An assessment of the status of climate change modelling as a scientific paradigm (part 2)

The latest news that the Antarctic has undergone rapid melting in the period 2014-2017 (Vaughan, 2019), undoing 35 years of gradual growth, one of the touchstones of climate change sceptics, effectively demolishes the argument that global warming is not real. Nevertheless, the pressure by activists for radical and immediate restructuring of the economy is potentially dangerous, though probably futile. The utility of viewing the model of anthropogenic climate change as a scientific paradigm, established in part 1 of this essay, is that it attempts to insulate the work of scientists in the field from overt pressure and the decontextualization of their data for political ends, while giving space for practical policy to meet the challenges climate change presents.

Such a move also raises a number of questions. One is that if a paradigm shift is under way, what is the nature of the prior paradigm (or paradigms) from which resistance has emanated? Another concerns the status of scientific prediction within the paradigm, as opposed to political grandstanding or wild speculation. Then there is the issue of the limits of the concept of a paradigm – what defines a scientific paradigm and at what point does it outlive its usefulness?

Resistance to the climate change model from prior paradigms 

From the perspective of the Kuhnian paradigm hypothesis, rejection of the climate change model can be considered as a clinging-to and resistance-from the perspective of a prior paradigm. The question then arises as to the nature of this prior paradigm. In fact, there seems to be no prior unitary paradigm, as global warming was barely a perceived issue until the 1990’s. Instead there were individual disciplines working within their own silos – climatology here, oceanography there – with their own specialisations and methods, which would rarely if ever have talked to each other. Many, though not all, climate change sceptics represent the older generation of scientists wedded to older ways of thinking. As Kuhn and others have proposed, the nature of a paradigm shift is that it frequently accomplished more by the older generation dying off than by conversion to the new paradigm, which, in any case, is never a matter of pure rational decision.

As a paradigm is, at least in part, a social construct, it is never just a matter of reason organising data; there are always assumptions, values and biases, such as cultural prejudices, built into its structure. If this is the case, then the paradigmatic forerunner of the climate change model can be understood as an essentially conservative one, one that embodies, explicitly or implicitly, a religious vision of nature and humanity. This is not one that necessarily disavows science but sees it as an expression of the mastery of nature granted mankind, ultimately by a benevolent deity. It is optimistic in outlook compared with the current environmentalist view, believing that nature is abundant and limitless and too resilient for us to do much harm. Moreover, it prioritises human life over other forms of life and asserts our cosmic right to exploit nature for our own benefit and is, thus, essentially also humanistic. This model was essentially shared across the political spectrum before the advent of the widespread adoption of the environmentalist perspective.

Thus, another source of resistance to the climate change model can be seen from those who have difficulty accommodating within their worldview the dethroning of human beings as masters of creation or the pinnacle of evolution. They see science as a tool for the continuing expansion and improvement of the human race, or at least the fortunes of the nation. Perhaps the realignment of the left almost universally with the environmentalist vision is less an expression of conviction with the facts of the climate change model than it is with the universal failure of socialist economics and its essentially optimistic view of humanity. That leaves resistance now to the climate change model from believers in nationalist supremacy allied to capitalist economics,  which  includes most of the world, though few are brazen enough to put it that bluntly.

This resistance is a powerful force. Moreover, even those who believe in global warming have a problem in following the logic of their conviction, because it is not just pro-environmentalist but also markedly anti-humanistic, and it is difficult in practice to deny your own right to exist and prosper. Few are willing even to give up the most environmentally unfriendly practices we are aware of, such as driving cars, taking holidays to exotic locations by plane, using high-tech equipment and shipping food and goods around the world to satisfy our needs and desires. Fewer still are willing to give up on the modern world and retreat to a natural life – even if such a thing could be defined; after all, it was not modern peoples that eliminated the native megafauna of the world, but peoples in primitive societies. It is certainly paradoxical to the environmentalist argument that the people most inclined and best placed to live life in harmony with nature are the richest.

Within the climate change paradigm – and this is a sign that it is gaining growing acceptance – different philosophical, economic and political agendas are emerging, besides radical de-modernisation. One sees the future as adaptation to a changing climate, looking for new economic opportunities in a warming world. Another sees the route to controlling anthropogenic warming being through new technologies which mitigate the harm done and even reverse it. In these views sound environmental policy means that consumers are able to make choices better for the environment, such as buying hybrid or electric vehicles, changing their diet away from those that require intensive farming, etc. This demonstrates the beginning of the maturation of the paradigm. Not all will be converted, but they will not be around forever.

Scientific explanation, prediction and control

A claim that is raised by sceptics of global warming and its associated climate change is that the model is invalidated by a history of failed predictions or predictions wide of the mark, invariably on the side of doomsday scenarios rather than on the side of caution. This is not the place to consider the various anomalies in data that are seized on from time to time by opponents of the model, who, perhaps unknowingly, hold to a radically falsificationist view of science – that a single counter-example is sufficient to demolish a theory (rather than presenting a challenge that needs to be accommodated within the theoretical framework); there is an extensive literature on such claims.

The issue to be considered here is the relationship between a theory’s ability to explain and to predict. A viable theory must do both and clearly prediction is built on the foundation of having offered an explanation for some phenomenon. There is a fundamental imbalance, though, between the two: an explanation is an interpretation of the existing data, while a prediction is a projection into the unknown (often, but not necessarily, the future) for which there is no existing evidence, which only the future can supply. As discussed in the first part of this essay, the reasons for the acceptance of a theory can be, and usually are, more than just rational and evidential; they often involve an aesthetic component – the new theory is simpler and neater in some respects. This also presupposes that there is an evidential gap in the present. Theories are able to usefully predict and lead to the possibility of control only when they have completed the theoretical gap in “successfully” explaining the contemporaneous data.

I want to look at four examples of generally-accepted paradigm shifts and examine their relation to explanation, prediction and control: the Copernican (heliocentric) revolution; evolution by natural selection; general relativity; and plate tectonics.

The case of the Copernican Revolution is often upheld – if one can be excused the lexical quirk – as the paradigm of the paradigm. This has much to do with the fact that Kuhn first developed the idea of the paradigm shift looking at the historical emergence of heliocentrism in Europe (Kuhn, 1957; 1985), but also that it manifests clearly those characteristics which came to define the paradigm in other cases to which the concept was applied. Copernicus had surprisingly little data on which to base his theory; his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1514, 100 years before the advent of reliable telescopes and Galileo’s evidence from planetary observation in 1615. It was based more on a theoretical consideration – that Kuhn refers to as conceptual ‘economy’ – that heliocentrism resolved  the increasingly untidy and unrealistic model derived from adapting the Ptolemaic system of epicycles.

Copernicus’ model paved the way for Newton’s theory of forces, gravity and the mechanics of ballistic flight, without which we would not be able to place satellites in orbit. It also opened up the way to astronomical research and the possibility of flight to other planets. The fundamental intellectual shift that took place in the Copernican revolution, allowed us to see the possibility of other systems and worlds like our own and begin the search for them, unhampered by dogma. The number of exoplanets now identified runs into thousands, some having many earth-like characteristics (NASA, 2019).

Darwin’s (1859) theory of evolution by natural selection was the culmination of a tradition of observation that went back to Aristotle, but which was subsumed under the scholastic theological and philosophical concept of the Great Chain of Being and the revival of ancient mythology in the western medieval period. Darwin was preceded by important classifiers of biological form, such as Cuvier and Linnaeus, as well as a philosophical tradition of evolutionary thinking. Darwin’s seminal contribution, though, was to imagine a mechanism by which the transformation of form over time might occur. There are two fundamental ideas: continuous variation of organisms in form from one generation to another and selective pressure from the environment of the organism that allows particular variations to prosper down the generations.

At the time Darwin’s theory accounted for the great variety of organic forms that exist, the prevalence of unique species in isolated environments, such as the Galapagos Islands, and the existence of different creatures in the fossil record. However, there was no evidence to support the idea of inherited variation. This only gradually emerged, first in the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900, then the elucidation of the structure of DNA by Crick & Watson in 1953, confirmation coming through research into the mechanism of the development of viral resistance. The theory underlies all current experimental work in biology and has given rise to new technologies that promise increasing control of biological processes. The decoding of the human genome in 2000 raises the possibility of individually tailored treatment for a variety of diseases as well as direct intervention in the blueprint for life.

Though we continue to live largely in a Newtonian worldview regarding the everyday interactions between things – indeed we have been able to send rockets to the planets based on Newton’s equations – we now consider Einstein’s theory of gravity, developed between 1907 and 1915, to be more general and more accurate. Einstein dealt with a long-standing philosophical problem with Newton’s theory of gravity, the difficulty of a force acting instantaneously over immense distances, by re-conceptualising gravity as the curvature of 4-dimensional space-time. This fulfils the requirement of a paradigm shift that there needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking, not merely in detail. Einstein was also able to achieve in the process a unification of other concepts, such as the equivalence of mass and energy.

Einstein’s work was almost entirely theoretical. Nevertheless, confirmatory evidence came within a few months with his prediction of anomalies in the orbit of Mercury. In 1919 gravitational lensing was observed for the first time. Two predictions proved difficult to confirm: gravitational waves and black holes, massive stars collapsed to a singularity. The first evidence of gravitational waves was seen in 2015 (Castelvecchi & Witze, 2016). The existence of black holes was generally accepted from the 1970s and indirect evidence has accumulated. It is only in 2019, though, that direct evidence – a photograph of the energy released by infalling matter forming a halo around a black hole – has been available. The data over the past 100 years has confirmed the status of Einstein’s theory. We know, however, that it must be an incomplete theory, as it is not compatible with quantum mechanics, which has also been repeatedly confirmed at the atomic level. This again is a facet of the paradigm; it remains an area of research precisely because it continues generates questions in problematic areas.

The fourth example, Plate tectonics, is probably the least well-known, as it raises no profound philosophical or ethical issues, generates, as a result, few headlines, and was the cumulative result of quiet research by scientists unknown outside their specialised fields. It had been observed for several centuries that the shape of some of the continents suggested that they had once fitted together, rather like a jigsaw puzzle. By the nineteenth century it was also speculated, based on the presence of common sedimentary deposits around the globe and the distribution pattern of identical fossil species, that the continents had a shared geological history in a supercontinent called Gondwanaland. In 1912 Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift, whereby the continents had moved to their present position over millions of years. Though the theory accounted for the known evidence and was more plausible than alternative theories, such as an expanding earth or land bridges between the continents, it provided no mechanism for this motion and was discounted by the mainstream geological establishment. In the 1930s Arthur Holmes proposed that convection currents in the mantle, generated by heat from radioactivity, drove the movement of the earth’s crust. This remains until now the accepted mechanism, though there has been no experimental verification. The main outlines for plate tectonics was developed in the 1960s, based on the work of Wilson (1965) and others on transform faults, whereby the continents are considered to float on giant plates of oceanic crust that are created at oceanic ridges, slide past each other and disappear at subduction zones.

Plate tectonics has created a unified theory that encompasses all the large-scale geological processes. It has very strong explanatory power, supported by an increasing body of evidence and, therefore strong predictive power. However, this predictive power is limited to macro rather than micro scale events, which are statistically correlated and highly chaotic. Practically, plate tectonics has not yet afforded us a way to accurately predict and thus control (or control for) potentially devastating events such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and mudslides, the dynamics of which are, nevertheless, very well understood.

What these examples demonstrate is that a paradigm shift to a new paradigm:

  • Occurs to address anomalies within an existing paradigm.
  • Meets resistance from adherents of the existing paradigm.
  • Reconceptualises the core elements of a theoretical system and gives a different explanation, which forces us to think differently.
  • Achieves the unification of hitherto disparate phenomena by being more general.
  • Predicts outcomes, events or phenomena that would act as confirmatory evidence.
  • Initiates a period of normal science, usually extending to decades, which includes the hunt for confirmatory evidence and exploring the limits of the paradigm.
  • Opens up the opportunity for new forms of control over nature.

The anthropogenic model of climate change, from this perspective, is the epitome of an emerging paradigm. Perhaps a couple of points need some explanation, the first, regarding reconceptualisation. I would argue that the model is virtually unique in seeing human economic activity as a part of nature that merits scientific investigation, rather than as a subject of political and economic critique. Not only that, but economic activity becomes the conceptual core of the theory that ties together the various systems – atmospheric, oceanic, lithographic, ecological – into a coherent theory. The second is that it bespeaks the need for a dispassionate evaluation of the predictions of the theory, primarily global warming, which, if precedent is anything to go by, is likely to be measured in decades. That means at the level of scientific research we should be wary of sensationalist claims reported before proper peer review takes place, which are likely to result in bad policy decisions, just as we should be dismissive of sceptics grasping straws to uphold outmoded paradigms.

The validity of the concept of the paradigm

So far, I have undertaken an evaluation of whether anthropogenic climate change conforms to the idea of a scientific paradigm as laid out by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I want to turn this around now and consider the extent to which climate change science tests the limits of the paradigmatic concept. In particular, I want to look at the contemporaneous extra-scientific ethical, political and philosophical debates around two of the cases considered in the last section, those of the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, as a precursor to evaluating the status of paradigms vis a vis climate change.

The concept of the paradigm as envisaged by Kuhn has strong sociological roots, not only in the idea of science as the activity of a scientific community, but also that of intergenerational resistance and advocacy, and the aesthetic appeal of the new. This is important to discover the limits of the idea of the paradigm, what is not included; a concept in which every form of human intellectual (and other) endeavour could be included would have little utility. It is ultimately to determine whether the paradigm is a useful concept in understanding the development of scientific theories and, specifically, whether it applies to the climate change model.

Today the controversy that raged around the introduction of heliocentrism is, when considered at all, viewed through the lens of our own values. We tend to be highly critical of Copernicus’ decision not to publicise his ideas more widely, challenging the earth-centred view promulgated by the Catholic Church, and are appalled by the threats made to Galileo by the inquisition and his virtual silencing. It is important to remember, though, that the acceptance of the heliocentric model was not only a challenge to Catholic tradition and authority (the upholding of geocentrism is Greek in origin, not biblical), but to the idea that humanity occupied a central position in the Creation and was accorded a value as such and, moreover, that the evidence for it was thin and itself theory-dependent (Chalmers, 1982).

After 400 years the controversies over the move from a geocentric to a heliocentric model have faded. We now know that our solar system is a miniscule part of a galaxy, that of a galactic cluster, in turn one of billions in a universe that may, hypothetically, be part of a multiverse. The knowledge is background to the everyday, while forming part of a great deal of scientific research, which is where it enters the realm of politics and finance. Beyond considerations of cost for some of the more ambitious programmes, and perhaps of risk and priorities in the case of space exploration, there are few troubling ethical and philosophical issues associated anymore with this paradigm.

Rather like Copernicus, Darwin delayed the publication of his theory of evolution because of its theological and potentially social implications at a time when religion was still a powerful force in society. Whereas we have absorbed the knowledge of our dethroning as the centre of the cosmos, we are still dealing with the implications, philosophical and ethical, of our existence being contingent on blind chance, as well as the power to alter our destiny. Unlike the Copernican revolution, the Darwinian revolution has from the beginning generated troubling ethical dilemmas, political philosophies and social movements. Social Darwinism emerged in Darwin’s own lifetime and the twentieth century saw the rise and fall of the eugenics movement. Today we face dilemmas over genetically modified plants and animal, the threat of bioweapons, designer babies or clones and the potential combining of human DNA with that of other species or advanced robotics and the emergence of human sub-species. These possibilities pose ethical and political problems of an existential nature.

In these cases there were, or are, highly contentious issues of a political, theological, philosophical or ethical nature that form a penumbra around the core science. Popper refers to these collectively, which do not meet his criterion of falsifiability, as ‘metaphysics’. Indeed, evolution by natural selection does not meet this strict criterion, though Popper allows it the status of a ‘metaphysical research programme’ (Popper, 1976). By this criterion none of the established scientific paradigms would have got off the ground, certainly not the heliocentric paradigm, which was clearly falsified by some of the information available at the time. This metaphysical penumbra exists – to a greater or lesser degree – around all scientific endeavor, but is recognised as significant and, therefore, has a more natural place within the concept of the paradigm. The question is whether there is a limit beyond which it is no longer possible to talk about a scientific paradigm, but only a political or ethical agenda, and whether anthropogenic climate change has crossed that line.

An accusation levelled at climate change science is that it is not real science but a fabrication designed to bolster left wing and environmentalist criticism of capitalism and the consumer society and justify anti-capitalist activism that, by implication, leads to a vilification of conservative politics, which has mostly been business-friendly. If this were true, it would blend imperceptibly into the entire political activism of the left on issues such as economic inequality, women’s and minorities’ rights and increasingly issues around identity. In that case, if the model of anthropogenic climate change would be considered a paradigm it could be argued that any body of theory and practice, including those of the social sciences, humanities and arts, which include variable degrees of interpretation and imaginative construction, should be legitimately considered paradigms. This would virtually render the term meaningless and we would have to look at alternative means of demarcating science from non-science, such as Popper’s criterion of falsifiability or Lakatos’ (1974) notion of research programmes.

I suggest that the way out of this corner is to look at the issue of control rather than explanation or prediction. This means that the assignment of paradigm status remains intact to the degree that control is exercised primarily in the technological realm, not in the political realm, notwithstanding the political and ethical dimensions of all science and technology. This is clearly the case with heliocentrism, where almost all issues are technological and few ethical or political, and it is increasingly so with evolution, although there are areas where major ethical concerns and scope for political decision-making arise. I would say that anthropogenic climate change’s status hangs in the balance at the moment; there is clearly a theoretically cohesive idea, based on real-world data, which leads to explanation and prediction, and a limited penetration of alternative energy technology into the market, but control of the agenda is still largely in the hands of activist and political players, not led by research, development and economic priorities.

Conclusion – the new normal

There is little doubt in my mind that we are experiencing the effects of human colonisation of virtually every natural system on the planet – how could it be otherwise with regard to industrialisation and global trade, when we have had an impact on nature from prehistoric times? However, we have to see this in context – actually, a number of contexts. The first is that we are on the brink of a number of existential crises, some of which receive far less publicity that they should compared to climate change. Secondly, we should recognise the resilience of nature; as long as we implement changes, there is reason to think that much of the present damage can be reversed and we can adapt to those that cannot. Then, we need to recognise the enormous capacity science and the free market have shown to generate solutions to seemingly intractable problems and improve the quality of life.

The acceptance of the anthropogenic climate change as a scientific paradigm creates a new normal, meaning a realignment of our values and economic practice, driven by increasing technological control over environmental parameters. It increases the probability of the extreme fringes of anti-humanism and year zero advocates within the environmental wing and anti-Capitalists within the left having less impact on policy and the focus being put on mitigation and alleviation technologies. In this context Toyota’s recent decision to make its hybrid technology open source is an interesting development (Gorey, 2019), as it promises to seed a fundamental technological change in the direction of mitigation, while expanding the market in which competition based on quality – rather than monopoly – becomes the norm. Initiatives of this kind represent a realistic and hopeful step-change in the new environmentally aware economy.

References and Bibliography

Calder, Nigel (1978). The Restless Earth: A Report on the New Geology. London: Penguin.

Castelvecchi, Davide; Witze, Alexandra (11 February 2016). “Einstein’s gravitational waves found at last”. Nature News. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19361. Retrieved 11 February 2016.

Chalmers, A. F. (1982). What is this thing called science? An assessment of the nature of science and its methods. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

Darwin, Charles (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Gorey, Colm (3 April 2019). Toyota to make secret hybrid tech open access until 2030. Silicon Republic. Available at: https://www.siliconrepublic.com/machines/toyota-prius-hybrid-tech-open-access

Kuhn, Thomas (1957). The Copernican Revolution (Copyright renewed 1985). Harvard University Press.

Lakatos, Imre (1974). The methodology of scientific research programmes. Philosophical Papers Volume I. edited by John Worrall and Gregory Currie. Cambridge: CUP.

Lutz, Ota (April 19, 2019). How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole. Teachable Moments. NASA: Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Available at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/news/2019/4/19/how-scientists-captured-the-first-image-of-a-black-hole/

NASA Exoplanet Archive. Available at: https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/. Retrieved 10 July 2019.

Popper, K.R. (1976): Unended Quest, an Intellectual Autobiography, Fontana/Collins, Glasgow.

Vaughan, Adam (1 July 2019). Antarctic sea ice is declining dramatically and we don’t know why. New Scientist. Online at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2208180-antarctic-sea-ice-is-declining-dramatically-and-we-dont-know-why/

Wilson, J. Tuzo (July 24, 1965). “A new Class of Faults and their Bearing on Continental Drift”. Nature. 207 (4995): 343–347.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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