Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Skepticism and the Creation of Knowledge

As someone who researches high northern latitude ecosystems, the fastest-warming part of the planet, I think it's important to be clear about what we know and what we don't know about the effects and causes of climate change. It's extremely important to listen mainly to climate scientists when we're talking about climate, and I'm not one. But I'd say my work is climate-relevant*. The coupled earth-atmosphere system is so mind-bogglingly complex that I don't think anyone can claim to understand the whole of it. There are checkerboards within checkerboards within checkerboards of complexity, and how climate change itself affects climate change (or "feedback effects") is one of the most difficult questions to answer. As scientists, we chip away at these problems one research question at a time, inevitably yielding more questions in the process. It's incredibly humbling to realize how little each person can do on their own, and it points to the need to work in teams and across disciplines, to promote collaboration wherever it may be fruitful.

Studying the effects and causes of climate change can be a fairly charged environment. First there is the urgency of the problem, the sense that time is slipping away from us and we're courting serious hardship by failing to meet our climate targets (or that the targets themselves are inappropriate). Then there's the issue of uncertainties in our models and forecasts that must be explicit and understandable to people from a non-scientific background. There known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, both of which fall under the umbrella of "uncertainty". We also acknowledge that there are sometimes massive changes that we're seeing that are not solely a result of climate (e.g., glacier losses on Kilimanjaro), those that don't feedback to climate, or those whose climate feedback is unknown or even the opposite of what one might think (e.g., cutting trees and burning forests may serve to cool the climate). We've made a lot of progress towards determining what is and what is not an effect of climate change. But scientists have to be comfortable not possessing the answer to every pressing question. It's really an encouragement to us, a form of job-security.

Philosophically, scientists are (ideally) those most skeptical of their own ideas. We know that the human brain can be a pretty unreliable source (pareidolia and all that), and we have to rough up our ideas a bit to make sure they're sound. Ideally, that's how the scientific peer review process works. We acknowledge that there are always multiple explanations for a single event, and determining causality is a sticky wicket. One of the good things about a fiercely competitive research environment is that the ideas we put forward had better be defensible (sometimes we say "falsifiable", also "reproducible") so that they can withstand the scrutiny of our peers.

*Looking at fire disturbance-recovery cycles is the area of research that I'm involved in that affects and is affected by climate. This is especially true for boreal fires.

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