Science is an activity done in community. It is a human, and therefore flawed, activity. It is done in a human, and therefore flawed, community.
One of Br. Guy’s talks focuses on the ice on Europa (click here for a version of the talk, and go to about 30 minutes in). For his Masters’ thesis he investigated that ice. He never considered then how astronomers knew that there was ice there. Later on he was asked to do a historical overview of the topic, and found that astronomers did not figure out that ice was on Europa until long after the evidence for ice became available in the later nineteenth century. The astronomical community of that time just wasn’t thinking about things like ice on Jovian moons. Guy and I turned this subject into an article for Sky & Telescope magazine. The material also features in a chapter of our upcoming book with Paulist Press.
In that book we also discuss how people, often very smart people, will tend to try to do science outside of the scientific community. They develop their own ideas about, say, the beginning of the universe, or the laws of physics, or COVID-19, or climate change. It does not work out well. These folks get termed “crackpots”.
I do science on my own all the time. My wife has to put up with me writing dates on light bulbs (I want to know how long they really last!), and keeping spreadsheet upon spreadsheet to track expenses, finances, charitable donations, automobile gas mileage — and utility costs.
When the household utility bill arrived in March, I entered the usual data from the bill into the spreadsheet: billing date, average temperature for the billing period, daily energy usage. The spreadsheet produces graphs of lots of things (of course). I began tracking Graney family utility data in April of 2000. Since the March 2023 data completed 23 years, I took a close look at the temperature vs. billing date graph:
Look at the black curve on that graph. That curve is a 4th-degree polynomial fit to the data, there to help me visualize trends. Toward the right, the line bends… down? Yes, down — where the arrows are below:
Down means cooler. This makes no sense. On March 1 of this year, the high in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, USA was 83°F (28°C). That was ridiculously warm — the previous temperature record was bested by 6°F! Not that long ago we saw 100°F (38°C) in October.
I selected the past ten years of data — April 2013 through March 2023 — and fit a line to it (below). The line showed a negative slope. The data showed that temperatures have been dropping over the past decade.
What is more, the black curve suggests that temperatures have been dropping for longer than a decade. Playing around with the line fit, I found that the slope was more dramatically negative over the period of April 2010 through March 2023 (below). The slope dropped at 0.00064 degrees per day over that span of time. That translates, across that 13-year period (about 4700 days), into about a three degree F drop (.00064 × 4700 ≈ 3) in average temperature.
That’s a lot. I do not know what to think about that. My experience tells me that it’s not getting cooler in Louisville; there is no doubt that we have had instances of record heat. And of course what is in the news is completely counter to the idea that my town might be experiencing a significant decade-long cooling trend.
Yet there’s the data, staring at me (and now you). Could the utility company be giving false temperature readings? That does not make sense. Moreover the utility’s temperature readings should correlate to my heat energy usage (yes, I have a graph for that) according to the laws of physics — and they do, just as one would expect.
I could take the “crackpot” route here. I could attribute this to some vast utility conspiracy to hide the truth, but my temperature and energy use graph counters that. Even less likely is that my data has the truth, that I am the one who has discovered how it really is (bwah-ha-ha-ha-haaa!), and the whole “global warming” business is bogus.
What is most likely, however, is that the utility data is correct, the global warming business is not bogus, and yet… despite the global trend somehow my corner of the world is in fact experiencing a 13-year cooling trend, bursts of record heat notwithstanding. But there are difficulties with that. How can this place see that much cooling over that long a span of time, given the realities of climate change?
Worse, how is it that I do not feel for myself that it is getting cooler around here? Is my sense of reality being driven more by what my community tells me than by reality itself? Do I fail to see the ice on Europa because that’s not what my community is thinking about?
That brings us back to the flawed community that is science. It is often said that the scientific community tries to persuade people of things by throwing more and more data at them, a tactic that does not work. Some say, rather, that the scientific community needs to tell stories that people can relate to — forget all those tedious numbers, those boring indicators of reality.
I’m not sure about that. As I have discussed in other posts, scientific questions can be complicated — bald eagles can be returning to a city at the same time that temperatures are soaring and trash is littering the ground. If we talk about climate change as though we all see it happening before our eyes, then what of those who see something else? What of those who are seeing the eagles while we are staring at the trash? If most of us are thinking in one way, what about those who are thinking in another?
It might be the case that not many people analyze their utility bills like I do, but if the Louisville data is correct, then it is probably also the case that some number of people, in some way, notice what I have noticed. And then those people say, “Naw, ain’t no way its gettin’ warmer around here these days.” Of course, that would make them “crackpots” or “climate deniers”, except that they are actually seeing something real — like ice on a moon, maybe. To dismiss them is unjust and uncharitable.
I do not have any answers here. However, somehow I think we would all be better off, and do better at addressing problems like climate change, or learning more rapidly about things like ice on moons, if the scientific community could pull all this together — to be more inclusive, while not going off the rails, scientifically speaking; to think about things like ice on moons, while still rejecting mice on them (read the Sky & Telescope article!); to recognize that not everyone who does not see what their community sees is a crackpot or a denier. But I am at a loss for how to do it. Heck, I can’t even explain my own utility data.