably an equal chance that the future will come out worse than predicted. This does not relieve us of responsibility, however – in fact, it makes it all the more important that we take steps to minimize possible negative impact – the same as we do with any other insurance policy that we purchase.