In this speculative article - a view from the future, historians ponder the failure of civilization in face of the global warming - the authors criticize positivism as one problem in facing global warming. I'm not sure I quite understand their point, and anyway I'm more interested in understanding the inherent limits in positivism and scientific thought.

I understand the problem to be the following:

  • The statement "Humanities actions change the climate" is in principle provable and maybe even falsifiable.
  • The inverse statement "Humanities actions do not change the climate" is not provable, it could be falsified by the first statement. The second statement is not provable because at most there can be absence of proof.
  • Hence, all the burden of proof lies on the first statement. This makes the second statement effectively the unproven consensus among those scientists who don't believe the evidence for the first statement.

but is my understanding of positivism here even correct?


The article is moderately amusing but just misguided. I wouldn't read too much into the positivism espoused there. The issue is not that scientists are cautious with "X is causing Y" because of a cultural fondness for a strict form of positivism. Rather, the point of science is to say just how likely it is that various factors are playing a role in various phenomena. And there, if anything, I'd say climate science is not Positivistic enough in that there's a lot of speculation that serves primarily to bias the objectivity of the researchers without improving our understanding of what's happening. Even the scientific method is only faintly able to resist the pressures of political controversies; as societal pressure grows, science tends to get sloppier and less objective.

The problem comes at the interface between science and society. When you hear a scientist say, "It is highly probable that a majority of climate change is due to human influence," you should think, "We jail people and even execute them when we're way less sure than that!" That's not typically how it gets interpreted, though, so one ends up with a whirlwind of conflicting opinions and battles over funding and strong yet unsupported statements on both sides and so on.

And the way to fix the problem has nothing to do with positivism per se. Of course you can have overly rigid (and invalid) concepts of what is provable/falsifiable and what is not, but in practice that's not what happens even if the scientific endeavor is essentially positivistic in nature. Anything which is too strict to produce accurate results is jettisoned because it just doesn't work. (The bigger danger is jettisoning things that are necessary because they are deemed too inconvenient--statistical tests with adequate power and which are aware of long-tailed distributions, for instance.) Science should be practiced in the careful reflective way that produces accurate results, and the rest of society should endeavor to listen carefully.

Anyway, your characterization sounds more like a Popperian view of the scientific method than positivism. Wikipedia has a reasonable summary of positivism as employed in the sciences. (Basically: everything is physical, and you need adequate direct or indirect physical evidence to support every claim.) Note that Popper and other "critical rationalists" did not consider themselves positivists though they certainly had a lot of similarities in approach.

As a final thought, fiction written by historians--even historians of science!--should be viewed with a critical eye when it comes to whether they're raising sagacious criticisms of the culture and methods of science. It can look really different from the outside than the inside, and it's the inside feeling that actually drives the scientific endeavor. (Save for availability of funding, which is of course driven by the outside perspective.)

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The article should be read as polemic (but referencing the science established under the aegis of the IPCC), and as such both well-written and unusual in the tactics they've chosen.

Twentieth-century scientists saw themselves as the descendants of an empirical tradition often referred to as positivism – after the nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte, who developed the concept of “positive” knowledge (as in, “absolutely, positively true”) – but the overall philosophy is more accurately known as Baconianism. This philosophy held that through experience, observation, and experiment, one could gather reliable knowledge about the natural world, and that this knowledge would empower its holder.

This much is true: what we can measure of the world accurately & precisely is 'positively' true. The theories we build on top of these measurements, though falsifiable, are within their limits, 'positively' true. Their power lies in how they grasp the totality of data, and more contentiously in what they predict, and much more controversially, in what they reveal about the metaphysical basis of the world.

It is because of this we have the Baconian philosophy - 'one could gather reliable knowledge about the natural world', but the following statement is not really true at all - 'that this knowledge would empower its holder'.

Hannah Arendt was clear about this in her book The Human Condition, written after the Manhatten Project, and the atomic bombing of both Hiroshima & Nagasaki. She said, that it was misguided of physicists to think that they would have any real & direct say in how a technology as powerful as Nuclear Bombs will be used or not. It is subject to politics.

Science empowers the scientist with knowledge, but not to effect change on that basis. They can warn, but their warning may not be heeded. One thinks of the prophetic tradition in the Judeo-Christian world, or even in the Greek world of antiquity where the blind seer Tiresias warned Oedipus who did not heed him.

The statement "Humanities actions change the climate" is in principle provable and maybe even falsifiable.

Unfortunately the climate is not like the exact sciences such as Physics or Chemistry in where one can execute repeatable experiments under strict conditions; nor a science like biology where you have many individuals of a species - there is only one climate. Poppers theory of falsifiability doesn't really hold here.

Probably one of the simplest correlatives that one can make here is with smoking. It was in 1950 that the first scientific evidence was published that showed a link between smoking and lung cancer (though one supposes there was suspicions and anecdotal evidence before that). It's taken 60 years to make it more or less socially unacceptable in the western world; to the point where the major tobacco companies were sued under a class action.

One supposes that a similar trajectory will be followed by climate science.

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