Sunday, February 08, 2009

Global Warming and Realistic Expectations of Science

In my philosophy of science class last week I taught Wendy Parker's article on pluralism in climate science. (W.S. Parker. 2006. Understanding Pluralism in Climate Modeling. Foundations of Science 11:49-368) One of the topics that my class is spending a good deal of time on is the unity of science, methodological pluralism, and the more thorough forms of pluralism (metaphysical pluralism?) argued for by Nancy Cartwright, Phillip Kitcher, and John Dupré. This article fit well into that schedule because it examines a case in which the best contemporary science provides incompatible models which are nevertheless viewed as complementing each other, rather than competing with each other.

I expected that the class discussion which might develop out of this case would evaluate whether it is the levels of uncertainty involved in climate science which supports the current pluralism. In principle, at least, more certainty about climate processes and better datasets would be more likely to bring some of these models into actual competition with each other (even though such certainty is out of our reach for the foreseeable future).

But the discussion which actually developed came out of shock that our climate models are uncertain to this degree, that our data about past climate is not more complete, and an examination of whether, failing absolute certainty, the climate change skeptics have a correct assessment. I do not think that the students leaning this way started with any sympathy for the deniers. So, is this a case of a little knowledge being a bad thing?

In truth, I find this reaction to be an extension of the disillusioning about science which is a regular part of the philosophy of science class. The science students are comfortable with the revelations that there is not "a" scientific method, that science is not certain, and that when we want to explain why science is rational and progressive, the structure of its social institutions is one place to look for that explanation. My engineering students are less receptive.

I discovered that it's not wise to talk to smart, engaged, advanced undergraduates about the uncertainty in climate science because, unless they've taken an ecology class (which only 40 students a year at my institution enroll in), they may be completely unaware of the evidence in support of global warming. And if they're not aware of the evidence, they're certainly not able to evaluate it.

I don't think that only scientists can engage in issues surrounding global warming. But my students have taught me, again, how important science education is.

Here's my course blog, where an environmental science student reacts to the class discussion.

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