Sunday, May 11, 2008

Of storms and science

People line up to receive water in a village affected by Cyclone Nargis located near Yangon.
May 11, 2008. REUTERS/Strinnger (MYANMAR)

I sent my contribution to help the people in the path of the cyclone via These excellent international activists have been supporting the democracy movement in Burma for some time and are currently helping to coordinate a fund-raising drive in support of the International Burmese Monks Organization's on-the-ground relief efforts. I'm sure that Doctors without Borders is also making a serious effort to get aid to those who need it most.

The horror of Cyclone Nargis formed the background to my reading on a five-hour airplane flight last night. To distract myself from my captivity inside a CO2 spewing cattle car, I wolfed down Chris Mooney's Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. If you want to think about how science works, it's a great read. And you will also learn a lot about the great storms that can wash away cities and thousands of living beings, as well as about our species' developing understanding of how we've changed the planet. As for the relationship between the storms and the climate change ... as Mooney shows, hard conclusions about that are not currently available.

Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions formed most of what I understand about inertia and change in human knowledge. Because I am not a scientist, I'll restate what I internalized from Kuhn in my own language: most of the time, what we know is "normal science" -- serviceable, replicable conventional wisdom about how the world works. But sometimes, the serviceable wisdom begins to develop problems, perhaps first on the periphery of notice, apparent wrinkles in how the fabric of reality exists. When enough these develop, someone, usually an outsider, not an established expert, will propose a new way of seeing reality that shifts perspective, simplifies what had become complex, and, eventually, makes sense. This new way then becomes the conventional way of knowing -- and the process begins again.

Kuhn calls this process a "paradigm shift." Chris Mooney's Storm World is a kind of case study shaped by Kuhn's paradigm. He investigates whether our understanding of extreme weather is undergoing a paradigm shift

as a bunch of climate scientists stampeded into a field like hurricane research.

Scientists have largely developed a consensus that human activity is causing global warming -- they are not even close to agreeing how or whether that is effecting the behavior of hurricanes.

Roughly speaking, the debates can be described as between empiricists (scientists whose knowledge of hurricanes comes from collection of thousands of data points often from flights through the storms) and theorists (whose understanding derives from computer modeling based on accepted physical theories). Mooney points out the similarities between current debates and 19th century controversies between storm observers and theoretical physicists.

Current controversies are much exacerbated by the politics of global warming. Climate science is deeply dependent on government funding; as Mooney has shown elsewhere, the Republican administration has been extremely hostile to science whose policy implications might lead to regulation of their buddies in the coal and oil industries. Climate and weather scientists nonetheless have to earn their living in these hostile government settings. Moreover, the shape of "knowledge" that satisfies the criteria of science doesn't translate well into citizen discussion of policy needs.

It often seems as if the only way journalists and advocates can draw attention to climate change is in the context of individual disasters and weather events, such as very intense hurricanes. Yet specific weather events can never be "caused" by a statistically averaged change in global climate over time, even if they're precisely the kind of events that should grow more common as global warming sets in.

Mooney's not particularly thrilled about the efforts of environmental activists to insert themselves in these debates either; he takes a particular whack at my friends at Resource Media who work with enviros to get their message out. I'm enough of an outsider myself to wonder whether he properly appreciates the value of outside irritants in creating room for creative (possibly paradigm shifting) insiders.

All in all, this is a fascinating, not at all polemical, study of how science "knows." Few topics could be more important to our future as we all live through the grand human experiment with global warming human ingenuity has set in motion.

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