KARL Popper and Thomas Kuhn, two great philosophers of science, agree that scientific progress involve the critical overthrow of theories and their replacement by alternative ones. For Popper the replacement occurs following the falsification of universal statements while for Kuhn change is necessarily revolutionary, involving more than a change in the claims made and questions asked but also in the way the world is perceived and a change in the standards that are brought to bear in appraising a theory. While these two philosophers are considered by many to propose rival accounts of science, both theories are relevant to understanding climate change science.
Popper would not have been impressed with arguments that climate change is the greatest moral issue of our time, or that believing in climate change and trying to correct it are simply a better way to live. He is also unlikely to be swayed by the thick reports from the ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ even if they are an accurate summation of thousands of peer-reviewed technical papers. Popper would instead want the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) reduced to logically testable statements and attempts then made to falsify the statements.
Of course there are those who have written whole books claiming that Popper’s methodology creates too harsh a test for emerging scientific theories, tests that would have strangled at birth both Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But both these theories, like the theory of anthropogenic global warming, are now mature and while they can’t be proven, there are aspects that can be tested. Indeed what sets science apart from other forms of intellectual inquiry is that science subjects its theories – what Popper describes as tentative claims to the truth – to observational tests that could disprove them. According to Popper it is criticism not justification that is the hallmark of rationality.
Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) currently dominates climate science to the extent that many consider it a fact – not a theory. Kuhn would describe AGW as the current dominant paradigm because this is where the majority of professional scientists claim their allegiance. A key premise underpinning AGW that the burning of fossil fuels is having a direct negative impact on global climate has become an issue of considerable social, political and economic importance to the extent that some world leaders have described it as the moral issue of our time. Of course there are dissenters, commonly referred to as sceptics or deniers, and Kuhn would have correctly predict that these individual would be excluded from the scientific community as evidenced in the emails illegally obtained from the University of East Anglia in November 2009 and known as ‘Climategate’.
According to the Kuhnian point of view, a paradigm, for example AGW, embodies a particular set of experimental and theoretical techniques for matching it with nature but there is no reason to expect it to be true. It is only when mismatches between the claimed and the observed become an issue, and are pursued for political purposes as well as scientific reason, that steps will be taken to replace it.
Some argue support for AGW peaked in 2006, the year Al Gore released the documentary about climate change entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ which went on to win him a Noble Prize. Last year, 2009, saw a surge in confidence from the so-called sceptics after Climategate and the failure by world leaders to reach significant agreement at the world climate talks in Copenhagen. But the concept of AGW remains deeply embedded in Western discourse with industrialized nations currently spend around $10 billion a year on climate change research and policy matters.
There are of course alternative theories of climate change, alternatives to AGW. But instead of progressing one or other of these theories, there has been a tendency for those opposed, sometimes as much to the social and political consequence of AGW, as the scientific theory itself, to fall back on the null hypothesis that plausible natural explanations exist for all the post 1850 global warming. But claiming that warming is natural, does not progress our understanding of climate change. Furthermore, according to the Kuhnian view of the history of science, it is only through the replacement of a theory with something more compelling that science progresses.