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No Science Without Contradiction

High-brow climate science specialists might almost be a lost cause, yes, but they are not the only ones working about climate-related stuff. So the latest development in terms of investigating the relationship between people and climate is very welcome, because it shows that not the whole world is supinely enthralled in fashionable doom-and-gloom deathwish: tentatively, the analysis of what “climate” means to us may have actually put a step forward.

I am talking about the ‘Climate not to blame for African Civil Wars‘ piece from PNAS, also described at the Centre for the Study of Civil War (CSCW) at PRIO’s website and in an article on the BBC News website.

What is important is not so much in the conclusions (“the paper concludes that climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict“): those contradict an earlier study, so we can only assume another peer-reviewed paper will soon get published contradicting CSCW’s work (perhaps even, putting forward a third interpretation).

What is important is that (finally!) an immature field such as climatology (finally!) sees some kind of scientific debate, instead of the usual circling of the wagons.

So far, that had surfaced only regarding hurricanes. Note that of course, this can only come about when theories meet empirical evidence…as per Alan Sokal’s “refrain”,

clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence — especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions — are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century

But in reality, that is the standard framework of science: peer-reviewed articles more often than most contradicting each other (see here, here and here), because to “do science” means to freely investigate, to see even dead ends as the results of a fun journey, to start anew.

And to consider contradicting articles as a great chance for a synthesis, rather than a mortal, dangerous opportunity for the enemies of science. Why, does anybody remember…”all human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas“…


What will a mature climate science look like? From one of Scientific American’s blogs, take the word of “late, great anthropologist” Clifford Geertz:

progress [in a field of science] is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other

“Vexing each other”: instead of working in the background to prevent people from publishing at all.