Modern Science: Counter-Intuition and Its Implications for Climate Change

Warren R. Johnson —


A major challenge facing the survival of the planet is climate change. A recent assessment by the US Global Change Research Program, a team of 13 federal agencies, predicts that the most dire consequences of human-caused climate change will be upon us much sooner than expected. Yet, we are seemingly unable to deal with the dilemmas it presents. In my view, the very notion of climate change is often rejected because of the counter-intuitive nature of scientific conclusions, and the resultant decline in appreciation of science itself by our educational systems and the public. In this essay, I wish to discuss these two elements affecting prevailing attitudes about science.

Science and Counter-Intuition

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James Inhofe

In early 2015 Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, sought to bring “science” to his senatorial colleagues by presenting them with a snowball to illustrate that the existence of cold weather proved that climate change was a hoax. Of course, it proved no such thing, but it did demonstrate that the melting snowball’s molecules went through the well-known states of solid, liquid, and gas before vanishing into thin air.

Inhofe’s example was an appeal to common sense and our ordinary intuitions about the world, particularly the inability to grasp the distinction between weather and climate. But common sense is often of little value where science is concerned. As valuable as common sense may be in daily life, conclusions we draw from science are often counter-intuitive.

To illustrate the limits of common sense logic, I will continue with the snow motif, which is reminiscent of a far more serious moment in science. In 1973, Otto Frisch wrote A Walk in the Snow recalling a visit he made during Christmas 1938 to his aunt Lise Meitner. She had fled Nazi Germany for Denmark and from there to Sweden. Meitner was pouring over a letter from Otto Hahn when Frisch arrived. Meitner and Frtisch decided to take a walk in the snow to discuss its contents. Evidently, Hahn and his colleagues had conducted an experiment—uranium bombarded by neutrons that resulted in additional radioactive products—that yielded odd results. Until then, the nucleus of the atom was thought to be like a drop of water. What Hahn had done, in Meitner’s and Frisch’s view, amounted to two drops of water that released an excessive amount of energy. Hahn had split the atom. Meitner scribbled equations on a scrap of paper describing a process that would later be called fission. The entire process was counter-intuitive.

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Richard Feynman

Thus, while we like to think science deals solely with concrete facts, modern science, especially physics, is counter-intuitive. It often focuses on processes largely hidden from our senses. For example, in 1940 Richard Feynman, an atomic physicist who later won a Nobel Prize, thought of a particle’s path as if it were a thread loosely arrayed in a cube. Successive slices of the cube exposed the particle’s path revealing a single point at first, next several points, then a thin line and more points, and finally a diminishing number of points. As Feynman saw it, not only could a small particle pass back and forth through time, now and then, a single particle might show up in several places at once.

Apart from a particle being in two places at once, traveling to and fro through time would seem to be a complete contradiction of common sense as well as the conclusions of Ludwig Boltzmann, a 19th-century Austrian physicist and philosopher, who argued that time is an arrow based on probability. We can “distinguish the direction towards the more improbable state from the opposite direction, calling the former the past, and the latter the future.” Said otherwise, the most probable state always lies in the future.

Unlike Boltzmann, however, Feynman adopted the principle of least action, which held as one of its axioms that fundamental phenomena are symmetrical with respect to past and future. In other words, small-scale particles might move back and forth through time while macroscopic bodies adhered to Boltzmann’s law. As Fritjof Capra noticed 40 years later, positrons might move forward in time and electrons backward. “The interpretations are mathematically identical.” On the human scale, however, we never run into people getting younger. They always grow older. As for being in two places at once, our size rules that out.

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Albert Einstein

Feynman was unaware of his viewpoint having been anticipated. Time-backward equations, expressed in the form of retarded and advanced waves, had been considered by Albert Einstein as early as 1909. For that reason not only did Einstein encourage the younger theoretician at a seminar in 1941, he spoke up on Feynman’s behalf saying that Feynman’s theory seemed possible, though perhaps in conflict with Einstein’s yet to be established theory of gravitation.

As scientists now know, the universe, conceived of as a closed system, must run down in the long course of time. Meanwhile, according to Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and only over a small span of time at that, open systems such as biological ones arise. Taken a step further, Hugo Engelmann stipulated that higher order systems emerge within lower order ones. In other words, one physical system, such as the earth, gives rise to numerous biological systems. A few of the latter, such as birds and mammals, produce complex behavior. Networks of relationships among biological systems constitute the ecological order while, one rank higher up, networks of interactions among human beings amount to the social order. As everyone knows, apart from climate change deniers, human beings are part and parcel of their environment, a fact of life we cannot change.

Our physical environment is non-intuitive. At the beginning of the 1900s, Max Planck, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1918, realized that energy could be imagined best as tiny packets called quanta, or small, discrete packets of energy. By the 1960s, Murray Gell-Mann and others imagined sub-atomic particles envisioned as quarks, particles smaller than protons or neutrons. Physical particles were getting smaller and smaller and beyond the reach of our senses.

To further demonstrate the counter-intuitive nature of science, Einstein asserted that the world around us, though it may appear to be random, could be statistically modeled. He did so in a 1905 paper on Brownian Motion, where he established that the distribution of random molecular collisions in liquid was in fact calculable. Nevertheless, in his remaining years, he often admonished others who might carry the statistical nature of things too far, by saying, “God doesn’t play dice!”

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Werner Heisenberg

Others such as Werner Heisenberg, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in quantum mechanics, argued to the contrary, not about God, but about nature. At the smallest order of magnitude, things are uncertain. At that level, simultaneous variations in momentum and position can never be measured precisely, since the extent of one variation times the extent of the other will always be greater than or equal to, but never smaller than, Planck’s constant—incredibly small—which will now be used as the basis for an even more exact measure of the kilogram.

Near the end of the 20th century, ordinary readers could find rather everyday news accounts of researchers on both sides of physics: ones researching astrophysics and others researching quarks. In 1994, the Ottawa Citizen reported that physicists gathered in Edinburgh searching for machos—massive compact halo objects. Within days, the Toronto Star reported on Pekka Sinervo’s search for top quarks at the Fermilab near Chicago. Both sides of physics had matured side-by-side. And yet, neither the conclusions of those researching the cosmos, nor the conclusions of those researching the sub-atomic world, conformed to common sense and ordinary intuitions.

The Rise of Pseudoscience

Near the end of the 20th century, science grabbed the interest of the public in ways never before imaginable. One is reminded of Einstein searching for an example by pointing out that the thickness of the walls of a box might be reduced to zero without affecting its space, and then concluding, “now there remains for our thought the space without the box, a self-evident thing.” On the one hand, that most things in modern science are not self-evident makes its popularity surprising. On the other hand, precisely because very little is self-evident, the wildest intuitions pop up, ranging from climate change is a hoax, to Michael Snyder’s 44 ”reasons for why evolution is just a fairy tale.” Even Arizona gets in on the race to the bottom by attempting to remove ”evolution wording” from school science standards.

Science, as we know, requires years of education to grasp and often requires speaking a special language where dictionary definitions no longer apply. In 1925, when he covered the Scopes Trial, H.L Mencken hit the nail on the head. The arts and sciences, he said, ”demand special training, often very difficult.”

The failure to appreciate the complexity of scientific conclusions is sometimes the product of the level of education at which people are taught. Instead of focusing solely on hard-and-fast facts, modern science is often counter-intuitive. As one example, high-school students frequently learn that gravity is best illustrated by an apple falling on Newton’s head. In contrast, college students learn, in agreement with Einstein, that gravity is a curve in space-time. If we could be sure students eventually got to college, what they learned in high school would not hold back their grasp of science.

Politics, combined with a general lack of appreciation of the difficulty of science and the fallibility of common sense, is too frequently an ingredient leading to the depreciation of scientific conclusions. As a recent state-wide teachers’ strike in West Virginia brought to light, even high-school science classes are held back when the assistant to the assistant wrestling coach is called upon to fill in for the science teacher and must learn his subject from the students’ textbook.

Politics, cultural sensitivities, and profit considerations are all ingredients in the depreciation of scientific conclusions that offend common sense or religious beliefs. The world of textbook publication is enormously important here. Textbooks vary in quality. Some publishers leave out science facts school administrators might find offensive, as was attempted in Arizona. When it comes to subjects such as climate change the difference between high school and college is immense. In college, students learn how data are collected, how to test a hypothesis, and what the difference between correlation and causation is. Whether high-school students learn that is doubtful. To top matters off, Curt Stager called attention to the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that intends to carpet bomb high-school teachers with 200,000 copies of Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming, a book that can be best described as pseudoscience.

The rift between adults with a college education and those with but a high-school diploma is already too wide. Undercutting education by the US Department of Education, as seems to be the trend, threatens to widen that rift further. Who will save us from climate catastrophe? Perhaps our only hope may come from the only scientists we see on a daily basis: weather forecasters. They alone, in the public eye, have the scientific background to offer credible warnings about the potential calamity we are facing—hopefully making the denial of climate change more difficulty to sustain.

Many thanks to John Engelmann, Jeff Matthews, and the editors of Wise Guys for their helpful comments.

Partial List of Sources

Ludwig Boltzmann, in P. K. Feyerabend, Physics and Philosophy, vol. 4 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Flitjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Bantam, 2nd ed. 1984).

Lauren Castle, ”Evolution Wording Removed from Draft of Arizona School Science Standards,” Arizona Republic (May 22, 2018).

Leah Crane, “Kilogram to be Defined by Planck Constant Instead of a Lump of Metal,” New Scientist (Nov. 16, 2018).

Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (Bonanza Books, 1954).

Hugo O. Engelmann, ”What is Modern Science?” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 3 (1962).

Otto Frisch, “A Walk in the Snow,” New Scientist (Dec. 20, 1973).

James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Vintage, 1993).

The Guardian, “Republican Senate Environmental Chief Uses Snowball as Prop in Climate Rant” (Feb. 26, 2015).

Joseph Hall 1994. “Memoirs of a Quark-hunting Man.” Toronto Star. 17 July. p.F8

David J. Marshall, ”Einstein and Parmenides,” The European (University of Maryland, no. 23 (Feb. 1980).

H.L. Mencken, ”Homo Neanderthalensis,“ The Baltimore Evening Sun (June 29, 1925).

Curt Stager, “Sowing Climate Doubt Among School Teachers,” New York Times (Apr. 27, 2017).

Sean Sublette, “I’m a TV Weatherman,” Vox (Sep. 19, 2017).

Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, “The Theory of Open Systems in Physics and Biology,” Science vol. III (1950).


warrenWarren R. Johnson served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1960s. He returned to the U.S. and attended Northern Illinois University under the G.I. Bill, earning his undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in sociology. He then repatriated to Germany and taught college courses through the University of Maryland-Europe, mostly to U.S. service members and their families, for 40 years. He currently lives in Bavaria.

1 Comment on Modern Science: Counter-Intuition and Its Implications for Climate Change

  1. Excellent assemblage of information here, Warren. Dealing just with climate change, what adds to potential devastating consequences are unknown factors such as tipping points, feedback loops, and irreversible interdependencies built into nature. The best of science has yet to enlighten us on these and other “known unknowns.”

    Science tells us that even if the entire world’s societies were to stop emitting the family of problematic greenhouse gasses right now, the residual effects already interdependently interacting would likely still contribute to more of the current natural disasters and building threats for an estimated decade or so. Scary. Nature will adjust and endure, but human societies will have many difficult challenges in the decades ahead (to say nothing of the many hundreds of thousands of species continuing toward extinction).

    On the optimistic side, technological applications around the globe have been and continue at the forefront of measures to confront advancing climate change and adapt to or sometimes reverse its effects. Most observers consider the biggest challenges to be political and issues of the collective will to confront what we are now seeing all around us on an almost daily basis.

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