Thursday, August 30, 2012

Where is the Science?

Science possesses an “aura” of respect among many members of the population. The perception exists that the practice of science or assignment of the adjective “scientific” lends an air of authority to the subject matter under study. With all fields of authority there exist challenges ranging from doubt to disbelief. Some perceive science to be immune from challenge owing to its widely recognized systematic methodology. The credibility of many disciplines may benefit when “scientific” is used to affirm their standing.

Our recent discussion of drought is suffused with scientific pronouncements concerning its cause and effect. There is no doubt that scientific analyses have been applied to our current and past droughts. Moreover, scientific methods are cited in discovery, reporting, and analysis of all weather events--floods, blizzards, heat and cold waves, destructive windstorms, and yes, climate in general. Climate is the composite of generally prevailing weather conditions over a broad area. Herein we are transported farther into the realm of applications and ramifications of science. In this sphere confusion sometimes arises between the conclusions of science and human application of solutions to the problems uncovered. Many fail to recognize science as a profoundly human endeavor. For some this failure contrasts with their perception that the original purity and reliability of modern scientific methods supposedly yields non-controversial results.

Applied science is the application of scientific knowledge to practical problems. Early scientists were quick to recognize the benefits of problem solving as an outcome of application of newly found scientific methods several hundred years ago. As in any human endeavor, however, potential for abuse exists. One could wonder how a venture commonly perceived to yield objective truth could result in disagreement or strife. So it is with the subject of climate change, sometimes synonomously termed global warming. From recognition that our climate is changing, many modern analysts and activists in the field have attached the adjective “anthropogenic” (human-caused) to the phrase global warming. We now have anthropogenic global warming. In keeping with our divinely gifted ability to modify and improve our environment, concerned citizens have proposed a multitude of remedial solutions.

The question of anthropogenic global warming is laden with emotion and passion. Those with honest concerns are to be commended. Certainly there are some downsides to a warmer earth if we identify any number of unfavorable outcomes. As a teacher of science I was called upon to advise students who became consumed with alarm or even overconfidence on similar issues. Student treatment of controversial issues ranged from undue concern to unjustified optimism. Passion for fixing things is not a trait possessed exclusively by young folks.

Climate change has been a burning social issue for several decades. Our population roughly divides among those who subscribe to anthropogenic global warming, those who disparage human caused warming of our earth, and those who are uncertain or indifferent. The entry level for discussion of this matter often reduces to whether or not we are believers or deniers. As with so many subjects under discussion, proper preparation for the discussion is not only desirable, but necessary. At least a minimal understanding of philosophy of science serves us well. A friend with whom I have held lively discussions wrote: “Philosophers of science typically understand the philosophical dimensions of science--presuppositions, values, what kinds of knowledge claims are being made and how they are justified.”

When concerns on climate are discussed, the term “climate science” is frequently used. Climate issues are thereby linked to the public’s confidence in science. For many questions relating to discovery of truth describing the natural world, confidence in science is entirely justified. But with any human endeavor our confidence in climate science or any other branch of science scholarship is influenced and limited by our confidence in those scientists offering their conclusions. For example, under what presuppositions do such scientists work? It is virtually impossible to offer conclusions devoid of subjectivity. This situation works to strengthen or weaken our personal confidence in the conclusions of subjects under study. The scenario described works to make science a vibrant human endeavor. But at worst, our confidence in the science may be weakened.

Climate science and anthropogenic global warming is a subject of enormous complexity. There are two parallels in society’s current obsession with both causes and solutions for global warming. One is the mischaracterization that the findings of science are definitive and beyond question. The other is the perception that complete understanding together with solutions to problems are within reach, albeit at enormous public expense. Both viewpoints are subject to superficial misunderstanding.

Our God-created physical world is profoundly beautiful, yet our understanding of its operation may still be characterized as inadequate. We recognize that human opportunity for research discoveries are multiplying. We must grasp the truth that our knowledge of significant scientific discoveries should inspire humble caution. Global warming is such a subject.