Is it getting hot in here, or is it just anthopogenic global warming? Part I: Scientific Method

So in an somewhat ongoing debate, my grandfather and I (I truly love to argue with him) have been discussing global warming. He sent a link for a recent video that was broadcast on BBC 4 in March called The Great Global Warming Swindle. You can download and see the video (torrent file) yourself here. I want to take some time in this post to illuminate my stance on the issue, and hopefully promote at least some discussion.

I think to start, it is important to lay down some basic knowledge about scientific method first. I know this is generally thought of as common knowledge, but I think more often than not it is not realized or misquoted to dispute some scientific finding or consensus.

You can easily ‘google’ the term “scientific method” and get a host of explanations. Among most of them, there is a shared general structure to the process (I’ll use examples from my thesis as it is fresh in my mind, and very germane to this topic):

  • Observation: This is where a scientist (or anybody really) sees something that raises the question, “How does that work?” For instance, in my thesis I have observed some distinct patterns in the river that I would like to know how/and what processed created them.
  • Forming the Question and Experimental Design: From observation, a research hypothesis is defined, and then an experimental design strategy to test that hypothesis is laid out. In my thesis, I hypothesized that 4 variables were responsible for the patterns I observed, and so I design a repeatable and verifiable experimental design to test whether or not my hypothesis was true.
  • Analysis and Results: After the test is run, the researcher will evaluate whether or not the hypothesis is true. I am taking the results from testing my hypothesis and evaluating whether or not they are statistically and practically significant. If they are then I will be able to say that my hypothesis may be correct. This is done by rejecting all other practical possible outcomes, leaving only the researcher’s hypothesis intact (falsifiability).
  • Peer review and repeatability: The researcher publishes the work in a peer reviewed(discussed later) journal or other outlet, and then is usually repeated by other scientist. If the hypothesis continually holds true of the course of several repeat experiments, it may be promoted to a theory. Theories are basically hypothesis that have stood the test of time and have yet to be rejected. Theories do change, usually with some sort of scientific paradigm shift (or in some cases the rejection of the theory causes the shift). A good (and not too controversial) example would be the theory of plate tectonics. We used to think that the rocks that made up the Earth came from either precipitation out of solution from a huge all Earth encompassing Ocean (Werner and his Deluge theory; Neptunists) or from the solidification of a molten mass of rock (Hutton and the Plutonist). Wegner is credited with proposing the concept of tectonic movement, and after repeated attempts to disprove his hypothesis failed, a new paradigm shift in geology started as the hypothesis became the accepted theory.

Now the rub here is that any hypothesis (or theory) is open for rejection. Everything is fair game, as long as you play by the rules of scientific method. This is the strength of science, it is always evolving, and is self correcting by its very nature.

On to global warming as a theory. This topic is touchy for almost everybody, especially since the media and movies such as Swindle and the Inconvenient Truth have hit the lime light. I think it is very important to realize that what is going on right now in the scientific world is the struggle for a paradigm shift caused by the theory of anthropogenic influence on global warming and its associated consequences. Though most of the scientific community of climate experts are in agreement, not all of them are, and the scientific method is in full effect here (I will discuss some issues below).

Now I am a physical geographer and geomorphologist by training, and this means that I tend to think of Earth processes at very big spatial/temporal scales. I consider change that takes place over tens of thousands of years. An example might be after the Larimide orogeny (the uplift and creation of the Rocky Mountains) 65 million years ago water began to drain toward the gulf coast, producing the drainage networks found there today. Also by training I look at the Earth as a complex array of interacting systems and cycles. An example would be the interaction between the atmosphere and the land surface creating rivers which erode the land, and move water to the ocean which produces rain over the land and so on (The hydrological cycle).

Though I am not a climate scientist by any means, I do understand the tenets of the field, and I have studied basic climate theory and meteorology. Global warming and the green house effect are part of a natural system of the Earth that were it not there, life on this planet wouldn’t be possible. This system is easy to understand on the surface: Green house gases such as water vapor and CO2 help to keep the atmosphere warm and hospitable for life. However, as one delves deeper the understanding becomes much harder. Global warming interacts with many other Earth systems in complex and not well understood ways. Given the peer reviewed data out there regarding global temperature rises, and potential human impacts, I believe that we have had some influence on the climate, and it may be more than just natural ‘backgound’ variability.

The two movies, IT and Swindle both make serious and big claims about what is currently occuring regarding climate change, and what the future consequences will be. Let’s take a look at the claims found in each movie in more detail. I’ll start with IT the next post coming soon!


6 responses to “Is it getting hot in here, or is it just anthopogenic global warming? Part I: Scientific Method

  1. Up until 1513, when Copernicus came along, 99.9999percent of the Western World thought that the earth was the center of the universe. (And even he was wrong because he thought that the sun was the center.) This illustrates that numbers donโ€™t count, so letโ€™s base our argument on facts as presented by both sides. And, since neither one of us was involved in gathering the facts, we are going to have to rely on the facts as gathered, interpreted, and presented by others.

  2. Totally agreed. One of my pet peeves is when someone states falsehoods as truths, especially if they are not trained/knowledgeable about the field in discussion.

    Having said that, I do believe that we both can still present our arguments, and I am sure we will keep each other on the level ๐Ÿ˜‰ I think this set of posts will be useful, and fun. Stay tuned, I’ll keep writing the next installment.

  3. And, since there is no argument that the earth is on a warming trend, the debate is whether the warm up is man-made or just another natural climatic cycle.

  4. I think we better find something else to argue about. Both sides said there isn’t enough information to make a definite statement either way. I thought the statement by the IPCC scientists the other day was real cool. “We are 90% sure that the global warming is caused by man. They just said there isn’t enough information for a definite statement, and then they say they are sure it is caused by man. (Bang my head, bang my head, bang my head!!)

  5. I got to thinking about this, and I think I have gained enough information to continue with this argument with some degree of confidence that I am right. So, I will reply to your opening statement in the next day or two. Maybe even later today.

  6. Bring it… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I will be slow to reply, I am sorry in advance, but the thesis comes before everything in life except Jordan.

    I look forward to reading your argument (And defeating it ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

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