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Is Climatology a Science?

By Robert Tracinski

I was very surprised to wake up a few days ago to discover three inches of snow on the ground -- in Virginia, in April, while our lilacs were blooming.

Must be that global warming.

It was a perfect concretization of a wisecrack that's been going around for years: we're supposed to believe that climatologists can predict the weather for the whole globe a century from now -- when they still can't predict the local weather for tomorrow.

Behind that wisecrack is a more serious and profound point about the status of climatology as a science. Last year, for example, advertisements for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth featured a hurricane emerging from an industrial smokestack. It was an attempt to cash in on predictions of an unusually heavy hurricane season, allegedly caused by global warming. Yet last summer, hurricane activity precipitously dropped, and not a single hurricane made landfall in the United States.

Given that we're being asked to rely on this kind of climate prediction as the basis for massive new regulations that will overturn the whole basis of our economy, we need to ask a crucial, fundamental question.

Is climatology a science?

I don't mean to ask whether the climate is being studied using scientific methods and theories. Here's what I mean: is climatology a complete, developed, mature science? Is it the kind of science that is capable of making accurate, reliable predictions? Is the field of climatology, in its current state, capable of producing "settled science" on any broad conclusion?

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when the New York Times reported that some scientists were balking at Gore's exaggerations of the scientific certainty of climatology, with one of them commenting that "Hardly a week goes by without a new research paper that questions part or even some basics of climate change theory." If the basics of climatology are still up for debate, how can we rely on the kind of complex predictions -- not only about continued global warming, but about its effect on the weather of specific regions -- that are still being pumped out by the United Nations?

Writing in Newsweek recently, MIT Professor of Meteorology Richard Lindzen detailed the uncertainties and the enormous gaps in the evidence for claims about human-caused global warming and concluded, "Climate modelers assume the cause must be greenhouse-gas emissions because they have no other explanation. This is a poor substitute for evidence."

Those who claim the authority of science for speculations about human-caused, catastrophic global warming are abusing the reputation earned by established, mature sciences. They are attempting to steal that reputation on behalf of a premature hypothesis put forward by practitioners of a science still in its infancy.

There are many historical examples of the difference between a science in its infancy and a mature science. Before Darwin and Mendel, biology lacked an overarching theory to explain the relationship of species to one another and to extinct species from earlier eras. In physics, Maxwell's equations brought order and clarity to the study of electricity and magnetism. Probably the most important historical example is Sir Isaac Newton's role in establishing the fundamental laws of physics.

Before Newton, astronomers had compiled an enormous number of observations of the motions of the planets, and Johannes Kepler had used those observations to describe the orbits of the planets around the sun. Galileo had made crucial observations with his telescopes and performed experiments on the nature of motion and gravity. His most famous experiment proved that heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter objects, which means that all objects react equally to the pull of gravity.

Starting from this long history of observations, experiments, and previous discoveries, Newton induced the basic laws of motion and developed the basic mathematical tool, the Calculus, needed to apply those laws. The resulting theory explained everything from the fall of an apple on earth, to the orbit of the moon, to the motion of the planets. Newton's theory could also be used to make reliable predictions (Newton's friend Edmond Halley used it to predict the reappearance of his famous comet) and to solve practical problems: one of the astronauts in the Apollo program once quipped that the real pilot of his spacecraft was Sir Isaac Newton.

This is a reminder that science is about more than statistical correlations, computer models, or speculative hypotheses. A mature, fully developed science is based on a long series of observations and discoveries which result in the induction of a few fundamental laws and methods that can be used to explain and predict a vast range of phenomena -- and to achieve a practical result, like putting a man on the moon.

But this is a high achievement. Before they reach this stage, most sciences go through a long period of immaturity, when it is too early to settle on a grand unifying theory.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in the early years of the science of chemistry, many serious scientists accepted phlogiston theory. This was an attempt to explain the chemical processes of combustion, oxidation, and metabolism by inferring the existence of a substance call "phlogiston." This theory was wrong, but it was not a totally crazy invention; it simply came too early, before scientists had sufficient evidence to prove a theory of combustion. Phlogiston was only superseded when the great chemist Lavoisier identified oxygen as the substance that is actually responsible for combustion, a discovery that helped pave the way for the development of modern chemistry.

But imagine: what would have happened if the government had come along and pumped the equivalent of billions of dollars into phlogiston research? What if phlogiston had become a social cause, promoted by political leaders, touted by famous actors, defended by the culture's best writers? What if those who raised objections to the theory were vilified as "phlogiston deniers" and had to worry about losing funding for their research?

Yet that is precisely how today's scientific, political, and cultural establishment is approaching the nascent science of climatology.

During the Reign of Terror, the French government sent Lavoisier to the guillotine because of his connections to the old aristocratic regime. That is one of history's great crimes against science -- but it probably did less damage than our government has caused by killing climatology with the false kindness of politically motivated research funding.

Runaway greenhouse warming caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide is just one theory about what drives the global climate -- and it is not the most plausible theory. The main competing theory claims, quite sensibly, that the climate is driven by the sun and that fluctuations in global climate can be explained by variations in the strength of solar radiation. Fred Singer and Dennis Avery have argued this in their book Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, and another variant of this view is put forward by Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark in The Chilling Stars. Svensmark argues that strong solar radiation blocks out cosmic rays from deep space. Since cosmic rays encourage cloud formation -- Svensmark's key discovery -- fewer cosmic rays means fewer clouds to block out heat from the sun. The result: global warming which has nothing to do with the mileage of your SUV.

Which of these three theories, if any, is true? I don't know. But what I do know is that one of these theories has the backing of billions in federal funding and a "politically correct" consensus (and now $100 million in privately funded PR). That gives the theory of human-caused, carbon-dioxide-driven global warming an advantage far greater than it can earn on the basis of scientific evidence alone.

Before we take any theory from the field of climatology and make it -- as Al Gore is telling us -- the central organizing principle of our civilization, we had better ask a few big questions.

Does climatology have a well-developed, thoroughly proven theoretical framework, derived from decades of observations and earlier discoveries? Does it have a proven set of laws to explain what factors drive the global climate on a scale of centuries? Does climatology have an established track record of being able to predict next week's weather, much less the next century's weather?

Or is Al Gore flogging the 21st-century equivalent of phlogiston?

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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