Skip to main content

Theory, Hypothesis, And Law - Debunking A Climate Change Contrarian Tactic

Theory, Hypothesis, And Law - Debunking A Climate Change Contrarian Tactic

New! Follow this author to improve your content experience.
This article is more than 3 years old.

According to CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller, "Over 40% of Greenland experienced melting yesterday, with total ice loss estimated to be more than 2 gigatons (a gigaton is equal to 1 billion tons)." University of Georgia climatologist Thomas Mote, an award-winning scientist who studies Greenland using satellite observations, told Miller that melting is comparable to historic melting in 2012 and a bad sign for further melting this season. In an otherwise intelligent conversation on social media about this, a "zombie theory" (a claim long refuted but lives on) was injected about natural climate change, Vikings, and anthropogenic climate change being an "overrated theory." After I gave my eyes a chance to finish rolling, I thought to myself, "Oh boy, here we go." Someone that doesn't understand that climatologists know that climate changes naturally and about the Little Ice Age. Yet, none of that disputes the fact that carbon dioxide values are increasing significantly and that the naturally-varying climate system is responding to the new stimulus (you know, the way naturally growing-grass responds to fertilizer on the lawn). I don't want to waste time swatting away a swarm of "zombie theory" flies. I need to deal with the use of "theory" when people try to refute climate change.

Greenland early season ice melt is worrisome.
NSIDC and Tom Mote/UGA

In defining the word "theory," specifically identifies the challenges associated with the word:

there are two senses of theory which are sometimes troublesome. These are the senses which are defined as “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena” and “an unproven assumption; conjecture.” The second of these is occasionally misapplied in cases where the former is meant, as when a particular scientific theory is derided as "just a theory," implying that it is no more than speculation or conjecture. One may certainly disagree with scientists regarding their theories, but it is an inaccurate interpretation of language to regard their use of the word as implying a tentative hypothesis; the scientific use of theory is quite different than the speculative use of the word.

Jaime Tanner, a professor of biology at Marlobro College, told that "Most people use the word 'theory' to mean an idea or hunch that someone has, but in science the word 'theory' refers to the way that we interpret facts." For example, atmospheric physics theory that goes back to the late 1800's and early 1900s established that small amounts contributions of carbon dioxide can warm the atmosphere. By the way, an oft-cited zombie theory is that there is too little carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to matter. I usually respond by noting that it doesn't take very much venom from a black mamba to kill either.

Over the years, I have noticed that the small but very vocal "climate dismissive" sector (see below) of the Yale Program on Climate Communication group's "Six Americas" study tends to fall into this trap by framing human contributions to changing climate as uncertain, unproven, or a hoax.

The 6 Americas study on how people perceive climate change.
Yale Climate Communication

I also notice that some people tend to confuse or conflate "hypothesis" and "theory." A hypothesis is an idea that is offered or assumed with the intent of being tested. A theory is intended to explain processes already supported or substantiated by data and experimentation. An article at explains the process by which a hypothesis becomes a theory:

Every scientific theory starts as a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis is a suggested solution for an unexplained occurrence that doesn't fit into a currently accepted scientific theory....If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step — known as a theory — in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.

As a scientist, I often see people weighted down in confirmation biases or ideological tribalism misinterpret "theory" or strategically employ it to advance their position.

How is a "law" different than a "theory" then? There is often confusion over the relative "pecking order" of scientific law and scientific theory. David Pfeiffer offers a simple but effective explanation in his essay:

a scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world. A scientific law is simply an observation of the phenomenon that the theory attempts to explain. For example, suppose that you were lying under an apple tree and observed an apple fall from a branch to the ground. The observation of this phenomena can be called the law of gravity. The law of gravity states that every time you drop an apple, it will fall to the ground. The theory of gravity is the explanation as to why the apple falls to the ground. A law is an observation. A theory is an explanation.

I conclude with a nod to a paper published in the journal Science in 1988. It was entitled, "The greenhouse theory of climate change: a test by an inadvertent global experiment." If you read the paper, it outlines outcomes that are expected to happen as greenhouse gases increase within the atmosphere (by the way, they are happening). The author, Dr. V. Ramanathan, wrote in the abstract, "Hence, the greenhouse theory of climate change has reached the crucial stage of verification."

As I close, something funny popped into my mind. A combination of process including atmospheric variability and climate warming likely explain changes happening in Greenland right now. Ironically, none of my colleagues discussing this recent event explicitly mentioned climate warming. It was only lobbed into the discussion by someone with a contrarian viewpoint. Go figure.



    Popular posts from this blog

    Might Biden be a Liar & Predator like McCarrick?

    September 15, 2020   Everyone knows that sexual predator ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick is a liar. His whole life was a lie of betrayal of the most sacred vows he took and the violation of the moral tenets of the Catholic faith which he desecrated. Most people don't realize that part of this desecration of lies included lying for "gravely sinful" Democrats like Joe Biden. McCarrick protected Biden when then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later to be Pope Benedict XVI) wrote that bishops were not to admit to Communion politicians like "gravely sinful" Biden who supports the killing of unborn babies. McCarrick lied for politicians like Biden by ignoring the important parts of the Ratzinger letter and told bishops not to ignore the Catholic Church law.  Last year, Fr. Robert Morey denied Holy Communion to the “gravely sinful” Biden following a "2004 decree signed jointly by the bishops of

    My good friend ( now deceased ), Mother Teresa of the Still River Mass convent , called me years before the McLucas story broke. Latest Comments 2Vermont JULY 30, 2019 I think the only thing I would add here is what seems like MV’S obsession with things of a sexual nature. Tom A JULY 30, 2019 He, like many, defend the institution with the zeal that should be used to defend the Faith. Sad. What Mr. Voris fails to admit is that it is the institution of the conciliar fake church that is the biggest enemy of the Faith. Lynda JULY 30, 2019 Blinded by secular values and prestige of man. coastalfarm JULY 30, 2019 Please see the article “Unmarked building, quiet legal help for accused priests” Dryden, Mich. (AP) for the priest Mr. Voris defends, Rev.Eduard Perrone of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church also known as Assumption Grotto, is co-founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii. This non-profit organization takes in accused priests and gives them shelter, legal defense, transportation, etc. Opus Bono claims to have helped over 8,000 priests and has raised over $8 million 2002-201

    The Biben Lying Machine: "Joe , do you know what else is a Sin besides Killing Babies? Lying... "

    October 09, 2020   It appears that Joe Biden was even a lying machine in 2008 according to the post " Media Ignores Biden Repeatedly Lies During 'Meet the Press' Interview" on the Weasel Zippers website: Joe Biden Repeatedly Lies During "Meet the Press" Interview, Claims he Doesn't Support Taxpayer Funded Abortions.....   Joe, do you know what else is a sin besides killing babies? Lying... ... Joe Biden repeatedly made the claim in a Sunday interview on the NBC political show "Meet the Press" that he opposes taxpayer funding of abortions. However, a look at his voting record over the years reveals numerous instances where Barack Obama's pro-abortion running mate did exactly that. "I don't support public, public funding. I don't, because that flips the burden. That's then telling me I have to accept a different view," he said on the program. As recently as February, Biden voted against an amendmen