Climate change: Distinguishing facts from theory


I have a bone to pick with Walter E. Williams when he says in his opinion column entitled “Intellectual Dishonesty,” (The Citizen, June 6 and 7, 2015) “To call any science settled is sheer idiocy.” (He said this in the context of claiming that climate change is not a fact.)

He is correct in saying that science is never settled. However, he is incorrect in not making a distinction between scientific FACTS (which are, indeed settled) and scientific theories that explain cause and effect (which are not settled).

Science comprises two basic parts: (1) Observable facts. By its very definition, a fact is a fact — it does not change.

(2) Explanation of causes/conclusions. That’s where things get dicey, because to explain a cause and draw a conclusion you have to test and piece together observable facts, and people are limited in facts by what is known at that moment in time. New facts can be discovered through inquiry, testing, and experimentation. This means modifying or — in some cases — discarding old explanations (theories).

When it comes to climate change and looking at (1) above, I get squirmy when people dispute the FACT that changes have occurred in our climate. Countless observations can be made when it comes to proving that the earth’s climate has changed — e.g., melting of the polar ice caps; modifications in animal migration patterns; rising of the oceans.

This leads to (2), above:

What is CAUSING these rapid changes in climate? Walter would be correct in speculating that explanations of the cause and ramifications of these changes will not be set in stone because we can speculate based only on the facts that are known today.

It is likely that we don’t have all the facts before us. Since scientists can draw conclusions based only on what is presently known, what is seen as causal one day might be overturned the next day with a new scientific discovery — and that’s fine.

So please, Mr. Williams, let’s make a distinction about what is “settled” in science, especially about climate change.

Mr. Obama is correct in saying that “the science is settled” when it comes to the FACT that the climate has changed, and it is not “idiotic” to make that statement.

The idiocy would be to think that the explanation for the change and what we need to do about it is settled. Such thinking only shuts off inquiry.

Marcia Hendershot
Peachtree City, Ga.