Climate Science and the Scientific Method

31 July 2013 at 8:34 am 29 comments

| Peter Klein |

This article on climate science skeptics is making the rounds, and drawing the expected denouncements in the usual quarters. It actually makes some reasonable, and quite mild, statements, namely that climate science, like astronomy or evolutionary biology, is a different kind of “science” than physics or chemistry or geology or other mundane sciences. In the former fields, the fundamental assumptions and key mechanisms are usually not falsifiable, the data are often fuzzier than usual, and there is frequently a lot of hand-waiving to fill in gaps.

Many climate sceptics worry climate science cannot be dubbed scientific as it is not falsifiable (as in Popper’s demarcation criterion). They claim that while elements of climate science may be testable in the lab, the complexity of interactions and feedback loops, as well as the levels of uncertainty in climate models, are too high to be a useful basis for public policy. The relationship of observations to these models are also a worry for climate sceptics. In particular, the role of climate sensitivity.

As well as their use of models, the quality of observations themselves have been open to criticism; some of which have been attempts to clean up issues deriving from the messiness of data collection in the real world (eg the positioning of weather stations), while others have focused on perceived weaknesses in the proxy methods required to calculate historic temperature data such as cross-sections of polar ice sheets and fossilised tree rings.

Such claims are of variable quality, but what unites them is a conviction that data quality in various branches of climate science are below those required by “real science”.

What strikes me the most about these “big” sciences is the language and tone typically used to communicate the results to the public. Where scientists in mundane fields express their conclusions cautiously, emphasizing that results and conclusions are tentative and always subject to challenge and revision, climate scientists seem to view themselves as Brave Crusaders for Truth, striking down “Deniers” (who must be funded by the oil industry or some other evil group). They shout that we “know” this or that about climate change, what the planet will be like in 5,000 years, etc. You hardly ever hear other scientists talk like this, or act as if skeptics are necessarily prejudiced and irrational.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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29 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve Phelan  |  31 July 2013 at 9:48 am

    I agree. Freud would probably have something to see about the saviour complex. Australia’s ex-PM even instituted a carbon tax – which is set to be repealed by her replacement!

  • 2. YSK  |  31 July 2013 at 10:37 am

    Climate scientists have in fact been criticized for speaking in very cautious terms. So I don’t know where you are coming from when you say that they don’t speak like other scientists. I have checked every crackpot climate denier that I have come across – they all turned out to have some connection or the other to the oil industry or some similar group. Go check for yourself before you come to the conclusion that climate scientists are over reacting to criticism. Climate scientists will and should behave differently from other scientists because in no other field do you see such crackpot criticisms of basic scientific ideas.

  • 3. YSK  |  31 July 2013 at 10:51 am

    Most of the non-crackpot climate change skeptics don’t believe climate science because they don’t like the implications. Being skeptical of scientific findings because you don’t like them is intellectual dishonesty.

  • 4. Klein, Peter G.  |  31 July 2013 at 11:05 am

    YSK, thanks for the performative contradictions!

  • 5. David Hoopes  |  31 July 2013 at 11:23 am

    It takes some digging to find the science part of the climate science argument. Many shrill advocates are wayward journalists. What can get lost in the vitriol is the discussion of data quality (having different sources of data for different decades), how important different temperatures are (the airport, other land, the atmosphere, the oceans), and how all of this fits into the end of the last ice age. Recently a journalist claimed that climate science was understood as well as evolution. Yet, the data and theory for evolutionary theories are much more complete. It’s not even close. So, the shrill discourse to me signals that some parties just don’t want to discuss the nuts and bolts of the science.

  • 6. Jed Harris  |  31 July 2013 at 6:21 pm

    The language you quote prefaces all assertions with distancing phrases like “critics say” — so these are true statements but leave the author making no assertions about the actual issues at hand. It would be equally true to write that “many critics say” that Cantor’s diagonalization proof is wrong — but that would be very misleading since while there are indeed many critics of Cantor’s proof, they are all marginal at best, and their claims have all collapsed on inspection.

    Of course there may be no parallel here *except* the structure of the claims. But what you have quoted gives us no way to tell.

    Also you say that scientists in “these ‘big’ sciences” use a different language and tone when communicating with the public. Previously you listed climate science, astronomy and evolutionary biology so I guess you mean these. Regarding that list you also said that their key mechanisms are not falsifiable.

    These all seem to me to be surprising and probably incorrect claims. I don’t recall any scientists using different langauge and tones when presenting research in astronomy and evolutionary biology. I believe their hypotheses, including those about fundamental mechanisms, are as falsifiable as any in (for example) geology which you list as a “mundane” science. In some cases important climate science hypotheses have been falsified, such as Richard Muller’s tests of the skeptical position on temperature measurement.

    Climate science, like the health science around cigarettes, is undeniably special in one important respect: its conclusions and recommendations have come into conflict with the interests of a set of a set of very large, economically and politically powerful institutions, and are not aligned with the interests of any other comparably powerful institutions. Quite possibly that isn’t the whole story about the controversy, but it certainly is a major part of the story.

    In the case of the health science around cigarettes, we know that the institutions who were disadvantaged by the science conducted a long term expensive campaign denigrating scientific results that they had, in fact, no serious scientific reason to doubt. This campaign was successful in creating extensive skepticism and debate, delaying appropriate policy decisions, and enabling considerable profits by those who conducted it.

    One way for climate science skeptics to improve their position would be to find ways to identify and factor out all the paid advocacy that supports their position. They would then be able to make their arguments with much more credibility.

  • 7. Peter Klein  |  31 July 2013 at 10:24 pm

    Jed, if you click on the link to the original article, you’ll find that the quoted paragraph contains links to the author’s sources.

    I don’t think the smoking comparison works. That was much closer to what I’m calling mundane science. But I agree with your fifth paragraph, in the sense that climate science is highly politicized. My impression is that its most vocal practitioners spin the evidence to fit with their belief system (i.e., the view that humans or capitalism or factory farming or whatever is destroying the planet). Public health research is of course even worse in this regard,

  • 8. jamesbailey73  |  31 July 2013 at 10:44 pm

    I laugh every time I hear someone try to win an argument with, “big business is backing is for what I am against therefore I am right.” I am not sure it is sophomoric or simply egocentric rationalization. There are always at least 2 sides usually more but we have been taught that there are only 2 choices: yes/no, 1/0, black/white, republican/democrat. Look into who is bankrolling your side of the argument and look to see what they have to gain. And honestly investigate why you hold your position.
    TRUTH: Climate science is based on horribly incomplete systems modeling that always fails because they take out hugely important inputs; namely terra-forming:
    Example 1: the US Army Corp. Engineers after the dust bowl creating hundreds of lakes throughout the Midwest, deliberately changing the climate.
    Example 2: heat islands, from concrete jungles create a much greater increase in global surface temperatures than 10 million SUVs idling in traffic.
    Example 3: Nevada, Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas require staggering amounts of energy to make most of the South West habitable not to mention transportation and water.
    Soooo, stop living in cities and suburbs and the whole southwest, stop asking for fresh tomatoes in December and anything off a dollar menu. Then talk about taxing producers. Please.

  • 9. YSK  |  31 July 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Peter, The comparing with smoking is very appropriate since some of the climate change skeptics are the same guys who were “skeptical” of tobacco as well. From Wikipedia (

    “Former National Academy of Sciences president Dr. Frederick Seitz, who, according to an article by Mark Hertsgaard in Vanity Fair, earned about US$585,000 in the 1970s and 1980s as a consultant to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company,[51] went on to chair groups such as the Science and Environmental Policy Project and the George C. Marshall Institute alleged to have made efforts to “downplay” global warming.”

    Medicine isn’t “mundane” science and in some ways is close to social sciences in how messy it is.

  • 10. Peter Klein  |  31 July 2013 at 10:55 pm

    LOL, the very term “climate change denial” demonstrates my point. I suppose Copernicus was a “Ptolemaic system denier.”

  • 11. YSK  |  31 July 2013 at 11:59 pm

    From the same wiki: “Climate change denial is a set of organized attempts to downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of global warming, its significance, and its connection to human behavior, especially for “commercial or ideological” reasons.”
    If Copernicus challenged the Ptolemaic system for commercial or non-scientific ideological reasons then he should be called as a denier.

    There are genuine skeptics and then there are deniers. You don’t seem to want to acknowledge the difference.

  • 12. Jed Harris  |  1 August 2013 at 2:03 am

    Thanks for your reply, Peter. I went and read the article; most of the language is just like your quotes — descriptions of how the skeptics see themselves. There is linked evidence of their self-description, but no evidence about whether they are right or worth listening to.

    Certainly there could be evidence that the skeptics are champions who are improving the quality of science. For example perhaps climate skeptic criticism has led to substantive corrections in studies or even in the larger consensus. But Pearce provides no examples at all of contributions by the skeptics.

    In fact Pearce doesn’t make any visible progress toward answering his headline question, “Are climate skeptics the real champions of the scientific method?” and I’m not sure he is really trying to give an answer.

    I thought my reference to Cantor crackpots was perhaps unfair but in fact Pearce provides a link to a site, “Principia Scientific” that is every bit as crackpot as a typical anti-Cantorian, To Pearce apparently that is just another interesting part of the skeptic landscape. One can’t tell if he thinks that makes the climate skeptics more or less real champions of the scientific method.

    Curiously Pearce doesn’t mention Muller’s BEST project which is directly relevant to many of the points he’s making (including measurement skepticism and falsifiability) and which had a big profile in these debates fairly recently. Muller is very clearly an effective champion of the scientific method and was a climate skeptic. Indeed, he’s an excellent example of a climate skeptic contributing to the quality of science — but he escapes Pearce’s scrutiny. Odd.

    Pearce does express skepticism about climate related policy, but he isn’t at all clear about how that relates to the climate skeptics. Even ideal policy involves a lot of factors beyond science, such as cost benefit tradeoffs, technical and economic feasibility of different options, etc. — none of which Pearce discusses.

    Altogether an interesting and apparently effective rhetorical confection, but not one that provides much useful insight.

  • 13. Peter Klein  |  1 August 2013 at 8:57 am

    Jed, I think we are simply talking past each other. I read the Pearce article as a statement about the language of climate science, and the more general implications for the sociology of science and science policy. Global warming critics do not say, “Of course, the science says X, but we are against science, and must go now to check with our astrologers.” Instead, they say, “Global warming enthusiasts are practicing sloppy science, overstating their results, and misleading the public.” Naturally that doesn’t prove that the critics are correct, only that some of them view themselves as practicing better, and more careful, science than the “consensus” types — especially the more vocal ones.

    I stand by my original claim that climate scientists — at least from my outsider perspective — tend to use language that other scientists would never use. Climate scientists rarely say, “The best available evidence suggests….” or “We think it likely that….” No, they say, “anthropocentric global warming is fact, fact, fact!” They give remarkably precise point estimates of the effects of various carbon-reduction policies. They insist that anyone who disagrees is a fool or a knave. They highlight their opponents’ funding sources. Can you imagine other scientists acting this way? It doesn’t create much confidence in the field, to an outsider.

    Surprisingly, in private, climate scientists actually sound more like regular scientists, talking about falsifiable hypotheses, error bands, replication, revisions to tentative conjectures, and so on. I have talked to some of them and find them quite reasonable, off the record. I once attended a presentation by a highly regarded expert on climate and geography, discussing how land-use patterns are affected by global warming. In the Q&A, I asked him the following: “Assume it’s correct that global temperatures are rising and that industrial activity is the cause. According to your predictive model, if all human activity ceased tomorrow — say, humans are killed off by plague — so that man-made carbon emissions went immediately to zero, how long it would take for global temperatures to fall?” He grinned sheepishly, and said, “Well, we don’t know, but I’d say at least 3,000 years, maybe much more.” Then he went right back to sloganeering.

  • 14. Richard O. Hammer  |  1 August 2013 at 11:38 am

    I think the shrill nature of the discourse has to do with politics. Sweeping statutes might be enacted. Rapacious human industry might be brought, finally, under wise guidance of government planners. This is what is at stake – if I am able to empathize with global warming enthusiasts.

    So I would claim the whole argument is not about global warming at all. Something more important is going on. It is about those sweeping statutes. Some people want those statutes. Other people fear those statutes.

    The enthusiasts who want the statutes will tend to welcome any argument that supports their call for expanded government planning. As evidence for this, I offer the ease with which many enthusiasts have shifted their terms from “global warming” to “climate change”, when data have cast doubt on warming. Change – any change – will do. Even cooling is good enough. The important thing for enthusiasts is the sweeping statutes they want. Or so it seems to me.

  • 15. Jed Harris  |  1 August 2013 at 11:49 am

    Thanks Peter. This is a somewhat different point than your original post or the cited paper. It seems well worth a literature review, and/or a review of recorded public talks by people on the various sides of the debate. Without such a review I don’t have any basis for strong opinions one way or the other. We all know the dangers of selection bias when operating from memory and personal experience.

    I guess I’d separate “Here is a social science perspective on how this science is being conducted” — which requires an explicit data collection and analysis process — from “I keep running into this kind of rhetoric and don’t like it” which is fine as an account of personal experience but doesn’t warrant a statement about the larger social process.

    Do you know anyone who is doing / would be interested in doing the data collection and analysis?

  • 16. Matthew  |  1 August 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Your same argument could apply just as easily to the claims and pronouncements of many practitioners, the reliance on models, the inability to run controlled experiments of large-scale phenomena, the fuzzy data, the language and tone of communication, et cetera, in economics.

  • 17. Peter Klein  |  1 August 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Jed, I don’t, off-hand, but I’d check with my former colleague Tom Lessl, who wrote a very good book on the rhetoric of Thomas Huxley (commonly known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”).

  • 18. Rafe Champion  |  3 August 2013 at 5:24 am

    First of all, If you want to follow the money, check out the billons of government funds that support climate science compared with the tens of millions that private interests donate to the sceptics.

    It helps to understand the pre-history of the climate scare when the infrastructure was put in place by the international anti-atomic energy movement.

    It also helps to understand the way the IPCC works.

    And the story of a properly qualified climate scientist and his inside view on the defects of the models that are used for predictions and the way the political game is played with the scientists.

    And after all that, relax and welcome warming!:)

  • 19. Peter McCormick  |  3 August 2013 at 11:33 am

    “You hardly ever hear other scientists talk like this”

    ever heard economists talk?

  • 20. Rafe Champion  |  4 August 2013 at 12:23 am

    “There are genuine skeptics and then there are deniers.”

    Who are the deniers? All the people who I know about like Christopher Monckton who are regularly called “climate deniers” in fact acknowledge that there have been phases of warming in cooling, they acknowledge that there has been recent warming (for various reasons) and there could be more without any reasonable expectation of warming this is worrying. As I said, relax and enjoy the greening of the planet.

  • 21. Peter McCormick  |  4 August 2013 at 2:50 am

    “Global warming enthusiasts are practicing sloppy science, overstating their results, and misleading the public.”

    again, the same description works equally well on economists. think Krugman, Reinhart And Rogoff. In fact, economists are probably more guilty than climate scientists – the only difference is that economists can’t agree among themselves on which directions they should overstate their sloppy science and mislead the public.

  • 22. Richard O. Hammer  |  4 August 2013 at 9:49 am

    Peter McCormick: Yes. Economists also overstate their cases. This is because economic views often imply direction for government policy. The argument is not about economics so much as it is about the direction for government policy, just as with climate science.

    One of my favorite models is expressed in a sentence: “The artist asked the attractive young lady if she would like to go up to his apartment with him to look at his etchings.”

    The invitation is not about etchings, I claim. When we seek to explain the expressions of climate scientists, economists, and artists, we need to allow ourselves to call upon our broader experience as humans. Debates which politely banish any mention of underlying aims will flail around, always missing the real point.

  • 23. Robert L. Bell  |  26 August 2013 at 3:42 am

    I hope you know more about economics than you do about science.

    But confidence is not high.

  • 24. Peter Klein  |  26 August 2013 at 9:13 pm

    I try at economics, but my goal is to become an anonymous internet commentator.

  • 25. Pindyck on Climate Science | Organizations and Markets  |  28 August 2013 at 6:15 am

    […] to my previous post on misplaced confidence, here is Robert Pindyck on one of the critical tools used by climate […]

  • 26. jeffrey  |  29 August 2013 at 3:07 am

    I was thinking that too about evolutionary biology (that it seems to me way more scientific in the traditional sense than ‘climate science’). There’s a much stronger, and simpler, theory behind it, and there are many repeatable, controllable, falsifiable experiments that can be done to support it. And much less computer models and statistical manipulation required.

  • 27. Michael  |  16 May 2014 at 12:11 am

    The Greenland ice core data is not in dispute; compiled by NOAA (not an oil company pawn)

  • 28. David Hoopes  |  21 May 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Nice link Michael. Though I don’t know if the ice core will make everyone happy. It’s amazing what they can get from it.

  • 29. grahamalam  |  3 January 2015 at 1:45 am

    Social science has the exact same problems with messy proxy data, few experiments, complex confounds, and fuzzy theories. We also have the same problem with polarizing rhetoric. I wonder if there’s an economics of rhetorical warrants. When data get scarce and expensive, people substitute toward other warrants to make their case. And that means mudslinging a lot of times.

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