Knowability and No Ability in the Earth and Climate Sciences

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In Class Discussion

See summary in section 2.2
inductivism (the view that science proceeds through generalisation from facts recorded in experience)

    1. Student Comments (delivered prior to class)

From Rei Ueyama

If science develops by the addition of new truths, an increase in the approximation of theories to the truth or by the correction of errors, "great science" is a result of many smaller discoveries. So why is it that we identify only a selected number of studies as the pioneering study?

- Is the difference between "normal and "extraordinary" research just a difference in the magnitude of the step from the previous state of knowledge (leap in knowledge)?

- Or is pioneering science equal to the synthesis of all previous findings? Being able to translate one theory to another?

- Or is the difference in the way you view a problem (thinking out-of-the-box, questioning assumed knowledge is false)?

Maybe the key is to realize which "anomalies" in a study can be ignored or explained away (trivial detail) and which ones should not be ignored or explained away (lead to "extraordinary" discovery).
Falsifiability & models: How do you test theories on future climate scenarios? Models seem insufficient.
In atmospheric science, we usually observe something first, and then try to explain that observation. If so, are the observations we deal with selective and "theory-laden" as Popper says?
Trends & Scientific Law: Trends, themselves, need scientific explanation. So if we don't fully understand the climate system, we shouldn't be predicting future climate... It certainly makes sense to try to predict the future, but is climate prediction really the right thing to do? Are the predictions really useful? There's a danger of building theories based on uncertain theories that are based on another uncertain theory, etc.

Every theory needs to be tested critically. But how do we know what is the "critical test" that is appropriate for the problem at hand?

From Michelle K.
Philosophical meanderings are sure dense.
So, as I see it Kuhn v. Popper breaks down in the following way:

- scientists follow a paradigm

- out to answer a question

- mostly times where trying to bring accepted theory and fact closer

- punctuated by "revolutions", triggered by a crisis (anomalies!)

- old paradigms thrown out and new ones adopted

- scientific knowledge base is not cumulative

- scientists follow this paradigm until the next revolution...


- science is defined by being falsifiable

- start with a problem and try to solve it (scientists = problem solvers)

- must do tests to see if one theory better than the other (no induction)

- question background knowledge (it might be flawed)

- theories that better survive applied tests are more "true"

I guess I have issues with how both treat "science". I don't think we can consider all of science like a continuum, to which some set of statements apply. I'm running myself in circles as it always seems like there is some exception (on some level) to their ideological set. Does this then make that set invalid? I don't think so as long as it is established at the appropriate level. The comparison between social and physical science was important and well discussed, though distinctions drawn between different branches of the physical sciences should also be incorporated in these arguments. I suppose I see aspects of both acting at these different levels -- I'm having a hard time reconciling these ideological sets as being largely independent.

In this direction I think even if Kuhn can argue that once a new paradigm is adopted the old is thrown out, I think it would be really difficult to argue that attitudes change as quickly as ideas. Or even if something is falsified by nature doesn't mean that scientists will always accept it.

How can we really define the truth? I'm really uncomfortable with Popper's idea of verisimilutude (almost uncomfortable as I am spelling it). Our knowledge base is always evolving, as is our understanding of "the truth". This gets into the low-hanging fruit thing ... this only makes sense in retrospect. As our understanding evolves so does our ability to ask new (and now seemingly harder) questions. I have been watching this happen in Planetary Science over the past 5 years or so. More data /= more answers! It has been interesting to watch people clutch their old ideologies in the face of new data which doesn't fit or was unexpected; they are (1) not quick to come up with new ideas unlike the old, and (2) really not quick to collectively adopt new ideas that do arise.
I think Lakatos gets into some of these issues. I need to consider this

more and also should stop at this point.

Date: Tue Apr 4, 2006 2:19:02 PM US/Pacific


Subject: Knowability and climate thoughts
David and Gerard-
Sorry I didn't make it to discussion last week. I was juggling cats.
Here are my thoughts on the readings (mostly tangential and paleoclimate

related). I don't know if this is what you wanted. If not, some of my

musings/pontifications may be useful for future discussions:

Identifying the trigger of abrupt climate change seems to be the Holy

Grail of Quaternary climate science these days. The community has spent

much time and energy diddling around in the North Atlantic trying to find

evidence to support the notion that abrupt Quaternary climate change is

driven by processes occurring in and around the North Atlantic. Few of us

have ventured into the tropics, the Pacific or, the Southern Ocean ("god"-

forbid) to develop and/or test alternative hypotheses. Those who have

often have trouble publishing or getting funding. So:

-Are we likely to advance our understanding of abrupt climate change by

continuing this North Atlantic-centric ("normal" scientific) approach? Is

the puzzle-solving approach valid in Earth Science if we continue to

geographically restrict the boundaries of the puzzle?

-Are we on the edge of a scientific crisis or paradigm shift in the study

of abrupt climate change (e.g. the tropical driver hypothesis, methane

hydrate instability and intermediate waters)? Are the rumblings from

beyond the North Atlantic sufficiently loud to warrant a reassessment of

the background knowledge of abrupt climate change?
-Abrupt climate change: a mature or an immature scientific "field" (this

is not the correct term)?

-Finally, what impact has/will the current funding climate had/have on the

scientific process in Earth Systems Science? Has/Will creativity,

intuition, and innovation been/be shunned in favor of "safe" (editorial

comment: boring) science? Can we make "progress" or advance understanding

in such a funding climate (no pun intended)? If advancement is possible,

comment on the rate of progress.

Maybe we should discuss punctuated equilibrium vs phyletic gradualism...

in evolutionary theory as well as in the progression of science. It seems

as if both approaches came up in the readings.
And there you have my two potentially uninformed cents.
From: michael town

Date: Tue Apr 4, 2006 3:38:47 PM US/Pacific


Subject: knowability

1. what about the development of chaos theory as a case study for us? (James Gleick, Chaos - Making a New Science) is a pretty good book. it has some passages in it about how people dealt with being confronted with problems for which they had no basis to understand or deal with. it was a revolution in the kuhnian sense. gleick seems to imply that these guys followed their intuition (or developed it by playing with numbers and pictures) until they were able to articulate a cohesive idea about their problem.

2. there must be some middle ground between falsifiable theories (popper) towards a truth and theories that only stand 'true' in the presense of current, popular paradigms. some ideas of true and false are universal. some needs of a society (which dictates a lot of the direction of society and how results are interpreted) are the same no matter what the era. living/nonliving,alive/dead, on/off, working/broken, ... huh. this is harder than i thought. i didn't get a good sense from the kuhn or popper readings what they thought *truth* was (reality beyond human perception of reality).
enough rambling.
From: Kevin Wood

Date: Tue Apr 4, 2006 6:00:27 PM US/Pacific

To: David Battisti , gerard roe

Subject: Falsifiability

On falsifiability. The message and warning implicit in the reading is that one cannot build a 'scientific' theory that is based on circular and self-reinforcing logic that is beyond a meaningful (e.g. failable) test. I think it is telling that the examples in the reading are not what we would even consider 'science' today -- and that the recent debate on intelligent design falls into the same category. The part about totalitarianism throws an interesting light on the issue.
And here is an (ellipsized) qoute about simplicity (parsimony) that you might find interesting:

Yet while the scientist must obviously choose the simplest among equivalent or mutually compatible theories, what are his grounds for choosing the simplest among non-equivalent theories that fit the evidence but conflict for non-examined cases? The simplest theory is not the most likely to be true just because the scientist hopes it will be true. ... The attempt to defend [the simplest choice] by arguing that nature usually has obeyed the simplest hypothesis and probably always will is doubly doomed. ... Nature has by no means usually followed the simplest hypothesis ... Nature has, indeed, always obeyed the simplest--and also the most complex--among the theories it has not yet violated. Nothing whatever can be said in support of the assumption that nature will usually follow the simpler theory; and about all anyone can justify by making so utterly unjustifiable an assumption is the suspicion that he is simple-minded.

Goodman (1967). Uniformity and Simplicity. Geo. Soc. of Am. Special Paper 89.
From: Hans Christian

So my questions are:

1)      Do we believe that Kuhn is right when he states that ”frameworks must be lived with and explored before they can be broken”

2)      How has the evolution of climatology evolved: A more steady process of gaining more and more knowledge (Popper) or in a more quantum leap type (Kuhn).


Hans Christian

From: Ken Takahashi

Date: Tue Apr 4, 2006 10:09:06 PM US/Pacific

To: gerard roe

Cc: David Battisti

Subject: Re: Knowability

Here are some thoughts on falsifiability, etc., in earth sciences.


I think that a special feature of our field (atmos & ocean, at least) is that we're pretty sure we know the fundamental equations that control everything and a large part of our work consists in getting insights into the behaviour of the system described by these equations. Our basic problem is that these equations can not be solved, except in rare conditions.

One approach to deal with this, following the tradition of theoretical physics, consists on proposing some simplification of the system (a model) and deducing consequences from it that may then be verified both in that context and in nature. This approach, almost by definition, produces "false" results since it leaves out potentially important processes. However, as long as the theories provide with explanatory power, they won't be dismissed, as lakatos says, until something better comes along.

The other approach is the experimental. This is, on my mind, what makes our field unique. Even though the system we deal with is appallingly complex and messy and irreproducible in a lab, we can simulate it in the computer with good confidence. This is very different from fields like biology or economics, where the "equations of motion" are unknown. It should be possible in principle, with carefully designed experiments, to falsify a hypothesis. However, the complexity of the system might also be invoked in order to explain unsatisfying results (i.e. "other effects are

messing with ours"). As before, as long as the results make the hypothesis plausible and the theory has explanatory power, it might be accepted.

From: Kevin Rennert

Date: Tue Apr 4, 2006 10:09:34 PM US/Pacific

To: gerard roe

Cc: David Battisti

Subject: kuhn and popper
I'm curious if we can define what the fundamentals of our science's disciplinary matrix, in Kuhn's terms, are, and if we can identify both when the 'revolutions' were, and what outstanding anomalies are left that could cause another one. Qiang Fu's work on reconciling the satellite observations eliminated one huge anomaly, what are some that are left that don't fit our 'standard picture' of climate change? Ones that could *really* cause a revolution, not just something that's a refinement on the rate of temperature change, rate of melt, etc.
From: David Nicholson

Date: Wed Apr 5, 2006 12:36:31 AM US/Pacific

To: gerard roe

Subject: Re: Knowability readings.
Disorganized, as directed.
does 'climate science' fit the definition of a science? mature one?

Do we ignore counterevidence until a better theory comes along? Have any earth science theories been refuted without a better, more comprehensive theory to replace it.

Can we find an example of a Kuhnian 'crisis' and associated leap in climate/earth sci?

From: "Rob Nicholas"

Date: Wed Apr 5, 2006 12:41:00 AM US/Pacific

To: "David Battisti" , "Gerard Roe"

Subject: Re: congratulations
David & Gerard,

First my obligatory random musings, churned up in the the wake of an

over-caffeinated reading of the texts...

Popper and Kuhn both seem to rely heavily on the example of physics in

their philosophy of science, but I found myself thinking quite a bit

about how the geosciences are (or might be?) different and how this

plays out in terms of their propositions, e.g.:

* Some of our models are both enormously complex (perhaps not

understandable by a single person) and known from the outset to be

"false" (use of parametrizations even when basic physics is known) --

does this change the standards for (or even the meaning of)

verification or falsification?
* Does the meaning of "observation" change when so much geophysical

data is collected enmasse and either archived or heavily processed

before ever reaching a human being? Things like retrieval algorithms

used for satellite measurements seem to muddy the waters -- or are

this just a super-example of "theory-laden observation"?
I've also been thinking about the centrality of "storytelling" in the

geosciences -- particularly in the study of climate. How do the

stories we tell relate to Kuhn's paradigms? Do these stories count as

science? I may want to float this as one of the themes for tomorrow's

Finally, to help me think about ways to frame tomorrow's discussion,

could one of you pass along the questions/musings (either raw or

distilled) sent to you by the other folks in the seminar?


Date: Wed Apr 5, 2006 8:17:27 AM US/Pacific

To: "gerard roe"

Subject: re: a few buttery, Popper-ey thoughts
Hi Gerard,
Better Nate than lever?

I almost had a few coherent thoughts relating to Popper's stuff, though

I'm pretty sure my caffeine-deprived state isn't going to do it justice.

First, it strikes me that Popper's framework of ground rules for

falsifiability is a powerful one, even if we disagree with his views. In

other words, I think using his formulation of what science is and isn't

might be practically helpful in terms of providing some structure for our

group discussions???
Next, more to the point of thinking about the content of his argument, I

like his distinction between science and non-science. Or, maybe more

simply, the "truth" and everything else. With climate science, I (again)

wonder if what makes a lot of what we do "non-science" is the fact that

our a-priori list of statements containing our hypothesis, the assumptions

under which our hypothesis is valid and the possibilities for errors in

testable "measurements" is painfully long. Therefore, it seems difficult

at the end of the day / thesis / manuscript to categorize the sources of

error or lapses in the theory?
Just to be controversial, maybe there's some link between the paragraph

above and the fact that we often do "small" studies focused on very

specific environments or phenomena without really understanding the

overarching "controls" or "physics" upon which these subtleties ride?

Even if you don't buy this argument, would Popper or we have something to

say about the relative merit of climate research of different scales?

Not even really a comment, but I wonder how realistic Popper's ideas about

inductive vs. deductive thinking is in a complex field like climate (with

"observations" from satellite, buoys, models, etc...). We are not allowed

to try to assimilate these different observations into a coherent


My rambles (sorry so terrible--I should've written down my thoughts on the

way through...),

From: "Meredith G. Hastings"

Date: Wed Apr 5, 2006 11:34:42 AM US/Pacific

To: Gerard Roe , David Battisti

Subject: comments/questions

Hi Gerard and David --

Sorry to be super late with life is a bit more all over the place than usual lately ...a few random thoughts...
I'm curious what people's reaction in general is to Kuhn's classification of normal science versus revolutionary science. Is "low hanging fruit" = "normal" science? Do you feel like you can classify your science into a particular category/description or do you have a particular framework for your experience in science? Does Popper's assertion that we approach things with a preconceived notion of theory fit within your framework? does it negate the/your scientific method in any way?
haven't finished with Lakatos yet....

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