Posted by: climatewonk | December 20, 2009

Science and Engineering – a digression of pure speculation

I’ve been reading over at Climate Audit now for a couple of years. When the talk about global warming started to pick up on my radar screen, about a dozen years ago, I pretty much accepted what I read from the IPCC. One feels the weight of scientific opinion when numerous science bodies come out and make strong statements about global warming that there must be a lot of strength to the research.

When I first heard of the global warming skepticism and skeptics, such as Steve McIntyre and Climate Audit, I went there and hoped to learn for myself if there was anything to the skepticism or whether it was just another example of industry trying to cast doubt over the science for its own financial gain — which I had studied in university courses on the history and philosophy of science. I took McI seriously at first, tried to read his blog and papers and see if he was on to something. I read over at Real Climate. I read Anthony Watts. I read Lucia. I read Eli and Tamino and Deltoid and Revkin and Ice Cap and DeSmogBlog and Bishop Hill.

I do believe in the sincerity of many of those who label themselves “skeptics”. I think they truly believe that climate science is a sham, the scientists are crooked and the data has been “adjusted” and fudged. For the most part.

However, I feel very strongly that the opposition to climate science and global warming theory comes from a political / ideological / general orientation to reality rather than a scientific place. Many of those over at CA and other places appear to be computer, math/stats or engineering types and with all due respect, they are a different kettle of fish than pure scientists or research scientists.

There is some social scientific research to back this up so it isn’t just me blowing smoke. When I read the posts of many of the engineers, one of their biggest complaints is that the code isn’t up to speed, that the math isn’t up to snuff, and that there are too many uncertainties in the science for any policy to be premised on it. They want engineering quality code and specs. I believe that this stems from their orientation to their occupation and work.

Engineers apply science to design things and build things and blow shit up. Scientists explore. They imagine. They seek the novel. They work in uncertainties. They try to make them less uncertain. They ask questions. Engineers solve concrete and applied problems and while the two fields are very close, there is a fundamental difference between the two.

I suggest that there is a fundamental tendency among engineers and computer science types to be more concerned with certainty and less tolerance for the kind of exploration and imagination and novelty when compared with scientists. Engineers talk all the time about having to have the calculations perfect so that a building doesn’t fall down and kill a thousand people or a plane fall out of the air or a machine not function properly.

That is completely different than a climate scientist thinking about the variables and factors that affect tree growth and how there are connections between climate and growth that might give us important information about global warming. Sure, it’s not the kind of analysis that you can use to build a locomotive or space shuttle or launch a rocket, but it’s the kind of thinking that pushes the frontiers beyond practical application, as important as that is for our species.

I’m not dissing engineering or engineers. We owe so much to their exacting demands for their own profession. I’m just saying that I feel a lot of the animosity I see voiced towards climate scientists from the “skeptics” — especially the engineers and computer scientists — is due to a wholly different understanding of the world, an orientation to knowledge and a different sense of exploration. They don’t understand the other’s POV — it is almost an anathema.

Scientists have to think beyond the box in order to make those intuitive leaps that allow those revolutions in science to occur. Science and art have one very important aspect in common — a vision of possibility beyond that which is given in the world. Of creative imagination.

Sure, there are lots of uncertainties in climate science as there are in any science. In the normal course of things, those uncertainties become certainties, through the scientific method, peer review and the progress in research.

And yes, there is a lot of creative problem solving in engineering, but engineers require a degree of certitude that is just not expected nor beneficial in the pure sciences.

The reason the uncertainties in climate science became so visible — and contentious — is because of the implications of the findings about climate and CO2 and greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels. The clear implication is that burning fossil fuels leads to increased CO2 in the atmosphere which leads to enhanced greenhouse gas effect which leads to warming and perhaps, to a new much warmer climate. That has political and economic and social consequences far beyond that of most sciences. Once the political and economic and social implications became apparent, the certainties and uncertainties in the science became all the more an issue.

I understand the skeptical concern with uncertainties. This is mighty important stuff. It might necessitate big changes in our societies. Can we base decisions regarding the ordering of our economies on sciences with all the uncertainties? It will be up to the engineers to design systems that will help mitigate climate change and help us adapt to what seems certain to be over 2C warming. We will need their penchant for certainty when they are designing their systems, but when it comes to science, by its very nature, we need to preserve and encourage that exploratory intuitive bent so that the unimaginable is imagined and the dark corners of the universe are explored.

In other words, engineers should not be auditing or judging science for if they are the arbiters of what is valid science, it will be diminished. Scientists should not be judging engineering for it will be found lacking vision and buildings will fall. Let the two shine in their own domains.

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