Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Settled Climate Science

On February 20, 2014 Charles Krauthammer submitted a highly popular column to the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Myth of Settled Science.” Public reaction was both predictable and surprising. Both sides of the Climate Change debate are searching for ammunition to strengthen their own cache of artillery. The warfare imagery is an appropriate metaphor. Climate change doubters do not believe the science on the issue is settled. On the opposite side of the battle lines anthropogenic climate change supporters verbalize their support for the “settledness” of the climate issue. After considering an additional blog to review the evidence supporting our skeptical view of anthropogenic climate change, we opt to wind down this series with a different perspective on this lively issue.

When we first began to study science in early grades, perhaps we learned the definition of the “scientific method.” This Oxford English Dictionary definition still holds sway among laypeople if not among professional scientists of our day. The dictionary posits that Scientific Method is “A method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” Today this traditional view of the scientific method has been broadened far beyond the initial definition we learned. The mastery of this definition was initially required of science students years ago. It was learned, recited, and demonstrated almost like a verse of biblical scripture.

In the present day scientists argue that the Scientific Method is no longer one uniform method. It is now an “accumulated structure,” utilizing a broadened collective knowledge and expertise. One writer calls science “…our most potent invention because it has given us a method to keep reinventing it.” In the early days of the Scientific Revolution the traditional scientific method dealt more frequently with what we now term “hard sciences” such as physics and chemistry. It was thought such topics lent themselves to more empirical rigor. These sciences required more controlled experiments, more testable predictions, and more objectivity. Climate Science trends away from rigid hard sciences.  

In the last two hundred years we have broadened the scope of science from its  primarily empirical emphasis. The scientific method is stereotyped to apply more appropriately to experimental science. Over many years, however, observational and historical science have become recognized as fully “scientific.” Sometimes observational and historical science are recognized as one and the same. There is overlap among the different types of science—experimental, observational, and historical. Conclusions of observational and historical science rely more heavily on multiple events we infer to have occurred. Generally, laboratory experiments do not demonstrate truths of historical science. We accumulate knowledge in a different way. The conclusions concerning past climate changes on earth or what occurred to affirm the proposed scenario of evolution fall into a different category than lab demonstrations designed to answer questions such as, “What happens if…?”

Traditional Scientific Method is often described as the “hypothetico-deductive method. It has proved useful, but not fully adequate. It was an expression of the traditional “Scientific Method.” An improvement was born with the idea of “multiple competing hypotheses,” in which truths of historical geology, for example, were built from a more complex model. One overwhelming idea is refined by a series of proposals to help explain a more complex model of reality. 

We now focus on the title of our blog. Is Climate Science “Settled Science?” Perhaps climate change enthusiasts, with some degree of awareness of the history of science, easily envision Climate Science as an outgrowth of traditional Scientific Method, in which truths about our natural world are reasonably simple and easily identified. The science of climate change, formerly known as global warming, is envisioned by many laypersons and politicians as securely resting in the confident pronouncements of a select group of scientists who have assumed control of the public microphone. Seldom do we hear agenda-driven climate change activists, politicians, or national and world government leaders instructing us concerning the historical and current complexities of one of the most broad-based subjects ever to grip the attention of humanity.

Are the important issues of Climate Science settled? Are the intricacies of acquiring our belief system settled? Are the nuances of how we develop our world view settled? When the buzzwords of climate change are bandied about, we must be aware that discovery of, “What is climate truth” is an important quest for our civilization. Are we satisfied to rest our case with a list of “settled science” buzzwords on the vital issue of Climate Change? The vital quest for truth should guide us more powerfully than the search for “settled science.”