Guest essay by Dr. Tim Ball
Steve Burnett’s “Hard vs. the Soft Sciences” essay is interesting but misses the problem in studying climate and other generalist areas in an era of specialization. It also misses information about the nature of the brain and what it is to be human.
A book that addresses the issue is Antonio Damasio’s Descartes Error subtitled, Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain published in 1997 and followed by a sequel in 2003, Looking for Spinoza. Responses to this Burnett’s essay would usually include complaints about being off topic but because it speaks to the few who demand it stick only to “hard” science it will likely stand. People’s reaction to the essay will be tempered by their abilities and training.
“There is no more common error than to assume that, because prolonged and accurate mathematical calculations have been made, the application of the result to some fact of nature is absolutely certain.” – A.N.Whitehead. (1861 – 1947) British Mathematician, Logician and Philosopher.
As far as the laws of Mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. – Albert Einstein
I am sorry to say there is too much point to the wisecrack that life is extinct on other planets because their scientists were more advanced than ours. – John F Kennedy
The problem is encapsulated in the names climatology and climate science. The former is a generalist study trying to put the pieces of a vast puzzle together; the latter is the work of individual specialists that include the hard sciences. This battle has gone on ever since the word scientist was applied to certain specialist areas. Darwin is now considered a scientist but in his lifetime he was a naturalist. At that time only two faculties existed in western universities, the Natural Sciences and the Humanities. Today Social Sciences, which those in the ‘hard sciences’ consider an oxymoron, are the largest faculty. As a climatologist I take a systems approach and try to put each specialist piece in the general puzzle. If it doesn’t fit I want to know why and too often “hard” scientists are unable to offer an answer.
This was the theme of my presentation at the first Heartland Climate Conference in New York. Weaver and Mann inferred it was an issue in their lawsuits against me. The problem the “hard” scientists have is an inability to explain what is wrong with the political use of climate because generally 80 percent of the population doesn’t understand, avoid the topic, or are proud of not understanding “hard” science. Sadly, Gore exploited this reality with great effect.
Burnett’s essay smacks of the superiority of those who think because they can practice the “hard” sciences their knowledge and understanding is superior. Lord Kelvin was even more narrow, “All science is either Physics or stamp – collecting.” This can become almost pathological, as we have witnessed in the climate debate. However, it is only true because “hard” science has convinced society it is superior. The adjectives “hard” and “soft” illustrate the point. The former is sharp precise immutable, while the latter is vague, imprecise, pliable and therefore subject to change. Burnett’s title doesn’t advance the debate much because the very title is combative and divisive.
Burnett’s essay is based around an introspection of his abilities and life experiences. Ironically, they provide information that would interest many people in different subsets of the “soft” sciences especially psychology, but especially psychoanalysts. It appears his view is tempered by his abilities and life experiences. We all see the world through the prism of our nature and nurture.
I experienced several examples of the battle between “hard” and “soft” climate over the years and Burnett’s essay illustrates it continues. When I began studying climate it was to deal with the lack of long term records. Hubert Lamb set up the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) to address the problem.
“…it was clear that the first and greatest need was to establish the facts of the past record of the natural climate in times before any side effects of human activities could well be important.”
Lamb understood you couldn’t do “hard” science without data. One of the IPCC solutions is to create “data” in a computer model, parametrization, and inject it as real data in another model. As Sherlock Holmes, through his author Arthur Conan Doyle said,
I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
That is a good description of the activities of the “hard” scientists at the IPCC.
I wrote an Honours Thesis on why the “hard” sciences ignored the role of humans as an agent of change. The Masters thesis measured and scientifically analyzed energy inputs in creating depositional environments. My doctoral thesis combined the Arts and Sciences by using scientific quantification and analysis of historical sourced data. It was categorized as historical climatology, which only fit into Geography in the academic discipline divisions. After a presentation to the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton I was asked by a “hard” science faculty if it was true I was denied funding by the two major government-funding agencies. I was not denied because I never asked. The “hard” science funding didn’t cover the historical and “soft” science funding didn’t cover climatology. Fortunately the National Museum of Canada, which tries to explain the world, recognized the problem and provided funding.
“Hard” science people use the accusation of being a geographer as a put down to denigrate my skepticism about global warming and latterly climate change. The University of London determined that I graduate with a science degree but through the Geography Department because there was no Climate Department.
The underlying theme of the essay is redolent of logical positivism and that is fine up to a point. It is based on the idea of the ability to measure, but as Jacob Bronowski noted, that also determines the limit of our understanding. Consider the changes to our ‘understanding’ of the world caused by the introduction of the microscope and telescope.
The IPCC is a bizarre product of all these biases and prejudices complicated by deliberate misuse and misdirection. Burnett’s claims about purity for the “hard” sciences were grossly distorted by the IPCC. They built computer models supposedly built on “hard” science with completely inadequate data. They created data called parameterization, which is supposedly based on “hard” science but creates different results depending on which “hard” scientist is in charge. As the IPCC notes,
The differences between parameterizations are an important reason why climate model results differ.
The results of this “hard” science are merged with “soft” sciences, particularly economics, in the Reports of Working Groups II and III.
The dominance and arrogance of the “hard” sciences are displayed in the adage that, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist”. This assumes rocket scientists are smarter than everyone else. I substitute a different area of work to illustrate the societal bias. “You don’t have to be a farmer” brings laughs but I challenge people to run a modern farm. They would learn that it requires a generalist approach combining a multitude of specializations from soils through marketing.
I learned as a child that if I heard a rocket, the German V I “doodlebug”, I went directly to an air raid shelter. That rocket was sent courtesy of a “hard” scientist, Wernher Von Braun. Mathematician song writing satirist Tom Lehrer wrote about Wernher and used the verse ,
Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
Say rather that he’s apolitical
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down
That’s not my department,” says Wernher Von Braun
The problem is not the “hard” science per se, but how it is achieved and then used.
In the laboratory strict adherence to the methods and procedures of science is required, which the IPCC failed. When you claim your “hard’ results are valid and promote them to influence public policy through the vague imprecision of “soft’ science, another set of responsibilities apply.
This value difference between “hard” and “soft” science provides proof that the IPCC is not practicing proper “hard” science. “Hard” science makes predictions, which if wrong indicate the science is wrong. “Soft” science makes predictions that invalidate themselves. For example, an economic study identifies issues and makes predictions. People read and react seeing economic and political opportunities that invariably counteract the study and invalidates the predictions.
Burnett implies that today’s “hard” science is definitive – it is settled, but it isn’t yesterday’s “hard” science and it won’t be tomorrow’s. It also implies that all “hard” scientists agree. The IPCC conclusions are based on the conclusions of “hard” scientists in Working Group I The physical Science Basis. It is “hard” scientists who disagree with their work, but there is even disagreement among these skeptical “hard” scientists.
Elvin Stackman said,
Science cannot stop while ethics catches up – and nobody should expect scientists to do all the thinking for the country.
No, not all the thinking but at least some. Surely, the problem with the IPCC “hard” scientists is they are trying to do all the thinking for the world. The leaked emails called it “the cause”, which was the original political objective of those who created the IPCC.