The Burden of Proof
Written by Brittany Martin on June 21, 2017
In our culture we are constantly required to give in to the claims of Science. The phrase “Science has proven” is the Q.E.D. of modern debate. Moderns scoff at the idea of God being on their side, yet easily swallow the notion that Science is on their side. This year the March for Science and the Paris Climate Agreement both demand that we side with Science on climate change, but has Science proven climate change?
For different fields of study, different types of proof are required. Many fields require non-scientific proof; in fact, any field that is not scientific. For example, questioning the assertion that Germany lost World War II because we couldn’t prove it scientifically would be silly. We know Germany lost the war because of historical proof, not scientific proof. Historical proof rests on finding reliable witnesses and their accounts of a particular event. This is not scientific, but it is responsible historical scholarship.
Similarly, how would we prove that God exists? Could this be proven scientifically? The study of philosophy is not scientific. God’s existence can be studied philosophically, but given that He is outside nature, He is impossible to prove scientifically. For something to be proven scientifically, it must first be a part of the natural world. Secondly, the phenomenon must be reproducible by experiment. Throughout much of the 18th century the study of science was limited to phenomena that were “observable and reproducible.”
This systematic way of studying the natural world changed the nature of scientific proof. Instead of proving that something was the cause, the scientific method proves what is not the cause using observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and theory. This was first developed by Copernicus in the 15th century, and was more explicitly outlined by Francis Bacon in the 16th (Hummel, 1986). A systematic method of studying nature was fundamentally at odds with Greek scientific study. Aristotle’s science was a logical deduction from previously understood principles, such as the “obvious” fact that the sun orbited the earth. This deductive reasoning was accepted for several thousand years, until Copernicus used observation and experiment to show that it was wrong. The scientific method used inductive reasoning to usher in the scientific revolution (Hummel, 1986).
Copernicus’ observations did not prove that heliocentrism was true, but did show that geocentrism was false. Over the next 200 years Galileo, Kepler, and Newton did not prove heliocentrism, but provided further observations consistent with the hypothesis of heliocentrism. Not until we went to space and actually observed the earth’s relationship to the sun was the heliocentric theory actually proven to be true. To some, these distinctions may seem like splitting hairs, but they are fundamental to the nature of scientific proof. My undergraduate professor, who is a wise pagan, once said, “Science cannot prove anything. It can only disprove.”
Which brings us back to climate change. If climate change just means that the climate varies, then the answer is easy. This can be studied by historical proof, and doesn’t need scientific proof. In fact, this is one of the rare points where evolution and creation agree: the world once had a global, tropical climate, and it doesn’t now. So global climate change must occur. However, the Paris Climate Change Agreement doesn’t stop there. If it did, there wouldn’t be much of a point for its existence. The authors of this particular piece of legislation assert that humans are the cause of climate change, and that something can be done to stop it, but is this proven scientifically?
If the hypothesis is that humans are responsible for climate change, then we should find published experiments showing that this hypothesis stands up to experiment. In addition, we should find experiments that conclusively eliminate all other sources for climate change such as the natural cycles of weather patterns, seasonal variability, or local microclimates. Even if we have sufficient data for all those claims, a careful scientist would never assert that they have proven that humans are the cause for global warming, but that experimental evidence is consistent with that hypothesis.
What does the data say? The National Oceanic Administration Association (NOAA) observations show an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the last 100 years, but this does not directly correlate to an increase in temperature (Wile, 2005). In fact, meteorologists have only been able to accurately measure average worldwide temperature since the first weather satellites were launched into orbit in 1979, meaning that there exists less than forty years of reliable data. Interestingly, graphs of rising global temperature show the variation in degrees Celsius from average, but with less than forty years of data, one wonders how the average temperature was deduced (Dlugokenchy and Tans, 2017).
I recently took a graduate geology course whose aim was to study the relationship between human activity and climate change. The professor is a good scientist and wanted us to study the scientific basis for global warming, especially the popular notion that cattle contribute to global warming by increasing carbon emissions. About halfway through the course we realized that the papers we had been working through had nothing to do with global warming or climate change, but were mostly on the effect that bioturbation has on soil. When we asked our professor why the focus of the class had changed, he remarked that he couldn’t find one published paper in a scientific journal quantifying the relationship between human or animal activity and climate change.
The scientific “consensus” on climate change is by no means a scientific consensus. Just because a scientist holds a particular political or social opinion does not make that opinion scientific. The scientific method requires a heavy burden of proof, which often requires hundreds of years for verification. The urgent call to act now on climate change assumes a fundamental shift away from the philosophy of the scientific revolution, one that has more in common with political revolutions than scientific ones.
Dlugokenchy, Ed and Pieter Tans (June 5, 2017). “Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.” NOAA/ESRL. www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends.
Hummel, Charles E (1986). The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible. Inter-Varsity Press.
Wile, Jay C (2005). Exploring Creation with Biology, 2nd edition. Apologia Educational Ministries, Indiana.