(The idealization) of the science in climate science

It has been more than a month when I wrote a post about Tom Peterson who explained the adjustments done in the Karl et al paper. At that time it surprised me that he decided to sent his correspondence to a blog that is characterized with ad hominem attacks on a regular basis by its blog owner. If this is his preference, I wondered about his mindset.

On the same page of the posting, there was a youtube video of a TEDX talk of Tom Peterson about “what is science and how it differs from Art, Law and Quackery” about how he sees science and more specific climate science. It was a succession of quotes from other scientists about science, luckily mixed with some personal thoughts. Listening to the discourse I could basically agree with his statements, but with most of them I had the question how they fit in with climate science. Here are the highlights that surprised me:

Science is the process, key is testing
Well, I can agree with that.

Must be falsifiable
He gives the example of aunt Mildred who claims that there is a ghost in her closet, yet because there is no way of testing this, it is not scientific, he goes even so far telling that therefor it hasn’t something to do with reality. Nice example, maybe a bit strongly put, but how much does this relate to global warming, knowing that the central tenet of the AGW theory (that CO2 is the main driver of global warming) is, well, not falsifiable either? Neither are the mathematical models. Does that mean climate scientists are not talking about reality? Just sayin’ 😉

Based on rejection and confirmation and testable knowledge
Sounds really nice, but I am not really sure how that fits in a chaotic, complex and coupled system with only sparse data available. As far as I know we have only one planet. It would be possible to test separate processes in the lab, sure, but when we want to bring this into the real world, that would not be testable anymore (only one planet, you know).

Science doesn’t deal in certainty
No problem with that, but I really hope climate scientists in the media will admit that to the public some day 🙂 Can’t wait!

But he probably meant something different than that.

Mistrust arguments of authority
I certainly like the sound of that. I am not sure though that the consensus scientists realize this when they claim that 97% of the scientists agree and therefor we need act, now.

If you doing an experiment you should report everything that you think make it invalid
Wow. I am hoping for the day that climate scientists are reporting that for example a recovery of a cold period could invalidate their theory of CO2 driving climate, that in an inherent chaotic, complex and coupled system with limited available data, conclusions can not relied on, that when using high quality data in stead of adjusting low quality data, the “hiatus” still exists,…

Nah. Not hold my breath on that one.

Science is self correcting
I work in a scientific environment (disclaimer: not as a scientist though and I don’t work in the field of climate science) and I know this is an ideal situation. In practice, things tend to be a bit more complex. I know scientists are pressured to publish and to publish in good journals. Peer review could work very well, but can also be biased for a wide variety of reasons. When I look for example at the Climategate emails, I can not but notice that a group of scientists were trying to influence the process in their direction. In a polarized science in which skeptic thoughts could have a negative impact on ones career, that self correcting ability could be rather small or only focused on one particular side.

In general, what struck me was the intense focus on consensus science: “Accumulated knowledge”, “Science builds on itself”, “Science that has been build for a hundred years”, “It grows so it is consistent with our well founded beliefs and is more reliable”.

Sure, we learn more and more as time progresses, but is this enough foundation to build policy decisions on? And if we really, really need to force our politicians into a decision, then there should be at least the decency to provide them with all sides of the issue, not just one.

He left a whole part out of the equation of what is also science and, in my opinion, relevant for climate science as how it is reported to the public:

  • a polarized science where only one side is reported and the other side ignored, excluded, censored, ridiculed
  • a politicized science that is used to advance a particular solution that is unpopular with the (uninterested) public, therefor science is the leverage in order to let the public swallow this proposed solution
  • a science with huge, unreported, inherent uncertainties, yet in failing to report them is ventilating unwarranted certainties to the public and policy makers

Again time for a disclaimer. I have no problem with his characterization of science, I think most skeptics could agree with that. But I am not really sure how this fits a science that is studying a chaotic and complex system with huge intrinsic uncertainties and limited data.

On the other hand, if this is how he thinks about climate science, then I could understand his mindset. If he really thinks that climate science is a matured, self correcting science studying a testable, falsifiable system and forgets about things like polarization or politicization, then skeptic voices are not to be taken seriously, just a hindrance that can be safely ignored.


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