Scientific method and climate change

It really does get tedious to read the various defences of the climate change hypothesis wheeled out by scientific illiterates. Take The Age today with its editorial that “The evidence is in: science gets an F”. See why we need a Minister for Science and a paid up CSIRO. The Age is concerned about this:

The rather unedifying sight of the brush-off by advisers to the government of the scientific evidence on the great challenge facing the planet: climate change.

Science, I’m afraid, is not a set of conclusions but a method of investigation. The scientific method is about demonstrating some hypothesis is possibly true by arranging a series of repeatable experiments that will allow you to reach a tentative conclusion along the lines of the evidence is consistent with this hypothesis being valid. It’s a methodology that has gone a long way in the past thousand years to changing just about everything about what we do and how we think.

I am told, for example, that water is made up of two gases, hydrogen and oxygen. It seems completely implausible to me but apparently the evidence is pretty conclusive. It seems that water can be broken down into these two gases if you know how, and can be made to appear if these two gases are brought together in a particular way. Here the science is pretty settled, although we must always keep an open mind.

In regard to climate change, however, the evidence, such as it is, has more in common with economics than making liquids out of gases. In economics we develop theories but there are no repeatable experiments. We use common sense and a review of history to piece together hypotheses about the nature of reality. We then test these by making predictions about what will happen in the future based on our theories. Oddly, and it is an oddity, almost no economist I have ever heard of has changed any opinion based on the fact that some forecast did not turn out as predicted. There are always other circumstances – those other conditions that were not controlled as the world unfolded – that they are able to conjure up that caused the outcome to be different from the prediction. So on we go with our theories near immortal based on nothing other than historic authorities who said something sometime back that happened to catch on.

Thus climate change. Where is the evidence? Every prediction of every model has now been falsified by events. Not one has predicted the way things actually turned out. I don’t expect anyone to change their mind as a result, but I do wish they would shut up about this being about accepting science. There are no repeatable experiments, just forecasts that never actually forecast correctly. More like a pseudo-science if you ask me, like astrology or reading the Tarot.

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29 Responses to Scientific method and climate change

  1. Rafe

    Great work Steve! I have been planning a post to ask the question “What is the point of the academic study of the history and philosophy of science (HPS)?”

    Thousands of academics and students have been involved in his discipline since it became a significant field in the 1960s although little of value has emerged due to the dominance of the logical empiricists, followed by T. S. Kuhn and Imre Lakatos. It is no accident that during this period the climate caper took off while the Popperian critical method of perpetual testing was sidelined.

    Interesting suggestion from Popper, writing in The Poverty of Historicism (1944/1957). He speculated about ways to arrest scientific and industrial progress, for example by closing down (or subjecting to political control) laboratories for research, scientific periodicals, congresses and conferences, universities and printing presses. This is a part of his take on the social nature of science, and his proposal for an institutional study of science and industrial progress.

    “Science, and more especially scientific progress, are the results not of isolated efforts but of the free competition of thought. For science needs ever more competition between hypotheses and ever more rigorous tests. And the competing hypotheses need personal representation, as it were: they need advocates, they need a jury, and even a public. This personal representation must be institutionally organized if we wish to ensure that it works. And these institutions have to be paid for, and protected by law. Ultimately, progress depends very largely on political factors; on political institutions that safeguard the freedom of thought: on democracy.”

    He went on to underline the importance of freedom of speech.

  2. Andrew

    The warmies tell me were on track for 6C a century, or 1/2C every 8 years. I promise I will support good carbon policy if satellite data shows 1/2C by 2022. Deal? Hell, let’s call it 0.4C in 2020 when allegedly the world will come together to agree to a truly global ETS. Since nothing can happen in EM countries before that, you won’t mind if I take up just 6 years right?

  3. John Comnenus

    We will have ‘Law’ of Global Warming when the science is settled. Until then stop telling me the sciences settled.

  4. topological

    I think “Global Warming” will become an interesting case study for future philosophers of science. I agree fully that warmists are not actually practicing science according to the Popperian definition, since it is not really falsifiable. But beyond this I have a second, broader concern with the way they practice their “science”. Successful hard sciences like particle physics and chemistry all have a tight logical structure. One starts with a small set of basic axioms whose truth is based on repeated experimentation, and then builds the rest of the theory out of strict logical deductions from this small set. The theory of global warming has neither a small set of basic, rigorously tested axioms, nor a broader mathematical theory built out of strict logical deductions. It replaces logical deduction with computer simulations starting from very many parameters with semi-arbitrarily chosen values. I see no reason why such a method could possibly lead to predictions one could rely on and base policy around, especially for a system so notoriously chaotic as weather. I have no rational reason to trust it; we are simply presented with computer models with a record of unreliably predictions and told to submit before them, since they predicts dire things to come.

  5. 2dogs

    The scientific method is about demonstrating some hypothesis is possibly true …

    No, and this part of the problem. The proper application of the scientific method requires the identification and testing of every hypothesis.

    One can’t merely pick one’s preferred hypothesis and test only it.

  6. jupes

    AGW theory states that an increase in (man made) CO2 will increase global temperature. Here is a chart from William Kininmonth:

    Years Atmospheric CO2 increase Temperature
    1900 – 1960 16 ppm + 0.4C
    1960 – 2000 53 ppm + 0.4C
    2000 – 2013 27 ppm 0

    It is safe to say that AGW has been debunked.

  7. jupes

    Here’s another go at that chart:

    Years…………………………Atmospheric CO2 increase…………. Temperature
    1900 – 1960…………….. 16 ppm ………………………………………+ 0.4C
    1960 – 2000…………….. 53 ppm ……………………………………..+ 0.4C
    2000 – 2013………………27 ppm ……………………………………..0

  8. BilB

    To help clear clear away the fog of understanding on climate science here is a history of how the science developed, and the tortured path to the final proof the global Warming is real.

    It is understandable that people with no interest in science may be confused on climate change as the study has been underway for over a hundred years and has been largely invisible. I hope that reading these essays makes that process more present and real for you. All of the reference are documented for anyone who wants to verify each point.

  9. Rafe

    Climate science is not a single science, it is a mixture of several disciplines ranging from geology to astrophysics and the bodies of theory that these disciplines draw upon differ in their accuracy and testability.
    The models are only a part of climate science and one of the least robust parts as well.
    On a point of detail, you cant test every hypothesis because there are too many, you can try to test the ones that you think really matter.
    It looks as though global warming could be a non-event because it is likely that the globe has not warmed for the better part of two decades.

  10. jupes

    It really does get tedious to read the various defences of the climate change hypothesis wheeled out by scientific illiterates.

    Another bit of crap continually wheeled out by the wilfully ignorant is that China is a global leader on climate change.

    Here is cohenite from an earlier post:

    Fact: During the last eight years China’s CO2 has doubled. It now emits 27% of global CO2 emissions. They intend doubling that again over the next eight years.

    The insane have taken over the asylum.

  11. johno

    The evidence is in and the science has been settled.

    There is no credible evidence to support man made climate change. It is now settled that it was a con inflicted on the humanity by Green activists who called themselves scientists and actual scientists who sold out their integrity for taxpayers dollars.

  12. sabrina

    Why has China’s emissions doubled and still increasing? It’s large population, need to grow and its exports. Outside of the main cities, the standard of living and quality of life is a fraction of what we take for granted in our western cities.

    Few economics journal papers I have seen suggest that over one-third of its emission are attributed to its exports. Does anyone think the Chinese made items sold in $2 shops reflect their true cost?

  13. Nato

    There are no ‘facts’ in science, only theories which best describe our current observations.

    Unless you’re a theoretical physicist. How those folks avoid a plague of ‘economics envy’ baffles me.

  14. handjive

    The same Prof. Chubb who said in March, 2012, quote:

    “We have seen in recent times how the scientific process has been misrepresented.

    I am reminded of a piece in the Wall Street Journal recently, responding to an earlier one authored by 16 (denier) scientists two of whom had expertise[11]. 

    The (settled climate science) response started with words like: if you have a heart problem do you go to your dentist.”

    Inspiring Australia’s Scientific Culture by Australia’s Chief Scientist

    28 July 2014:
    Gum disease linked to chronic health problems
    . . .
    Mark that down as F for Fail.

  15. Baldrick

    The forecasts of gerbil wormening climatologists are filled with as much science as the quatrains of Nostradamus.

  16. Bruce of Newcastle

    To help clear clear away the fog of understanding on climate science here is a history of how the science developed

    BilB – There you go again, you are linking to a website by Spencer Weart, who is a prolific Democrat donor (so he’s clearly activist & political) and a likewise prolific writer for RealClimate, which is one of the most egregious CAGW blog in the world, if not the most egregious (SkS may take the gold medal, but its neck and neck). RealClimate refuses to publish any comments that are not in tune with their propaganda, they ban people for wrong views sometimes after one single post, they are run by NASA GISS who until recently was led by Jim “Coal Death Trains” Hansen, who has been arrested many times and is a green activist. I have disproved stuff they publish over and over. After a while I gave up, its like discussion with members of a religious sect.

    Lest you think I’m playing the man, I have already shown you that what he writes on the Sun is wrong. I have offered to go through this material with you but you have ignored me. Well fair enough, that’s your privilege, but its my privilege to point out your sources are not trustworthy since they are pure activists. If you want a discussion, such as you cannot get at RC or SkS, then put up a link to science paper and defend it. Argument from authority is a philosophic fallacy.

  17. Traditional science, underwritten by Popperian falsifiability, was never going to come up with a theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming that justified unprecedented government control of the citizenry. Those who push for CAGW are overwhelmingly driven by political, not scientific motives. The clash of these two systems of thought was simply too great.

    This explains the rise of “post-normal science”, which is in reality the attempt of totalitarian politics to colonize science. The loudest advocates of CAGW are all converts to the post-normal paradigm, which stresses the utility, rather than the veracity, of the “truths” uncovered.

    Normal science made the world believe that scientists should and could provide certain, objective factual information…The guiding principle of normal science – the goal of achievement of factual knowledge – must be modified to fit the post-normal principle… For this purpose, post-normal scientists should be capable of establishing extended peer communities and allow for ‘extended facts’ from non-scientific experts… In post-normal science, the maintenance and enhancement of quality, rather than the establishment of factual knowledge, is the key task of scientists… Involved social actors must agree on the definition of perceptions, narratives, interpretation of models, data and indicators… scientists have to contribute to society by learning as quickly as possible about different perceptions… instead of seeking deep ultimate knowledge.

    Sound familiar? All too familiar?

  18. Tel

    No, and this part of the problem. The proper application of the scientific method requires the identification and testing of every hypothesis.

    One can’t merely pick one’s preferred hypothesis and test only it.

    Although it is possible to do science on your own, it is extraordinary difficult precisely because people tend to get stuck in their own point of view. If you publish the raw data, and your pet theory to explain it then everyone else gets a go at coming up with a better theory

    OK, this isn’t guaranteed to try all possible theories, but at least we get diverse opinions on the subject, and you get a theory that’s good enough. Often these things get revisited later, and improved when the time comes.

  19. Biota

    Bruce, I think that you are now in the Einstein realm of trying the same thing expecting a different result WRT the bilby. As the old adage goes: you can drive a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, you can drive an ass to knowledge but you can’t make him think.

  20. Bruce of Newcastle

    The Age is concerned about this: The rather unedifying sight of the brush-off by advisers to the government of the scientific evidence on the great challenge facing the planet: climate change.

    I am most amused by this. Under Rudd and Gillard there was no debate allowed. Greenery was railroaded through and academics who objected on the science were persecuted and lost their jobs.

    Now they want to debate?

    Well nothing has changed. Anytime they want a debate, like the Monckton-Denniss debate on the ABC the CAGW side loses. That is because they do not have a grasp of the science, they are just regurgitating activist pseudoscience like our friend BilB. Sceptics know the science because they did the hard yards and learned it all in order to debate, which is why the warmists lose every time.

  21. WhaleHunt Fun

    Pardon me, but Tarot occasslionally gets it right. The duplicitously named climate scientists get it wrong 100% of the time. Clearly these lying scum can be used as a predictive tool. Whatever they say, not!

  22. R James

    Scientists are running around in circles to come up with all sorts of reasons why the hypothesis of AGW doesn’t match real data. They refuse, or are too blind to see, the possibility of the bleeding obvious – the hypothesis might be wrong. I’m not saying it is – I’m just saying it’s as good an explanation as any other.

  23. Roger

    Thank you Steve for this adroit take down of the climate “science” behind the AGW hypothesis.

  24. Angus Black

    While I support the overall tenor of the argument, I’ve got to take issue with the detail.

    Scientific method is not About setting up experiments to show that an hypothesis is possibly valid. This is in fact exactly what the warmists are currently doing and it is why they have (spurious) support for their views.

    Scientific method requires that the researcher goes out of his way to set up experiments (repeatable etc.) in as exhaustive a way as possible in an attempt to Break His hypothesis. Only failure to break the hypothesis generates for-the-time-being acceptance of the hypothesis. The level of confidence being directly related to the effort made to disprove it.

    The distinction between attempts to prove and to disprove hypotheses is the distinction between pseudo-science and science.

    This really is fundamental – but, of course, hard for a layman to internalise…

  25. Rafe

    Quite right Angus. The mainstream of the philosophy of science is so hostile to the Popperian idea of testing that they refuse to use his language of refutation and instead talk about DISCONFIRMATIO (in the quest for CONFIRMATION).

    The are so obsessed with confirmation that they have to think in terms of disconfirmation instead of making any concession to Popper by using his own language (not that the words matter really, but the positivists and logical empiricists were always obsessed with words and EXPLICATION of terms for decades which produced nothing for working scientists.

    For the major work on the topic.

    But alas: check this out for a record of “invincible ignorance”

  26. Angus Black

    Under read, Popper, for sure.

    I’m not a specialist science philosopher (scientist/engineer/social scientist (rtd), rather) but I made a side-track speciality of teaching research to doctoral students in my disciplinary areas both here and overseas. I take a rather pragmatic approach to research method and design – of necessity: at least I try to address the true howlers (using the same data to generate then test hypotheses – confirmation… Well, duh!) a failure to understand the difference between exploration and testing; over-reach in conclusions.etc. etc.

    Rigour is the first casualty. I suppose competition for research funding and incentives for perfectly good teachers to metamorphose into truly, dangerously, bad researchers and minimal hurdles guarding entry to doctoral programmes are to blame. So much waste, though.

  27. TheSenator

    Climate Scientology

  28. jim

    Steve, do you believe all the universities in the world are wrong and/or involved in some kind of conspiracy to fool the public?

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