Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science

Summary: The history of science provides a vital perspective for anyone watching our time’s high stakes climate science debate. Look at Twitter and you will see the theories of the great Thomas Kuhn at work, helping us better understand the public policy debate.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
Speech by union leader Nicholas Klein (1918). This applies just as well to paradigm challenges in science.

Revolution

Contents

  1. The nature of science.
  2. The structure of real science.
  3. The structure of scientific revolutions.
  4. The state of climate science.
  5. What happens next?
  6. For More Information.

(1)  The nature of science

Much of the debate among laypeople about climate science (the only rational foundation for public policy debates about climate change) revolves around misunderstandings of how science works. There is the concept of “consensus” in science, politically useful but implies that the majority view indicates truth (as if vox populi, vox dei applies to science). There are more useful perspectives.

As scientists studying science have long known, it’s a social activity like any other. Our “wetware” evolved on the African plains and included nothing to produce intellectuals in the selfless pursuit of knowledge. Like war, western society has evolved it into a ferociously efficient mechanism that’s often not as pretty as shown in 1930’s films about heroic scientists challenging orthodoxy.

Science is a field with barriers to entry, training mechanisms to produce people who (usually) behave according to its canons, rules for their competition, and a hierarchy to control its workings and allocate its rewards. The winners climb to the top, basking in their community’s prestige (often unknown to the wider society), preferentially reward and advance their allies and protégés, withhold resources from their rivals, and bake their beliefs into the community’s thinking.

It’s the way of the world.

The study of science as a social activity tended to focus on its normative processes (i.e., how they should be). For example, Karl Popper said that scientists validate theories through attempts at falsification. A compelling theory, but study of actual scientists disproved it.

Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Available at Amazon.

(2)  The process of real science

Attention turned to more sociological approaches. Popular books, such as those by biologist Stephen Jay Gould, gave anecdotal evidence of the humanity of scientists as shown by the role of class and racial biases, political influences, and personal factors. More rigorous research found deeper patterns, such as those made famous by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962; 1.5+ million copies sold). Here’s a summary of his 200-page sketch of the process of science. It describes the state of climate science as if it were written today.

Kuhn describes communities of scientists as each having a paradigm: a complex of theories, methods, and key questions which facilitates communication and focuses their effort. The IPCC’s reports show today’s climate science paradigm, with a clarity and detail seldom seen in science.

In “normal science” most research…

“adds to the scope and precision of the paradigm and its applications. … {A paradigm provides} a criterion for choosing problems … To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake. … One of the reasons why normal science progresses so rapidly is that its practitioners concentrate on problems…”

When scientists believe the paradigm has become insecure, the processes of normal science break down. There are…

frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution… Though almost non-existent during periods of normal science, they recur regularly just before and during scientific revolutions, the periods when paradigms are first under attack and then subject to change.

If continued, this leads to a paradigm crisis:

These characteristics include the awareness of anomaly, the gradual and simultaneous emergence of both observation and conceptual recognition, and the consequent change of paradigm categories and procedures — often accompanied by resistance.

External pressure from the broader society can also transform a mere anomaly into a source of crisis. The breakdown of the calendar in Copernicus’ time, plus the social forces questioning the existing order unleashed by the Renaissance. These things can begin a paradigm crisis, but are insufficient to force a shift in the paradigm.

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion Paradigm shift
You experience a paradigm shift when you see it as a duck, then a rabbit.

(3)  The structure of scientific revolutions

One of Kuhn’s greatest insights concerns the process of a paradigm shift. Paradigms cannot be disproven, only replaced.

Let us then assume that crises are a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories and ask next how scientists respond to their existence. Part of the answer, as obvious as it is important, can be discovered by noting first what scientists never do when confronted by even severe and prolonged anomalies. Though they may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They do not, that is, treat anomalies as counterinstances, though in the vocabulary of philosophy of science that is what they are.

… once it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place. No process yet disclosed by the historical study of scientific development at all resembles the methodological stereotype of falsification by direct comparison with nature.

That remark does not mean that scientists do not reject scientific theories, or that experience and experiment are not essential to the process in which they do so. But it does mean — what will ultimately be a central point — that the act of judgment that leads scientists to reject a previously accepted theory is always based upon more than a comparison of that theory with the world. The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.

The Bølling-Allerød global warming
The TraCE-21000 project examines the Bølling-Allerød, the previous period of global warming about 14,500 years ago. Illustration by Jamison Daniel.

(4) The state of climate science

Paradigm challenges usually lose. But revolutions are often obvious only after they’re well under way. The pause — now 17 years long by the satellite databases, by some definitions — has provided a strong challenge to the reigning climate paradigm, as has the spatial distribution of warming in the atmosphere and oceans, and other factors. It’s seen in the many explanations (many contradictory), and the wide range of forecasts of its likely duration.

The initial reaction of mainstream climate scientists to the challenge was to ignore it, with some of the community’s leaders working to block access of challengers to key journals (as revealed in the ClimateGate emails). Rumors told of blocking their access to funding and tenure. Business as usual in the sciences, except perhaps in its intensity. It’s the kind of covert conflict typical of our bureaucratic society.

But the pressure continued and intensified as more climate scientists — including some eminent ones such as Roger Pielke Sr., Judith Curry, and Richard Lindzen — directly challenged the paradigm.

This provides a clear example of Kuhn’s theory in action. Note the reaction yesterday to Professor Roger Pielke Sr.’s article at this website: “Do models accurately predict climate change?” In the textbook model scientists would read the article and reply. But climate models are the cornerstone of modern climate science, so attacking them is illegitimate. What else do they have?

{updated} Hence the usual response to challengers meets this institutional need for defense; dialogue would allow foes on the stage — giving them credibility (and raising the possibility of defeat). Twitter services them well. It allows for little but throwing “rocks” at one another.

My favorite demonstration of this was in a Twitter conversation with Doug McNeall (climate scientist and statistician at the Met Office Hadley Centre). No need to cite evidence or even read Pielke Sr’s article — because his tweet’s 140 characters did not provide a detailed case! Seen from outside his community this looks silly, which means it’s misunderstood. It makes sense in context as intra-institutional conflict, as one faction defends the paradigm from attack. Here are a few tweets from the conversation.

(5)  What happens next?

Revolution or more normal science? If it was predictable, it wouldn’t be science. Everybody talks their book, predicting that new facts and theories will prove their faction correct. All sides (it’s not baseball; there are many) in the climate scientist community have the same data. Only time will prove who is correct.

The large stakes in the public policy debate about climate change influence the debate. Perhaps “poison” the debate is more accurate. But the machinery of science has strong foundation. It worked under the Inquisition; it will work today despite the efforts of the Left and Right to hijack it.

As for the fanboys cheering their teams of scientists, eventually science will provide answers and they’ll go back to cheering their local sports teams or heroic politicians. Historians will write with amusement about their contribution of chaff to the public policy debates, in the paragraph or two between the descriptions of the scientists who carried the ball forward.

Truth Will Make You Free

(6)  For More Information

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Also, see these posts about science…

  1. Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?
  2. Magical theories of science & how they influence us.
  3. Is the profession of science broken (a possible cause of the great stagnation)?
  4. In the center ring: scientists debate the process of climate science.

10 thoughts on “Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science

  1. Reading the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions now (with intro essay by Ian Hacking). Excellent book.

    Also, this was an excellent essay sir. I don’t quite understand how we’ve fallen into this “Twitter trap” of trying to even use Twitter to have discussions. Weird, and 140 characters doesn’t allow for complete thoughts.

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