Climate Change Sceptics

Proving Climate Change

When reading the New Scientists’ focus on Climate Change, I was struck by the number of comments along the lines of, ‘This is theory, we won’t believe it until you prove it’. Two things came to my attention. Firstly, that climate change has been accorded almost myth or religious-like status, and has become something that you can either ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’. Secondly, that many people are profoundly naive about the way in which science works. And so I was motivated to write a brief piece about scientific research design. Stay with me now – I’ll make it as interesting as possible!

The process of refutation

Early scientists thought that the best way to come up with a ‘unifying scientific law’ was through empirical observation. This is inductive research. Scientists carefully made observations of natural occurrences, and then formulated a law about their form / genesis / process etc. However, in the 20th Century, Karl Popper argued that science could only move forwards through a process of refutation. The classical example is this: a scientist goes to a lake, and counts the number of swans. He notes their colour, characteristics, behaviour, etc. He goes to the lake every day for a year, and at the end, proposes the law that all swans are white. Popper points out this is flawed; for to state that all swans are white, you must see all swans, everywhere, that ever existed. You only need to see one black swan to disprove this theory. Scientists should instead propose hypotheses, and then seek to disprove them. Scientists must always be critical. This is deductive, critical approach is fundamental to modern science.

As science matured throughout the twentieth century, this approach was gradually seen as inadequate. Under Popperism, the scientist is forced to always reject the entire hypothesis, and this does not bring the theory any closer to the truth. Science is now carried out within a paradigm or research programme. A paradigm has a fundamental core of hypotheses that are regarded as scientists as the truth, or as close to the truth as possible. This core is surrounded by an outer ring of auxiliary hypotheses, that are constantly being tested, updated and revised. Over time, these auxiliary hypotheses may call into question or threaten the paradigm’s core hypotheses, and may lead to a paradigm shift, where the paradigm is entirely rejected, and replaced with a new one.

Within the field of glacial geology, this occurred in the late Twentieth Century. Up until this point, it was thought that most ice movement within fast-flowing ice streams was due to internal deformation of the ice, with possibly some lubrication of water at the ice bed inducing basal sliding. However, geophysical surveys and boreholes drilled though the Siple Coast ice streams in Antarctica indicated highly saturated sediment at the base of the ice stream, where most of the forward momentum occurs. We now understand ice streams to achieve fast flow through sediment deformation and the base, possibly with some basal sliding.

Designing experiments to test climate change

Of course, this all can work very nicely if we have a simple little system, can we can easily create hypotheses, test them, and make conclusions. Unfortunately, the atmosphere, the oceans, and the ice sheets form a huge, interconnected system with numerous complex feedbacks. We cannot perturb this system to observe what happens. It is therefore necessary to conduct a measure of critical inductive research. We must make observations of the past and present, analyse trends and identify anomalies. We must situate our hypotheses, research aims and objective, and research questions critically within the research programme; we must be aware of the paradigm within which we operate. Only then can we conduct relevant and useful research whilst still respecting Popperian ideals.


You can read more about Research Design here.

Who’s the climate sceptic now?

The way in which scientists are fundamentally trained from the start of their careers induces a highly sceptical attitude. Scientists are always trying to disprove their own theories. And because a theory can never be proven, climate change will remain a theory. However, it is important to note that over the last few years, the paradigm of climate change has evolved. Most scientists now accept the ‘hard core’ hypotheses as close to the truth. These core hypotheses state that the climate is changing, that atmospheric CO2 emissions are rapidly rising, and are now above any atmospheric CO2 within the last 600,000 years. Most scientists will accept the retreat of Alpine glaciers, rising sea level and rising temperatures. Surrounding this core is a more flexible belt, with hypotheses regarding the proportion of human intervention in the climate. And around the edge, hypotheses regarding the rate of change, comparisons to past change, and likely future change and sea level rise are regularly tested and updated. Scientists are the ultimate climate sceptics, who seek only to provide the best data possible, and who are always critical of their own and other’s work.

Climate change isn’t something one should or could ‘believe’ in or blindly accept; it is something we should constantly challenge. But we must make informed decisions. It is very important not to just take sides without reading all the arguments.

Share this

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

4 thoughts on “Climate Change Sceptics

  1. The rapid change of both worldpoles marks sharply the end of the interglacial era and the start of a glacial era. The glaciers of West Antarctic are part of the most important indicators of both climate as well as planet change.
    Observations of earth behavior by scientific institutions and satellites of Nasa and others (in which both poles but especially West Antarctic glaciers like Pine Glacier play a first role) should and must be considered as of the highest importance to the making of world policies and must lay the foundation of global Mutual approach of saving biological life of all species.
    Time and timetable of urgency is not certain per minute, (tempus non certus est), but one thing is certain, time is running out. Time will teach.
    The report of the Club of Rome, my membership of the Dutch society of environmental law (Vereniging van Milieurecht) as well as the participation and the scientific monitoring of a small workgroup of paragnost Cees de Haar (Alphen aan den Rijn, 1983-2005) and my other learnings, observations and registrations contribute to my message, which I made on your request and or invitation.
    I thank you for the opportunity you give to your visitors to leave a message.
    I wish all fellow workers doing the real job in, under and above the field good observations and realistic and sound predictions.

    Gerrit Bogaers, Laren NH, Netherlands, Friday 9th May 2014, 10.49 hours Dutch time AM.

  2. I like this website a lot, hope it continues with regular updates, and that it helps to defuse what has become a very acrimonious debate about AGW.

    The AGW debate has become a classic conflict situation, anger on both sides fueled by some actual and by some perceived bad actions, comments and attitudes of the other. Still, don’t want to turn this into a psychology thing, just hope that the “pure” hard science will shine through, whichever way it goes.

  3. These are weather changes that are being observed not climate change. Both the weather and the climate are always changing with or without man. Environmental Science is now considered a pseudoscience. Ask the solar scientists who are not on the gravy train to find out the real science. Increasing levels of Carbon dioxide will have little or no effect on the Earth’s temperature. How can it? You tell me. The real dangers are the policies put in place by scientific ignorant politicians. Why do people with no scientific background so passionately support it? It is the new political entity – green on the outside red on the inside.

Leave a Reply to richard collins Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.