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Popper, Khun and Ravetz don’t sink climate scepticism

Posted by Richard D North in Green / Media on 14 September 2010

Why we posted this: James Delingpole is leading right-of-centre commentator in the UK and he is amongst the most consistent opponents of “climate change science”, which he thinks has been hijacked by people who abuse the scientific process. He adds a new charge. 

The original story:
Post-normal science’ is perfect for climate demagogues — it isn’t science at all.
James Delingpole
The Spectator
10 March 2010

Summary of the story:
Here are some clips from Mr Delingpole’s artice:


[It is  widely assumed]…… there must be some truth in this man-made global warming thing — or why else would so many scientists believe in it?

(1) On Karl Popper and the falsification principle

Science is never settled. That’s not how it works. ‘The science’ is no more nor less than a series of hypotheses, none of which lasts any longer than it takes some impertinent, iconoclastic upstart to come along, prove it wrong, and replace it with some fancy new improved hypothesis of his own.

(2) On Thomas Khun and Paradigm Shift

The paradigm is the current, more-or-less universally accepted world-view held by the scientific community. A shift takes place when ‘anomalies’ are niggled away at by a growing body of dissenting scientists, leading to a period of uncertainty and foment (‘crisis’), which in turn leads to the creation of a new paradigm.

In the last decade there has been a paradigm shift over AGW. Or rather there would have been, had not a powerful and unscrupulous cabal in the scientific community refused to allow science to progress in the normal way.

(3) On Jerry Ravetz, Mike Hulme and Post Normal Science

In 1991 a Marxist philosopher called Jerome R. Ravetz had helped to invent a seductive and dangerous new concept called ‘post-normal science’ (PNS). No longer was it considered essential that scientists strive after objectivity….

Post-normal science and the AGW movement were made for one another. No need for any of that tedious objectivity; no need for careful observation or the risk of frustration through falsification. All that mattered now was the quality of the ‘narrative’, the scariness of the future scenarios cooked up by computer models which — as the hockey stick curve demonstrated — could predict for you whatever you wanted them to predict.

Hulme once wrote: ‘The function of climate change I suggest, is not as a lower-case environmental phenomenon to be solved… It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change — the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and materials flows that climate change reveals — to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.’

livingissues comment:

(1) On Karl Popper and the falsification principle

It is true that “science is never settled” and indeed proceeds by offering up theories and hypotheses which stand until they are knocked down. Popper’s idea was that an idea only had meaning and a proposition could only be a statement of fact if it was capable of being proved wrong. Delingpole misjudges the statements of climate scientists if he supposes that they suppose they are not in principle capable of being proved wrong. 

(2) On Thomas Khun and Paradigm Shift

It is true that Khun advanced an important idea about how science is done, namely that  its theories tend to operate under a series of over-arching rationales which tend to become rather well-embedded, though are usually – if wrong – shifted in the end. Over time, all sorts of evidence accretes which cracks the shell of certainty (see how tectonic plate theory took time to get a grip as a good example).

Actually climate change science at heart makes quite simple, quite small assumptions about very large processes. That’s to say, that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere tends to warm the planet. It then – quite seperately – says that such warming can now be observed. And then (less certainly) it says that various current climate effects can be attributed to these processes. And then it suggests where the warming may lead us.  The big “paradigm” here is about physics and chemistry, and no-one is yet saying that the existing paradigms in those fields are very likely to be wrong. New theories and ideas and evidence may come along and quite easily shift our understanding of climate change without any paradigms standing in the way.

(3) On Jerry Ravetz, Mike Hulme and Post Normal Science

Post Normal Science may or not be a typically modern or post modern piece of windy talk. Insofar as it makes sense, Mike Hulme (who is something of a fan of Post Normal Science) actually insists that both sides of the argument ought to understand it better. Hulme, using Post Normal Science thinking in a way which ought to appeal to Delingpole, says that scientists often have cultural prejudices which influence their work; ought to understand how forceful their prejudices are; ought to understand that they are often asked to answer questions which are really political; and are seldom good at spotting all sorts of complexities and uncertainties in their thinking.

But all these apply as much to scientists who hate the conventional climate change science consensus as to those who promote it.

Here is a useful way into Hulme’s thinking:

We need this perspective of post-normal science if we are going to make sense of books such as Singer and Avery’s [staunch climate sceptics]. Or indeed, if we are to make sense of polar opposites such as James Lovelock’s [a staunch climate alarmist] recent contribution The Revenge of Gaia, in which he extends climate science to reach the conclusion that the collapse of civilisation is no more than a couple of generations away.

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