Knowability and No Ability in the Earth and Climate Sciences

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  1. Introduction

  2. Background Material: Popper, Kuhn and Company

  3. Background: cont.

  4. Background: cont

  5. Models and the Complex Polya Checklist

  6. Models in Climate Sceince

  7. Abrupt Climate Change, Part I

  8. Abrupt Climate Change, Part II

  9. A Complex Polya List for Problem X

  10. Summary

    1. Introduction

    1. Additional Items

  1. Week 2

    1. The Agenda/Task

Job for week (week 2)
Remember, please send us some short comments about the readings by Tuesday evening (, Just a sentence or two is absolutely fine (and not an enormous amount more please!!). Don't feel like you have to address all of the questions, or spell correctly. Just send us the top one or two thoughts that struck you about the reading and about the problems.
The point is to give something to base a class discussion around, and to keep focussed on a particular direction. We'll read and assimilate them before class, and then maybe synthesize them (briefly) at the start of next class to stimulate discussion.

Questions: (with slight editorializing)
These were the questions we came up with last time. How do the conventional science 'recipes' help or not help us, in our field, deal with these questions?

• What does falsifiability mean, practically, in Earth/Climate Sciences?

• What about low hanging fruit versus other problems? (are there typical properties that such problems have)?

• What about the law of diminshing returns? (i.e., incremental progress from herculean efforts)

• How do you know if the fruit is good? (i.e., are simple models always the best models)?

• How do we test our hypotheses, and what does it mean? (perhaps when it is a model and not nature, and therefore not 'real')

• How do you know how complex you should expect your particular system to be? (can you anticipate the complexity you expect the right answer to have?)

• What does 'useful' mean? (perhaps what constitutes a useful answer in our field?)

• What does parsimony really mean as a good goal in the messy reality of Earth/Climate Science?

Week 2 readings:

Stanford enceylopedia entry on Kuhn (pdf)

Stanford encyclopedia entry on Popper (pdf)

Popper responding to Kuhn (pdf)

Selections of Popper's words (doc)

Lakatos: Science as a successful prediction (pdf)
Thornton, Stephen, 2005: “Karl Popper”. In “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” Edward Zalta, Ed. (online at ).
Bird, Alexander, 2005: “Thomas Kuhn.” In “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”, Edward Zalta, Ed. (online at )
Popper, K. “Normal Science and its dangers”. In “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge”. Ed. Imre Lakatos. Cambridge University Press. 1970 pp 51-58.
Lakatos, Imre. (1970). Excerpts from “Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes”. In Criticism and the growth of knowledge (pp. 91-196). Lakatos & A. Musgrave (Eds.), New York: Cambridge University Press.

Published online under the title “Science as Successful Prediction”,

    1. Summary

• What is science?

• A body of knowledge? A process? A culture – an agreement for how to build knowledge?

• Science vs. engineer? Both are problem solvers.

• Is normal science just problem solving – going for the low-hanging fruit. Science provides a methodology for evaluating which of two hypotheses are farther from the truth, and helps illuminate anomalies …

• Popper seems to outline a method for a mature science (or for a well defined system) for getting closer to the truth (the process by which we build knowledge).

• Pre-science: perhaps we can’t falsify things, but we are building a body of information to hone hypotheses. What additional

• Pre-science and science both tell stories about how the world works. In the case of science, the stories are analogies based on a knowledge we are reasonably confident (through tests and time) is likely to be on the right track.  

• A pre-science tells stories on weaker foundation. For the latter, how do you get closer to the truth? How do you make sure you are systematic way? What is the systematic way?

• Do we do science the way we report science?

• Is a mature science hallmarked by theories that are of lower dimensionality than what they are intended to explain. And by theories that make surprising predictions, that can be (and eventually are verified).?

• What if we thought of science as a conscious striving to define falsifiable hypothesis? This would include science and a prescience.

• If Kuhn is just reporting on the ‘description’ of changes in understanding, how can you be sure that you are any closer to the truth? What if you have settled into only one attractor / ‘truth well’ , and are still far from the truth?

• Will the same field undergo multiple revolutions where basic understanding is shown to be wrong?

• Can a complex system be understood scientifically?

• Climate? Human body? Can you define a system of rules or culture (like the rules for science by popper) that help us move closer to the truth?

Other thoughts about defining and choosing problems:

•     The extreme importance of "skeptical enquiry".

•     How well defined is the problem in question (and what does that even mean?)?

•     The importance of having a problem with a tractable scope. That is, can you anticipate how many things are   you going to need to know in order to understand your problem? Is that realistic?

•     How well established is the "background knowledge" you are going to need to use?

•     Even if you don't know the solution to a problem, can you lay out a recipe for how you might get there?

•     Or can you identify the elements that you expect the solution to have?

    Is it more effective to bound the range of the answer more effectively than actually finding it?

• How wrong might I be (Popperist - looking to falsify a theory/result)?

• How certain am i (positivist -- looking to confirm a theory)?

• Need a Her Majesty's Oposition -- need to have the community have this check and balance mechanism.

• need to develop a culture that you are your own devil's advocate

• how well does your paper sharpen critical thinking on an issue?

• how well did you try to critically assess your contribution?

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