Over the last six years or so I have become steadily more interested in the ‘climate change’ issue, as attentive readers will have worked out. It now seems to me that we in the Western developed world are likely to have wasted billions and billions on public money on a chimera — that human activity has affected the world’s climate to the point where humanity faces a catastrophe unless we do something collectively about it right now. I have written lots of posts about it, because it is a complex puzzle, involving the media, politics, religion, society, research, universities, education — you name it. It has no counterpart that I can point to in its size and reach.

And every now and then I come across something that seems to me to add a little knowledge to my store, so that I feel I am getting somewhere in formulating an explanation for how we came to be in this pickle. I owe this one to Judith Curry and her ‘Climate etc’ website, which I have lauded before. She was alerted to an article by a Brazilian ethnographer, Myanna Larsen, who conducted a study of American meteorologists. You can’t read her paper without paying for it, but Judith Curry has provided an extensive extract, which you can read here.

Larsen concentrated on what she called ‘mainstream’ scientists, who worked in universities or government laboratories. They tended to accept that warming had occurred and that human activity was part of the cause, were moderate in their  questioning of climate science though critical of the exaggeration of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change, a new abbreviation), were not interested much in other environmental issues, and were comfortable with government regulation.

Within that group she detected two groups. The first, older, had been trained in experimental procedures; the second, younger scientists, were trained in computer modelling. Using distinctions created earlier by others, she called them Mode 1 and Mode 2 scientists. Mode 1 people were discipline-based, keen on basic research and had backgrounds in maths and physics. Those from Mode 2 were less discipline-based, interested in the policy outcomes of research, and were keen on modelling.

She argued that over the past twenty years or so governments had increasingly favoured Mode 2, and this had led to a critical attitude among many of those in Mode 1. Meteorology, she argued, had three traditional practitioners: theoreticians, empiricists and weather forecasters. The growth of climate modelling had sidelined those from the tradition, who felt that the modellers didn’t know enough about the dynamics of climate.

For their part, the Mode 2 people pointed to the importance of their work in the IPCC context, the money that was flowing into it, and the need to keep that coming. That didn’t endear them to the Mode 1 crowd, who felt that the IPCC was not at all a paragon of good science, and that it had supplanted the good work the traditionalists had been doing in earlier international forum (one that I had not previously heard of).

In summary, as Larsen saw it, the meteorological community was split, with Mode 2 in control, and Mode 1 aggrieved but ambivalent, since climate now was undeniably important, but also politicised. For the Mode 1 people, models are ‘heuristic devices’, not ‘truth machines’, and they see more and more money going towards models, and less and less flowing to what they see as the real, basic research needed to underpin the models.

It’s a good analysis, I think, though it collected some flak from commenters on Judith Curry’s website, some of whom feel that ‘social science’ is irredeemably flawed, to the point where nothing of value can come out of it. For my part, her distinctions seem useful. The critics of the orthodoxy whom I know well are all Mode 1 scientists, trained in basic disciplines, alert to evidence and observations, and less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic about computer modelling. The scientists whom I come across in support of the orthodoxy seem mostly to be of the Mode 2 variety.

And the interesting puzzle now has another dimension to it. When I was young, governments in Australia all had their own research laboratories of various kinds, and they were employers of young graduates. In the 1980s the view grew that organisations should concentrate on their core business, whatever that was, and outsource the rest of their activity. I think there was also a feeling that, after a generation or so of public expenditure, neither government nor the electorate were getting a lot of value from these research entities (the CSIRO being the obvious target), and funding tailed off as well. We all scrambled to find ‘priorities’.

Since the arrival of AGW, or ACC, the Commonwealth Government has put a lot of money into research activities that are plainly policy-oriented, ‘climate change’ being the conspicuous example. As I’ve argued before, the pendulum has swung too far away from finding things out first. In the ‘climate change’ domain, I would like to see, not a reduction in funding, but a big swing towards discovering much more about natural variability, and much less directed to the fate of the legless lizard and the nutless gnat were temperatures to rise by 4.5 degrees C.

I think I may have a long time to wait, but it may also be that the swing back is about to happen.


Join the discussion One Comment

  • PeterE says:

    This is a very useful analysis and it explains, at least in part, how priorities have become distorted and out of kilter. Napoleon said that there were two levers to move men: greed and fear. The climate change hysteria is rich in both qualities. Someone should explain why Australians have fallen so hard for the fear-mongers. The long drought, to be sure, played a part but beyond that I think it is because we want to be seen as ‘gold star/koala stamp’ pupils, doing the right thing to please our kindergarten teacher. I myself would like to see a great reduction in public funding of climate research, funding which could be put to better use in, for example, the proposed disablity insurance scheme and many other things. My view is not scientific; it is simply a ‘gut feeling,’ as Captain Kirk tries to explain to the half Robot Vulcan, Spock, in the latest Star Wars movie.

Leave a Reply