Scott Shepherd is an Intern in the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), and a recent postgraduate from the Department of Health at the University of Bath.
Climate change science draws upon confirmatory evidence to build a convincing picture - such as observational data in the form of globally averaged surface temperature readings; the observation that the lower atmosphere has been warming whilst the upper atmosphere has cooled; or theoretical evidence such as state-of-the-art global climate computer models.
However, despite all the evidence, many still deny the existence of climate change and insist that the evidence is inadmissible. Can we look to philosophical thought throughout the history of science for answers to this belief?
Deduction, induction and Popperian falsification
My primary area of philosophic intrigue lies in a sub-discipline of philosophy known as epistemology. Epistemology concerns itself with the phenomena of knowledge; specifically discerning the accepted routes of valid knowledge acquisition.
Classically, two routes of valid knowledge acquisition come into contention: deduction and induction. Deduction holds that true knowledge is primarily acquired through reason and logic, whereas induction maintains that true knowledge is derived primarily from sensory experience and observation.
However, a major turning point in the philosophy of science occurred when these traditional routes to knowledge came into question. Most notably Karl Popper asserted that all observation was prone to error and not absolute, and therefore no amount of confirmatory evidence could ever prove a theory in absolute terms. Popper dismissed all forms of confirmatory evidence as invalid when evaluating theory and instead created his method of theory falsification.
Popperian falsification asserts that good theories make bold conjectures which may be tested through experimental design, such as the randomised control trial. Through this method, incorrect theories may be detected and eliminated, leading towards the accumulation and progression of scientific knowledge. Recent development in philosophical thought, however, provides a robust critique of falsification and offers a solution which aligns with a confirmatory scientific model.
The biggest problem with falsification is the logical contradiction it entails. For example, the ability to falsify is based upon the premise of an experimental design which controls for all possible confounding variables, so that the hypothesis under evaluation is isolated in order that it may be tested in an absolute sense.
However, there are an unknowable number of confounding variables which a single research design, no matter how strict, cannot possibly assume to control for. Therefore, if all observation is error prone then no amount of confirmatory evidence can ever conclusively prove a theory as correct. And likewise, no amount of dis-confirmatory evidence (instances of falsification) can ever conclusively prove a theory as incorrect.
Abductive reasoning to achieve consensus
Abduction on the other hand does not get itself tangled up in such a contradiction and offers a rational mode of incorporating and evaluating all forms of evidence.
Abduction entails evaluating all the available evidence at hand in regard to quality and quantity (induction), in order to choose the most likely theory which explains the evidence (deduction). It is seen to be the most ubiquitous mode of practically tried-and-tested reasoning and describes how successful scientific extrapolation has operated in the past.
For example, Isaac Newton made great use of confirmatory observational evidence alongside his own logical capabilities to detail the mathematical model which accounts for universal gravitation and the laws of mechanics.
The key point is that science operates as a form of probability-based reasoning and therefore cannot offer certain knowledge but rather knowledge which is probably true. The degree of certainty is itself based upon the quantity and quality of evidence a theory has to its name. For example, the fact that Newton’s theory is used to produce aviation technology which works is further confirmatory evidence in its favour.
The abductive process therefore best describes how consensus in expert opinion is reached in the modern sciences, whereby a practising community of researchers work under the rigorous standards of agreed upon methodological protocols and peer review.
For example, from as early as 1953, evidence demonstrated the carcinogenicity of cigarette tar. The tobacco industry responded by funding alternative research and media campaigns to counter this legitimately produced research and cast doubt upon the cancer-tobacco link. However, the mounting evidence linking tobacco smoke to cancer eventually built beyond reasonable doubt and was stated irrefutably in two consecutive surgeon general’s reports of 1964 and 1967. Although, it was only until the turn of the century when tobacco products were effectively regulated against in the UK.
Climate action cannot wait for government policy to catch up with the evidence
Similarly, the evidence linking carbon emissions to global warming and its calamitous consequences has grown beyond reasonable doubt as exemplified in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
This report details how human activities have changed our climate alongside the consequences of rising sea levels and extreme weather events; the worrying incidence of which has been seen to increase annually at the cost of human lives.
The lesson learnt from tobacco legislation is that the fossil industry, as long as there is still profit to be made, will not likely change their destructive practices any time soon, in spite of reason and the overwhelming evidence. Furthermore, if we want evidence to be evaluated with proper reason, the philosophic and ‘hard’ sciences must be further integrated and the abductive process utilised when making important, policy-relevant decisions.
Although the recent history of tobacco legislation does provide hope that our governing authorities will eventually enact policy in keeping with proper evaluation of the evidence in order to safeguard the public they represent, it also serves as a warning that we may not have enough time to wait for our elected officials to pass these policy mandates that will effectively curtail the destructive practices of fossil industry before it is too late.
- Dessler, A.E., Parson, E.A., The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change. A Guide to the Debate. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- DeWitt, R., 2018. Worldviews. An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science. 3rd ed. Croydon: Blackwell Publishing.
- Ladyman, J., Understanding Philosophy of Science. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Oreskes, N., Conway, E.M., 2012. Merchants of Doubt. How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. London: Bloomsbury.
- Philips, D.C., 1987. Philosophy, Science and Social Enquiry. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Shepherd, S., 2020. Are the Theoretical Paradigms and their Concomitant Methodologies in Job Crafting Research and Positive Organisational Scholarship Associated in a Logical, Consistent and Rationale Manner? A Qualitative Systematic Literature Review. Dissertation (MRes Health and Wellbeing). University of Bath.
- Teddlie, C., Tashakkori, A., 2009. Foundations of Mixed Methods Research: Integrating Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. London: Sage.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath. Learn more about IPR internships.