Five dimensions of climate science reductionism

Since I’ve been writing about social science papers recently, there are a couple of others I wanted to mention. I discovered that James has already covered one, so I don’t need to say more. The other is a paper called Five dimensions of climate science reductionism by Jonathan Rigg & Lisa Reyes Mason.

The basic premise is well highlighted by the abstract

The tendency of modern science to reduce complex phenomena into their component parts has many advantages for advancing knowledge. However, such reductionism in climate science is also a problem because it narrows the evidence base, limiting visions of possible futures and the ways they might be achieved.

The problem is that

it is the predictive natural sciences (earth, environmental, meteorological, atmospheric sciences), not the critical and interpretative social sciences and humanities, that set the terms of the climate change debate, leading to disciplinary reductionism.

and

Participatory climate science reductionism is about excluding the non-expert.

It’s actually quite hard to know where to start with this. The basic issue seems to be that the natural sciences dominate the climate change debate and that the processes used are about excuding the non-expert. There may be some truth to the non-expert being excluded, but it’s not what climate science is about.

The key point, in my view, is that any research is about understanding a system. In the case of the physical sciences, it is often about trying to understand how some physical systems evolves and how it might respond to changes. Various other factors may influence what we might choose to research, and – in some cases – how we conduct research, but they shouldn’t influence what we conclude about the system from that research.

However, our interpretation of the significance of some research is something that should not be determined by the researchers alone. This is where, in my view, others should get involved so as to inform how our societal factors might influence how we might respond to the available information.

I don’t think we should be expecting scientists to develop a different science, characterized by deep interdisciplinarity [and] meaningful engagement of diverse publics, but I do think that the diverse publics should be engaged when it comes to considering the significance of some research.

My general view is that this paper over-states the significance of climate science in the public climate change debate, but even if it is dominating and other factors are being excluded, the solution would seem to be for others to step up and present this information, rather than suggesting that a different climate science is needed to identify, inform and advance new solutions to climate change that address people’s lived experience and are tailored to local context, so they are more likely to be positively received and, therefore, to succeed.

I do think that these other factors are important. I just do not think their inclusion requires developing a different climate science; it requires those who recognise their importance doing a better job of highlighting this.

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36 Responses to Five dimensions of climate science reductionism

  1. gator says:

    To me this always smacks of someone who doesn’t want to do the hard work of understanding the actual science complaining that no one is listening to them. Science is a conversation and you should have something interesting and relevant to say if you want people to listen.

  2. Gator,

    Science is a conversation and you should have something interesting and relevant to say if you want people to listen.

    Yes, I was tempted to say something similar myself. Rather than insisting that others make space for what you think is important, why not actually constract an argument for its importance that is compelling and worth listening to. To be fair, though, some of what is argued should be considered is, in my view, important. I just don’t think the way to incorporate this is through developing some kind of new science. They way to do so is for those who understand the importance to step up and engage in the public debate.

  3. dikranmarsupial says:

    “it is the predictive natural sciences (earth, environmental, meteorological, atmospheric sciences), not the critical and interpretative social sciences and humanities, that set the terms of the climate change debate, leading to disciplinary reductionism.”

    But that may be because some are using (exploiting?) the uncertainties in the natural sciences as a means of avoiding the social science and humanities aspects of the problem, because they don’t like the socio-economic consequences of what the science currently tells us. It would be brilliant if I didn’t have to keep explaining to people how we know the rise in atmospheric CO2 is man-made. This is an issue that ought to be obvious to anyone capable of understanding a bank balance, so you have to ask, why is it so hard for some to accept?

    Participatory climate science reductionism is about excluding the non-expert.

    A bit like brain surgery then?

    The purpose of reductionism is that it helps to understand the whole if you understand the parts. Of course this isn’t always possible, but given a human beings finite capacity for complexity, most of the time it is helpful. It is also easy to ignore the benefits of reductionism if you want to argue against it. Cladistics generates trees showing (perhaps) how species evolve, but it isn’t purely reductionist, splitting families of organisms into smaller and more similar groupings; if you look at the tree the other way, it is also showing you the similarities and relationships.

  4. Dikran,
    I think your point about understanding is exactly right. There are some cases where people add more and more complexity, but it often confuses our understanding, rather than aiding it. Not always, of course, but there are many cases where it is better to keep things simple to try and understand how different factors influence a system.

  5. verytallguy says:

    Excuse my ignorance, what is Participatory climate science?

  6. vtg,
    I don’t really know. Let more people participate, I think. Not quite sure how this is meant to work.

    On a more serious note (and not a response to vtg), there are real issues with diversity and inclusion in science. That, however, is a different issue to whether or not climate science should be including a much more diverse publics in the research process.

  7. dikranmarsupial says:

    “Participatory climate science reductionism is about excluding the non-expert. ”

    being slightly flippant, science has an excellent mechansim for including non-experts since at least 1088, it is called a “university”. ;o)

  8. I must admit that I found the claim that it is about excluding the non-expert rather annoying, since it is clearly not true. It’s about understanding the climate. It may be that there are aspects that would benefit from including non-experts, but exluding non-experts is very clearly not what it is about.

  9. verytallguy says:

    It was a genuine question.

    I can see that wider participation in the communication and also setting the direction for climate (and other science) is a worthy aim.

    I can’t see at all how wider participation in actually undertaking research is of any benefit – research requires very specialist skills and knowledge.

  10. vtg,
    Sorry, I somewhat misinterpreted the tone of your question.

    I agree that more participation in communication and direction would be very worthy. More involvement in the actual undertaking of research does not really seem to have an obvious benefit.

  11. dikranmarsupial says:

    ATTP, indeed I am not an expert, but have never felt excluded from discussions with climatologists.

  12. “This is an issue that ought to be obvious to anyone capable of understanding a bank balance, so you have to ask, why is it so hard for some to accept?”

    Because you haven’t answered the question “and we should do what?” The same frustration is felt by those who’ve noticed the “Easter Bunny” solutions and the “green new deal” are obviously not going to happen and other alternatives exist. So you have to ask, why is that so hard for some to accept?

    “Participatory climate science reductionism is about excluding the non-expert. ”
    This has the meaning you note. It is also fits the increasingly visible “climate justice” frame. Those who seek to use the issue to reduce inequality, racial strife, etc. are not experts either, but you’re asked to listen to them.

    “…a different climate science is needed to identify, inform and advance new solutions to climate change…
    The nut of the issue. The “new science” is needed for advocacy (in the non-negative meaning of the word). Why should climate science determine solutions? My doctor is brilliant, but doesn’t fix my car or write school policy.

  13. dikranmarsupial says:

    jeffnsails850 wrote “Because you haven’t answered the question “and we should do what?” “

    That is completely irrelevant to the question of whether the rise in atmospheric CO2, that is entirely the point. People know what they need to do, but they don’t want to do it, and know that if they accept the science, it is the first step on the slippery slope to actually doing it. That is why some even reject parts of the science that are extremely well established (to the point of being beyond reasonable doubt).

  14. dikrannmarsupial “That is completely irrelevant to the question of whether the rise in atmospheric CO2, that is entirely the point.”
    The two are not irrelevant in the debate on climate change. In fact the debate is over the question: “we should do X to reduce emissions because bad things will happen otherwise.” X is the variable, if it is ridiculous and other alternatives exist, no amount of proof of bad things will move the debate forward. This is why you often find yourselves arguing with people who accept that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is man-made and is causing (or will cause) very real problems.

  15. dikranmarsupial says:

    No, whether the rise in atmospheric co2 is anthropogenic or not doesn’t depend in any way on what we propose to do about it. If someone’s acceptance of that fact depends on what we propose doing about it, then they are acting in an unduly irrational manner.

  16. dikranmarsupial- I don’t think the impact of emissions is dependent on the solution and didn’t say that. I said “the debate” is over the question of what to do and the answers given are relevant to that debate.
    I’ll try an analogy: You are in New York, your accountant whom you trust calls and says if you are not in Los Angeles for a meeting at noon tomorrow it is very likely you will be bankrupt in 10 years. And then she tells you that you must not book a flight, you must instead walk to Los Angeles. From this, you know:
    there is something serious to consider with your finances
    There may or may not be something helpful in LA, but you obviously don’t need to be there at noon tomorrow if the only option won’t get you there in time.
    The fact that you aren’t walking doesn’t mean you are unconcerned about your finances and no amount of spreadsheeting will make you walk.
    You need to bring in another accountant who is serious about your finances.
    When you get a serious answer about the finances, you’ll address it.

    This has been going on since the 1991 Rio Summit.

  17. dikranmarsupial says:

    “dikranmarsupial- I don’t think the impact of emissions is dependent on the solution and didn’t say that. ”

    You are missing the point. In order to decide what to do, we first need to accept there is a problem. Many people don’t like the proposed solutions, so they refuse to accept the science and hence that there is even a problem to be solved. There is no point in talking about solutions because (i) whether there actually *is* a problem does not depend on the solutions, so they are irrelevant and (ii) if someone won’t accept there is a problem, there is no point trying to discuss solutions with them.

  18. Everett F Sargent says:

    “I said “the debate” is over”

    Thank you. 😉

    We really do need to try to get past that 1st hurdle for you though. Follow on questions (e. g. Is that a problem?) then include answers such as do nothing and/or BAU that are at one extreme in the spectrum of answers to those follow on questions.

    You could even suggest that we do this 247 …

  19. Willard says:

    > In fact the debate is over the question: “we should do X to reduce emissions because bad things will happen otherwise.” X is the variable, if it is ridiculous and other alternatives exist, no amount of proof of bad things will move the debate forward.

    There are many debates, JeffN –

    https://contrarianmatrix.wordpress.com/

    Please do not conflate your own preferences with those of other contrarians.

    Say hi to Judy from me.

  20. Joshua says:

    I always thought that the Lysenko, Stalin, Mccarthy, Ghengis Khan, Mao, Eugenicists, religious fanatics, accusations were just a bit over the top (with maybe just a tiny, tiny smidgeon of catastrophism/alarmism, motivated reasoning, identity-protective reasoning, circular reasoning, confirmation bias mixed in), but now we’ve gotten to “worse than Lysenkoism.

    https://judithcurry.com/2018/12/12/cliff-mass-victim-of-academic-political-bullying/#comment-885982

    Man, that’s bad!

  21. dikranmarsupial says:

    will we ever reach “peak hyperbole”?

  22. Joshua says:

    Can there be anything worse than Lysenkoism? Maybe worse than worse than Lysenkoism?

  23. dikranmarsupial says:

    Lysenkoism^2?

  24. Joshua says:

    Sorry, I meant to ask if there could be anything worse than worse than Lysenkoism. Maybe worse than Lysenkoism is the top?

  25. Semantic issue: please note that “the debate is over” is misleading, what is meant is “the debate is over [~somethingorother~].

    Can anyone give a reason why citizen science is not useful? As a layperson, I too have seldom been disrespected by real scientists, though they have sometimes (rightly) complain about my inaccuracies, sloppinesses, and hastily posted errors, which they correctly point out are the reverse of useful. I get a lot of disrespect from “deniers”: fake skeptics who know even less than I do but are perhaps more technically adept and have training in, say, statistics or engineering, and want to discredit reality in a more or less ad hominem way (what, by the way, is the female version of ad hom, does it exist?).

  26. oops: should have started a new paragraph with the second sentence beginning “As a layperson”

    I don’t mean to suggest that I am a citizen scientist, that’s a separate question.

  27. Willard says:

    Why settle for Lysenko when you got pigs:

  28. dikran “You are missing the point. In order to decide what to do, we first need to accept there is a problem.”
    Yes, and how serious the problem is, and the effectiveness of the available solutions. Since at least the 1991 Rio Summit, the world has officially recognized climate change is a problem. And watched Chinese emissions grow faster than any cuts the western world implements (which aren’t much even in Europe where we’re told there aren’t any deniers).
    You can make a great case that the Montreal Protocol drove the development of R-410A to replace CFCs, you can also notice that without the advent of R-410A we’d be holding international summits today on the urgent need for a tax to force people to switch from air conditioning to fans. And watching “merchants of doubt” chuckle that the summits are all in air conditioned venues.
    Like it or not, technology must solve the switch from fossil fuels.

  29. Willard says:

    > Like it or not, technology must solve the switch from fossil fuels.

    Like it or not, JeffN, tech is an abstraction that does not power itself, and legislation is a kind of tech:

  30. dikranmarsupial says:

    “jeffnsails850” if you don’t want to pay attention to the point I am making, it is pretty rude to make it the springboard for yours. Just post your point and leave me out of it.

  31. Dave_Geologist says:

    dikran “You are missing the point. In order to decide what to do, we first need to accept there is a problem.
    [jeffnsails850] Since at least the 1991 Rio Summit, the world has officially recognized climate change is a problem.

    Well jeff, except for the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; and IIRC, in the past, China and India. Probably others. And of course a bunch of corporations and political parties, including the major right-wing parties in the USA, Canada and Australia. And Matt King Coal (although ironically he contributed to the solution by making us all, at least in the UK, just that little bit poorer, with a resulting decrease in consumption). And the perpetrators of <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-013-1018-7"billions of dollars worth of propaganda (the gory details are freely available in the non-paywalled supplementary information – and of course this is just the stuff which was revealed under tax-exemption rules or unsuccessfully concealed). And the hundreds of millions, probably at various times billions of sheeple who bought the lies, either through naivety or because they’d rather hide behind convenient lies than confront inconvenient truths. So a large and, in terms of emissions, rather important part of the world doesn’t conform to your rose-tinted statement.

    Just a thought, have you considered the possibility that the lack of progress might have a lot to do with all the shit I listed above, and very little to do with climate scientists excluding non-experts from the science, and failing to engage the right communities in potential solutions?

    It’s rather pointless debating whether the cart should go before or after the horse with people who refuse to accept the existence of carts or horses. At least until they’ve joined the rest of us on Planet Reality.

  32. Dave_Geologist says:

    Oops, something broken in the hyperlink 😦 .

    Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations (the tables are in the link underneath the text “Supplementary material” at the bottom of the page).

  33. Willard says:

    Let’s not forget that once we have a solution, we’ll need to run severe tests:

  34. Jeff says:

    we’d be holding international summits today on the urgent need for a tax to force people to switch from air conditioning to fans.

    As of 2018:
    70% of Saudi Arabia’s electricity is used for air conditioning

    Another 20% of Saudi Arabia’s electricity is used to desalinate sea water for drinking.

    The problem is literally all of Saudi Arabia’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, according to the researchers. The country is reportedly plotting a shift towards renewables, particularly solar, since it gets direct sunlight in abundance. But that’s still in the future. As of 2017, 100% of its energy came from fossil fuels; 59% from oil and 41% from natural gas.

    Many people don’t realize that SA is consuming more and more of their own oil each year, thus
    cutting in to their exports. This trend is disturbing:

  35. Mal Adapted says:

    jeffnsail850:

    dikran “You are missing the point. In order to decide what to do, we first need to accept there is a problem.”

    Yes, and how serious the problem is, and the effectiveness of the available solutions.

    No. Here are the requirements in correct order:

    1) You first need to accept that socializing the climate-change cost of your fossil carbon emissions out your private tailpipe is causing a problem for other people.

    2) You next need to ask the people who have already paid for your fossil fuel consumption with their homes, livelihoods and lives how serious the problem is.

    3) You then need to propose a cost-effective (when all private and social costs are counted) way to reduce global fossil carbon emissions to zero.

    IOW: it’s not the responsibility of natural scientists per se to ‘solve’ AGW, It’s that of every energy consumer, and especially of every voter in a nominally democratic nation!

    I personally advocate a US national Carbon Fee and Dividend with Border Adjustment Tariff. Its purpose is to nudge the ‘invisible hand’ of the energy market with the ‘visible hand’ of legislation, by internalizing the marginal climate-change costs of fossil fuels in their market price, thus harnessing consumer thrift and the profit motive to drive buildout of the carbon-neutral US economy. If you’ve got a better idea, let’s hear it.

  36. Dave_Geologist says:

    That’s probably the best choice for the USA, Mal, Because Freedom. If the nasty government has to tax us, at least have them pay the money back to us. Like the Alaska Permanent Fund.

    In Europe, we’d probably distribute the proceeds as subsidies, in a “behavioural nudge” way. For example, subsidising electric cars or home changing points. Per the next thread, where I argue that in a decarbonised electricity free market, wind and PV would get paid less per kWh than nuclear, which would get less than on-demand gas turbines, pumped hydro or batteries, subsidise wind and PV. (The high price paid to the peak-shavers is not a subsidy, but a fair market price in return for keeping available capacity idle.)

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