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War on/over Science thread

November 11th, 2006

This is the promised open thread on science. If you want to defend or attack climate science skepticism, take a stand on intelligent design, argue about passive smoking or whatever, here’s your chance. No coarse language, and try to keep it civilised.

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  1. conrad
    November 14th, 2006 at 13:54 | #1

    Of course I didn’t read Annan. As I pointed, myself, like 99.99% of people (including you), are not climate physists and don’t spend all our time thinking about it, and nor neccesarily even have the aptitude to understand the issues even if we did spend 100% of our time thinking about it. Therefore I don’t have the knowledge to judge between good and bad papers on the issue of global warming (which involves an extremely complex non-linear system). Thus reading about the physics behind it all is pointless to me (aside form the issue of it being an interesting matehmatical modeling exersize, which is of interest to me).

    Alternatively, Nature magazine does have access to such people for reviews, and hence I put my faith in them. If Annan happens to get a few papers in Science, PNAS and the like and gets taken seriously, I’ll admit that the Nature reviews process didn’t work well in that case.

  2. proust
    November 14th, 2006 at 14:21 | #2

    Annan is taken seriously.

    Climate Science is not that difficult as sciences go: if you have a strong math and physics background it is easy to understand, except where they obfuscate (and there’s a lot of that). Climate Scientists as a group are particularly weak when it comes to statistics, which is where Annan’s contribution comes in.

  3. chrisl
    November 14th, 2006 at 15:31 | #3

    Conrad Years ago (in 1986) we went on our European Vacation and all the talk in the press was about the acid rain killing the forests of Germany.Well there we were in the middle of the Black Forest(cue music) and we picked up a german hitch hiker. We casually asked him “So where are all these dead trees?” He said “I don’t know but the experts do”
    Does this sound familiar?
    I believe the black forest is still there!

  4. conrad
    November 14th, 2006 at 17:42 | #4

    Proust, I do have some of that background (and a fair few of my friends do to). However, I don’t find the physics easy to understand, and none of my friends admitted to that either, so evidentally a lot of people must be smarter than me and them, which is somewhat surprising, since many of us use applied mathematics and statistics publishing stuff (and two of the people I asked have published in the journal you are complaining Annan can’t get into).

    chrisl. Despite your anecdote, the black forest is damaged by acid rain (compare the health of it vs. some of the forests in Canada). In any case, here are some things people tried to deny for a long time also: HIV, the hole in the ozone layer, and cancer from cigarette smoking. There are now a lot of dead people because of this, and a big hole in the ozone layer. If only we had listened to the experts earlier.

  5. jquiggin
    November 14th, 2006 at 17:57 | #5

    “In any case, here are some things people tried to deny for a long time also: HIV, the hole in the ozone layer, and cancer from cigarette smoking.’

    In the case of the second and third, not just “people”, but the very same people who are now denying global warming, including (for the ozone layer) Baliunas and Michaels, for the dangers of smoking, particularly passive smoking, the IPA and Lindzen and for the trifecta (passive smoking, ozone layer and global warming), Singer, Seitz and Milloy.

  6. proust
    November 14th, 2006 at 18:13 | #6

    Conrad, with your background you should have no trouble reading Annan’s paper on climate sensitivity and his Brief Communication Arising to Nature. So why don’t you do that so we can have an informed debate, instead of all this peripheral discussion?

    You allude to a maths and stats background. Do you also have a physics background? And your friends? I’d be very surprised if someone with a PhD in theoretical physics would find the physics in climate science difficult.

    What do you find difficult about the physics of say, GCMs? It’s basic fluid dynamics (Navier Stokes) and thermodynamics. I can help you out if you have a specific question.

  7. proust
    November 14th, 2006 at 18:17 | #7

    “In the case of the second and third, not just “peopleâ€?, but the very same people who are now denying global warming”

    It’s fascinating the extent to which the pro AGW crowd focus almost exclusively on people, not science. Stop speculating about what’s inside the book based on its cover; open the damn thing and read it!

  8. November 14th, 2006 at 21:11 | #8

    Taking up the discussion of Popper and Lakatos, John has referred to the broadly positive article on Popper in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to support his view that Lakatos identified a serious problem with Popper’s account of scientific method. He has suggested that I should take the matter up with Stephen Thornton, the author of the article, and come back when I have provided arguments that induce Thornton to change his mind.

    This confirms my original thought that John did not rely on his own judgement in this matter. This is entirely understandable because he is an economist, not a philosopher of science. Life is too short to check out every single assumption that we have to make to get through the day. How many of us go under the house to check the report of a structural engineer or a pest inspector? How many of us do an inspection of the floor bearers each morning before we proceed to the kitchen for our Weet Bix to ensure that dry rot or termites have not rendered the floor unsafe overnight? But how reliable is our professional philosopher in this instance?

    The request to get the professional to change his mind is likely to be a difficult assignment because Thornton has already been challenged by a contributor to the Critical Rationalist email group which used to run as an offshoot of the Critical Rationalist website. http://www.geocities.com/criticalrationalist/

    The Thornton piece was discussed by the group and he was offered some carefully formulated criticism of parts of the article. He broke off the exchange when he found that some points in his email to the individual were mentioned on the list and he chose to regard that as a misuse of private correspondence.

    I got the feeling that he was not receptive to criticism. That is unfortunate because there are inconsistencies between the body of his article and the concluding criticism (which is drawn practically verbatim from Lakatos). That criticism simply falls over, and this can be demonstrated fairly easily.

    So the situation at present is that John is resting his position on advice from a person who has recycled a criticism of Popper from another source, despite the fact that the criticism in question is (a) contradicted in another part of his own paper and (b) refuted in my piece on the ABC philosophy show.

    Too much focus on demarcation

    If Thornton wanted to demonstrate his grasp of the issues and his also critical acumen he could have challenged Popper’s view that the problem of demarcation between science and non-science is fundamental. In some ways that is beside the point, for example the contest between Newton’s theory and Einstein’s theory was arguably the most important scientific episode in modern times, but they are both scientific theories. So what could a theory of demarcation contribute to that debate?

    Scientists expect their theories to be testable in the same way that car buyers expect the steering wheel to come as standard equipment, not something that is offered as a bonus or a selling point or an optional extra.

    I can’t explain why Popper was so hooked on the idea that demarcation was fundamental. It could be the result of his own intellectual history because the demarcation problem was his point of entry to other (in my view more important) problems, like the matter of induction which the positivists wanted to use as the hallmark of science.

    Conflating demarcation and the growth of knowledge

    In his discussion of induction and demarcation it seems that Thornton has collapsed two different but related issues into one. He wrote “Popper repudiates induction and rejects the view that it is the characteristic method of scientific investigation and inference, and substitutes falsifiablility in its place”.

    It will help to separate the two issues – one is the matter of demarcation and the other is the way that scientific knowledge grows. Popper and the positivists split on both issues:

    On demarcation the split is between verification and falsification.
    On the growth of knowledge the split is is induction vs the method of conjecture and refutation (trial and error).

    Popper took issue with the verification criterion of meaning and he also (separately) took issue with the notion that knowledge grows by a process of induction (which has about five different definitions, just to confuse the issue, but Popper rejected all of them).

    That is why it is so unhelpful to refer to Popper’s theory of knowledge as falsificationism.

    Helpful comments from Thornton

    Thornton did better when he wrote “Popper has always drawn a clear distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology [falsification]…Thus, while advocating falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation for science, Popper explicitly allows for the fact that in practice a single conflicting or counter-instance is never sufficient methodologically to falsify a theory, and that scientific theories are often retained even though much of the available evidence conflicts with them, or is anomolous with them”.

    He also did well in section 4 of the paper on the growth of human knowledge, where he emphasised the role of problems, the need for imaginative speculation disciplined by the tests of reason and evidence, the scientist as entrepreneur (an Austrian connection).

    For my money the central problem in epistemology is not demarcation but the need to reconcile the complementary roles and functions of problem-situations, tradition, evidence, logic, reason, mathematics, metaphysics, scrutiny of definitions, intuition and anything else that turns up in the mix. And Popper’s theories, taken together, do perform that process of reconciliation instead of making too much out of particular components in the process and to attempt to establish some foundation of belief.

    Strange criticism

    In the light of the foregoing statements, especially this one “Popper explicitly allows for the fact that in practice a single conflicting or counter-instance is never sufficient methodologically to falsify a theory, and that scientific theories are often retained even though much of the available evidence conflicts with them, or is anomolous with them” it is strange to come to the following criticism at the end of the paper.

    “As Lakatos has pointed out, Popper’s theory of demarcation hinges quite fundamentally on the assumption that there are such things as critical tests, which either falsify a theory, or give it a strong measure of corroboration.”

    Lakatos claimed that but it is not the case because Popper clearly explained that falsification is inevitably conjectural (although some falsifications are so decisive that they are not really problematic in any practical sense). In principle, due to the theory-dependence of observations, all apparent refutations can be challenged or ignored and Popper’s position is not invalidated on that account.

    After describing the discovery of Neptune as a triumph for Newton’s theory, by resolving an apparent anomaly, Thornton proceeded

    “Yet Lakatos flatly denies that there are critical tests, in the Popperian sense, in science, and argues the point convincingly by turning the above example of an alleged critical test on its head. What, he asks, would have happened if Galle had not found the planet Neptune? Would Newtonian physics have been abandoned, or would Newton’s theory have been falsified?

    The answer from Popper’s point of view is that Newtonian physics would not have been abandoned because there was no alternative theory of comparable scope to take its place. The anomalous planetary movement would be noted as an unresolved issue.

    “The answer is clearly not, for Galle’s failure could have been attributed to any number of causes other than the falsity of Newtonian physics (e.g., the interference of the earth’s atmosphere with the telescope, the existence of an asteroid belt which hides the new planet from the earth, etc). The point here is that the ‘falsification/corroboration’ disjunction offered by Popper is far too logically neat: non-corroboration is not necessarily falsification, and falsification of a high-level scientific theory is never brought about by an isolated observation or set of observations.”

    This is precisely what Popper himself pointed out in his discussion of the Duhem problem. Popper agreed with the problem that Duhem posed and he agreed with Duhem’s response the problem – there is no logical fix, that is just the way the world is, get over it and proceed with theory development and testing in the hope that the picture will become clearer.

    “Popper’s distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology does not in the end do full justice to the fact that all high-level theories grow and live despite the existence of anomalies (i.e., events/phenomena which are incompatible with the theories).”

    That statement is simply false as Thornton acknowledged in the passage quoted above. Popper’s distinction does complete justice to the situation. This is an example of Popper’s own ideas being used as a bogus criticism of his own position.

    Sad conclusion

    So what is the outcome of all this? John Quiggin put his faith in a professional philosopher to tell him the truth about Popper’s theories and he was let down. The shocking truth of the matter is that the rank and file of professional philosophers cannot be relied on for a straight feed on Popper’s ideas. More research is required, but what discipline should be recruited for the task?

  9. Tam o’Shanter
    November 14th, 2006 at 21:35 | #9

    Well said rafe! With snow forecast for Canberra’s ranges tomorrow I think we can put down the IPCC and Stern to a belated euthansia.

  10. jquiggin
    November 14th, 2006 at 23:00 | #10

    “It’s fascinating the extent to which the pro AGW crowd focus almost exclusively on people, not science.”

    That’s because there isn’t any science on the other side. With a few exceptions (of the kind that prove the rule like the famous McKitrick-Michaels and Baliunas-Soon papers), the people I mentioned haven’t published any scientific work on this topic. Lindzen had a go with his adaptive iris stuff a few years back, but that got shot out of the water and he hasn’t come back AFAIK.

    Of course, on the pro-science side of the debate the focus is on the thousands of scientific papers that support the scientific view and not on the personalities.

  11. Seeker
    November 15th, 2006 at 00:41 | #11

    “Climate Science is not that difficult as sciences go…

    “I’d be very surprised if someone with a PhD in theoretical physics would find the physics in climate science difficult.

    “What do you find difficult about the physics of say, GCMs? It’s basic fluid dynamics (Navier Stokes) and thermodynamics. I can help you out if you have a specific question.”

    Interesting claims, Proust.

    If you think fluid dynamics, and its interaction with thermodynamics (amongst other physical processes), is fairly straight forward, then perhaps you could give us the full explanation of the behaviour of a simple vortex tube?


    I can also recommend this for those who think that the Navier-Stokes equations are readily tractable calculations:


  12. proust
    November 15th, 2006 at 05:58 | #12

    Seeker, do you think Climate Scientists solve Navier Stokes where the rest of us mere mortals fail? Let me tell you: they don’t.

    Yours is a classic misunderstanding of the difference between the equations and the solutions. Navier Stokes are simple equations, with generally intractable solutions. That simply means there are no “closed form” solutions; solutions in terms of other basic functions. But that is hardly unusual in physics: only in a very few idealized cases do closed form solutions exist.

    At one level understanding the physics simply means understanding the basic equations, which I reiterate, are not that difficult. To “solve” those equations Climate Scientists have to build huge simulations, and to be sure there are complexities involved in the modeling, but at bottom the physics is basic fluid and thermo dynamics.

  13. proust
    November 15th, 2006 at 06:01 | #13

    “That’s because there isn’t any science on the other side.”

    That’s because you define the “other side” to be that without scientific content. It’s circular.

    I raised my point because in the whole debate about Annan’s result not once did someone attack his science. Is Annan on the “other side”?

  14. November 16th, 2006 at 09:03 | #14

    How much credibility do Nature and Scintific American have since they ran critical reviews of Lomborg’s book and did not allow him the right of reply?

    That would appear to indicate both an intellectual and moral problem in that part of the scientific community which is taking the strong line on global warming. If their case is so strong they don’t need to play dirty pool to win the day.

    I don’t know why John Quiggin thinks the debate is over, he probably thought the debate was over on the Popper vs Lakatos issue but that has demonstrated that the professionals in the field can’t be taken at face value without close scrutiny of their arguments. Who will be surprised if the same thing happens in the climate debate?

  15. wilful
    November 16th, 2006 at 10:54 | #15

    I can’t believe you’re banging on about Lomborg. He’s been ripped to shreds in terms of his scientific credibility. Certainly his personal credibility remains, AFAIK he is an honest author, but he sets up so many strawmen in his book and knocks them down of so successfully, and when the science gets hard he just glosses over the inconvenient counter evidence.

    Not a terrible book on the environment, for a statistician.

  16. November 16th, 2006 at 20:25 | #16


    As JQ will remind you Lomborg is not a statistician. No degree in statistics you see. Maybe he is not an author either as he has no degree in literature.

    I think his book was great. Not perfect but in the right ball park. Most authors that write a book that is design to sell a set of arguments construct a few straw men in the process. The whole “denialist” genre is a game of strawmen. They had to find a new dirty word because Lomborg made “skeptic” respectable.

    If you want to read about the errors in Lomborgs book they are on his website:-


    As are his responses to many critics:-



  17. Smiley
    November 17th, 2006 at 21:45 | #17

    Having recently read Robin William’s repudiation of the ID theory – â€?Unintelligent Designâ€?), I was intrigued when I came across a passage about Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”. I had bought Hawking’s book about seven years ago and never made it past the third chapter, until I decided to complete it last year.

    After finishing Hawking’s work, I felt much the same as I did after seeing the Jodie Foster movie “Contact”. It appeared to me that both the movie, and Hawking’s book had been positioned to accommodate as many belief systems as possible (for marketing purposes). According to Williams, Hawking has now walked away from some of the statements he made about the Anthropic Principle, in “A Brief History of Time”.

    But I guess the introduction to Hawking book says it all. People believe what they want to believe in, including “Trojan Turkeys”.

  18. Chris O’Neill
    November 18th, 2006 at 01:57 | #18

    Tam o’Shanter said:

    “Chris wilfully left out the c.”

    That was beside the point. You still don’t get it do you? It’s a pity you didn’t understand the other comments following http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2006/06/the_gods_are_laughing_at_tom_h.php#comment-114141 . It was obvious you didn’t understand the point then and still don’t understand it now. It’s pretty obvious that Physical Chemistry wasn’t Tim/Tam’s best subject at high school.

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