John Nicol: Science Without Method

  • Date: 13/04/11

Global warming research: whatever happened to the scientific method?

Global warming, and its euphemistic sibling “climate change”, remain much in the news. Specialist research groups around the world continue to produce an unending sequence of papers aimed at demonstrating a litany of problems which might arise should global warming resume. The authors’ prime expertise is often found to be not in atmospheric physics or aeronomy, as one might have anticipated. However, the topic of climate change itself provides for abundant research funding, from which they feed, more easily than other areas of research of greater interest and practical use. Most of these papers are, of course, based upon the output from speculative and largely experimental, atmospheric models representing exercises in virtual reality, rather than observed, real-world, measurements and phenomena. Which leads to the question “What scientific methodology is in operation here?”

Though much has been written concerning the scientific method, and the ill defined question as to what constitutes a correct scientific approach to a complex problem, comparatively little comment has been made about the strange mix of empirical and virtual reality reasoning that characterises contemporary climate change research. It is obvious that the many different disciplines described as being scientific, rather than social, economic, or of the arts, may apply somewhat different criteria to determine what fundamental processes should define the “scientific method” as applied for each discipline. Dismayingly, for many years now there has been a growing tendency for many formerly “pure” scientific disciplines to embody characteristics of many others, and in some cases that includes the adoption of research attitudes and methods that are more appropriately applied in the arts and social sciences. “Post-modernism”, if you like, has proved to be a contagious disease in academia generally.

Classical scientific method generally follows the simple protocol of first defining an hypothesis concerning the behaviour or cause of some phenomenon in nature, either physical, biological or chemical. In most well defined areas of research, previous theory and experiment may provide such a wide and complex corpus of knowledge that a new hypothesis is not easily nor singly defined, and may even be left unstated.

This is most commonly the case when a number of diverse disciplines, all important for attaining an understanding of a particular problem, are providing results which lead to contradicting conclusions. A contemporary example of this is discussions of the greenhouse effect, which is one of the most controversial topics ever to be considered within the scientific community. Conventional thinking on the greenhouse effect is encapsulated in the IPCC’s statement that “We believe that most of the increase in global temperatures during the second half of the twentieth century, were very likely due to the increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide”.

Clearly this statement would be better worded were it to have been framed as a hypothesis rather than a belief, and treating the statement that way allows it to be rigorously tested (“beliefs”, which are unable to be tested, fall outside of the spectrum of science). In the real scientific world, for such an hypothesis to survive rigorous scrutiny, and thereby to perhaps grow in strength from a hypothesis to a theory, requires that it be examined and re-examined from every possible angle over periods of decades and longer.

In conventional research, the next step – following the formulation of the hypothesis in whatever form it may take – is to select what measurements or analyses need to be done in order to test the hypothesis and thus to advance understanding of the topic. Most often, theoretical reasoning as to why an hypothesis might be correct or incorrect is followed by the development of experiments in laboratories, or the making of careful observations in nature, which can be organised and classified, and from which measurements can be made and conclusions drawn.

The theoretical analysis may be qualitative, highly structured or written in terms of a precise mathematical formalism, which provides a basis for describing a model or picture of the phenomenon and the behaviour of observables associated with it. We may for instance, choose to include conjecture on quantities which are hidden from observation but whose presence and effects may be simply understood through the measured behaviour of larger-scale observables. As work progresses, theoretical reasoning and experiment work in harmony, one or other progressing foremost at a given time, but they are inevitably locked together by the need to represent experimental observations and results in theoretical terms. The mandatory requirement in all of this is that all aspects of an hypothesis (and nascent theory) must be justifiable, meaning justified in terms of observation and measurement. […]

The one modern, definitive experiment, the search for the signature of the green house effect has failed totally. Projected confidently by the models, this “signature” was expected to be represented by an exceptional warming in the upper troposphere above the tropics. The experiments, carried out during twenty years of research supported by The Australian Green House Office as well as by many other well funded Atmospheric Science groups around the world, show that this signature does not exist. Where is the Enhanced Green House Effect? No one knows.

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