Nov 4, 2014

Curb Your Credulity: What Thomas Kuhn can Tell Us about the Science of Global Warming

I'm only mid-way through reading T.S. Kuhn's excellent short book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and already I feel like mouthing off about some of his ideas. (Perhaps it's better to do so while I'm in the thick of it, anyway: often enough, I forget everything in a book the moment I turn the last page.)

First a caveat, Kuhn's book climbs at some fairly rarefied heights, and would probably need to be read several times over, along with related works, by anyone really hoping to gain a firm understanding of the topic. So this short essay is just an attempt at a rough sketch of some of his ideas, that may, I hope, give pause to some who have an unshakeable belief in the reality of man-made global warming (or a belief strong enough that they would favor setting policy by it.) A tall order, I know, but I think his book offers a mind-expanding antidote to much that is overly simplistic about our current either-or debates.

So, what is the topic of Kuhn's book anyway? 

Well, it's about the epistemology of science, meaning (something like) the intellectual foundations of scientific rationality. It is a critique (though not entirely unfavorable) of actually existing science, as it has been practiced historically, and is still practiced today. In large part, he is debunking the myth of science, as it is taught in school, and examining the reality as it is practiced in the field.

Perhaps the key myth we learned in school, the great sacred scientific shibboleth to end all scientific shibboleths, is that scientists test their theories through experiments and observation, and adjust accordingly. Data doesn't fit? Back to the ol' drawing board. "Phlogiston" doesn't exist after all!

Well, something like that may eventually happen, given the right circumstances. But meanwhile, the practice of "normal science" is to ignore bad data, or adjust bad data, in an attempt to get it to fit the paradigm. This is shocking, I know, so let me emphasize this point:  The theory is never in question. Not during the practice of "normal science." The theory (or paradigm) is assumed to be correct. The burden is on the data (and the data collector) to bear out the theory, not to find flaws or problems in the theory. If problems arise in the data, they are assumed to be explainable by some theory-compatible means or other.

If you doubt this, I refer you to Kuhn's book itself, where he cites numerous major historical examples, and explains how it could not be otherwise:  That method simply is what science is, contra what the schoolbooks say.

Let me hasten to add, that this form of puzzle-solving (as Kuhn calls it), where scientists dig deeper and deeper into one particular paradigm, has been and is very productive of refined and significant scientific results. By becoming dogmatic believers in one limited worldview, scientists are able to ignore the teeming complexity of reality taken as a whole, and drill down from that (partial and therefore false, or at least only partly true) vantage point.

However. It ought to give the public cause to moderate, or curb, their credulity somewhat when it comes to "believing" in things like AGW. AGW is, after all, the reigning climate science paradigm, and scientists are not open to questioning it on an ongoing basis, no matter what the data may show. In fact, they are doing just the opposite: they are trying to buttress the theory, regardless of what data comes in.

Which certainly helps to explain all the ad hoc defenses you see parroted on public forums from lay people, whenever anyone brings up counterfactual data -- "Oh, that's just the radiant hypotenuse of the widgewam, it can be adjusted mathematically to remove the halide effect, and then there's no issue. So you see, AGW is real."

It is beyond the scope of this essay to consider how the AGW paradigm may have been established, and came to dominate, but I will just suggest that other-than-scientific factors are continuously in play, especially in the short term (which can be decades, maybe longer.) And once established, career scientists at the lower rungs are mostly engaged in this "puzzle-solving" form of "normal science," not trying to come up with paradigm-shifting revolutionary ideas.

Look at human nature, and you know intuitively that scientists are no different, especially in big bureaucratic institutions such as those that sponsor science today. These are socio-political as much as (or moreso) than rational-scientific. I would speculate that the agenda is mostly set by a few academic "stars," i.e. there is a "star system" in academia that largely guides the underlings. And what sort of ties do you think those stars have to various power-elites, hm? Is it really just their brilliance and independence of mind that propelled them to the top? Or are some of them also great politicians, who know that "science" in reality is (in part) a sociological construct that may be filled with whatever content serves power?

That may be putting it too bluntly, there could be much subtler kinds of motivation and self-deception in play, but the end result is the same:  Scientific prestige is used as a cloak for a new priesthood, to lead the public as they will.

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