It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Is climatology a real science?

An article referenced at RC asks whether climatology is a real science.

The article is rife with the usual denialist sleight of hand and drivel, but it is not at all clear that the author is insincere.

The answer is yes, but why should anyone believe me? This leads me to broaden the question. How should one answer "is academic community X doing real science?"

After all, I have been known to ask whether economics is a real science. So I have to admit that the class of question is admissible.

I can't just point to the best climatologists I know and say "if that's not a scientist, I'm a blue armadillo". Any economist could argue similarly.

Values of X where this is very uncertain from my point of view include:

economics
psychology of consciousness
sociology
artificial intelligence
string theory

Others ask this of fields for which, for me, the answer is obviously affirmative, notably evolutionary biology, geology, climatology, any field which can't function in the context of a hypothetical world created ten thousand years ago.

I think the class of question is legitimate, and that high dudgeon is not a useful answer. What then constitutes a science? Is there some reasonable way for society to distinguish between sciences and intellectual disciplines that are not sciences?

I suspect that the question has no objective test, which puts us in a pretty pickle.

13 comments:

fergus brown said...

What is science? 'The systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms. The knowledge so obtained or the practice of obtaining it. Any body of knowledge organised in a systematic manner.'

And scientific method? 'a method of investigation in which a problem is first identified and observations, experiments or other relevant data are then used to construct and test hypotheses that purport to solve it'
(From 'The Collins English Dictionary')

Three slightly different definitions; does climatology fit the description in each case? Does climatology use the scientific method? Yes: ergo it is a science.

By these terms, is economics a science? Is it dealing with the material and physical universe?
Questionable; it is mainly dealing with human systems rather than physical ones. The same is true of social studies and other disciplines.
Do these use scientific method? Often, yes, sometimes, no. Some disciplines require that the object of study is not physical as such, others that the method of reaching understand or formulating laws or principles is not necessarily best done by the scientific method.
Inasmuch as these use scientific method, they are quasi-scientific.

In a world where science is held up to be the pinnacle of knowledge, the distinction matters. In an anthropocentric world, the relative values of the disciplines may be different.

This is the simple response. If we start getting into the philosophy of science, or general philosophy, most of this can be debated to the Nth degree. If we go Popperian, we can apply another criterion. In the simple world, is the simple answer good enough?
Regards,

Tony L said...

I think you're too charitable to Tracinski. His previous columns have included "What Al Gore really wants", in which he calls climate science "quasi-religious", and "Taxing us for breathing", in which he accuses climate action advocates of seeking a "fatal constriction of the process of industrial respiration". Sincere? Only if you really stretch things.

Good question about the nature of science. Off the top of my head, I'd say that notions of replicability and falsification are handy, but only go so far. A lot of social science seems to conform to a scientific process, but replicating results or setting up falsifiable hypotheses are inherently problematic when the "object" of study is a human being and not a microbe. (I need to read more Feyerabend.)

When it comes to complex natual systems, I'd be interested in how your thinking develops on this.

coby said...

While I don't know if I can supply you with an objective test, I can point out the usual justification for this claim, which might provide an insight into arguing against it. In my experience, this claim is supported by the notion that wrt to earth's climate you can not run any controlled experiments and thereby falsify any hypotheses. No complete ocean-atmosphere system in the lab = impossibility of scientific experimentation = not a science.

I think the only effective and direct rebuttal of that is listing all the other sciences that whomever is making this argument would have to likewise reject. Cosmology, astonomy, geology, evolutionary biology to get started, I'm sure the list would be very long. It is unlikely that you are arguing with a serious philosopher so they are not likely to like the direction their own argument logically takes them.

Now if logic is not so relevant, well, we do it for the lurkers and the archives, right?

Mark UK said...

As Shermer would say, the Borderlands of science is where you find some of these things. I really don't see how you can claim that climatology is not a science.

Tony L said...

My hunch is that definitions of science are too prescriptive and don't accord with the history of the thing. I seem to recall doing Millikan's oil drop experiment in high school and learning about how he left out a big chunk of data that he didn't like. He had a strong hunch, and he was right, but the equipment wasn't accurate enough to measure the data -- IOW, he wasn't proved right by the data at the time; he was proved right by posterity.

And I can remember thinking it all sounded a bit suss to me.

My point (and I'm thinking of Feyerabend and Kuhn here) is that science which is successful -- i.e. that achieves useful real world results -- is called good science. (I'm presuming that Tracinski wants to equate "bad-science" with "not-science".)

I know that sounds like I'm putting the cart before the horse, but isn't it the case that science textbooks largely cover only the science that works?

chris said...

If you guys stopped wearing funny hats and eviscerating chickens...j/k
First, about Robert Tracinski. He's very sincere about helping people understand these difficult questions. In fact he tries to help every day:

http://www.google.ca/search?q=Robert+Tracinski&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

Guy's a frakkin' Boy Scout!

Science? Science is doubt without fear.

Michael Tobis said...

Let me say regarding Tracinski that just because someone is sincere doesn't make them benign. The number of people actively lying is nonzero, but may in fact be very small.

Many people's belief systems are so threatened by limits to growth that they are essentially unable to consider whether they might exist. It's not surprising to see this stuff in the right wing press.

Nevertheless, most of them profess to be accessible to evidence. Peiser has not come up with a particularly convicing refutation to Oreskes, and the climatology as conspiracy model will not wash with anyone who knows any scientists.

The climatology as "immature science" meme is not a bad fallback for them.

On the other hand, I am guilty of a similar posture toward another discipline. I think economics is being applied in areas where it has no competence, specifically regarding long-trem goals of public policy.

I oppose Stern as much as Lomborg. I think there are so many unexamined assumptions in applying economic models out a century that my head spins.

On the other hand, people say stuff that sounds superficially very similar about climate. Making the case for the difference is actually intellectually subtle; it requires some knowledge of the content of science as well as the process.

So I have a hard row to hoe here in making such a case. I find this unfortunate, since I'm pretty convinced I am right.

Note that economists have been "framing" this question for a long time, contriving to have their annual prize called the "Nobel", even though Nobel endowed no such prize.

I think the only viable solution is social.

Our field has to be visible, clear and assertive, and has to be willing to pay the price of increased scrutinity that our increased responsibility entails.

I also think that other fields that enter policy discussions must be subject to as careful skepticism as ourselves.

EliRabett said...

Tony, the bit about Millikan is an urban myth. What he did was take time to practice and critically evaluate each run. Since you have done the experiment, you know that skill and practice are needed.

Having, in my time, practiced laboratory astrophysics, I would point out that climate science, like astrophysics can isolate parts of the system and reproduce them in the lab.

Michael Tobis said...

re Coby' point.

If we're in a situation where scoring points matters, I guess if the difficulty in experimentation in climatology means that it isn't a science, then economics isn't either, at least according to the Secretary of Energy:

The White House dispatched Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman to tepidly embrace the [IPCC WG1] results. While stating that "human activity is contributing to changes in our Earth's climate," he concluded his remarks by disputing the need for mandatory emissions limits on the grounds that "the U.S. economy is not something that should be experimented with."


(Brian Mignone in the Baltimore Sun, found in a Google cache, get ot while you can.)

Well, I guess we can't experiment on the economy so we can't have any knowledge about macroeconomics.

So all those estimates about how much various measures will "cost" are noise. Right?

Tony L said...

elirabett -- Thanks for setting me straight on that. My old physics teacher sure did enjoy telling the story that way, but hopefully he's learned better, too. ^|^

fergus brown said...

Would it be wicked to suggest that some climatology is science, but some other climatology is not? :)

EliRabett said...

Actually, Millikan did make a significant mistake, he got the viscosity of air wrong, and thus the wrong value of e.....You can google that too. I had an old (when I was young) professor who was involved in the fight when he was a grad student. Essentially there is another way of getting at e through x-ray scattering, although it is not as precise as the oil drop experiment.

When they kept coming up with a significantly different answer, the egos trotted on to the field. My prof. said that he heard Millikan proclaim: In 1918 God revealed the charge on the electron to me and to my knowledge there has been no subsequent revelation......

Anonymous said...

It depends on what your definition of "is" is.