In the tradition of bluntness familiar to visitors to the cave, the Old Man wanted to find out what people thought, so he asked them. (Originally, on the friendly weather forum he inhabits). This is how I phrased the question:

“This is a serious question, which I want to try to understand. We place our trust in experts of all kinds, all the time. Our society is both technological and scientific, filled with the products of experts; cars, aircraft, computers, etc…

But when it comes to climate change, a frequent discussion which comes up is that the experts are/might be/could be wrong, so a person is sceptical about what they are being told.

Why? Is there something special about the people who do climate science which makes their expertise somehow different? Is it not the experts, but the politicians who you distrust? Assuming you have actually read some of the relevant material, like the IPCC AR4 SPM (the Summary for Policy Makers), what is it about the conclusions which makes you feel that you don’t believe them?

I know this is an invitation for people to have a ‘rant’, but it is an important issue inside climate science at the moment. Sometimes, i feel like I can see what a person is distrustful of, and can offer a response; often, debates (those circular threads of which we are so fond) end up boiling down to the conclusion that the person concerned doesn’t believe that the IPCC (or any one of a number of ‘bodies’) is right.

So, now is your chance; what’s wrong with the experts who are telling us that our climate is changing because of human activity and that the climate will warm more, that if we don’t take action to slow down the rate at which we are affecting the climate, the consequences down the line are very likely to be deadly for some and damaging for many others?

Oh; and let’s try and keep it civilised, shall we?”

This was an interesting response from an obviously intelligent and reasonable person ( that is, obvious from a series of communications of the forum):

Let’s just clear up one major point right from the get-go: Science isn’t about Trust.

Climate Science differs from the examples you give (cars, aircraft, computers etc.) in that it is not a science with practical applications – it isn’t technology; it’s far more abstract that that. We “trust” cars, aircraft and computers because they have a proven track-record of working, and even when they don’t work properly it’s because of some flaw in their manufacture rather than because of some flaw in the concept. And there’s the difference: Sciences such as Climate Science are conceptual frameworks and, as such, are far more open to interpretation, and far more open to being right or wrong, than physical technological applications.

So, Science isn’t about Trust; it’s about the analysis and interpretation of Facts and Data, and it is particularly in the interpretation area that contention arises. You will find the same kind of “Believer” and “Skeptic” divisions in just about any abstract science. The difference is that most people on the street don’t give a fig about quantum physics or evolutionary theory – people are made to think about climate change by politicians, the media, environmental groups and even scientists. And so the average person on the street is in the position where they are having to make a determination of the accuracy of a conceptual science, whcih is something that the average person on the street has never done before.

Furthermore, people take this subject very seriously because it does have a significant impact on their day-to-day lives. Superstring Theory can be right or wrong and it won’t make any noticeable difference to anyone’s income, expenditure or way of life. AGW Theory, though, has already been responsible for changes to our way of life. Recycling more can only be a good thing, but the push to get people to recycle more and more has had a negative impact upon a lot of people. Petrol prices are rising for a variety of reasons, but not least because the government can get away with levying more taxes on the basis that cars damage the environment, but it makes life harder for a great many people.

Finally (for now) there’s the fact that AGW is far from proven. There are many questions yet to be answered, there are assertions that don’t seem to quite fit, and there are people picking away at aspects of the theory which, if the theory were truly robust, they wouldn’t even be able to pick at. There are too many potential alternatives, or obstacles, or contradictions to the accepted view of AGW for it to be something which I can agree with, and I know that others feel the same way, some of whom are scientists and many of whom are not.

And this was the Old Man’s response:

“We have touched on the subject that climate science is like other scientific disciplines, with comparable strengths and weakenesses, before. I am not sure how much use a ‘Philosophy of Science’ discussion is going to have, though; this is a whole separate area/discipline in itself, and requires a lot of background knowledge to get involved in.

Do people really need to make an evaluation of a conceptual science, though? When discussions about nuclear energy come up, I don’t see anyone challenging the science of nuclear physics, even though this is the foundation on which the possibility of nuclear power exists. Yes. I give ‘practical’ (perhaps we could say ‘engineered’) examples, but our lives are filled with technological products whose very existence is founded on the unchallenged assumption that the underlying science is competent to allow reliable engineering. Climate science is, after all, founded simply on long-term observation of weather and the patterns that appear from this (climate). Does the difference lie in the expectation of climate science that it has ‘predictive skill’?

Your comment that ‘AGW is far from proven’ kind of begs the question, doesn’t it? The ‘experts’ are telling us that ‘the climate is warming and we are at largely responsible’ is ‘unequivocal’. This amounts to a claim that AGW is, as far as they are concerned, ‘proven’. Of course there are still ‘questions to be answered’ and ‘unsatisfactory aspects’, but you yourself point out that this is true for all conceptual science, but it doesn’t stop us from making use of what conclusions do exist, or of making/engineering things on the basis of the know science. You say there are ‘…too many potential alternatives, obstacles or contradictions…’, but again, this is begging the question; this assumes that such alternatives, obstacles or apparent contradictions have not been considered sufficiently by the experts, or have not been answered by them. Do you feel you have a case for showing that they have done this?

I would argue that every one of the potential pitfalls which you mention has been addressed and considered, I can provide ample evidence to support this, and I can show that these issues, where they are issues, are taken into account when conclusions are reached. But when I do these things, the response I tend to get is to be ignored: very few people bother to respond to posts where I provide them with links to counter-evidence, or explanations of why an objection is wrong. I can only assume that this is because these people don’t want to accept these responses and refutations. certainly, the same arguments arise again and again, and I rarely see evidence that people have actually looked at the arguments or evidence; they simply repeat the same points as before.

In conclusion, then, I am suggesting that your principal comments ‘beg the question’; you are effectively saying that you don’t accept the science because you don’t accept the science. Don’t worry; I expect you to respond to this…”

The Old man would be very interested to hear from others what they think, and why they do or do not ‘trust’ the experts…

Please comment.