Naïve RealismNovember 1, 2009
This recent research suggests that we must now be open to the possibility that there will not and cannot be a single policy approach to addressing the full spectrum of human influences on the climate system. The recognition of complexity may present an opportunity to move climate policy forward, by providing a justification for reconsidering the flawed (and some would say doomed) approach.
I think Roger’s point is fairly clear, but others on his comment board make great hay of his claim. Some even take his observations to be a full-blown indictment of climate science altogether. As evidence of this, Marc Morano takes the opportunity to impugn climate science by headlining on his blog with the words “Settled Science?” and then linking to Roger’s post. Missing only is the Drudge-style siren.
I simply fail to see how this [Roger's post, coupled with the study in Science] is anything like an indictment of climate science. I suspect that the confusion has something to do with a presiding misconception that somehow science, generally speaking, and climate science, narrowly speaking, infallibly uncovers facts about the objective world. It’s hard to say what’s behind this, except that this sort of naïve realism is just exceptionally common. Too bad it’s also deeply flawed.
More after the jump…
If you think that science gets at facts, much like one might unearth an old shoe in the closet — aha! that’s where my favorite pink galosh disappeared to! — then I suppose you might arrive at the conclusion that since some things about climate science are not settled, then indeed, there’s quite a bit more work for science to do. One’s favorite pink galosh has in fact not yet been found. We should keep digging through piles of clothes, through our rotten, stinking Doc Martins and decaying flip-flops, in search of more information. If that’s what science is up to, then perhaps it is reasonable to conclude that when the science is not settled, we should wait for more information. But I also think (a) that this is a false view of what science is up to and (b) that if it were a true view, then it’d be mighty damn hard to get anything done.
I’m far more inclined to think pragmatically about the state of scientific knowledge. Science is, and forever will be, an unfinished project, oriented at creating an idealized book of knowledge, yet driven and regulated by a methodology that opens itself to critique and revision. It is, therefore, fallible. This fallibility and openness to revision is as true for the other sciences as it is for climate science.
Thing is, despite this fallibility, it is wrong to conclude that therefore some scientific claims, about the climate, say, or about the safety of vaccinations, say, do not deserve a place as justified, hard-won positions. The truthmaker is still the objective world on this view, but what it is for us to say that some scientific claim is true isn’t as tightly dependent upon whether the science directly describes that objective world. Instead, the strength of a scientific claim is dependent upon whether it has been justified. (Shall we revisit the peer review threads for more?)
The problem for climate science is as much related to (a) as to (b). Just as our scientific knowledge-base is always moving, so too is our resultant set of policy imperatives. (Policies, of course, are driven by more than our knowledge-base; but they are certainly, or at least certainly should be, subject to amendment given the current state of knowledge.) Inasmuch as the movement of knowledge is a problem for science, it is also a great strength of science. Even though any given body of scientific knowledge is not and never well be “settled,” there is still quite a bit of good and helpful information to go on. Indeed, it would be foolhardy to ignore that science.
For instance, when you present at the hospital with a headache and vomiting, a triage nurse will make a snap judgment about your condition. He has very little information about your overall health. That nurse then uses his judgment to give you a place in line. Eventually, you are seen, you are given more tests, and as information comes in, physicians and nurses adapt their responses to the new knowledge available to them. What you very much wouldn’t want is a triage nurse who refuses to treat you because he doesn’t have enough information about your condition to do anything.
So too with climate science. As the science develops, we adapt our management strategies. If other non-carbon GHGs are forcing our climate away from stability — I was under the impression that this was accepted scientific fact, but I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know — and some of those GHGs are anthropogenic, then we should worry about those emissions too. We should be concerned about methane emissions, just as we’re concerned about carbon emissions, for instance.
There’s nothing threatening about this new information. There’s nothing about this that should call into question the certainty with which carbon policy is being set. That’s the reason that we need to keep studying these things, to learn more and adjust our strategy accordingly.
I’m not sure I agree with Roger that a climate policy apparatus “that is decentralized and more focused in its elements will be better able to adjust as science evolves,” but that’s a matter for another day. I’m sure we’ll talk about it online as well as offline. The more important observation is that simply offering amendments to the body of climate knowledge doesn’t impugn climate science as a body of knowledge. It also doesn’t warrant a Drudge-like siren. It simply contributes to and furthers our understanding of these incredibly complex systems.
(Please note: At several points I used the singular of ‘galoshes’ in a sentence. When was the last time you’ve seen that done?)