It’s a century since Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in the trenches, where he spent the Great War fighting for Austria against the allies. It was published in England in 1922, with a generous introduction by Bertrand Russell, who had spent part of the same war in prison for opposing the same war. His praise was doubly generous, given that the whole point of the Tractatus is to prove that the life’s work of Bertrand Russell, whose lectures Wittgenstein had briefly attended while he was studying engineering at Cambridge, was a waste of time.
The Tractatus famously opens with Proposition 1:
“The world is everything that is the case.”
And then hammers home the point with propositions 1.1, 1.11 and 1.2 :
“The world is the totality of facts, not of things. The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts. For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.”
From this unpromising beginning he manages to deduce, in a few short pages, a logical proof that philosophy is pointless, a big mistake. But that you could never prove it. All you could do is point it out.
6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method.
6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
Instead of throwing away the ladder, let’s climb down from these dizzy heights and consider one part of the real world, or rather the facts of which it is constituted, or rather the propositions which describe these facts. Namely, the propositions describing global temperature.
(Let’s leave aside for the moment the argument that there’s no such thing as a global temperature. The same argument can be used against anything that’s measured, at some level of precision.)
My school atlas used to have pages of temperature graphs, showing the average temperature change month by month for a number of spots on the globe. So I learnt that the average temperature in London varied from 5°C in January to 19°C in July, while in Singapore it stayed steady at 28°C all year round. Nobody mentioned the change year by year from 1860 to the present, because it was too tiny to notice. Nowadays, everyone’s fascinated by the change in average global temperature since 1860, and no-one’s bothered by the difference in temperature between London and Singapore, since your hotel will have decent heating and air conditioning at both ends of your trip. The facts haven’t changed, (Singapore is still hotter than London) but there’s been a revolutionary change in the choice of which propositions describing those facts get put forward.
Facts don’t change, but the propositions that describe them do. And the propositions about past temperatures are notoriously malleable. As Steve Goddard points out tirelessly, the NOAA, which produces estimates of average global temperatures, is forever changing its estimates of past temperatures. Not all past temperatures, of course. Two or three centuries ago, there were just a few thermometers at a few universities, and presumably everything that we can ever know about them is already known. (And as for temperatures before then, only the tree rings know, and their utterances are frequently mysterious, but correctly interpreted in the peer reviewed literature, until proved otherwise.) So there’s a kind of fixed point at the date when global temperature measurement became reliable, which is conventionally fixed at 1860. And of course, the present forms a second fixed point, since our current estimate of global temperature is as good as we know how to make it. (And the same goes for very recent temperature estimates, since it would be silly to announce on the second of January 2018 that the figure for 2017 announced the day before already needs adjusting. It would look sloppy.) But between these two fixed points, the temperature graph is a kind of loose string which can be fiddled with at will. So, while scientists are able to announce with certainty that there’s been a rise of 0.9°C in the past 150 years or so, the slope of their floppy string can vary quite significantly from decade to decade.
Of course, variations from one year to the next are of no interest, since they zigzag wildly. A jump or a drop of 0.2°C is not unusual, which, if projected forward, would amount to a rise or fall of 20°C in a century – a clear absurdity. So discussion tends to focus on decadal or multidecadal changes. Here SkepticalScience is your friend. They have a neat little tool (no, I don’t mean him) for estimating average temperature change over any period you like. By playing with it (or cherrypicking, to use the scientific term) you can get a recent decadal temperature rise of anywhere between 0.1 and 0.2°C, which represents a wide margin of error, but doesn’t get near the 3 or 4°C temperature rise by the end of the century which is used to frighten the masses and their bosses.
You can see the problem this poses if you imagine the temperature graph from now to 2100 as another loose piece of string fixed at both ends, one in the present and the other 3°C higher in 82 years’ time. Temperatures need to start rising at about 0.37°C per decade to get there – right now. That’s almost twice as fast as the biggest decadal rise you can cherrypick in the recent past. Even if you count the 3°C rise starting from about 1950 when our CO2 emissions began to take off, you still need temperatures to rise by more than 0.3°C per decade pretty sharpish. And of course, the longer you leave it, the sharper the eventual rise has to be. In other words, you need a hockeystick. Do any of the models predict a hockeystick? I don’t think so. How could they? What could possible cause it? And where’s the elbow? This has an interesting implication. Even if temperatures do rise by the kind of amount the models predict, they’d still be wrong, since there’s nothing in their models to predict the sharp elbow needed to get there.
But let’s leave the future, which is just speculation, (and my speculation is no better than the speculation of the world’s greatest minds, i.e. useless) and return to the past (which, unlike the future, can be changed at will by experts.) Remember that average temperatures for past years have been regularly changed, almost always downwards. It should be possible for a more mathematical mind than mine (Kevin Marshall? Paul Homewood?) to calculate for any given year in the past, how much, on average, the global temperature has been changed downwards in any given following year. It could even be worked up into a SkepticalScience-type calculator which we could offer to John Cook and his fellow Skeptics as a present. And the really neat thing about this little tool (no, I don’t mean him) is that it could be used to predict how much the temperature for 2017 (or 2018 for that matter) would be likely to be reduced in any given future year. So we could adjust it straight away, instead of waiting for some future head of NOAA to do it for us at some distant date, when it will no longer be newsworthy.
There. That’s my Tractatus Logico-Climaticus. Of course, there’s nothing philosophical about it, but it does obey Wittgenstein’s dictum at 6.53 above about only saying what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science. So I hope someone cleverer than me will actually do the sums and tell us what the temperature in 2017 will have been adjusted to in 2050. My grandchildrens’ lives may depend on it.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the last proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:
7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.