Climatology: A Generalist Study In a Specialized World
By Dr. Tim Ball Thursday, February 25, 2010
In the climate debate most are struggling because they can’t see the forest for the trees.
They’re confused by disagreements between scientists and the diversity of information from a multitude of areas.
Their dilemmas are a function of 200 years of evolution of knowledge and research, especially in weather and climate.
We talk about Renaissance people, those with a wide range of knowledge, but not Universal people. The last identified as such was Alexander von Humboldt who reportedly knew all known science and was familiar through visits with all continents except Antarctica. Intriguingly, he died in 1859 the same year Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published.
Knowledge proliferated beyond the ability of one person to encompass even part of a discipline and academic departments multiplied accordingly. Gradually study and knowledge became specialized and compartmentalized. Further isolation occurred in introductory university courses with unique terminology and definition of terms. They institutionalized knowledge and thereby limited understanding. A student said he didn’t mention something in an exam because he learned it in another department and didn’t think it could be applied.
In the 1970s the trend to specialization triggered another academic reaction with further expansion, but no solution. People in the real world were confronted with problems that required integrated and generalized solutions, but found they couldn’t get useful information from academia. A farmer told me he went to the local university department of agriculture about problems with his soil. They only had specialists dealing with singular components such as trace minerals. Gradually new composite departments appeared under the rubric of interdisciplinary studies around society’s problems. Chief among these were departments of Environmental Studies, which attracted Arts students imbued with the new environmental goal of saving the planet, but most issues required understanding science.
Climatology is a generalist discipline and comes from the Greek word klimat that means angle referring to the angle of the sun. It studies the patterns of weather in a region or over time. Ancient Greeks determined there were three zones, Hot, Temperate and Frigid. In a historical twist most people knew about meteorology before they knew about climatology. It’s odd because meteorology is a specific part of climatology, the study of physics of the atmosphere. Momentum came from attempts to measure and understand the atmosphere and how the interactions that create weather. Meteorology continued ascendancy during World War I as pilots needed accurate forecasts. It’s why most weather stations are at airports and now suffer from interference from growing urban centers. Climatology gained attention in the academic world through the work of various people like Reid Bryson in the US, Kenneth Hare in Canada, Mikhail Budyko in Russia and Hubert Lamb in England. It only came to public attention when it became political.
Early Identification of the Real Problems in Climate Science
Hubert Lamb, founder of the Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia, would be mortified at how his creation was misused. He set it up separate from the UKMO because there was no interest in climatology. As he explained in his autobiography, “When the Climatic Research Unit was founded, it was clear that the first and greatest need was to establish the facts of the past record of the natural climates in times before any side effect of human activities could well be important. A world-wide record was needed, particularly on the time scale of human history – a project which, surprisingly, no other body had attempted in any coordinated way. There was only one other similar, institution anywhere else in the world, the Center for Climatic Research set up by Reid Bryson in the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the nineteen-fifties, which soon became the nucleus for an Institute of Environmental Studies.” Inadequate historic data is still a problem and was a factor behind my doctoral research. The shift to Environmental Studies undermined Madison and many other programs but Lamb identifies the worst problem and one I experienced. Nobody was interested in getting the data needed to understand weather and climate. As Lamb explains, “We are living in a time when the glamour of the much more expensive work of the mathematical modeling laboratories, and the tempting prospect of their theoretical prediction, are stealing the limelight.” He hired a modeler, Tom Wigley, and the CRU degenerated to the fiasco exposed in the leaked emails.
The fiasco revolved around falsification of two specialized areas: the modern temperature record, which Phil Jones, former Director of the CRU manipulated and still denies the data and record to the world; and the hockey stick reconstruction produced by Michael Mann. The hockey stick evaded inspection because as Professor Wegman said in his Report to the US Senate inquiry, “In our further exploration of the social network of authorships in temperature reconstruction, we found that at least 43 authors have direct ties to Dr. Mann by virtue of coauthored papers with him. Our findings from this analysis suggest that authors in the area of paleoclimate studies are closely connected and thus ‘independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface.”
People wonder how they controlled climate science for so long and to such an extent. Climatology is a small community with a multitude of smaller specialized communities within. All paleoclimatologists had to do was counteract another specialized group, historical climatologists, to prove the Medieval Warm Period did not exist. It was Mann using mathematical models and statistics against those doing what Lamb promoted using a multitude of historic sources.
However, it was the statistics that exposed the fraud. “It is important to note the isolation of the paleoclimate community; even though they rely heavily on statistical methods they do not seem to be interacting with the statistical community.” Statistics is a common analytical technique across specialties and Steve McIntyre’s skills as a statistician triggered his concerns, not climate knowledge. Cover-up by Mann and the gang then exposed how the problem was much more than bad statistical techniques. Wegman again; “Additionally, we judge that the sharing of research materials, data and results was haphazardly and grudgingly done. In this case we judge that there was too much reliance on peer review, which was not necessarily independent. Moreover, the work has been sufficiently politicized that this community can hardly reassess their public positions without losing credibility.” Remember this assessment was done before the emails were leaked.
Fundamentals Transcend Specialization
Climatology is a generalist study in a world of specialist studies, which requires linkage and understanding. A good analogy is climate is a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces. Each specialist has one piece of the puzzle but doesn’t know where it fits and we don’t have the box top. Meanwhile society has glorified the shift to domination of people who are extremely specialized. Consider the comment, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist” used to suggest a rocket scientist is superior. Then consider, “You don’t have to be a farmer.” It rings odd because we have a low opinion of farmers and the demands of what they do. In reality the farmer is a generalist who must know everything including soils, plants, chemicals, equipment, markets, not to mention the weather.
Inadequate mainstream coverage of CRU/IPCC scandals is an outrage but equaled by lack of protest from most scientists. Silence over corruption of the peer review process is disturbing. Maybe it’s blindness induced by funding or politics, but mostly specialization is the cause. Lack of knowledge of other specialties is a problem, but issues that cross boundaries do trigger concern. Some scientists address fundamental and therefore generalist issues. For example, Princeton Physicist William Happer said, “It’s unbelievable, you hear of an event when the weather’s warm and it’s proof of global warming. Then if the weather’s cold, that’s proof of global warming as well. And that reveals the problem with the theory that man-made greenhouse gases are causing a climate catastrophe. It’s not falsifiable. Serious scientists, when they look at this, say this is an example of a theory that cannot be falsified and a theory that cannot be falsified is not science. It’s religion.” AMEN!