The Soft Science Of Climatology

Virtual kisses and hugs to Richard Black of BBC Science News fame for his recent “A questioning climate” blog, the work of somebody whose eyes may have just seen some climate sensibility:

[…] In earlier years of reporting climate change, news media were regularly accused of attributing any unusual or extreme weather events to climate change – and often the accusations were justified. […]

some scientists have on occasion gone beyond the data in arguing that climate change will bring global catastrophe […]

clearly, highly intelligent, highly educated people can look at the same set of scientific evidence and come to radically different conclusions – not, perhaps, on the basic issue of whether climate change is or isn’t happening, but certainly on what the pace is likely to be and what threat it poses. […]

These are all disparate elements of a complex picture. How do you rate them? Which do you regard as more or less important?

We are back to what you believe; and if Chris Field sees catastrophe in the picture before him, he is entitled to say so, just as Vicky Pope or Mike Hulme are entitled to urge restraint. […]

On this issue of climate understanding as a (personal) belief, I would especially like to quote the last part of Black’s blog:

Individual pieces of research rarely prove anything by themselves […] In the meantime, scientists, politicians and Joe and Joanna Bloggs down the pub are all entitled to give their own assessments, and often there is a fair amount of belief involved, even for the scientists.

To me, there’s little wrong with that. It’s what we do with politics and football and music and film, and I don’t see why climate discourse should be different.

There are facts out there, and we should recognise them as such, just as we should with medicine and social issues and economics; but there is freedom to believe too, and that, the last time I looked, was supposed to be a universal human right.

In other words, Black is saying that climatology is a “soft science”, just as the Social sciences, Economics (and may I dare suggest for personal experience, much of Medicine). He may have even claimed that the “climate discourse” is akin to pub-based football analysis, but personally I really do not want to go in that direction!!

Now, before the usual voices are heard, let me state that I do not consider “soft” to be a demeaning word for a “science”. Of course we would all want to have all sciences as precise and cast-in-stone as Mathematics, and Physics is perhaps the clearest example of what comes closest to the “ideal” concept of a “hard science”.

But there is no point in wasting time in the realm of the impossible: there are areas of knowledge that can only be dealt with in a “soft” manner. As argued by Massimo Pigliucci for “Rationally Speaking“, under the headline “Strong Inference And The Distinction Between Soft And Hard Science” (Jan 27, 2009), perhaps it’s just that the more complex the phenomenon, the more “soft” its science.

Still, if one recognizes Climatology as a “soft science”, then there is absolutely no meaning in oft-repeated claims such as “the science is settled” and “all skeptics are crank, corrupt and/or perverts“. A soft science, by definition, cannot be settled. Its conclusions are ultimately a matter of belief.

  1. Thenviron
    2009/10/27 at 03:52

    Science is ‘soft’ when it cannot be subjected to the ‘scientific method’ of controlled experimentation/testing to prove/disprove a hypothesis. The complexity and global scale of factors and natural phenomena impacting climate change do not allow the isolation and verification of any of the principal forcing functions. Therefore, predictive climate change computer models are based only on interpretations of historic data and relationships with no absolute scientific certainty that the functionalities of phenomena (natural or anthropogenic) are properly defined. Futhermore, the uncontrollable and unpredictable changes in natural forcing functions may override anthropogenic effects at any time.

  2. Kent J
    2009/04/14 at 01:31

    To me the single most important factor to determine hardness is the ability to conduct an experiment on one variable. I drop a ball from several heights and i can calculate the force of gravity. I do a chemical experiment and change only one factor and soon I can predict what happens. Climatology may be young but I am sorry it is pretty obvious to me that conducting experiments of one variable is pretty darn impossible. I suppose the only real proof in climatology will be the nearly exact predicting of a number of variables like ocean temperature, global averages etc. God forbid they need to predict the weather.

    Frankly. As a layman i think that the scientists letting politicians run roughshod is pretty crappy. But then.. scientists have usually shown very little back bone in general because.. duh.. they are not politicians. They research.

    Personally I choose to not believe in man made global warming catastrophic predictions on one simple thing. Al Gore is a verifiable, proven, liar.
    And liars attract other liars and one of the chief liars is on record as saying their agenda is more important than truth.

    Any movement with people at the top saying shyte like that… is to be suspect.

  3. Dr;K.Taherzadeh
    2009/03/18 at 07:52

    Please consider the Neurosciences field more actually.

  4. 2009/02/27 at 01:36

    I agree earth sciences should not be considered soft in the way psychology or anthropology are but it’s an unfortunate circumstance that much of the rigor that makes a science ‘hard’ is lacking.

    We can extrapolate data from the past, in the form of ice cores, but using that to project the future is tough. In both cases the analysis is done with numerical modeling which relies on the strength of the modeler. If we look at data from the last 50 million years and take 5,000 data points, the methodology of where and how the data points were taken makes a huge difference. A competing climate scientist can get wildly different results by simply using different data points.

    I was at the AAAS meeting in Chicago (I don’t want to spam you with the link to my article about it) that Al Gore recently spoke at and saw one slide I knew was incorrect and I had practically given up any hope that anyone else would worry about the damage exaggeration does to legitimate scientists. Luckily Roger Pielke in CO was not inclined to fall prey to despair the way I was and Gore has now pulled the exaggerated slide from his presentation, he has said, because Pielke made a stink about it.

    So not everyone in the climate community is content letting them be regarded as political kooks or fuzzy scientists, it just took time for the cultural climate to change to where you could dissent without being carpet bombed by email and phone campaigns.

  5. 2009/02/23 at 05:42

    I think it would be more constructive to characterise it as a young or immature science rather than a “soft science”. There is a lot of maths and physics involved, so that doesn’t make it “soft” in the usual sense of that phrase.

    Usually when someone uses the term ‘hard science’ one means it can make successful predictions of future events–at the moment climatology has lots of hypothesis that derive from different analysis’s of correlations. And at present it makes few if any successful predictions, except in very vague terms.

    (If it has actually made good hard predictions that were not likely to have occurred through chance events, AGW believers, I’m sure, would be including them in their arguments.😉

  6. 2009/02/23 at 01:50

    I can understand why “Climatology” would be considered a “soft science.” Current science is growing, but the earth’s climate is very complex, and many conclusions are a result of speculation. For example, a warming trend in the oceans during 1993 to 2003, and hit it’s peak as far as warmth in 1998. The media, and many scientists speculated it was following the global warming theory. How do they know it was coming from man-made global warming or historical warming? NASA has recently reported the oceans are now loosing their heat, since 2003. So the oceans are going through a cooling trend. Is it because man is polluting less since 2003, or what other complex variables would explain such a cooling period in a mist of of so-called global warming period? This is what I call, “soft science.”

  1. 2009/02/27 at 00:35

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