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How Science Will Get Rid Of The AGW Dogma

(thanks to BBC’s In Our Time for inspiring this blog)

Will Science ever get rid of the silly “It’s all CO2/It’s all global warming” dogma that AGW has degraded into? Yes it will, as a matter of course (“you can fool all of the people some of the time…” and all that). But when? And can we draw down a likely process that will make that happen?

Yes we can.

It’s rather straightforward, and on past performance suggests any date between 2018 and 2091 as the year CO2-based AGW (or CO2-AGW) went the way of the dodo (using a quasi-arbitrary baseline of 1988 as when AGW became mainstream, with Hansen’s testimony to the US Senate).

Here’s the outline then for how Science will reject CO2-AGW:

  1. Wait a suitable number of years (could be 30, could be 93)
  2. Present yet more irrefutable evidence and improved measurement techniques to a recognized expert in the field

How can we know? What we need is an example from the history of Science, showing:

  1. how for decades all evidence contrary to an established, multi-disciplinary consensus had been there for all to see
  2. how that evidence went repetitively rejected, for years and years again and again even when yet new evidence of the same sort kept surfacing (thereby showing how the consensus had turned into a dogma)
  3. how peer-review failed miserably because of the dogma
  4. and finally how a new consensus supplanted the old dogma mostly because:
  • a new generation of established scientists became available, with nothing personal at stake in defending the established consensus/dogma;
  • the newest new evidence was recognized as incontrovertible (together with the old one, with the wisdom of hindsight) also thanks to the development of new measurement techniques

And here’s the example. It involves the Ediacaran animals (let’s call them “animals” shall we), at least 3 scientists either wholly diregarded or actively isolated by the consensus/dogma crowd, a few rejected scientific papers, for example by Nature magazine, and a consensus/dogma in the shape of the rather odd theory that complex animals popped up on this planet all of a sudden in the Cambrian era (around 540 million years ago).

To us it might as well appear quite obvious that Earth has been populated by something larger than bacteria before the “Cambrian explosion” (the Ediacarans being our “lucky strike” in finding something across such an enormous span of time, somehow imprinted as a fossil). But that was not the consensus until around 50 years ago, and it is actually still being used to nag poor Darwin, of all people the one more at pain in understanding why nobody could find complex lifeforms before the Cambrian geological strata.

But that was not the case. Such lifeforms’ fossils were found as early as 1868:

The first Ediacaran fossils discovered were the disc-shaped Aspidella terranovica, in 1868.

At least one scientist understood they were fossils, as early as 1872 (note how others had been blinded by…the established consensus!!):

However, since they lay below the “Primordial Strata”, the Cambrian strata that were then thought to contain the very first signs of life, it took four years for anybody to dare propose they could be fossils.

Alas, consensus won the day, and buried the fossils into the forgetfulness of history:

Elkanah Billings’ proposal (see here) was dismissed by his peers […] the one-sided debate soon fell into obscurity.

Six decades on, more pre-Cambrian stuff is found. Guess how it all ends:

In 1933, Georg Gürich discovered specimens in Namibia, but the firm belief that life originated in the Cambrian led to them being assigned to the Cambrian Period, and no link to Aspidella was made.

Thirteen more years pass, and a strong-willed Australian paleontologists gets involved. Consensus still (barely) wins, although against the first signs of a breakdown:

In 1946, Reg Sprigg noticed “jellyfishes” in the Ediacara Hills of Australia’s Flinders Ranges but these rocks were believed to be Early Cambrian, so while the discovery sparked some interest, little serious attention was garnered.

And here’s how the story ends, and the dogma, with an already well-respected scientist called Martin Glaessner and yet more evidence:

It was not until the British discovery of the iconic Charnia in 1957 that the pre-Cambrian was seriously considered as containing life. This frond-shaped fossil was found in England’s Charnwood Forest, and due to the detailed geologic mapping of the British Geological Survey there was no doubt that these fossils sat in Precambrian rocks. Palæontologist Martin Glaessner finally made the connection between this and the earlier finds, and with a combination of improved dating of existing specimens and an injection of vigour into the search, many more instances were recognised.

Of course, some things never change: Nature rejected Sprigg’s original article, then published Glaessner’s letter.

So much for “peer review”.

Reg Sprigg switched to the Energy&Environment equivalent of the time, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. Glaessner’s appeared on International Journal of Earth Sciences Volume 47, Number 2 / June, 1959.

The partner of Sprigg’s son is his biographer and has more about that:

If you look at them now I find it very hard [to think] that anybody could doubt them: they are about the size of the palm of your hand and you can quite clearly see they are circular, they look as you’d expect a jellyfish to look if it had dried out, or some kind of worm or something. But back then, yeah, he wrote a paper and submitted it to Nature, which is one of the most prestigious journals in the world, and they rejected it, they didn’t believe either in what he’d found. And it was about another 10 years before some amateur naturalists went back to Reg’s site and found some more specimens, different ones again, and took them again to the museum. And by then the museum was a little bit more interested and they organised their own expedition and brought back two truckloads of material and from then, the momentum grew.

What rules can we identify for the AGW debate? Nothing to be too proud of:

  • You might as well present irrefutable evidence against the dogma. Yet, it may be too early, in other words no recognized expert will be available to pick it up, so your efforts will only be good as backup material to future, post-dogma researchers (think Steve McIntyre)
  • Without improvements in the measurement techniques, we would still be discussing the possibility of exiting the old “Cambrian” dogma. (think Anthony Watts…it means “keep up the good work on the surface stations, don’t expect too much coming out of the rest of the WUWT blog for the time being” (see rule (a))
  • If the irrefutable evidence and improved measurement techniques meet a budding or rather unknown scientist (Sprigg) rather than an authority (Glaessner), well, it will be up to the authorities (Glaessner) to have the courage to follow up (see rule (a)).

Let’s be pragmatic and accept that’s just the way things are: CO2-AGW is a “conspiracy” where most of the “conjurors” have little idea they are actively practising it. Still, they are.

  1. Willy Mills
    2010/02/19 at 13:25

    I predict the change will happen much, much faster. The examples given for the time required for new theories to be accepted all occurred after the printing press and before the internet. Pre printing press, progress was measured in centuries.

    The join of the printing press to reliable postal delivery systems dramatically accelerated the pace of scientific progress. It fundamentally changed the way knowledge was accumulated and disseminated. Another fundamental change is under way. The internet joined with search engines now makes the dissemination of criticism occur nearly instantly and at close to zero cost. The peer reviewed journal is now a solution without a problem. The university system, its lecture halls, libraries, and tenured professors, is also on the chopping block.

    Human behaviour has not changed much. Michael Mann will keep his beliefs and his tenure but not his respectability. Science will move on without him. The IPCC will still be publishing edicts a decade hence, but with no more attention given than the latest bulletin from the Vatican: Galileo has been pardoned.

  2. Kevin Behan
    2009/12/06 at 11:44


    Wouldn’t it be nice to thank Reg Sprigg for having the guts in being branded as
    a heretic when he stood his ground for so many years waiting for the dogmatic
    scientific world to accept his evidence of the Ediacaran period in the geological time
    span.Well it is possible.Reg brought Arkaroola,a large tract of land in South Australia,
    and together with his family turned it into the Arkaroola Widerness wild life sanctuary.
    The South Australian Government are calling for ‘submissions ‘ from interested persons as to the removal of the present simplistic planning protection on Arkaroola
    so that the sanctuary can be exploited for mining.The last date for making submissions is the 18th of December.Please see on the below site.
    With Regards,
    Kevin Behan. London

    • 2009/12/06 at 11:54

      Kevin – thank you for the Arkaroola link. Looks like a complex subject, at first glance. Do you know of anybody that would be willing to write a blog about it?

  3. Luke Warmer
    2009/07/20 at 10:31


    (Just back from Padua/Vicenza – very nice)

    Yep – this is it, the quote I used from Chalmers before still stands:

    “Scientific theories are fallible and remain subject to improvement or replacement.”

    You’re entering the whole social construction argument that has been raging for a long time. (Search SSK or strong programme). And the ‘science wars’.

    Any group activity of humans is political (with a small p). Yet scientists have this belief that they are powerful, logical & rational enough to avoid it.

  4. 2009/07/15 at 22:09

    Good article and comment. Another example that springs to mind is the Pre-Clovis controversy in anthropology , where the writers of history books continued to state dogmatically that the first Americans (Clovis culture) arrived by way of the Bering land bridge 11,000 years or so before the present, in the face of evidence that there were earlier migrations.

    One thing seems certain – these disputes take a long time to resolve themselves.

    • 2009/07/16 at 05:07

      Another positive result of the AGW debate…an increased awareness of how much Science there is in science, and how much there isn’t…

  5. Douglas Hoyt
    2009/07/14 at 17:42

    Something similar happened in solar physics where the rock-solid theory eventually failed when observations became available in the late 1970s. Here is what I wrote on it a few years ago:

    “Modeling the internal rotation rates of the sun and stars is a problem that has occupied scientists for more than 100 years. In 1898 a mathematical proof was derived that showed spherical rotating bodies will have interior rotations with cylinderical symmetry. This theorem formed the basis for further studies of solar rotation and the solar dynamo.

    By the 1970’s elaborate computer models requiring mainframe power to run were developed and these conclusively showed that the interior solar rotation was cylinderically symmetric. Then solar helioseismology was discovered and developed. By the 1980’s it was possible to actually measure the interior solar rotation. Nearly everyone expected the models to be confirmed.

    Surprise, surprise! The interior solar rotation was nothing like what the models predicted.

    The lessons to be learned here are:

    1. Models that are perceived to be correct for more than 80 years can prove to be mistaken.

    2. The scientists who did the modeling were brilliant people and their integrity cannot be questioned, but nonetheless they are fallible.

    3. Hundreds of peer reviewed articles on the subject did not guarantee the models were correct.”

  1. 2012/03/21 at 00:53
  2. 2012/03/21 at 00:45
  3. 2010/11/14 at 20:05
  4. 2010/06/16 at 12:33
  5. 2010/02/19 at 10:12
  6. 2010/02/19 at 10:02
  7. 2010/02/18 at 11:39
  8. 2010/02/15 at 10:21
  9. 2009/10/19 at 20:52
  10. 2009/07/21 at 09:52
  11. 2009/07/14 at 12:52

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