Auto enthusiasts are being bombarded by an overload of predictions about the future of transportation. Peak oil, global climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, electrification of cars, wind, solar and wave energy sources, natural gas, biofuel, hydrogen... the list goes on. Ask the person on the street how we are going to solve all our future problems and more often than not they point to science as our salvation. That's putting on awful lot of weight on the shoulders of the scientists, whose work few people understand.
For most of us scientific work is most evident as photographs from Mars, a new possible cure for cancer, or dire predictions of the next global catastrophe, and the views of scientists carry a lot of weight when it comes the news media. The irony is that if you look at what scientists do and how they work, we're really asking too much when we ask them to predict the future or explain things with utter certainty.
Scientists-reputable scientists-are taught to use the "scientific method." This technique has evolved from the times of the ancient Greeks to help make sense of what we see going on around us. Whether scientific research takes place in a government laboratory, an orbiting space station, or on an Antarctic glacial field, the scientific method remains the same. This consistency gives science credibility and veracity, but as we'll see, it also imposes limits on what we can expect.
The method involves four major steps. The first is observation: observing a phenomenon. This can be as simple as watching a plant react to light or as complex as looking at the way traffic snarls during rush hour. The trick is seeing something different in those things that most people see every day without noticing anything unusual. Observation usually includes research into what has been already been done to explain what is occurring. If no explanation is available, or the existing explanation does not adequately explain the phenomenon, it's on to the next step: development of a theory.
A theory is an idea or set of ideas that explain a behavior. It's usually a combination of what has come before and what is observed. Theories generally follow an "if A then B" model, where a series of conditions are proposed (A) that end up with a series of consequences (B). Theories can never be proved; they can only be disproved.
To test a theory, a scientist breaks down existing conditions into the simplest case imaginable. The objective is to hold everything else constant while varying only one condition to be able to observe the effects of the changes in that parameter. The researcher produces a hypothesis, which is based upon the theory and predicts the results of these changes, and then performs experiments by holding all other variables constant (or nearly constant) and testing to find an outcome. Do this with enough variables and the results from all the hypotheses can begin to support a theory-but can never prove the theory to be 100 percent right. It just is not possible to conduct experiments for every condition and variable. Find just one result where the hypothesis does not match the theory and the theory is proven wrong. All is not lost, however, because the next step in the scientific method is to revise the theory and start over with a new series of hypotheses that can help to support or negate the new theory.
The final and perhaps most important step in the scientific method is sharing the results of experimental studies among peers, who can then replicate the experiments or add their own and help refine the theory. If all of this seems a bit dull and uninspiring, that's not how scientists view their work. This is the way in which science moves forward and, although often brutal to the egos of scientists, the scientific method ensures a level of trust that our knowledge is progressing in an orderly way.
Because theories can never be proven true, there is always a level of uncertainty when it comes to reporting scientific results. This can drive journalists and the public crazy, especially when the data supports two widely differing theories. The news media likes to deal in certainty and the public wants truth, yet even the best scientists cannot categorically state that their theories are true. However, unscrupulous scientists who work for vested interests can often obfuscate an issue by presenting data that supports the views of the highest bidder.
The situation worsens when we ask scientists to predict the future based upon the results of their experiments, hypotheses, and theories. Go back over the scientific method and ask yourself, what part of would lead you to believe that a scientist would be able to extrapolate his findings to predict an earthquake in Los Angeles, the rise in sea level over the next 20 years due to global warming, or the chance of life on Mars? Scientists are trained observers and spend their careers building explanations of phenomena based upon the results of their experiments. They produce theories that explain past results and, at best, allow educated guesses to be made about future events. Scientists are not soothsayers or prognosticators, yet we often expect them to be and are disappointed when they waffle about the timeframe or the scope of an impending disaster or new discovery
All of which brings us back to our beloved automobiles. There is ample evidence that the profligate overuse of fossil fuels is not only depleting the amount of petroleum in the world, but also gradually changing the planet's climate. Scientists have developed numerous theories about how fossil fuels are changing our society and world, and hypotheses that could support those theories, if they could be tested. Given the scale of the questions we need to ask, there is really no good way to perform an experiment on the entire planet to test any of these hypotheses in scientifically sound ways. Therefore, when pressed, scientists speak in generalities and probabilities, and the public is left scratching its head, wondering what to believe.
If no theory is 100 percent reliable and we can't be certain that any prediction will come true, should we discount science and continue along a business-as-usual path? We could do that and hope that the most dire consequences never occur, but that wouldn't be responsible. As a society we need to rationally assess risks and act to mitigate the consequences of our actions or inactions. As car enthusiasts we need to be responsible too, understanding how the choices we make in what we buy, what we recommend others buy, and the ways we use our cars will affect others and our own automotive future.