Kelvin

Fire

Whilst having a discussion about the hazards of disagreeing with mainstream science (on any topic), it occurred to me that the example of Lord Kelvin could be very illuminating when considering the current controversy about global warming.

Born William Thompson, Kelvin was raised to the peerage in recognition of his pioneering work in thermodynamics, the first scientist of any kind to be so honoured. As one of the most eminent Victorian scientists (having established the value of absolute zero as -273°C), he turned his attention to one of the great scientific questions of the age: how old is the Earth?

Kelvin approached the problem by applying the principles of thermodynamics with which he was so familiar. He accepted that the Earth had once been a ball of molten rock, and so calculated how long it would have taken to cool to its present state. Over the years he refined his methods, and eventually settled on a possible range of 20 to 40 million years. This seemed extremely old to most people, and due to his outstanding eminence it became the widely accepted figure.

However, there was a problem. Contemporary geologists maintained that this was simply not enough time to explain the build up of sediments and the creation of many other features that they saw in the Earth’s crust. Darwin’s recent development of evolutionary theory also suggested that much longer timescales were required for life to have evolved as far as it has. In large part, Kelvin fell back on his deeply held Christian beliefs, claiming that God had sped up natural processes where required in order to foster the emergence of life. Kelvin would also have been buttressed by knowing that his own thermodynamic principles had been thoroughly tested in the laboratory, against the far less controllable field work of the other disciplines.

There was therefore plenty of debate over the problem and the various bits of evidence, but as nobody could find a major flaw in Kelvin’s calculations, and everyone accepted the laws of thermodynamics, nobody could prove him wrong.

Until the discovery of radioactivity.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that it was accepted that the heat of the sun wasn’t created through gravitational collapse, but instead by nuclear reactions. In a similar but lesser way, heavy elements throughout the Earth create heat as they radioactively decay. These individually tiny amounts of heat, released slowly across enormous timespans, are enough to slow the cooling of the Earth and extend the possible age out to billions of years. This discovery very neatly provided the time required for both the geological and evolutionary processes that had been observed. Lord Kelvin had indeed been wrong.

So in light of this excellent example of how science self-corrects, we can consider global warming, and those who believe that man is having a dangerous warming effect on our climate. I’m quite sure that the majority of such scientists are competent within their fields. I doubt that very many (if any) are of the stature of Kelvin, and that there are at least a few incompetents and charlatans, as found in any walk of life. But I am sure the majority are doing their work as diligently as they can.

I also believe that the vast majority of these scientists are correctly applying the physics they use, in the same way that Kelvin, a master in his field, fully understood the heat transfer processes he used in his calculations. There is no need to think that the greenhouse effect is just a myth, in order to doubt worrying predictions about climate change.

It is also true that, as is often noted, the basic physics behind climate alarmism have been thoroughly proven in the laboratory, and are well understood. This includes the basics of the greenhouse effect, radiative physics and heat transfer. But here we also have our first problem: just as Kelvin placed absolute trust in his application of thermodynamics alone to determine the age of the Earth, these scientists seem to assume that they already have at their disposal all the tools necessary to make accurate long-term climatic predictions. But the fact that global surface air temperatures have flat-lined for at least the last 17 years, despite all the terrible predictions of doom, demonstrates clearly that they do not. Soon temperatures will have spent longer flat-lining than they did rising in the 1980’s and 90’s, which started the whole kerfuffle in the first place.

Kelvin’s initial response to contrary evidence was to invoke a Creator, which I must admit I am yet to see any of these scientists do. But he did also make rigorous efforts to refine both his data and his methods, totally oblivious to the fact that they were fundamentally inadequate to his task. And indeed, we see these modern equivalents doing the same: refining their models, reassessing the data, and suggesting new places the ‘missing’ heat could have hidden.

I am not suggesting that we necessarily require a paradigm shift in our understanding of physics, commensurate with the discovery of radioactivity and nuclear reactions. But the basic problem remains: our planet’s climate is a chaotic system and we don’t have a long enough series of accurate data to fully understand all the processes taking place within it. We probably haven’t even identified them all yet. One day someone will be able to model such a system, and make accurate predictions as a result. But so far the predictions have been proven false.

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