There’s an interesting recent paper, that Willard will probably appreciate, called why Popper can’t resolve the debate over global warming: Problems with the uses of philosophy of science in the media and public framing of the science of global warming. The basic argument seems to be that people are using the philosophy of science arguments to try and justify their positions, but without really understanding if they’re appropriate, or not. It concludes that
studies of the science of Anthropogenic Global Warming debate would benefit from taking greater interest in questions raised by un-reflexive and politically expedient public understanding(s) of the philosophy of science of both critics and supporters of the science of Anthropogenic Global Warming.
What I found interesting about the paper is that, even amongst those who study the philosophy of science, there doesn’t appear to be broad agreement about the relevance of Popper. My own view is closest to something quoted in the paper
The classic Popperian approach to science, in which potentially refutable hypotheses are defined and tested is not well suited to the challenges posed by an Earth System that is characterised by high degrees of complexity, non-linearity and a lack of definable cause-consequence relationships. (Oldfield and Stefffen, 2014)
In fields dominated by observations, such as Astronomy and Climate Science, scientists don’t – on a daily basis at least – think in terms of Popperian falsifiability. Typically, the goal is to try and explain some system for which you have observations; in some cases, observations that you can’t really improve. You consider what physics should apply to the system and if – using that physics – you can explain the observations. Of course, in doing so, you would typically see how your assumptions influence your results, what you might be leaving out, and how this might influence your analysis.
However, if you were unable to match the observations, you wouldn’t necessarily immediately assume that your model had been falsified. Firstly, what would be falsified if your model is based on fundamental physics that has already essentially been through that test? It’s much more likely that you’ve missed something out of the model, or misunderstood some aspect of the system you’re considering. You don’t just throw it all away and start from scratch; you would consider if there is something relevant that you haven’t included. You can’t even necessarily rule out that there might be problems with the observations.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Popperian ideas have no role to play. In fact, even something like anthropogenic global warming (AGW) could be falsified (see, for example here and here) but it would take a great deal more than a model not being able to match some observations.
I guess my basic view would be that we should avoid assuming that science advances by applying simplistic rules. The goal of science is to gain understanding of whatever it is that we’re studying. Being aware of these different philosophical ideas is very useful, and blogging about this topic has certainly improved my understanding. However, these ideas are intended to guide how we do science, but are not really intended to impose a set of rules that we never violate. In most cases, the systems we’re considering are too complex for a set of simplistic rules to be applicable.