Climate Science and Falsification




I wrote an article back in 2010 called “Hell, Fire, and (Global) Warming” in which I showed the similarities between the type of climate science evangelism practiced by Al Gore and the beliefs of certain sects of Christianity (though the comparison could be made with just about any major world religion). The idea I was trying to get across was that for many, climate science has taken the psychological and emotional role that religion has held (and still does for many). I think this thesis has been proven time and again over the years since I wrote that article. (It’s worth noting that Philosopher Michael Ruse recently explored the idea that the broad label “Darwinism” has functioned, for many, in the role of religion in modern culture. Here’s a link to a review of his book.) I’ve wondered since then about an important concept in argumentation called falsification and how that functions in climate science. I read a couple of arguments recently that brought this idea back to the surface.[1]

Recently I came across two articles that called out the ideological nature of the “discussion” on climate change. (I’ll ask that the reader focus less on the source, and more on the arguments made by the source. These articles are not scholarly by any means and the sites and authors featured on these sites may easily dismissed by people that disagree with them. But my focus is on a specific logical aspect the articles call out and not the entire ideology and place in the cultural taxonomy that the sites and authors hold.) Before I get to the articles, I want to clarify what claims I want to focus on in this space. I take it as a given that the climate is undergoing change. But I also take this as a trivial claim as the climate is constantly undergoing change and has for as long as the planet has been around. I also take it as a given that humankind is a contributing factor because we must be—we’re a part of the global ecosystem and so how could we not be impacting the planet? So the claim of anthropogenic climate change should be fairly uncontroversial. The claim this article is focused on is that humans are the cause of irreversible, catastrophic, global warming (I’ll shorten this to CAGW). Much of the public rhetoric is about this more severe claim and it is here I want to spend some attention.

With that background, let me summarize the articles that got me thinking about this topic.

The first is by apparently noted “climate denier” Marc Morano. In his article “Al Gore: ‘Bitter cold’ is exactly what we should expect from the climate crisis’, he attempts to point out that regardless of what the weather is doing, Al Gore has a tendency to say, “that’s exactly what the climate science says should happen.” In the winter of 2017-2018, much of the eastern United States was socked in by cold weather and tons of snow. The obvious response by those who deny the critical nature of global climate change is to use the weather as evidence that the planet is not suffering the ill effects of warming as the climate evangelists say it should. Morano cites a 2000 UK Independent article in which author Charles Onians claims that “snow is starting to disappear from our lives” arguing that global climate change will increasingly diminish the number of “white Christmases” and fewer “white Januaries and Februaries” Britains will experience. The author then notes (sarcastically) how Al Gore cites climate scientist Michael E. Mann’s assertion that the cold, extreme weather is exactly what should be expected given the change in climate around the world. The implication is that regardless of what the weather is doing, climate change evangelists will claim that this is exactly what is expected.

The second article, “The Link Between Climate Change And Those Crazy Snow Day Photos On Your Instagram Feed” by Isaac Saul also talks about the incredible snowfall that occurred in late January of 2017 attempting to explain the phenomenon in light of global warming. Like the Marano article, Saul quotes Michael Mann as well (though apparently favorably) to explain how climate change is contributing to the heavy snowfall. Admirably, Saul quotes another scientist Ryan Maue with who provides an alternate view of Mann’s and some competing data that doesn’t mesh with Mann’s assertions. Saul then writes, “ Presented with Maue’s commentary, Mann pushed back. ‘Maue is a climate change contrarian and I find it difficult to take him seriously,’ Mann said in an email to A Plus. ‘A typical refrain from such types is, ‘oh but it is so complicated’, i.e. the standard trope that because we don’t know everything, we know nothing. The theory and data here are actually pretty clear.” We’ll see the importance of this shortly but it’s worth noting that Mann appears to be so confident of the truth of climate science that he can dismiss Maue with a couple of informal fallacies and doesn’t appear to linguistically blush doing it.

As I read these articles (and others like them), I was reminded of criticisms I read in college of religious believers that argued that there are no conditions under which a religious belief could be shown to be false so religious belief is not rational. Like many ideologies, a particular perspective on climate change has become cultural dogma and holding even a moderately different position is treated as something nearing intolerance in polite circles. I think this is unfortunate and leads to destructive behaviors in terms of the impact to our cultural conversation. These bad behaviors show up in a lot of areas. I’ve mentioned religion but you see the same kind of dogmatism in conversations about gender, sports, certainly in politics, and even in technology. In each case we see the same bad behaviors as a result. Say what you will about climate deniers (or atheists, or gender traditionalists, or whatever), the minority voice is rarely tolerated. This has led to a kind of rhetorical protectionism. In other words, the dogma itself has created a hedge around even the possibility of the accepted theory being falsified. The criteria that was being required of these beliefs is called “falsification.”

What is Falsification?

Falsification is a property that applies to an idea or point of view such that, if the belief is rational (it was formed on or supported by reasons that demonstrate its truth), there should be clear criteria by which the viewpoint can be shown to be false. That is, interlocutors should have, at least in principle, a clear idea of the truth conditions on which the reasons that support the belief such that those conditions can be evaluated and the belief shown to be either true or false. If those conditions don’t exist, the belief is not based on evidence and argument. (For my purposes, this doesn’t mean that the belief can be dismissed as there are a lot of relevant beliefs that are not based on evidence and argument. What is important is that many beliefs are presented as rational even though they lack clear criteria for falsifiability and that should call into question their rationality.)

Probably the most widely-read paper on falsification is the (very) short paper “Theology and Falsification” by Antony Flew first published in 1950 but reprinted many times since. While the focus of this paper obviously is religious belief, the principles of falsification can be applied to any subject whatever and it is this broad application which interests me here. Flew defines the essence of his argument with this statement:

For if an utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of that assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion: And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion.

Flew’s contention in this article is that any assertion of truth has, embedded in it, a denial of the negation of that truth. If Miranda asserts, A: “Water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom” she is, according to Flew also asserting, B: “It is not the case that it is false that water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” If she says that she is asserting A but not asserting B, Flew says no sense can be given to the claim that she is asserting A. For making a claim of truth is also to deny the falsehood of that claim. In replying to two responses to his paper, he attempts to clarify his position:

The challenge, it will be remembered, ran like this. Some theological utterances seem to, and are intended to, provide explanations or express assertions. Now an assertion, to be an assertion at all, must claim that things stand thus and thus; and not otherwise. Similarly an explanation, to be an explanation at all, must explain why this particular thing occurs; and not something else. Those last clauses are crucial. And yet sophisticated religious people-or so it seemed to me-are apt to overlook this, and tend to refuse to allow, not merely that anything actually does occur, but that anything conceivably could occur, which would count against their theological assertions and explanations. But in so far as they do this their supposed explanations are actually bogus, and their seeming assertions are really vacuous (bold emphasis mine).

The phrases bolded above is, I think, the essence of a lack of falsifiability. In fact, noted philosopher of science, Karl Popper, in a well-known and widely cited paper, attempted to distinguish, “between science and pseudo-science” and used falsifiability as the essence of that distinction. In his 1963 paper, “Science as Falsification” he offers seven “conclusions” by which we may evaluate a scientific theory as truthful or acceptable. All seven are worth noting here but we’ll concentrate on two of them:

  1. It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we look for confirmations.
  2. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.
  3. Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
  4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
  5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
  6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of “corroborating evidence.”)
  7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a “conventionalist twist” or a “conventionalist stratagem.”)

All these principles are worth being reminded of but principles 4 and 5 establish a criterion of falsifiability in science and apply Flew’s principles to this discipline. While Popper doesn’t say it explicitly, the implication of principle 4 is that any scientific theory should have a clear criterion or criteria by which it can be falsified. Principle 4 isn’t possible without this for it wouldn’t be possible to refute a theory if one is not clear on which event (or events) would have to happen in order for it to be falsified. The same is true for principle 5. Tests require conditions under which the test passes and fails. A lack of both conditions, says Popper, changes a theory from scientific to non-scientific. He’s clear that falsifiability need not be more than an “in principle” falsifiability with clear conditions stipulating when a theory fails the test of truth even if those conditions cannot be met for some reason. He writes, “Einstein’s theory of gravitation clearly satisfied the criterion of falsifiability. Even if our measuring instruments at the time did not allow us to pronounce on the results of the tests with complete assurance, there was clearly a possibility of refuting the theory.” And this is really all that is required. Having the criterion keeps the theorist honest—it means the scientist has skin in the game; that he or she knows their theory is falsifiable and provides the conditions under which its truth value can be shown to be false.

Popper warns of a over-reaching desire that one’s theory is true, that it devolves into non-science. Theorists can become so misled by the psychological desire and radical investment in a theory that they become “quite unimpressed by any unfavorable evidence.” While this may not be true of climate science in the halls of research Universities or laboratories, it seems that is at least at risk of becoming so in the public discussion of the climate. relates what might be an analogous situation:

The Marxist theory of history, in spite of the serious efforts of some of its founders and followers, ultimately adopted this soothsaying practice. In some of its earlier formulations (for example in Marx’s analysis of the character of the “coming social revolution”) their predictions were testable, and in fact falsified. Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of adopting a device which made it irrefutable. They thus gave a “conventionalist twist” to the theory; and by this stratagem they destroyed its much advertised claim to scientific status.

The idea is clear: when one moves from a scientific mode to a “soothsaying” mode, that person will attempt to re-interpret evidence that contradicts their theory to one that confirms it. It’s a move from persuasion by argument and evidence to persuasion by psychological and rhetorical jerry-rigging. Flew argues that this isn’t allowed in religious truth claims and it certainly shouldn’t be allowed in the sciences (as Popper establishes).

For many scientists, these principles should seem obvious and there are a great many of scientists who regularly operate under most if not all of these principles. In fact, scientists as a general rule proudly proclaim the distinction of their discipline largely based on their tenacious adherence to these principles. (For a good example of this, listen to Richard Dawkins’ engaging anecdote of an experience he had in college where these principles were exemplified (section ends at 14:17). Dawkins is visibly moved as he relates the story.) What about climate science? Are climate scientists still solidly working in the “scientific mode” or have many moved into “soothsaying mode” seeking to justify the idea that the planet is warming beyond repair at any cost? Well, this is philosophy so we have a responsibility to say: the answer is not so simple.

I’m making a distinction between climate science as a science and the public presentation of climate science which may have very little to do with the science itself. This article is focusing on the latter, and though many rhetoricians present their claims as being grounded on climate science (and many perhaps even believe their claims are in fact so grounded), I’m exploring whether the rhetoric is a reflection of any underlying science or if it has evolved into something disconnected from it. While it’s true of just about any science that the data that supports specific scientific claims and the public or political representation of those data almost always involves a fair degree of translation at best but also a significant degree of interpretation and applied meaning.

For example, in the late 90s, stories surfaced about a little-known concern in some corners of computer science that a significant amount of computers around the world suffer some version of a class of problems related to the way computers store date information (known as the Y2K bug). By the end of 1999, the hype had far exceeded the science with many preparing for disaster (power grids shutting down, banking systems collapsing, and far worse)—all ostensibly based on good science. Many billions of dollars were spent just in Y2K “fixes” not including all the survival gear and preparatory equipment that were purchased by individuals and businesses. Even books were published predicting the end of civilization due to the bug and the rhetoric, fueled by the popular press, had permeated every aspect of Western society. The new year came in with only minor problems and the whole issue was regarded as a massive hype campaign even though the underlying science had identified some real issues that needed to be address. Examples like these may partly be why the issue of falsification may have less to do with the science itself and more to do with the popular rhetoric that is using aspects of climate science to drive an agenda, or create personal or corporate wealth or a host of other motivations that have little to do with being true to the actual claims the science is making. But there’s another reason why falsification may be absent from the conversation.

One of the more interesting dialogues on the subject can be found at Skeptical Science. The site, run by John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University has a self-described mission, “to explain what peer reviewed science has to say about global warming.” It does not claim to take an objective stance on CAGW (the site’s subtitle is “Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism”) but does position itself as entirely open to go where the science leads. In a discussion thread titled, “Global warming theory isn’t falsifiable”, the respondents tackle this skeptical response and while there is some banter, the majority of the participants seem to have a reasonable discussion.

While the site’s mission appears to be aimed at making the minutiae of climate science accessible to a general, non-scientific audience, the discussion does get quite deep into aspects of the science that only professionals reasonably can parse and much of the discussion is beyond the expertise of even the most ardent non-professional. Still, there are some posts that do shed some light on the question of falsifiability that are important to consider in this paper. One post by author “Tom Curtis” is critical of the course-grained version of falsifiability I’ve presented here and this author’s criticism is instructive (based on his name alone, I’ll use the masculine pronoun to refer to this author but I’ll acknowledge that I know nothing about this person and there are no links to find out more). In this post, the author claims that Popper’s falsifiability criteria as popularly conceived is “of limited use in science, despite it’s popularity.” The problem, he notes, is that in a complex theory like CAGW, there are too many background assumptions and inter-dependent hypotheses to consider to make a broad claim about the falsifiability as a whole. Instead, we must consider the Duhem-Quine Thesis in cases like these. According to

[pick up here]

Alternate Points of View Are Not Worth Considering

Let’s explore an important rhetorical position that bears serious consideration. A very reasonable response to my question above is that there are some theories so preposterous that “falsification criteria” no longer apply. The belief that the earth is flat, for example, has been so conclusively shown to be irrational that reasonable people are no longer obligated to give it equal time as a viable theory. This is true. Not every alternate theory to a particular claim deserves a voice. Many theists and atheists believe the same about theism and many ardent evolutionist (Richard Dawkins comes to mind as someone that has stated this publicly) believe the same about evolution. The claim seems fair and appropriate about many topics. But I also don’t believe one can, by editorial fiat, just claim some issue has been solved and so alternative views no longer need to be considered. Is it settled that there is (is not) a god? Is it absolutely irrefutable that there is (is not) life on other planets? Is the idea that consciousness is (is not) fully reducible to brain activity really the only reasonable view we can take? Is it finally settled that anthropogenic global climate change is (is not) irreparably damaging the planet?

In order to provide some guidance for this article, I’m briefly going to turn to ideas developed Robert McKim. McKim developed his ideas in the context of religious belief but I think they can be applied to any subject about which there are differing views. In part II his book Religious Diversity and Religious Ambiguity McKim attempts to address how people with differing views on religion ought to discuss the topic of religion given that the world is religiously diverse and ambiguous. In the context of that discussion, he develops a theory of the “ethics of inquiry” in which he establishes two principles. These principles (which he calls the E and T principles) provide the framework for how one ought to think about the ideas of a person that has a differing viewpoint. Here are the principles:

The E-principle: Disagreement about an issue or area of inquiry provides reasons to think that each side has an obligation to examine beliefs about that issue.

The T-principle: Disagreement (of the sort under discussion) about an issue or area of inquiry provides reason for whatever beliefs we hold about that issue or area of inquiry to be tentative.

These two principles apply within certain constraints. One constraint is that the beliefs for which these principles hold have to be beliefs that are held by people with integrity and who possess the following virtues: “wise people who think carefully and judiciously, who are intelligent, clever, honest, reflective, and serious, who avoid distortion, exaggeration, and confabulation, who admit ignorance when appropriate, and who have relied on what have seemed to them to be the relevant considerations in the course of acquiring their beliefs” (p. 129). Together, the two principles constitute what McKim calls The Critical Stance. He says that the critical stance isn’t a plausible option for all people. Rather the stance applies only to those he says are privileged and would be able to see the thesis as plausible. A privileged person is one who has the following properties: being adult, well educated, well-informed, has opportunities for reflection but also would include those who are not in this situation but cannot reasonably be held responsible for not being so (p. 149).

The idea here is that reasonable people, when considering their own viewpoint and the viewpoint of others, should determine whether alternate points of view are held by “privileged persons.” If the answer is yes, one should adopt the critical stance. If not, then the viewpoint may not warrant further inquiry. Of course, determining whether there are privileged persons that hold alternate points of view can be difficult but his argument is that we avoid dogmatism and ideological entrenchment by making the effort to make that determination.

I think McKim’s criteria is reasonable and, while I think there can be debate about what he presents here, for the purposes of this article, I accept his criteria as a good measure for whether a position on a topic should be considered by reasonable people. So where does climate science land on McKim’s criteria? Is there enough controversy on the subject to warrant a conversation? On the surface, there does seem to be enough alternative viewpoints to the accepted narrative to warrant a conversation. Even the literature on this makes significantly opposing claims. Wikipedia has assembled a list of scientists that are in the camp of (according to the the title of the article) “opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming.” For those that mistrust Wikipedia (or, for very good reasons, need other sources), there are others: National Association of Scholars article “Estimated 40 Percent of Scientists Doubt Manmade Global Warming” and a 2012 article by Organization Studies and this one by the conservative US magazine National Review. Of course the “97% of climate scientists agree” claim has been around for years and papers appear with a fair amount of frequency attempting to justify the claim. A paper by IOPScience seems to summarize a lot of the research being done to support this number. It’s not my purpose to explore the differing claims or to settle on whether McKim’s criteria conclusively have been met for this issue. I’ll leave that to the reader to sort out for himself or herself. I do believe that McKim’s criteria, if not exhaustive, is good enough to establish when an open dialogue needs to take place and, for the sake of argument, I will claim that there does exist at least one climate scientist who fits McKim’s criteria and who does not agree with the consensus. This is enough not to equate alternate views on climate science with flat-earth theory.

So is There a Falsification Criterion for CAGW?

I want briefly to explore whether climate science as a science discusses falsification criteria. My focus is on the public rhetoric surrounding CAGW but I think we should start by looking at what actual scientists say about the matter. The body of research on climate change is massive and sorting through that research to find what we’re looking for is beyond the scope of this paper (and given that climate science is not my area of expertise, I’ll ask my readers who are better read in this area to comment on this and point me to papers or research where such criteria is discussed). However some modest research on the topic did turn up some interesting results. I’ll jump off with a popular if not amusing link on the subject. A user of the popular question and answer site Quora posted this question: “A scientific theory or hypothesis must have falsification criteria to be considered valid. What is the falsification criteria for dangerous global warming?” I like the question because it fits squarely within the scope of this paper. The reader is not asking about climate change itself but global warming of the “dangerous” or catastrophic kind. Among the 27 answers to the problem, respondents range from self-described “not a physicist” to “climate blogger” to “philosopher” and someone who has worked in the climate science for years (one responded even posts a helpful link that helps you charter a boat in Miami!). As of this writing, of the 27 respondents only one links to what can be called a credible scientific site that may actually answer the question.

The link points to a PDF published by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the US Department of Commerce). The paper, while dated (it references data from 2008), does appear to establish a kind of falsification criterion: simulations should show a lack of warming for 15 consecutive years in order to countermand expectations based on current assumptions. The paper itself is too interdisciplinary for the non-professional so I’m unable to sort out why the scientists who wrote the paper settle on this criterion. But that’s not really relevant. This criterion does allow for cooling trends for up to 14 years in a row (at least in the simulations) and still enable scientists to argue that AGW is occurring; whether CAGW is occurring is another matter of course.

An 2014 article in the popular philosophy magazine, Philosophy Now, author Dr. Richard Lawson, a self-described “environmental activist” addresses this question of falsifiability. In his “Climate Science and Falsifiability” he takes up Popper’s criteria head on and argues that Popper’s criteria gives us “a key” that can help us unlock the truth about climate change. Unfortunately, Lawson chooses not to directly address the falsifiability of the positive claim that CAGW is the happen. Rather he characterizes that skeptics of CAGW are asking for definitive proof of the phenomenon which, he says (rightly I think), does not exist in science and then attempts to turn the tables, set up a falsifiability criterion for the skeptical argument, and show how the evidence meets the criterion.

Falsification arguments have also been dismissed, crudely in my opinion, by being called a type of warmed-over positivism. While there is some truth to this, I think this amounts to hand waving and throws out the baby with the bathwater. While positivism as an epistemology has critical flaws, it does have insights worth considering about some aspects of belief formation.

Why Popper can’t resolve the debate over global warming: problems with the use of philosophy of science in the media and public framing of the science of global warming:

Flew reflecting on this article on The Secular Web:

My Take on Climate Change

My position is that the climate is changing but that it always has and always will and that mankind is a contributing factor because we must be—we’re a part of the global ecosystem and so how could we not be impacting the planet? This point of view is not grounded in or influenced by common claims like “Over 90% of climate scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is happening.” (I don’t know what that means) or “It’s much warmer/colder in my state this season than it used to be.” (that doesn’t constitute the type of evidence relevant to concerns about climate change). I also believe that being good stewards of the planet is a moral good regardless of whether the climate is changing or it isn’t. Good stewardship is a principle that is a moral given for me and a principle we should apply to our management of a lot of things, the planet included. (I also don’t believe fear and guilt are the right emotions to invoke to drive change towards better stewardship but that’s for another time). The degree to which humans are impacting climate, whether that impact is reparable, and what should be done about it is not in my area of expertise but is something I seek to learn about as I’m able.


[1] Before I comment on these articles, a brief qualification is in order. This is not an article about climate science. I’m not a scientist and while I’ve done a fair share of reading on climate science (including scientific papers), I don’t pretend to know enough about the details to be even close to proficient enough to make a judgement. This article is about observing some of the the logic being used to discuss climate science in popular literature regardless of the position one takes. I do have a point of view as do most people who care enough to think about the matter do. I state my position at the end of the article for those who are interested.





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