Climate Science: Multidisciplinary Study in Age of Specialization

by Dr. Tim Ball on November 16, 2011

in Atmosphere,Data,History,Philosophy,Political,Theory

A Cultural Dictionary says the comment that,

“He can’t see the forest for the trees” is, “an expression used of someone who is too involved in the details of the problem to look at the situation as a whole.”

There are many applications in today’s society overwhelmed by information. Most is misinformation, out of context, misinterpreted, or misused for political gain. These problems are very evident in climate science.

Personal attacks on ‘skeptics’ like me began as evidence failed to support the claim that human CO2 was causing global warming and we persisted in saying so. Apart from false claims that I didn’t have a PhD in climate was the charge that I was a Geographer, as if being a Geographer is inferior. It fits the long-held derogatory observation that geographers are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. It’s symptomatic of people who think as specialists they are superior, that only they understand. They may know much about one small piece of a giant puzzle, but not know where or how that piece fits. Those with political reasons who support the claim human CO2 is destroying the planet are particularly vocal.

Geography is the original integrative discipline and probably the only one to offer science and arts degrees because it studies humans, the natural world and how they interact. Not surprisingly, Climatology was part of geography before separate Climatology departments appeared as the subject became politically and therefore financially important. Physical Geography studied two major areas, Geomorphology and Climatology.

In the early 1970s when I was looking for a graduate program climate only two major centers were devoted to climate studies. Reid Bryson’s program at the University of Wisconsin and Hubert Lamb’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. Lamb created the latter because he realized better weather forecasts required understanding of climate. I was fortunate to register as a graduate student at the University of London and spent time working with Lamb at the CRU.

Structural divisions of national weather offices disregarded the differences between weather, climate, or meteorology. Climate was essentially ignored by national weather agencies such as Environment Canada. They required a Masters in Physics to be a weather forecaster. Meteorology studies physics of the atmosphere and considers weather forecasts as essentially a short term closed system phenomenon. It’s, at best, a narrow specialized study. Climate was a minor bookkeeping chore producing monthly and annual averages of weather. Inadequacy of those reports now plague attempts to understand past weather patterns. Climatology is a generalist integrative study similar to geography. As we see in every part of today’s society the dictum that to specialize is the mark of genius and to generalize the mark of a fool, limits any chance of understanding the pattern of nature and life. The single tree is only important in the context of the entire forest.

The situation is a natural consequence of the scientific revolution. Many focus on new ideas and theories about the world and the universe presented by people like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Linnaeus. However, their work requires facts to confirm a theory, known as induction, or from which to deduce a theory, deduction. Few people combined fact gathering and theory better than Alexander von Humboldt. He’s defined as the last universal person, that is someone who knew all the known science of his day. He reinforced his understanding by visiting all the continents except Antarctica. Interestingly, he died in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Most people can’t define a Species. It was the major division used by Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) in his classification system and identifies plants or animals that can produce viable offspring. That is, the product of their union could produce offspring. The Linnaean system organized a multitude of facts into patterns that allowed easier analysis and understanding of mechanisms. It is today’s understanding, but there are many problems. For example, we know a horse and a donkey can produce a mule but the mule cannot produce viable offspring. The challenge is how do you determine the viability of offspring from the fossil record? An even bigger challenge is that, statistically, a species needs 15 million to have one survive in the fossil record. How many species do not appear in the record? Then there is the problem of the Duck-Billed Platypus (Ornithorhynchus Antennas), which is a species to itself.

We’ve identified and named approximately 1.5 million species, but there’s little agreement about how many are unknown. Estimates vary from 2 to 100 million. Linnaeus provided a data sorting mechanism, but it limited the analysis. The Platypus illustrates the point because instead of questioning the Linnaean system they simply created a new species. How many others are there now, and how many were there throughout geologic time? The Darwinian view is based on the Linnaean system but limited by it. Both depend on the extent and accuracy of the data. Consider just one issue, evolution, which is dependent on the system and the data and yet central to the entire issue over time.

Climatology was and remains a natural study area for geography. Alfred Hettner defined geography as chorology, about which he wrote,

“The goal of the chorological point of view is to know the character of regions and places through comprehension of the existence together and interrelations among different realms of reality and their varied manifestations, and to comprehend the earth surface as a whole in its actual arrangement in continents, larger and smaller regions, and places.”

An academic definition but it sums up the challenges for climate science. I think it’s a challenge for all science, that has dissected the world into individual pieces: find a way to put the pieces back together again.

Growth of interdisciplinary studies was evidence of the problem. It took various forms centered on real world issues, but didn’t solve them. Environmental Studies was one of the largest, but was quickly dominated by political agendas when it required scientific training or understanding.

Climate science was similarly hijacked for a political agenda because it was easy to take a few pieces to create a false hypothesis. Ironically, the agenda was exposed when they tried to take the ideas on to the world stage through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They required a prediction to show it was essential to stop the human production of CO2. This required computer models to handle the complexity of an integrated world. The specialists quickly learned how little they knew or understood about the larger picture so it didn’t take long for the models to fail. Matters were made worse because many scientists were co-opted to the corruption without being aware of what was going on. Climatologists like myself trained before climate became a political agenda knew enough of the pattern to know what didn’t fit and some of us said so. We were quickly marginalized with personal attacks, one of which was the heinous crime of graduating in or being part of a geography department.