Philosophers should talk more about climate change. Yes, philosophers.

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EXCERPT (Sabine Hossenfelder): I never cease to be shocked – shocked! – how many scientists don’t know how science works and, worse, don’t seem to care about it. Most of those I have to deal with still think Karl Popper was right when he claimed falsifiability is both necessary and sufficient to make a theory scientific [....] if falsifiability was all it took, then arbitrary statements about the future would be scientific. ... As the contemporary philosopher Larry Laudan politely put it, Popper’s idea [...countenances...] `scientific’ every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions.” Which is why the world’s cranks love Popper.

And so you surely know that almost all of today’s philosophers of science agree that falsification is not a sufficient criterion of demarcation (though they disagree on whether it is necessary). [...] I will not attempt to solve the demarcation problem (which, for the record, I don’t think is a philosophical question). I merely want to clarify just when it is scientifically justified to amend a theory whose predictions ran into tension with new data.

[...] We just saw that it’s unscientific to make assumptions which are unnecessary to explain observation and don’t make a theory any simpler. But physicists get this wrong all the time and some have made a business out of it ... They invent particles which make theories more complicated and are of no help to explain existing data. They claim this is science because these theories are falsifiable. But the new particles were unnecessary in the first place, so their ideas are dead on arrival, killed by Occam’s razor.

If you still have trouble seeing why adding unnecessary details to established theories is unsound scientific methodology, imagine that scientists of other disciplines would proceed the way that particle physicists do. We’d have biologists writing papers about flying pigs [...] because, who knows, we might discover flying pigs tomorrow. ... that’s the same “scientific methodology” which has become common in the foundations of physics. The only difference between elaborating on flying pigs and supersymmetric particles is the amount of mathematics. And math certainly comes in handy for particle physicists because it prevents mere mortals from understanding just what the physicists are up to.

[...] You have probably heard the common deniers’ complaint that climate scientists adapt models when new data comes in. That is supposedly unscientific because, here it comes, it’s exactly the same thing that all these physicists do each time their hypothetical particles are not observed! They just fiddle with the parameters of the theory to evade experimental constraints and to keep their pet theories alive. But Popper already said you shouldn’t do that. Then someone yells “Epicycles!” And so, the deniers conclude, climate scientists are as wrong as particle physicists and clearly one shouldn’t listen to either.

But the deniers’ argument merely demonstrates they know even less about scientific methodology than particle physicists. Revising a hypothesis when new data comes in is perfectly fine. In fact, it is what you expect good scientists to do.

The more and the better data you have, the higher the demands on your theory. Sometimes this means you actually need a new theory. Sometimes you have to adjust one or the other parameter. Sometimes you find an actual mistake and have to correct it. But more often than not it just means you neglected something that better measurements are sensitive to and you must add details to your theory. And this is perfectly fine as long as adding details results in a model that explains the data better than before [...]

[...] What scientists should not do, however, is to adjust details of a theory that were unnecessary in the first place. Kepler for example also thought that the planets play melodies on their orbits around the sun, an idea that was rightfully abandoned because it explains nothing. ... What is not sound scientific methodology is ... making these theories more complicated than needs to be [...]

But let me come back to the climate change deniers. You may call me naïve, and I’ll take that, but I believe most of these people are genuinely confused about how science works. It’s of little use to throw evidence at people who don’t understand how scientists make evidence-based predictions. When it comes to climate change, therefore, I think we would all benefit if philosophers of science were given more airtime... (MORE - details)

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