This flow chart diagrams the steps of the scientific method. Photo Credit: Anne Helmenstine
This post is quite critical of climate change science. If you are someone who is convinced of dangerous global warming, then start at the last two paragraphs to find some support.
There are many diagrams that show the general direction of the scientific method, but most are basically the same as the above.
Although the general public often sees science
as infallible, and this conclusion is often reinforced by the popular media, it is possible for the scientific process to break down at any one of the above steps. Bias, self-interest or even fanaticism can enter the picture and as a result, the science can
be corrupted and even useless. In climate science (if such a science even exists in itself) there is such a preponderance of data and so many relative specialties that almost any conclusion can be shown to have support. History, however, is littered with once
generally accepted scientific theory, that has been proven wrong. Even our best and brightest such a Albert Einstein, have been wrong in some instances, sometimes spectacularly so.
Back to the chart. The top square is titled observation. Already we can see where things can go wrong. What if the observation itself does not result in a rigorous conclusion. The data used may be faulty, the margin for error large, the variations statistically
insignificant, a normal may not be satisfactorily established, or interpretations of the data may be biased.
Of course, some observations are inarguable. The story of an apple falling on Newton's head is an example of a pure observation, easily repeatable. It led to Newton's hypothesis that there was an attraction between the earth and the apple and eventually his theory of gravitational attraction. Good science even if the theory
was woefully incomplete. The story of the apple may not be true but makes a good narrative.
The science of climate change (or global warming, which still confuses me) should be straightforward. A changing
climate is easily observable and evident over long, intermediate or recent short time spans. So far very simple, although the evidence comes from myriad scientific endeavors. There can be virtually no doubt that the
climate changes. What it does is raise a multitude of questions which spawn many more hypotheses to attempt an explanation of some part of climate change.
Someplace along the line, a few scientists (Jim Hanson, Michael Mann) thought they could observe an unusual, rapid warming of our planet (I use the
term planet although the original concept only included the atmospheric temperatures). They quickly formed the hypothesis that temperature increases were the result of increased atmospheric levels of CO2 and that the increased CO2 was the result of human activity. Someone coined the term Anthropogenic
The problem is that the scientific method breaks down almost immediately. The observation of global warming was a conclusion supported by data from mostly land-based instrumentation. Data that, for many reasons, is suspect, particularly at such small differentials. It was, however, about the only data,
other than some proxy evidence (tree ring data used by Michael Mann), available at the time (seventies decade). One of the most inexcusable lapses
was ignoring satellite data starting from about 1980, which is likely far more accurate, more global, and shows a much less significant warming trend. Another glaring bias shows in the use of charts to
show the extent of global warming. Almost every chart shows data which starts at a cold period in recent history and uses a large scale to make a tiny increase in temperature appear significant. If you used a straight line from any high point in the last
3000 years the result would show a slight cooling
So we are starting from an inconclusive and controversial observation. The next step is hypothesis built on shaky ground. Somehow this hypothesis went almost directly to a mostly accepted theory
without addressing the steps between. Obviously, direct experimentation is not possible since we only have one planet with these circumstances to work with, so scientists relied on something commonly called studies. Yes,
studies, of data of their choice from sources sometimes undisclosed, and results of related experiments that may have been faulty or with results that may not have been duplicated. In some cases, other unsupported hypotheses are used as evidence.
The following two quotes are related to medical science. Similar to climate science in that direct experimentation is difficult, and many of the conclusions are derived from inconclusive results of studies. These quotes are from an article in The Atlantic.
ago, Stanford’s John P. A. Ioannidis published a paper warning the scientific community that “Most Published Research Findings Are False.” (In 2012, he coauthored a paper showing that pretty much everything in your fridge has been found to both cause and prevent cancer—except bacon, which apparently only causes cancer.)
For Ioannidis, the key reason for this exaggeration and misrepresentation
in research can be summed up in one word: bias. “This can be conscious, subconscious, or unconscious,” he said of these deviations from the truth – beyond chance or error – that pervert science. His favorite offender is ‘publication
bias,’ which gives a falsely exaggerated impression of the science on a subject because not all studies that get conducted get published and the ones that do tend to have extreme results. It’s like doing a bunch of tests to find out whether your
new vacuum works, and even though most tests fail, only reporting the one time the vacuum turned on.
I Have even found an example where a record number of records is used as evidence of global warming. How far
from reality can we actually get? -- “All in all, the United States has already set more than 2,800 new record high temperatures this month. It has only set 27 record lows.” – From The Atlantic writing about
Feb. 2017 temperatures.
I have also seen reference to studies of studies to support a position. What?
And this one, which actually purports to show that a model which predicts warming is still correct in spite of observations showing cooling. That is quite a stretch, in my book.
"These are hypothetical data that illustrate the fact that whether
or not a model worked should be evaluated based on whether or not the observed data fell within the 95% confidence interval of the model."
What have we got so far? Most would agree that we have seen an apparent warming in recent years, but many argue that it is
insignificant or well within the range of natural variability. Some would even argue that it is statistically insignificant or within accepted margins of error. I am pretty certain that it has warmed in my
lifetime, but there is evidence to indicate that it may have been at least as warm, about 1940, just before I was born.
The thesis built on this rather controversial observation was that human-caused increases in atmospheric CO2 were the reason for warming. Partly because no other culprit was obvious. This was expanded to predict rapidly rising temperatures would lead to catastrophic consequences.
Has CO2 increased? The science and observations supporting this seem very sound. Measurements are reasonably consistent and close to homogeneous around the globe. Very few would argue with the fact
of rising levels.
Is the rise caused by human emissions? The evidence for this is also substantial, if not totally conclusive. The correlation to industrialism is strong and carbon signatures indicate anthropogenic sources. It seems an inescapable conclusion that human emissions are responsible for at least a substantial portion of the recent CO2
So does increased CO2 lead to a warmer climate? Experiments have shown that CO2 absorbs radiation in certain infrared frequency bands. In fact, this trait is taken advantage of to measure levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
From this, it is assumed that the gas can retain heat in the atmosphere. There is little doubt that it could
contribute to the ambient temperature. Because it could, however, does not mean that it actually does in any significant way.
Correlation of carbon dioxide levels to past
warming periods is often cited as evidence of CO2 causing warming. The problem here is that all the data I have seen indicates that CO2 levels rose following warming events rather than preceding them. In other words, warming may have caused the increases. The other possibility is mere coincidence, which doesn’t seem likely. Correlation does not even seem to hold for recent warming
where we have seen a steady rise of CO2 but a spiked record of temperatures.
The statement was often made that there was no
other plausible cause for warming. That may have been partly true in the seventies, but in years since a number of hypotheses have been put forward that could, either singly or
collectively, create a change in climate. Many seem at least as plausible as CO2 levels. The difference is that most are neither caused or controllable by mankind.
What have we so far? We seem to have ended up with a theory of dangerous global warming (not climate change) derived from an unproven hypothesis supported by unproven hypotheses and doubtful data. Okay,
how did it happen to get dangerous? We have been bombarded by dire threats of submerged coastal cities and boiling hot highlands punished by unsurvivable storms. Pretty scary, until you realize that even if such results were possible they will not occur for
many centuries if not for several millennia. Most of the threats seem to be a fantasy dreamed up by the most pessimistic of media personalities, which sometimes included scientists.
What has happened so far? Well, the warnings started over thirty years ago, and have only gotten more catastrophic with time, while nothing much seems to have happened. Sea levels
may have gone up about an inch or two, about the same rate of increase that has been happening for a few thousand years. Temperatures have risen a little bit, but not consistently.
Most of the data seems to indicate a decrease in most types of extreme weather, although you will find considerable disagreement there, almost all evidence of increases seems to be anecdotal or circumstantial. The ice
caps are still there, although arguably a little reduced. Greenland may be a little warmer, much to the delight of its residents. The world has become substantially greener (not in the sense of less pollution), probably as a result of increased CO2 levels. The world’s farmers are producing more and more food in defiance of the predictions of worsening conditions for agriculture. If we are getting more warm spells, then we are also getting fewer cold spells, a welcome change for many of us. Consequences of storms have gotten worse in
terms of dollar losses but things have improved considerably in terms of lives lost. And all the while carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise and the world use of fossil fuel is continuing to expand.
Is the science then wrong? Well, not necessarily so. The dangerous part is sloppy- prediction, with not much bona fide science behind it, but scientists can often be intuitively right, even if their science
is sloppy or inconclusive. We may be facing a warmer future. It may not result in catastrophe, but there is not much doubt that we will face some degree of change, perhaps substantial. It would only be wise to prepare.
There is little doubt that we are facing a future where some types of fossil fuel will become rapidly more expensive. Oil will likely be the first. If we do not have viable alternatives that can be deployed in time, we will face global-recession and
economic collapse as oil products become unaffordable to the average wage earner.