Scientific Method and Climate Change

Don Wyeth

Scientific Method and Climate Change

2 mins
June 8, 2021

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, recently made the statement that “…Impacts from climate change are happening now. These impacts extend well beyond an increase in temperature, affecting ecosystems and communities in the United States and around the world. Things that we depend upon and value — water, energy, transportation, wildlife, agriculture, ecosystems, and human health — are experiencing the effects of a changing climate.noaa.gov.  Is this a statement of belief, or is it based on something else? The answer is that the scientists at NOAA, and others, employ a process called scientific method to arrive at their conclusions.

Modern scientific method has its beginnings in the 17th century. It is a stratagem for problem-solving that employs careful observations of the problem and a healthy dose of skepticism. According to the historical record, scientist Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) developed this technique for answering questions about the physical world. This process starts with an observation (often a problem to be solved) that leads to a question. Up until this time, facts were based on speculation and faith in the tradition of Aristotle and the Church. So, how does scientific method work? 

There are six steps to the process, which, it should be noted, are not linear. The first step is to make in-depth observations about the problem. Based on the observations a question is formulated. Using this question as a foundation, a hypothesis (or a testable explanation) is developed. Using if/then logic, a prediction is made. Based on experimentation and data collection, the hypothesis is then either modified or altogether changed to reflect these results. Based on the findings, new questions and further observations are formulated. This makes the process a circular or spiral progression rather than a linear one.

Here is an example in which scientific method is used.

The Observation: Let’s say that you want toast for breakfast. So, you put the bread into the toaster and press the button. Alas, nothing happens.

The Question: Why didn’t the bread get toasted?

Propose a Hypothesis: The bread did not get toasted because the electrical outlet is faulty. It should be noted that this hypothesis is not necessarily correct but only a possible explanation.

Make a Prediction: If I plug the toaster into another outlet, the toaster will toast the bread.

Test the Prediction (experiment): If the toaster now toasts the bread, the hypothesis is therefore supported and is most likely correct. If the toaster is still not working, the hypothesis is not supported and is most likely wrong. “… Results that support a hypothesis can't conclusively prove that it's correct, but they do mean it's likely to be correct.”

Iterate (Repeat): This last step involves going over the data and using this information to decide what the next step should be in the process (feedback). Thus, it is a spiral process leading to refinement of the hypothesis.

Revisiting the global climate change hypotheses, one explanation is that it is the result of something called internal climate variability, which involves changes in the interactions between the atmosphere and the oceans. “… [I]n this case, it's suggested, temperatures are rising because they are drawing heat from deep within the oceans.” bu.edu 

As you can see, developing a climate change theory is not just a matter of pulling a rabbit out of the hat, but involves empirical logic and persistence to come to a viable conclusion.

This article was orginally reported by
Don Wyeth

Passionate and intelligent columnist from Madison, WI.