Science and belief

There’s a common statement made by people on both sides of the global warming/climate change debate. It goes something like this

Science isn’t about belief, it’s about evidence.

The basic argument is that you don't believe the science, you consider the evidence. The evidence tells you whether or not a particular scientific idea has merit. There is, however, a subtlety to this that people either don't realise or don't want to acknowledge. You may not believe the actual science, but you do believe in (or trust) the scientific method.

So, what do I mean by this? The scientific method is the basic idea that science progresses through ideas being tested and verified by many different people/groups in many different countries and at many different times. Eventually there's an acceptance that a particular bit of science is robust and that we can trust the results that have been obtained. We can then use the results of the research in other areas of science or to do new science. However, people who use what I'll call accepted science often never go and personally check that the earlier results are correct. They trust that the scientific method has worked and that these results are robust. This is perfectly reasonable. If we have to double check every bit of science that we need to use to do our research, we’d never get anything done.

That’s not to say that, as a scientists, you’re never exposed directly to the research that’s been done before. As a physics undergraduate, you’ll typically do experiments to – for example – measure acceleration due to gravity, measure the charge to mass ratio on an electron, quantify crystal diffraction, measure radioactive decay. This type of undergraduate laboratory work may help to confirm some basic science, but it’s not really why it’s done. It’s more to teach students about the experimental method, about data analysis, and about uncertainties. We also observe things in every day life that are consistent with our current scientific understanding. The sky is blue because of Rayleigh scattering. Gravity attracts us to the Earth, but planes that do parabolic flights can simulate weightlessness. Planes actually fly, which confirms the Bernoulli principle. Footballs curve if you put some spin on them. So, if there were fundamental problems with our current scientific understanding of the world, we would probably notice, but it’s still true that much of what we use today we haven’t personally verified. We’ve trusted the scientific method.

One reason I was thinking about this was that I was being challenged on Twitter last night to not only explain what science I had read, but to also to engage in a discussion about criticisms of the hockey stick reconstructions. Firstly, I was trying to watch a movie and also had really had too much wine to drink to seriously engage in either discussion. I also, however, find both “challenges” a little strange. What am I meant to say to someone who asks me to explain what science I’ve read? I’ve read a lot in many different places. I understand the atmospheric greenhouse effect. I’ve checked how the forcing due to CO2 varies with changing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. I’ve read papers about the influence of the Sun (by Mike Lockwood for example). I’ve read papers on climate sensitivity (Nic Lewis and Otto et al. for example). I’ve read papers about the change in ocean heat content (Balmaseda et al., Loeb et al., Nuccitelli et al.). I’ve read some paleo-climatological papers (Mann et al. and others). I’ve read papers about Arctic sea ice and changes in sea level.

What do I conclude? I conclude that equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely to exceed 2oC. This means that it’s likely that we will have locked in at least 2 degrees of warming by the mid 21st century. I conclude that sea levels are likely to rise by around 0.5m by the end of the 21st century. I conclude that what we’re currently undergoing is unprecedented in the last 1000 years and that soon the Earth may be warmer than it’s been in all of human history. I do, however, understand some of the underlying physics well and have done some calculations of my own to check various things (which you can find if you read some of my others posts), but I clearly haven’t checked all of this in great detail. It’s not possible to do so. I’ve had to trust that the scientific method is working. Maybe it’s not. Maybe there’s a massive conspiracy. Maybe this whole edifice will come tumbling down. That would, however, be remarkable. How can thousands of scientists across the world maintain such a conspiracy without it being obvious that it exists? Personally, I’m going to trust the scientific method rather than assume some incredible – and highly unlikely – conspiracy.

So, why didn’t I really want to engage in a discussion with someone about criticisms of hockey stick reconstructions. One obvious reason is that I probably know what they’re going to say and they probably know what I’m going to say. It’ll be one of those rather pointless discussions that goes nowhere. The more fundamental reason, though, is that if there are significant criticisms that would change the results of hockey stick reconstructions, this should be published. That’s how science works. You don’t simply find errors in a piece of work. You have to show how this error influences the result. Until someone publishes a reconstruction that is significantly different to those published today, and until such reconstructions have been verified and confirmed, I’m going to trust the scientific method, not someone on a social network who, as far as I can tell, has never published a scientific paper. I also, to be honest, find it quite arrogant; listen to me, I know better than thousands of experienced, qualified scientists. That may sound ironic coming from someone writing a blog about climate science, but I’m not insisting that you listen to me and I’m not going to judge you if you choose not to.

I did, however, have a very interesting discussion with Tamsin Edwards about using Bayesian methods to do paleo-climatological reconstructions. Her argument was (I think) that we could use Bayesian methods to introduce more detailed/complex climate-proxy models. Her argument, though, wasn’t that the current statistical methods were fundamentally wrong. It was simply that applying a different method would be valuable, and I completely agree. Tamsin did argue that the Bayesian method would introduce additional uncertainties and, hence, that current methods may be under-estimating the uncertainty. This may well be true, but doesn’t make them “wrong”.

I should make it clear that I’m not suggesting that everything is settled. Simply that the evidence within the scientific literature is pointing in a consistent direction. We are likely to undergo continued warming and will likely see increased surface temperatures, reduced Arctic sea ice and increased sea levels. Past climate history tells us that our future climate is likely to be unlike anything we as a species have experienced before. I’m also not even suggesting that the criticisms that some aim at some climate science research has no merit. I’m simply suggesting that if it is significant someone should publish new work that illustrates what impact these “errors” have on the results. That’s how the scientific method works and until someone can convince me that the scientific method is not working in the case of climate science, I’m going to – unapologetically – continue trusting it over a bunch of largely unpublished critics.

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30 Responses to Science and belief

  1. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    Given I’m the apparent subject of this post, I’m going to point out a single problem with what you’ve said and provide you the opportunity to fix it. If you do so, we can move on from there and perhaps have a discussion of some sort. If you don’t… you don’t.

    The more fundamental reason, though, is that if there are significant criticisms that would change the results of hockey stick reconstructions, this should be published. That’s how science works. You don’t simply find errors in a piece of work. You have to show how this error influences the result. Until someone publishes a reconstruction that is significantly different to those published today, and until such reconstructions have been verified and confirmed, I’m going to trust the scientific method,

    This standard is absurd. The view repeatedly proffered by Steve McIntyre is the same position I hold: Paleoclimatic evidence is insufficient to draw the conclusions about relative temperatures of the last 2,000 years that many people have tried to draw. That’s it. It’s not that temperatures were higher in the past. Maybe they were. Maybe they weren’t. I don’t think we have the evidence to tell.

    Let’s assume I’m right for the moment. How would that play out with the stated standard? You say the only way you’d change your mind is if a significantly different reconstruction was published and verified. If we don’t have the data to make a valid reconstruction, it’d be impossible to meet your standard. That means, even if we could prove the data doesn’t justify the previous reconstructions, you would stand by them anyway. Or at least, that’s what your standard says.

    Clearly, your standard is bunk. You don’t allow for the possibility no conclusion can be justified by the data. That makes it an impossible standard for anyone who believes as Steve McIntyre and I do. It is, quite simply, a false dilemma. So long as you use it, your position has no connection to science.

  2. I do allow for the latter possibility. That’s why I’m careful to use the term “evidence” rather than making absolute claims. I am, however, confused by what you seem to be suggesting. You seem to be suggesting that there’s nothing we can tell about past climate. That we can draw no conclusions. I find that a little absurd. There’s multiple different proxy methods that appear consistent and that paint a reasonably consistent picture. There are clearly uncertainties, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore this altogether. That, to me, would be unscientific.

    Something that I’ve been trying to get across in my posts is the following. Scientists do research and present their evidence. They, however, do not get to decide what to do given that evidence. It’s quite possible that we could decide that the paleo-climatological evidence is insufficiently strong to make any decisions about how we should change what we do. Suggesting, however, that the evidence has no merit seems wrong. It exists and is valid research. That doesn’t mean that we must suddenly act because of it, but also doesn’t mean that we should simply ignore it. I also think it’s not nearly as uncertain as you seem to be claiming, but that’s a different issue.

    As for your latter paragraph. We’ve been rather going at each other on Twitter in a manner that I don’t particularly like. Your latter paragraph appears, however, to suggest that I must accept your view or else I have no connection with science. Sorry, but I can’t really spend my time engaging with someone who presents that kind of absolute certainty in their views. I’ve accepted above that the paleo data may have issues, but argued that we can’t ignore it out of hand (it’s also not the only line of evidence). You seem to think that there is no alternative to your view. If I have unfairly characterised your comment, feel free to clarify.

  3. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    I do allow for the latter possibility. That’s why I’m careful to use the term “evidence” rather than making absolute claims.

    Your use of the term evidence in no way addresses what I said. You specifically said you’d maintain a position until proof for a different position was provided. You provided no room for the position, “We don’t know.” That’s not how science works. In science, disproving a position does not require substituting it with a new position.

    You seem to be suggesting that there’s nothing we can tell about past climate.

    There is nothing in my comment that could possibly justify this interpretation. We were discussing the hockey stick and what it may show about temperatures of the last two thousand years. I referred to “the conclusions about relative temperatures of the last 2,000 years that many people have tried to draw.” It is obvious I was talking about the same context the discussion has always been about.

    Climate involves many things, but I referred only to temperatures. The past covers a long period of time, but I only referred to 2,000 years. Even if you ignored the context of my comment, your interpretation of it is completely unjustifiable. What you say has no connection to what I said.

    That we can draw no conclusions. I find that a little absurd. There’s multiple different proxy methods that appear consistent and that paint a reasonably consistent picture. There are clearly uncertainties, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore this altogether. That, to me, would be unscientific.

    My argument has been that the reconstructions you refer to are wrong. The entire purpose of our exchanges has been to try to get you to look at what people have to say about that work. Why would you paint an attempt to discuss work as ignoring that work? That is completely incoherent.

    You seem to think that there is no alternative to your view. If I have unfairly characterised your comment, feel free to clarify.

    You hand-wavingly dismissed what I said as false based on the fact you use the term evidence. You provided no explanation as to how that single word could possibly break the false dilemma I highlighted. As such, you have certainly mischaracterized my views.

    You can disagree with me about what evidence says, but you cannot claim it is scientific to require proof of an alternative position before accepting disproof of a position you hold. A wrong answer is a wrong answer even if we don’t know what the right answer is.

  4. Okay, I think I did understand what you were saying. I’m really not trying to mis-represent what you say. Indeed, it is possible that they’re all wrong. The whole point of the post though was to express the view that scientists trust the scientific method. Research is published and presented and our understanding grows. If the reconstructions are indeed completely wrong (as you claim) then they would indeed be valueless. However, one still needs to show this and it still needs to be something that is presented in a manner that can be tested and verified. A published paper. Research presentations. There is also the issue, as I’ve tried to indicate, that finding an error doesn’t necessarily imply that the results are completely wrong. You do need to show the implications of the error. In your case, show that the results have no meaning. Let me try to be clearer. Showing that someone is completely wrong and that the results, hence, have no value is showing an alternative position. So, yes, I agree with you that one doesn’t need to produce an alternative results, as such, but one does need to produce the alternative that the results are meaningless.

    So let me put you on the spot. There are numerous papers that produce climate reconstructions. Very few, if any, that have shown major problems with these reconstructions. What are we, as society, meant to do? Believe the claims of people on social media who suggest that these reconstructions are completely meaningless, or have some faith in the scientific method and give credence to the body of published work? I’m not suggesting that this means we believe it absolutely, simply that we consider it as evidence with uncertainties.

  5. Tom Curtis says:

    Shollenberger’s construction of Wotts’ argument as a false dilemma is transparently flawed. It is perfectly open to either he, or McIntyre to publish a paper on “Uncertainty in paleoclimate reconstructions of the last 2000 years” showing that the uncertainty range is, given available data, greater than +/- 5 C relative to current temperatures. That would meet, I believe, Wotts’ criteria.

    As it happens, by the way, neither McIntyre nor Shollenberger criticize all temperature reconstructions over the 2 thousand years. Only those that show a higher modern temperature than the MWP. The selective criticism gives the lie to Shollenberger’s description of his and McIntyre’s position.

  6. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    Given you haven’t defended any of the gross mischaracterizations from your previous response, and you seem to have changed the position I quoted, I suppose we’ve made progress.

    It’d be nice if you’d actually correct the wrong things you’ve said though. It’s difficult to tell what you do and do not still believe when you say completely untrue things then simply drop them when challenged.

    So let me put you on the spot. There are numerous papers that produce climate reconstructions. Very few, if any, that have shown major problems with these reconstructions. What are we, as society, meant to do? Believe the claims of people on social media who suggest that these reconstructions are completely meaningless, or have some faith in the scientific method and give credence to the body of published work? I’m not suggesting that this means we believe it absolutely, simply that we consider it as evidence with uncertainties.

    What are you going on about? I never said anyone should simply believe me. I told you I am willing to demonstrate what I say. I was giving you the opportunity to look into the criticisms people raise. That’s giving you the chance to judge for yourself whether or not those criticisms have merit.

    I never said you had to agree with me about the criticisms. I certainly never said you had to agree with me without even looking into what I say. All I ever said is if you don’t even consider what critics of your position say, you’re close-minded.

    You have constantly misrepresented what I say in ways that paint me/my position in a negative light. Would you please stop? It’s obnoxious.

  7. Brandon, I’m really not trying to mis-represent what you say. I even said

    You seem to think that there is no alternative to your view. If I have unfairly characterised your comment, feel free to clarify.

    You said at the very beginning

    I’m going to point out a single problem with what you’ve said and provide you the opportunity to fix it. If you do so, we can move on from there and perhaps have a discussion of some sort. If you don’t… you don’t.

    That appears to me to be suggesting that I must agree with your correction. If that isn’t what you meant, feel free – as I’ve said – to clarify. I’m not imposing any conditions on what you should or should not do. I’ve even, as far as I can tell, even been willing to acknowledge that some of what you say has merit. I don’t really know what else to do to convince you that my intent is not to misrepresent what you’re saying.

    You’ve also misunderstood what you quoted me saying above. I think it’s fairly clear, but let me try and clarify. I wasn’t implying that we had to believe you. I was asking why would we do so. If you can make it so convincing that it’s obvious, then it should be publishable and somebody would do so. While it remains on blogs or other social media, I can’t really see any reason why society should, or would, accept that over the results presented in the literature. I would regard that as – in most circumstances – irresponsible.

    I don’t really know what else to say. I’m trying my best to engage as politely and openly as I can despite the fact that you’ve referred to me as close-minded and stated that my standard is bunk. I’m more than happy for you to lay out your criticism of reconstructions. I will happily read it. I will certainly give it some thought. However, I’m unlikely to suddenly have an epiphany and realise that all of these reconstructions are wrong and the results meaningless. I don’t doubt that you may say some interesting things that will provide food for thought. So, if you wish to do so, please feel free to go ahead. If you don’t want to, that’s also fine. I’m really not trying to be difficult or unpleasant.

  8. chris says:

    Isn’t your belief a little odd Brandon? Of course we don’t know what the temperatures were at some point in the past before systematic temperature measurements. We weren’t there, and those that were there didn’t do systematic measurements. So we assess paleotemperatures according to the evidence. As far as I can see the evidence pretty uniformly indicates that contemporary temperatures are warmer (at least in the N hemisphere) than at any time in the past 1000 years with somewhat less confidence that this applies to the last 2000 years (I’m speaking from about a 1 year out of date perspective since I haven’t readdressed the published science for a year or so).

    That’s simply what the evidence shows (up to a year ago at least!). If you know of any published work that meaningfully supports the alternative position (that the whole slew of broadly consistent paleoreconstructions are not supported by the evidence) then point to this. If you know of any published science that indicates serious doubts with the whole slew of paleoproxies and their analyses then show us this. If it’s science it has to be about evidence…not ” belie(f)s”.

  9. chris says:

    oops, I should have read the top article before writing my post – I seem to have more or less repeated what wotts said! 🙂

  10. Well, that’s comforting at least 🙂

  11. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    You’ve also misunderstood what you quoted me saying above. I think it’s fairly clear, but let me try and clarify. I wasn’t implying that we had to believe you. I was asking why would we do so.

    Which, as I pointed out, had absolutely no bearing on anything I said. By making a total non-sequtir, you implied I said something I never said. My assumption was you did this because you thought what you asked was based on a fair characterization of what I’ve said even though it wasn’t. The only way I could have misunderstood you is if you didn’t make your non-sequitir by mistake.

    To repeat myself, I’ve never said society should believe me. I’ve never said you should believe me. Nothing I’ve said has had anything to do with believing me. There is no reason to ask me the question you asked me except to divert the discussion.

    I don’t really know what else to say. I’m trying my best to engage as politely and openly as I can despite the fact that you’ve referred to me as close-minded and stated that my standard is bunk.

    If this is as polite as you can be, you are terrible at being polite. The first thing a polite person does when someone tells them they made a misrepresentation is ask what was meant. You’ve never done this. In fact, you’ve never made any effort to get clarification from me on anything before dismissing it as wrong.

    Even worse, when you do acknowledge you were wrong on a point, you do so in a backhanded way without addressing what you said, or even the fact you adamantly denied being wrong just prior. That is not polite behavior. It is certainly worse than calling a ridiculous standard bunk. Especially since you acknowledged that standard was wrong!

    You’ve made insane interpretations of comments I make. You followed that by refusing to admit to completely misrepresenting those comments or offering any explanation for your ridiculous depictions of me. You apparently think you’re being polite and reasonable, but I vehemently disagree.

    Given I say you claim things about me with absolutely no basis in anything I’ve ever said, and you either deny this or ignore it, I don’t see any point in continuing. One of us is being completely ridiculous. I’m content to leave it to readers to determine who.

  12. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    chris, your entire comment is nothing but hand-waving. You say your position is “simply what the evidence shows,” but that ignores the fact my entire position is that the evidence doesn’t show such. I’ve even offered to hold a detailed discussion to explain why I say the evidence doesn’t show such. Not only are you not taking me up on my offer, you’re pretending like I’m ignoring evidence while in reality I’m the only person here who has tried to discuss that evidence.

    As I said in my comment to our host, I don’t see a point in continuing a discussion here. However, I’ve had an open offer to discuss evidenciary issues for years now. It is still open. If someone wants to take me up on it, I’d be happy to.

    But as long as you pretend I’m ignoring evidence while I’m in the process of trying to get people to look at that evidence, we can’t hold a discussion. Because what you’re saying is incoherent.

  13. Wow, I don’t know what to make of your response. If you read what I’ve written I do not actually made any statements with regards to what you’ve said. I’ve actually said “seems like” or “appears to say”. What I’m saying there is how I’ve interpreted what you’ve said. You’re free to correct me, but you can’t claim I’ve mis-represented you. At best I’ve mis-interpreted you. You say

    The first thing a polite person does when someone tells them they made a misrepresentation is ask what was meant. You’ve never done this. In fact, you’ve never made any effort to get clarification from me on anything before dismissing it as wrong.

    As I pointed out above, not only did I say “you seem to think” I then go on to say that you’re free to correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe I didn’t do this precisely as you’d have liked but that appears, to me at least, to be accepting the possibility that I’ve interpreted you incorrectly.

    I’ve also tried very hard to be accommodating (although you clearly disagree). I really don’t want to be unpleasant and if I have said anything explicitly unpleasant, I apologise. If I have actually mis-represented anything I too apologise.

    You’re free to do whatever you wish, and unlike the norm in such circumstances can do so without me interpreting it in any way. You’re also free to make another comment, but I may well choose to ignore it because I can’t keep trying to be reasonable and then have you come back and acknowledge none of this and then make some more claims that I’m being unreasonable and that I’m mis-representing you. You’re free to go back to Twitter where you can belittle me further and can comment on how close-minded I am. It’s a free world, do as you wish.

  14. BBD says:

    Oh this is tedious. Even if GAT reached current temperatures briefly at some point over the last 2ka it has no bearing whatsoever on the modern problem of CO2-forced warming. None. At most, it demonstrates that the climate system is somewhat sensitive to radiative perturbation.

    And the climate agnosia pose is just thinly veiled denialism. Yes, that word again.

  15. BBD says:

    Brandon has a distinctive style. It is unlovely.

  16. It’s certainly distinctive 🙂

  17. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    I was checking to see what the response to my last comment was when I saw this comment and couldn’t resist. BBD, one of the most common responses I’ve seen is if there were large temperature swings in the past, that means the planet must be more sensitive to forcings. In other words, a warm MWP indicates a higher climate sensitivity, and thus it means things are worse than if the hockey stick were right.

    It’s interesting you disagree!

  18. Maybe BBD can correct me, but I think that climate system is somewhat sensitive to radiative perturbation does mean a higher climate sensitivity.

  19. chris says:

    Brandon, I have requested that you show us the published evidence that supports your belief.I’m basing my understanding on the published scientific evidence. How is that handwaving?! It’s not unreasonable that if you assert that there’s published evidence in support of your belief you show us. Just give the citations please. What’s the problem?

    And who says I’m “pretending(ing) (you’re) ignoring evidence”?! I’m asking you to show it to us. For goodness sake, you’ve made 5 or 6 non-posts here when all you have to do is give us a few citations to the papers that support your belief(s)..

  20. bg says:

    Well I would say that his style is that of a scientific stalker.

  21. bg says:

    Or as I have mentioned in a different thread, of the intellectual bullying type.

  22. BBD says:

    Wotts

    I cannot correct a correct statement.

    🙂

  23. BBD says:

    BS

    The Mannean hockey stick is broadly correct. Banging on about an obsolete, if ground-breaking millennial reconstruction as if it could somehow affect the laws of physics is indicative either of poor topic knowledge or deliberate misdirection.

    Out of curiosity, BS, which is it?

  24. Sou says:

    One of us is being completely ridiculous. I’m content to leave it to readers to determine who.

    Is that a trick statement or is the answer as obvious as it appears to readers, or to this reader anyway?

  25. bg says:

    Nothing wrong with skeptics or skepticism. I maintain that scientists are trained skeptics.

    However, one begins as a sceptic, and is allotted a certain amount of time during which to educate oneself, after such time then one transitions from being a skeptic and becomes willfully ignorant, and after some amount of time of being willfully ignorant, one, by definition, becomes a denier.

    And that is the appropriate term to apply to those individuals.

  26. BBD says:

    Can’t argue with that.

  27. toby52 says:

    Excellent post, Wotts.

    I cringe whenever I read “believers in climate change”. The correct phraseology should be “those who accept the evidence for climate change”.

    On the other side, you have to be careful of blind scientism, and Stephen Hawking like blather about “knowing the mind of God”.

  28. Thanks. You’re quite right about the correct phraseology. It still amazes me how much of this debate involves discussions and arguments about terminology and words and how little is actually about the science itself. I suspect that’s because deep down those who are critical know that if it did come down to the science itself, they’d have very little on which to base their scepticism. All that’s left is to be critical of terminology or to be critical of what people have said, rather than what their words were intended to mean.

  29. BBD says:

    Wotts

    Certain unkind commenters have suggested that you aren’t very clever. This is at odds with the speed at which you are grasping the essential realities of the climate change “debate”.

    🙂

  30. Rattus Norvegicus says:

    Brandon would seem to be quite bright, but dense. This means he is either an IT manager or a lawyer.

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