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Science, Belief, Controversy, Rhetoric

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:23 PM GMT on December 02, 2007

Science, Belief, Controversy, Rhetoric

I’ve been watching the comments of the last two blogs. Lot’s of controversy, the occasional unpleasantness, and some new ideas. It has helped me think about a set of blogs for the future.

First, early on in the blogs I did talk a little about cycles and trends, and how they are NOT exclusive of each other. (That one is here.) Plus I talked about science, the culture, the process.

Second, I am trying to extract a handful of the notions that demand further discussion.

Perhaps at the top of the list is the idea of cycles, and whether or not we are in a natural cycle of climate change or are we on a climate change path with a major human cause? I don’t think that anyone in the science community denies there are cycles, and most would say the answer is both. Many scientists would extend the idea of cycles to “variability” or “natural variability” – all variability is not cyclical. Then we would need to explore what cycles we understand in the sense of cause and effect, and what cycles we do not understand in the spirit of cause and effect. Are there other ideas that need to be included in a discussion of cycles?

There also seems to be the idea floating around that because water is abundant and a greenhouse gas and that there is a lot of natural carbon dioxide, how can it make sense that the changes associated with humans would have an influence. The CO2 changes are, incidentally, not small; there also seems to be the question of how do we know that this comes from fossil fuel burning. But true, water is abundant and the biggest greenhouse gas. Climate change, however, is about changes in a balance; it’s like a business which has a massive budget, but its success or failure depends on what happens at the margin. That’s were the profit comes from that allows the business to sustain itself. Another issue that comes up from this discussion is the idea of small changes with large impact. (I always think of DDT, when I hear this challenge. Or maybe the cold air coming through the small crack in the window.) Other ideas in this realm that need to be included?

There also seems to be a lot of confusion about correlations and what the presence or absence of a correlation means. This gets back to the cycles, but there are some questions that are independent. This gets deeper into science, and has to consider time scales and, for instance, what causes variability on short time scales and long time scales. That leads us to cause and effect, and again, whether or not the physics that causes the variability, hence the correlation, can be identified.

All of the items above, I think, demand further discussion. Are there other items in the spirit of these items?

There are also attributes of the discussion of the last two blogs that are in the spirit of, graciously, rhetoric or, perhaps, form of argument. Occasionally there is the reliance on the credentials of a person, especially climate skeptics. This is maybe important, a little, but it does not really carry an argument. An awful lot of people can claim credentials, and a battle of credentials is never definitive. Even I have some credentials, and I can take my credentials and argue that I am an expert or that I am unqualified. At some level here, in this blog, in the comments, we are looking for thinking, ideas, and as you have proven again and again, thinking is not limited to those with the benefit of formal credentials.

A couple of other ideas about the form of argument: I have noted a form of argument that claims that there are certain ideas that have not been explored or that are ignored by scientists because they do not fit into the story that the scientists, as a community, want to tell or hear. First, I think it is a good idea to raise ideas that might be important; it is part of science. (Since I dabble in a lot of fields, I do this a lot! I have learned to do it in the form of a question.) Second, all of the “forgotten” ideas that I have seen posed in the climate change argument, I have been able to find a significant body of literature that investigates the idea that is conjectured as forgotten, ignored, hidden, or suppressed. Generally, calculations have been performed, and comparisons have been made with other ideas. (Plus they are usually being re-visited.)

Another form of argument is the personal attack; the diversion of argument with emotion. That’s a form I try, as best as I can, to not engage in. It is not the same as whether or not ones credentials are up to standard, but the credential argument can lead there.

Ultimately, we believe what we believe for the reasons that want to believe. We might base it on knowledge derived from scientific investigation, experience, intuition, religion, perhaps even what we need to believe.

Carry on,


Picture: Atlas holding up the world. Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati, Italy, 2006.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.