In a recent article, I was pleased to read that Willis Eschenbach identified himself as a “Generalist” on his business card. In doing so, he correctly identifies it as a unique, even out of step position, especially in the science community. There is a degree of whimsy in his self-assessment, but it also identifies an underlying real issue. It is like the woman who gave me a business card with the self-assessment of ABC, an acronym for “Another Bloody Consultant”.
Eschenbach’s position and defense don’t surprise me. I watched academia transform from the idea that there were general rules with exceptions, to the idea that everything is an exception. It translated into the view that to generalize is the mark of a fool to specialize the mark of genius.
Eschenbach adds that it is an advantage in climate science. It is not just an advantage, but essential in studying climatology. I wrote about this in various ways in previous articles, but it needs a larger context as the world grapples with increasing fragmentation of information and knowledge.
Climatology is the study of weather patterns of a place or region, or the change of weather patterns over time. Climate science is the study of one component piece of climatology. The analogy I’ve used for decades is that climatology is a puzzle of thousands of pieces; climate science is one piece of the puzzle. A practical approach to assembling the puzzle is to classify pieces into groups. The most basic sorting identifies the corner pieces, the edge pieces and then color. Climatologists say the four corner pieces, which are oceans, atmosphere, lithosphere, and the cosmos are not even fully identified or understood. Climate scientists tend to hold one piece of the puzzle and claim it is the key to everything.
The year 1859 was pivotal in reducing people’s ability to understand the world. In that year, Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, and Alexander von Humboldt died. Darwin’s theory evolved from the collection of large amounts of evidence. The collection of information dominated European science of the 19th century. The information came from all over the world in increasing volumes and rapidly overwhelmed the ability of anyone to know it all.
Because of that Von Humboldt is credited with being the last “universal” person. That is he was the last person who “knew” all the science and geography known at that time. We still have renaissance people with a wider knowledge of several subjects, but not universal knowledge.
Since then the proliferation of knowledge, information, and ideas encouraged and lauded specialization and derided generalization. People specialize and become experts in one small piece of a very large complex puzzle, but are incapable of seeing the larger picture necessary for context and real understanding. For example, psychology studies individual behavior while sociology studies group behavior, but in the real world they are intertwined and inseparable. We are truly in a world where we cannot see the forest for the trees. We have more information and less understanding.
The problems became apparent for people studying the real world. A farmer told me of such an experience. He knew there was something wrong with the efficiency and productivity of his soils. He went to the University of Manitoba School of Agriculture. They told him they had no expert on soils, but they could line up several specialists, on such subjects as nematodes, trace minerals, clay colloid complexes, and plant microclimates. He ended up at his local fertilizer dealer who knew more about the soil problems of his area than any specialist.
Only those in the academic world dealing with the real world understood and responded to the problem in two basic ways. One was the creation of interdisciplinary studies. University calendars are now replete with them. As always the status quo resisted. They viewed them as hybrids and impure. Often specialists who put too much emphasis on their specialty chaired them. Environmental studies were likely the most expansive interdisciplinary study because it encompassed the new paradigm of environmentalism. They were also controversial in the academic world because they crossed the largest academic and intellectual boundary between Arts and Science.
The second was the introduction of systems analysis. It is interesting to read the various attempts to define system analysis. I only use Wikipedia here because it illustrates the problem.
“Systems analysis is a problem solving technique that decomposes a system into its component pieces for the purpose of the studying how well those component parts work and interact to accomplish their purpose”. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, systems analysis is “the process of studying a procedure or business in order to identify its goals and purposes and create systems and procedures that will achieve them in an efficient way”. Analysis and synthesis, as scientific methods, always go hand in hand; they complement one another. Every synthesis is built upon the results of a preceding analysis, and every analysis requires a subsequent synthesis in order to verify and correct its results.
Other definitions provide insight and explanation about why a computer model was a natural vehicle for systems analysis.
The analysis of an activity, procedure, method, technique, or business to determine what must be accomplished and how the necessary operations may best be accomplished.
The analysis of the requirements of a task and the expression of those requirements in a form that permits the assembly of computer hardware and software to perform the task
Computers apparently provided one other major benefit in the volumes of data they could include and mathematically manipulate. As climate modelers quickly discovered, to build a model you need adequate data and accurate understanding of the underlying mechanisms. In the case of climate, neither were available.
The need for computer models and the need for adequate data was a conflict that evolved at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU). Hubert Lamb knew the computer and models offered potential. As a result, he hired Tom Wigley. He explains in his autobiography,
The research project which I had put forward to the Rockefeller Foundation was awarded a handsome grant, but it sadly came to grief over an understandable difference of scientific judgment between me and the scientist, Dr. Tom Wigley, who we appointed to take charge of the research.
Lamb set up the CRU believing,
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.
This approach is in line with Darwin’s that you need adequate data as a basis for developing a theory.
“Since my retirement from the directorship of the Climatic Research Unit there have been changes there and in the direction of my own efforts. My immediate successor, Professor Tom Wigley, was chiefly interested in the prospects of world climate being changed as a result of human activities, primarily through the burning up of wood, coal, oil and gas reserves…”
After only a few years almost all the work on historical reconstruction of past climate and weather situations, which had made the Unit well known, was abandoned.”
Lamb knew it would degenerate into creating the historical record needed for the political agenda, as exposed in the leaked emails.
A computer model is a generalization created by a specialist with each component produced by a different specialist. You only have to read the chapter on computer models in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Physical Science Basis Reports to see the resulting disconnect and dissonance. I identified this as a Gestaltist or learning problem, but it is much more. The volume of data grows, but the division into narrower specialties continues.
Through this period climatology, a generalized approach became the specialties of climate science. Computer models offered a chance at dealing with large volumes of data and the ability to simulate natural systems. Most climatologists were generally not interested nor capable of producing computer models, as Lamb acknowledged when he hired Wigley. Instead, computer modelers cast around for large-scale systems to challenge their skills. The other issue was the cost of the computers and operation time, which only governments could afford. They either operated the computers themselves or provided funding to academics doing the research they wanted. After a discussion with a computer modeler in 1998, I realized the limitations of his weather and climate knowledge. Despite this, I watched modelers take over as climate scientists and become keynote speakers at most climate conferences. It became so technologically centered that whoever had the biggest fastest computers were the “state of the art” climate experts. I recall the impact of the Cray computer on climate science. The idiocy continues today with the belief that the only limitation to the models is computer capacity and speed.
This pattern in climate science reflects President Eisenhower’s warnings.
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
The comment that follows the above is more important because it provides the template for today and tomorrow.
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
This statesmanship was on display at the recent Heartland Climate Conference in the presentations of Senator Inhofe, US Rep. Lamar Smith, and State Sen. Carlyle Begay. They are the vanguard to fulfill what Marcel Masse observed,
The more the world is specialized, the more it will be run by generalists.