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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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The Scientific Method

Posted on 31 March 2013 by rockytom

Now and then it is useful to pause, take a step back, and think once again about what one is doing and how it is being done; thus, the following discussion about the scientific method.

The scientific method is difficult to define because it is more than one method.  Perhaps one of the best approaches is to illustrate the method used by most scientists by listing the steps taken along with some concrete examples from actual scientific papers.  This is the concept used in the new Farmer and Cook textbook, “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis, Volume 1, The Physical Climate.”

The scientific method is basically that method or methods used by scientists to do their work.  The scientific method can be thought of as a series of logical steps; but often it is simply trial and error.  It is hopefully more trial and less error.

Scientists today are often part of a team conducting original research into an area of study for which they have received funding.  Funding for research is often obtained by writing a proposal and receiving a grant if the proposal is accepted.  This is not always the case and was less so in the earlier days of scientific work.  In work done prior to the 1960s, scientists often labored alone on a project that they designed and that they carried out supported by the institution or company for which they worked.  Often the institution was a university or government, or an institution supported by a government. 

A preliminary look at the scientific method involves at least the following steps:

  1. Define a problem that needs a solution;

  2. Formulate an explanation for the problem;

  3. Determine or deduce a prediction based on the explanation;

  4. Perform tests or experiments to see if the explanation is valid.

The four steps above form the basis of a scientific inquiry; they constitute a simple model for the scientific method.  One possible sequence is 1, 2, 3, and 4.  If 2 is true, what are the consequences?  Testing (4) should include considering the opposite of each consequence in order to disprove 2.  If 2 can be disproved, then start again with step 1.

There must be a fifth step.  What good are steps 1 through 4 if no one knows about the results?  The fifth step is communication; publication or presentation.  The results of scientific research are usually made known to colleagues by discussion, presentation, publication, or all three; and in the modern world, discussion is largely done by email or in the halls at conferences or the written word.  Publication is usually done in peer-reviewed journals; hopefully those with wide circulation.

Scientific research is the most important way to determine the causes, trends, and possible solutions to climate change that we see occurring today.  Science is an important part of society and the advances made by scientists have been important to human beings’ continuance and well-being on Planet Earth.  Scientific research in climate science involves all aspects of Earth’s climate; present, past, and projections into the future with the use of climate models, mainly general circulation models (GCMs).  As some have said, we are living the experiment (4 above) and there is no second chance; Planet Earth is the experiment.

Scientific discoveries are usually made by following the logic of the scientific method, and sometimes discoveries are made because of accidents.  Serendipity (as in the “Three Princes of Serendip”) in science is a discovery made by accident and this has played a role in research in the past and will certainly play a role in the future.  Scientific research will usually lead to the advancement of human knowledge, which is the primary purpose of conducting scientific research. 

Scientific research has already led to many advances beneficial to humans in the medical sciences, such as drug research, and innovations which continue to make life better for humankind; Velcro, plastics, solid state electronics, synthetic fabrics, microwave ovens, the personal computer, laptops, ipads, smart phones, etc. are the result of scientific research.

Scientists do their work in many different ways.  Some use data they collect themselves; others use data collected by someone else.  Some work alone; others work in teams.  Most publish their work as soon as possible; others keep their research secret, publishing rarely if at all.  Some scientists are brilliant; others are not so smart.  Scientists are human; some more so than others.

This post is not intended to be the end of the discussion of the scientific method as I hope it starts a dialogue that expands on the topic.  The scientific method is as varied as those scientists that use it and possibly we can share thoughts and examples as we go forward. 

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Comments 51 to 62 out of 62:

  1. scaddenp I note and will act on your comments on my use of CAGW which I will no longer use.  You ask "So are you looking for a good theory which accounts for climate - or an excuse to discount current theory because mitigation actions proposed so far are discordant with your politics?"  I'm a molecular biologist not a climate scientist so I'm looking for debate on Climate Change conducted by those who have different views. Just reading the papers and blogs of those that support human the current hypotheses on the causes of Climate Change or confining oneself to papers and blogs who opposer theses hypotheses is self delusional. My political views are that I find it difficult to accept that the major western powers are trying to enforce, on countries which are much poorer than they are, actiions that will disadvantage  the citizens of those countries in their efforts to attain the  standards of living approaching those of the developed world.  

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  2. ecgberht It seems to me that you actively want to have your posts deleted, presumably in order to be able to argue that SkS was not willing to engage in discussion of the science (which is what SkS is for).  If you continually dare the morderators to delete your posts e.g. by writing "I hope some folks get to enjoy this post before it is removed.", they will delete your posts as whinges about moderation are by definition off-topic.  As you were advised earlier, keep on topic, stick to the science, comply with the comments policy and none of your posts will be deleted.  It is as simple as that.

    If you make one more post where you challenge the moderators to delete your post, then you will have made it clear that you are just playing some sort of game and actually want them top delete your posts.  It is your choice.

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  3. Ray, I agree on reading widely. Just not so wide as to bother with WUWT or CO2Science. That way I dont miss papers of potential interest (and since I work in petroleum and to lesser extent coal, finding AGW isnt real would be particularly welcome). However, I have no time for blog "science". Publish it or shut up. Your reading of published paper on alternative hypotheses for climate change wouldnt take up of your time.

    Your other comment is totally off topic here. I have responded to it here.

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  4. Ray


    Consider the possibility that Climate Change is real and that failure to act on it will cause real suffering to many people including, perhaps even especially, those in the developing world. And that the actions we need to take to prevent it, certainly if carried out using 'conventional' economics will, or at least may, have the negative impacts you are concerned about.

    This is where the implications of AGW can really mess our heads around, creating a harsh cognitive dissonance between competing needs.

    Humanity is in a really, really bad place. Right now! And it can stretch us all to try and accept that fact. So, depending on our differing personalities and where our focus lies we can easily slip into two mindsets.

    • AGW is real and is the most serious issue and must be tackled urgently.

               Or

    • All those other demands are real, the needs of the developing world are real etc. The things needed to tackle AGW will have negative consequences for these issues, so negative that they can't be countenanced.

    The truely hard thing for people to do is to replace my 'Or' with 'And'.

    Then we need to confront that harsh reality that humanity is facing a deep crisis, perhaps the greatest crisis in human history. Out response to AGW so far suggests that the severity of the situation hasn't  impinged on most people yet. That it just seems to big to get our heads around.

     

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  5. Ray

    "I'm a molecular biologist not a climate scientist so I'm looking for debate on Climate Change conducted by those who have different views"

    As a molecular biologist, you would have a good knowledge from your field of what areas of study are well established, which areas are still being researched and explored. So if you were looking for a debate on Molecular Biology, surely you would expect that debate to be around those areas being researched and not those areas considered well established.

    So if you saw the 'debate' going back to question the well established stuff, just rehashing old disproven arguments etc, and many people refusing to accept the old disproofs, you would rightly be rather leary of it wouldn't you? I am a Mechanical Engineer by training so my background in Thermodynamics etc gives me some insight into Climate Science. But in Molecular Biology my knowledge ends at High School Chemistry and Biology.

    If I were to listen to the debate on Molecular Biology, how would I be able to judge whether all those arguments put forward rejecting the established view are reasonable or not? I could very easily be led to believe that their is a real dispute; that the 'science isn't settled', with many reasonable protagonists on all sides. Whereas you know that there is well established science in those areas of Microbiology, and that those putting forward the counter views are actually ignorant or cranks.

    So how does one tell that the 'debate' is real rather than a platform for the cranks?

    And given my previous comment to you, could a reluctance to accept AGW because of the magnitude of the implications be influencing your willingness to listen to the counter views?

    Surely the best answer to this is to do one of two things. A, get really knowledgeable about the science yourself so you don't need to rely on a debate. Or B, investigate deeply whether the debate is real or actually reality vs the Cranks.

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  6. The basic concept, precept 'Scientific Method" should, for any reasoning entity, (joke)

    throw up question marks.   I propose that, for now at least, we forget Linneaus (or however you spell it) and rename us Homo Experiri, with Homo Sapiens being reserved for a yet to be observed, but hoped for, truly wise Man.

    The point is that we (homo sapiens) are born performing the scientific method.  The difference between a 2 year old and a 40 year old, or a Neandertal, or a pine tree , is qualitative.

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  7. scaddenp  I posted a comment on the political aspect as you directed.  Not sure why this was necessary as you brought politics into the discussion with your initial comment "because mitigation actions proposed so far are discordant with your politics?" That you now deem my reply as "off topic"  seems unusual but I have done as requested to avoid any problems with irrelevance

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  8. Hi Skeptical Science,

    I'm dealing with some very difficult deniers and I was hoping to gain some insight on how to deal with such deniers.

    This is what a denier I'm dealing with states over and over.

     

    See the cornerstone of the scientific method and legitimate science- refuting the null hypothesis. AGW fails miserably in this regard and is thus not legitimate science.

    AGW;

    1. fails to refute the null hypothesis

    2. compares temp data over time using four different temp measurements

    3. fails to have consistent measuring locations over time

    4. has intentionally altered or "adjusted" data to meet their hypothesis, rather than realizing the data refutes their hypothesis.

    5. uses bogus statistical analysis to create the perception of warming

    6. ignores "inconvenient" data points like the "Little Ice Age" and the "Medieval Warming Period" in data analysis.

    AGW is bogus, junk science.

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  9. As a short answer, demand source citations (to credible sources) for each of those claims.

    They won't furnish any because they don't have any.

    That means no need to rebut each and every claim.  If you feel like it, pick one and demolish it; an example:

    "ignores "inconvenient" data points like the "Little Ice Age" and the "Medieval Warming Period" in data analysis"

    The Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warming Period were not ignored.  The Trump Administration placed them in their appropriate context, back in 2017:

    Last 1,700 years

     

    Advice:  Don't play their game.  Make them play yours.

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  10. TVC15 @58 , in view of comments elsewhere . . . it seems your adversarial friends are projecting themselves everywhere, most remarkably.

    1.  They should read the philosopher Popper ~ they have failed to understand the basic concept of Null Hypothesis.  In view of the patently obvious sea level rise & ice melt, it is fair to say Global Warming now is the Null Hypothesis . . . and they themselves need to refute it.

    2.  The various methodologies of temp measurement are a strength, not a weakness.

    3.  It is statistically valid to use a variety of locations.  (And scientist Nick Stokes has demonstrated the validity of using as few as as 61 sites worldwide.)

    4.  Data is often reviewed & adjusted quite openly, in order to reduce errors that are detected.  That's the proper way of conducting science.

    5.  The global mean sea level is rising, and ice is melting, and plants & animals are changing their location as the temperature rises.  All this is physical evidence of ongoing global warming.  No "perception" is required.

    6.  The Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period are both only very minor wiggles in average world temperature (and the 21st Century temperature is still rising and is distinctly above the MWP & the Holocene Maximum).    The LIA and MWP are quite trivial and not in any way "inconvenient".   How could anyone think them inconvenient ?

    Apparently the plants & animals are more intelligent than your denialist "friends" !      ;-)

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  11. The argument about the null hypothesis is specious. It is normally applicable to statistical studies used to infer a causative mechanism. In the case of atmospheric CO2, there is a clear and very well studied physical mechanism that is independent of any statistical relationship. Physics predict that increasing CO2 concentration would cause warming, that hypothesis is not derived from correlating the recent observed warming with observed rise in CO2 concentration. Assuming that physics will not work as expected and attempting to find another explanation for the observed warming is going beyond what logical inferrence would call for. Nonetheless, this has been done, and studied ad nauseam, as pretty much all other possible forcings have been explored. I would expect that the attribution litterature in the IPCC contains volumes on that.

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  12. To add to Philippe Chantreau's post, in 1850 when the IR spectrum of carbon dioxide was measured the scientists realized that increasing CO2 would cause atmospheric temperature to rise.

      In 1896 Arrhenius published a paper that calculated how much the temperature would increase.  He predicted that the temperature would increase more in winter than summer, more at night than during the day, more over land than over ocean, and more in the Arctic than the tropics.

    These were all predicted 90 years before they coud be measured.  When you predict things in advance and then they happen it shows that you understand why they happened.  As Philippe said, the null hypothesis does not apply to predictions made in advance.

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