by Judith Curry
Since people are clamoring for a new thread, lets talk about this article in the the Australian Quadrant entitled “Science without method,” subtitled “Global warming research: whatever happened to the scientific method?” To review previous Climate Etc. posts on the Scientific Method, click here.
In the first two paragraphs, the article cuts straight to the heart of the matter:
Most of these papers are, of course, based upon the output from speculative and largely experimental, atmospheric models representing exercises in virtual reality, rather than observed, real-world, measurements and phenomena. Which leads to the question “What scientific methodology is in operation here?”
Though much has been written concerning the scientific method, and the ill defined question as to what constitutes a correct scientific approach to a complex problem, comparatively little comment has been made about the strange mix of empirical and virtual reality reasoning that characterises contemporary climate change research. It is obvious that the many different disciplines described as being scientific, rather than social, economic, or of the arts, may apply somewhat different criteria to determine what fundamental processes should define the “scientific method” as applied for each discipline. Dismayingly, for many years now there has been a growing tendency for many formerly “pure” scientific disciplines to embody characteristics of many others, and in some cases that includes the adoption of research attitudes and methods that are more appropriately applied in the arts and social sciences. “Post-modernism”, if you like, has proved to be a contagious disease in academia generally.
FYI, postmodern science (differentiated from postnormal science) is described here, summed up by the following quote: “If science is carried out with an amoral attitude, the world will ultimately respond to science in a destructive way. Postmodern science must therefore overcome the separation between truth and virtue, value and fact, ethics and practical necessity .”
I’m ok with this so far. Read the article for some history of physics and discussion of the scientific method in this context. Then the article comes back to climate change and the enhanced greenhouse effect:
Out of this cut and paste “history” of physics, comes the strongest criticism of the mainstream climate science research as it is carried on today. The understanding of the climate may appear simple compared to quantum theory, since the computer models that lie at the heart of the IPCC’s warming alarmism don’t need to go beyond Newtonian Mechanics. However, the uncertainty in Quantum Mechanics which Einstein was uncomfortable with, was about 40 orders of magnitude (i.e. 10^40) smaller than the known errors inherent in modern climate “theory”.
The following two sentences are incorrect. Newton’s second law, the ideal gas law, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, Planck’s law, etc. all well established “assumptions” that provide the foundation for reasoning about the Earth’s energy budget and the transport of heat therein.
Yet in contemporary research on matters to do with climate change, and despite enormous expenditure, not one serious attempt has been made to check the veracity of the numerous assumptions involved in greenhouse theory by actual experimentation. The one modern, definitive experiment, the search for the signature of the green house effect has failed totally.
Oops. The signature of the Earth’s greenhouse effect is well known and demonstrated by the infrared spectra at the surface and measured by satellites (see this previous thread). The “enhanced” greenhouse effect and the associated feedbacks are at issue. I suspect the author meant to say “enhanced greenhouse effect” in the above sentence. Further, you can’t conduct an experiment on a natural system such as the Earth’s climate system in the same way you can conduct a controlled experiment in a physics or chemistry lab.
Projected confidently by the models, this “signature” was expected to be represented by an exceptional warming in the upper troposphere above the tropics. The experiments, carried out during twenty years of research supported by The Australian Green House Office as well as by many other well funded Atmospheric Science groups around the world, show that this signature does not exist. Where is the Enhanced Green House Effect? No one knows.
The issue of what is going on with temperatures in the tropical upper troposphere (both in terms of the observations and also the relevant processes in climate models) is an active area of research and needs to be sorted out. More on this topic in a future post. Assuming the veracity of the relevant data sets (which disagree with each other in any event) and this interpretation of the discrepancy between observations and climate models in the upper tropical troposphere, a discrepancy between climate models and observations in the upper tropical troposphere could be a result of known inadequacies in convective parameterizations, subgrid entrainment processes, ice cloud microphysics, etc. Such potential model deficiencies accumulating in the upper troposphere do not invalidate the enhanced greenhouse effect; rather the discrepancy is motivating increased analysis and improvement to the relevant model parameterizations.
In addition, the data representing the earth’s effective temperature over the past 150 years, show that a global human contribution to this temperature can not be distinguished or isolated at a measurable level above that induced by clearly observed and understood, natural effects, such as the partially cyclical, redistribution of surface energy in the El Nino. Variations in solar energy, exotic charged particles in the solar wind, cosmic ray fluxes, orbital and rotational characteristics of the planet’s motion together provide a rich combination of electrical and mechanical forces which disturb the atmosphere individually and in combination. Of course, that doesn’t mean that carbon dioxide is not a “greenhouse gas”, so defined as one which absorbs radiation in the infra red region of the spectrum. However, the “human signal”, the effect of the relatively small additional gas that human activity provides annually to the atmosphere, is completely lost, being far below the level of noise produced by natural climate variation.
The final concluding sentence of the above paragraph is an overconfident dismissal of the human signal on climate. Separating natural (forced and unforced) and human caused climate variations is not at all straightforward in a system characterized by spatiotemporal chaos. While I have often stated that the IPCC’s “very likely” attribution statement reflects overconfidence, skeptics that dismiss a human impact are guilty of equal overconfidence.
So how do our IPCC scientists deal with this? Do they revise the theory to suit the experimental result, for example by reducing the climate sensitivity assumed in their GCMs? Do they carry out different experiments (i.e., collect new and different datasets) which might give more or better information? Do they go back to basics in preparing a new model altogether, or considering statistical models more carefully? Do they look at possible solar influences instead of carbon dioxide? Do they allow the likelihood that papers by persons like Svensmark, Spencer, Lindzen, Soon, Shaviv, Scafetta and McLean (to name just a few of the well-credentialed scientists who are currently searching for alternatives to the moribund IPCC global warming hypothesis) might be providing new insights into the causes of contemporary climate change?
Of course not. That would be silly. For there is a scientific consensus about the matter, and that should be that.
Well the IPCC deserves the above criticism to a large extent. Yes, much research is ongoing to understand discrepancies in climate models and improve them. However, in the AR4, their experimental designs and conclusions are dismissive of explanations that involve natural variability.
JC’s conclusion. I found it pretty surprising to find an article on such a sophisticated topic in the Quadrant, but the more I read the Quadrant, it seems that they have some pretty good articles. This article raises an important issue related to reasoning about complex systems. From the previous thread on frames and narratives:
The second monster in my narrative is the complexity monster. Whereas the uncertainty monster causes the greatest confusion and discomfort at the science-policy interface, the complexity monster bedevils the scientists themselves. Attuned to reductionist approaches in science and statistical reasoning, scientists with a heritage in physics, chemistry and biology often resist the idea that such approaches can be inadequate for understanding a complex system. Complexityand a systems approach is becoming a necessary way of understanding natural systems. A complex system exhibits behavior not obvious from the properties of its individual components, whereby larger scales of organization influence smaller ones and structure at all scales is influenced by feedback loops among the structures. Complex systems are studied using information theory and computer simulation models. The epistemology of computer simulations of complex systems is a new and active area research among scientists, philosophers, and the artificial intelligence community. How to reason about the complex climate system and its computer simulations is not simple or obvious.
So while this article is very interesting and raises important issues, in the end it oversimplifies the issue.