Tuesday, June 19, 2007

UW emeritus prof outlives his expertise and finds himself stranded on the far side of a paradigm shift

It was with very mixed emotions that I read the Cap Times front page story about 87-year-old UW emeritus professor Reid Bryson's adamant opposition to the idea that human CO2 production causes global warming.
Reid Bryson, known as the father of scientific climatology, considers global warming a bunch of hooey.

The UW-Madison professor emeritus, who stands against the scientific consensus on this issue, is referred to as a global warming skeptic. But he is not skeptical that global warming exists, he is just doubtful that humans are the cause of it.
Bryson seemed to absolutely revel in the opportunity to feed outrageous quotes to CT report Samara Kalk Derby.
Bryson didn't see Al Gore's movie about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."

"Don't make me throw up," he said. "It is not science. It is not true."
Bryson is one of the few people expounding such pigheaded nonsense I would even listen to, and that's because I remember him as a brilliant scientist who was also a natural, gifted teacher, one who enjoyed teaching undergrads as much as graduate students. He taught an earth sciences survey course I took at the UW years ago, and it's one of my fondest memories. He was a poet of climate, a lyricist of weather, a mesmerizing lecturer about climate's impact on humans and vice versa.

As the article notes, he was one of the founders of modern climatology. His pioneering, interdisciplinary studies of tree rings and pollen samples proved that climate could change in less than a century and helped overthrow the old orthodoxy that it could only change over millenia, laying the groundwork for later generations of climate researchers to make the real breakthroughs on global warming. He notes that some of the proponents of global warming are students of his students. Maybe that's the problem.

Growing old is a long, usually losing struggle against the natural tendency to become an irrelevant old coot, hopefully a lovable old coot, but definitely irrelevant in a rapidly changing changing world where the certainties of one's youth and the experience of a lifetime become an ever less reliable guide to the present day.

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the field of science, where even the most brilliant minds -- especially the most brilliant minds -- can be led astray by their own accumulated experience in the face of the relentless advance of knowledge and the paradigm shifts that accompany that advance. For example, the theory of continental drift was hardly adopted overnight in a sudden surge of insight. Far from it. It became the dominant paradigm over time, as its opponents became increasingly irrelevant emeriti and then left the field altogether, due to death or infirmity.

Physics Today had a good article several years ago summarizing the stages in the climate change paradigm shift that took place gradually over the course of decades and which wasn't completed until Greenland ice core samples provided irrefutable proof in the early nineties. As the article notes, Bryson played a significant role 40 years ago in laying the groundwork.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reid Bryson scrutinized entirely different types of data. In the late 1950s, he had been struck by the wide variability of climates as recorded in the varying width of tree rings. He was also familiar with the dishpan experiments that showed how a circulation pattern might change almost instantaneously. To take a new, interdisciplinary look at climate, Bryson brought together a group that even included an anthropologist who studied the ancient Native American cultures of the Midwest. From radiocarbon-dated bones and pollen, they deduced that a prodigious drought had struck the region in the 1200s--the very period when flourishing towns of the Mound Builders had gone into decline. Compared to that drought, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s had been mild and temporary. By the mid-1960s, Bryson was announcing that "climatic changes do not come about by slow, gradual change, but rather by apparently discrete 'jumps' from one atmospheric circulation regime to another."8 His group further reported pollen studies showing a rapid shift around 10 500 years ago; by "rapid" they meant a change in the mix of tree species within less than a century.
But that was 40 years ago. Here's a typical reaction of one of his colleague at the UW today, according to the Cap Times:
"My views are very similar to those expressed by I.P.C.C.," said Steve Vavrus, an associate scientist at the UW-Madison Center for Climatic Research. "Reid Bryson maintains his long-standing opinions on anthropogenic climate change, and he's certainly entitled to them."
Of course, he's entitled to his views, and he's earned his right to express them. But are they science? In his summary of Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which examined the role of paradigm shifts in science, Frank Pajares explains how the process works.
What is the process by which a new candidate for paradigm replaces its predecessor? At the start, a new candidate for paradigm may have few supporters (and the motives of the supporters may be suspect). If the supporters are competent, they will improve the paradigm, explore its possibilities, and show what it would be like to belong to the community guided by it. For the paradigm destined to win, the number and strength of the persuasive arguments in its favour will increase. As more and more scientists are converted, exploration increases. The number of experiments, instruments, articles, and books based on the paradigm will multiply. More scientists, convinced of the new view's fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practising normal science, until only a few elderly hold-outs remain. And we cannot say that they are (or were) wrong. Perhaps the scientist who continues to resist after the whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist.
This seems to describe what has happened to Bryson. I prefer to remember him as a great teacher who was one of the people who first made me aware of the fragility of our planet's environment and how easily its delicate balance can be disturbed. It saddens me to see his reputation as "dean of U.S. climatologists" exploited by know-nothing global warming opponents.


Tobias said...

That is probably why Mr. Bryson cannot agree less to simplicistic and emotional reasoning patterns like yours that end with "know-nothing global warming opponents".

Do you realize that there are multiple views on the same matter and that most often more than one of them indeed contributes a valid scientific point of view?

To me the current anthropocentric/-genic point of view realy constitutes a belief-system and in no means scientific fact, a term which by the way I do not think is never valid in an absolute sense.

Science is always building abstract (simplified) models of "real-life" processes, based on very specific constraints and limitations as to the validity of its conclusions. Think of it as guidelines, impulses that stem from the search for a bit of truth in what we face in our lives.

Scientists quite often seem to forget these days how specific their assumptions, analytics and results truly are and that 1+1=2 might be a valid proposition in a stricly mathematical system, but a valid application towards reality, meaningful modeling and truthful interpretation of complex analytics, the valid linking of certain dependencies (or today simplified by "peer reviewed-ness") just is not a simple 1+1=2 task.

There are no absolute scientific truths, especially not in modern meta-sciences such as "climate science"! In fact it is not even valid to use the term "sceptic" unless you mean sceptic of a "general or current belief" rather than "general knowledge".

So please step back a bit and let's focus on the real issues, in detail, which are... how do we respond to climate (change), whenever it comes along our way in a forceful manner + isn't it time for a responsible way to deal with what today is reduced to the term "ressources" in a more life-sustaining manner?

Some said...

"Outlives his expertise?" You HAVE to be kidding, right?

Sounds more like a guy who's outlived enough fads like the current anthropogenic global warming hysteria to make a well-informed call about this trend's veracity.