Sunday, August 23, 2009

Climate Science, Politics and Kurt Vonnegut

"Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Research in the field of global climate change has made significant strides in the modern era. Paleontologists have used history to test and refine new concepts, advanced spatial and temporal models have allowed us to make long-term predictions, and socio-economic analysis of climate change impacts have all served to bring the issue into the political domain. The role of research (basic and applied) in bringing climate change to the political domain can not be understated. Without trust in the scientific method, climate change would have faltered as environmental propaganda from the get-go. Notice the emphasis on the scientific method and not simply the science or science-based results. More on this in a moment.

And so in time, climate change has been labeled environmental propaganda because the scientific arguments which at first held so much weight, have over-stayed their welcome and been uttered too many times by politicians. Politicians concluded more and new science was needed. In response, a portion of the scientific community and some politicians formed an unwritten agreement that science would attempt to advance a political agenda much as science originally placed the issue on the political agenda. To my mind, this has manifested itself most directly in the pursuit of climate proof, which often takes the form of tying weather events and climate trends to climate change.

Today we see a variety of researchers in the field of global climate change including honest brokers of climate policy alternatives, genuinely pure climate scientists, and issue advocates (both admitting and non-admitting) (see Roger Pielke, Jr. for more). I do not object to advocacy or politics in research as I believe the portrayal of science as objective is an illusion – no scientist operates in a vacuum free of values. What I do object to, and this is my motivation for contributing to this blog, is a failure to recognize the clout science holds lies less in its ability to generate new knowledge or even the purported objectivity of science, and more in the scientific method.

There is no process of truth-seeking more logical than the scientific method. A testable and falsifiable hypothesis is formed, the hypothesis is tested and subsequently refuted or upheld, and an independent researcher reproduces the results. In other words, hypotheses are to be disproved and never proved. To me, the scientific method is holy because it says humans can never know any aspect of nature in its entirety and this is fucking exciting. A scientist seeking to prove a hypothesis simply isn’t using the scientific method and does not have the power of the scientific method on his/her side.

I feel its time to draw some conclusions. 1 – At this stage in the game of climate politics, it seems like only proof will push the boulder over the hill. Don’t be fooled. 2 –The scientific method can’t generate proof, but it garners respect and is not to be ignored. So use it. 3 – Start listening to climate skeptics instead of always convincing them. Become a skeptic yourself on points that don’t sit well. 4 – Scientists and researchers should stop trying to build evidence and proof of climate change and instead cull and refine the hypotheses, models, and predictions already out there. Time should assist in re-evaluating past research, if only we make time (and funding) for it.

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. By the way, this is Sean Williamson. Not trying to disguise my identity, just an old name that I should probably change.