Postmodern Climatology: Paltridge Weighs In
“It’s not a coincidence that activist climate scientists don’t simply stop at defining the climate system and offering up even-handed, philosophically diverse thoughts…. They virtually invariably come to the very same policy proposals that are deeply left-leaning and are basically a carbon-repacking of a dozen other pre-existing, left-liberal policy dreams.”
A guest essay at Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. by Garth Paltridge, Science Held Hostage in Climate Debate, zeros in on the problems plaguing climate science. I’ve made similar points over the years (see here and here), but Paltridge brings them together nicely. His post has attracted 500 comments to date, becoming a very hot topic among practitioners and laypersons alike in the blogosphere.
A retired Australian atmospheric physicist, Paltridge argues that the physical climate sytem is non-ergodic and inherently impossible to really understand fully. Given this, social pressures take over where the utility of climate change becomes an excuse to push pre-existing policies. The result? The climate-science community goes far out of the realm of “normal” science and into the realm of extreme, postmodern science.
To the extent that there is such a thing as normal science, it relies upon accurate observations to verify its theories. Accurate is the operative word here. Climate research has to rely on spectacularly inaccurate data from information on Earth’s past climate.
Even though there are vast amounts of atmospheric and oceanographic data to play with, together with lots of proxy information from tree rings and ice cores and corals and so on, abstracting a coherent story from it all is something of a statistical nightmare. It gives a whole new meaning to the old saying “lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Suffice it to say that climate science is an example of what Canadian educator Sue McGregor calls “post-normal science”, in which “the facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent”. In such circumstances it is virtually impossible to avoid subconscious cherry-picking of data to suit the popular theory of the time.
He adds some history to know that scientists-qua-humans impart ‘analytic failure’ (think of a third category to join ’market failure’ and ‘government failure’).
Even Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were not immune from the problem. In their case they were of sufficient genius (and were sufficiently lucky!) for their theories ultimately to trump the inaccuracy of the observations they had selected. Other scientists are rarely so prescient or so lucky. In the modern era, the problem is compounded by the existence of vastly complex computer models that can be tuned, again more-or-less subconsciously, to yield the desired result.
From theory to observation and back again – if we are not careful, the cherry-picking can go round and round in an endless, misleading loop.
Paltridge the gives the argument that concerns many more politically neutral scientists:
But the real worry with climate research is that it is on the very edge of what is called postmodern science. This is a counterpart of the relativist world of postmodern art and design. It is a much more dangerous beast, whose results are valid only in the context of society’s beliefs and where the very existence of scientific truth can be denied. Postmodern science envisages a sort of political nirvana in which scientific theory and results can be consciously and legitimately manipulated to suit either the dictates of political correctness or the policies of the government of the?day.
Another theme that Paltridge explores well is a dynamic I refer to as “by their ends shall ye know them.” That is, it’s not a coincidence that activist climate scientists don’t simply stop at defining the climate system and offering up even-handed and philosophically diverse thoughts about how one might react to their findings. They virtually invariably come to the very same policy proposals that are deeply left-leaning and are basically a carbon-repacking of a dozen other pre-existing, left-liberal policy dreams.
From the social and economic side of things, one might take much more notice of the global warming scare campaign if it were not so obvious that many of its most vociferous supporters have other agendas. There are those, for instance, who are concerned with preservation of the world’s resources of coal and oil for the benefit of future generations.
There are those who, like the former president of France, Jacques Chirac, speaking at a conference on the Kyoto protocol in 2000, look with favour on the possibility of an international decarbonisation regime because it would be a first step to global governance (the president’s actual words were “For the first time, humanity is instituting a genuine instrument of global governance”.)
There are those who, like the socialists of the 20th century, see international action as a means to force a redistribution of wealth both within and between the individual nations. There are those who regard the whole business mainly as a path to the sort of influence which, until now, has been wielded only by the major religions. More generally, there are those who, like the politically correct everywhere, are driven by a need for public expression of their own virtue.
My friend and frequent co-author Steven Hayward likes to observe that climate alarmists not only jumped the shark, by their extreme positions and by their turning every possible human threat into an argument over climate change. They may well have killed environmentalism of a more legitimate sort, the sort concerned pragmatically with preserving healthful air quality, water quality, wildlife health, etc.
The public is tuning out environmentalists more and more, while environmental activists are turning to stealth language about “sustainability,” “green” development, etc. I have always felt that climate activists doomed themselves from Kyoto, by locking onto wealth re-distribution as their only acceptable solution to climate change. Paltridge’s essay points out that the actions of activist climate scientists risk doing this to the very institution of science itself—making it something that the public distrusts, and/or tunes out.
As trained in the sciences myself (biology/environmental), I would find such a turn deeply distressing. And I think I speak for most Ph.D. scientists that real, honest science is, by far, the best method that human beings have ever discovered that lets us truly understand the world around us, and harness that knowledge to the betterment of humanity.