The Scientific Method – An Exploration Geologist’s Perspective On Its Application To Climate Change Theory

Don Aitken made an interesting comment about the late Karl Popper and Climate Change: specifically that Popper never said anything on climate change but had he been alive today, he could have said “that AGW is there to be falsified, and no one has falsified it yet — well emphatically anyway — so it can be accepted as the ruling theory”, which Don thinks is a glib summary as well, (Source). Don’s comments then focusses on the Popperian Principle of the Scientific Method, and it’s worth reading, often. But what many scientists and literate commentators seem not to understand is the scope of the scientific method.

Science is the business of explaining observations of nature using extant, and perhaps extinct, knowledge of known facts. Science excludes miracles by definition.

Exploration geology is the business of finding mineral deposits or hidden resources by collecting geochemical and geophysical data, recognising anomalies in that data that then may be the indirect expression, either chemically, physically or both, of a buried, and thus hidden, deposit of metal or some other ‘valuable’ resource being explored. The crucial thing is that the mineral deposit being explored for must exist in the here and now in order to produce a ‘signal’ at the Earth’s surface. Of course if the mineral deposit exists or crops out at the Earth’s surface, it does not need to be explored for, unless it occurs in unexplored territory, and then the scientific procedure still holds – the presence of anomalous minerals or geophysical data that hint to the nearby presence of a mineral deposit, either outcropping or more generally the case, buried under soil or rock.

So the exploration process homes into a geophysical anomaly, say an inexplicable perturbation in the local gravitational field that is interpreted by the geophysicist(s) as due to a buried gravitating mass of some or other heavy mineral. Usually there is a geochemical anomaly also associated with it, and this allows the geophysicist to restrict the number of potential minerals responsible for the geophysical anomaly.

At this stage of the exploration process there is unanimous consensus on the interpretation of the geophysics/geochemistry. Everyone agrees that the surface geophysical/geochemical anomaly is being caused by the buried object called Target; this is stage 1, the framing of the hypothesis.

Stage 2 follows by the drilling of a test hole into the buried target to identify it, to test the hypothesis that it is the Target. Prior to its testing or drilling, consensus is universal that it is actually the, much sought after, target. This is the consensus position. So the target is drilled and two outcomes are possible:

1. That the interpretation is correct and that the target is actually there, in the ground, and correctly identified as the source of the geophysical and geochemical anomalies. Crucially the target has to actually exist in the here and now in order to be capable of being tested.

2. That the interpretation is wrong and thus the target is not present as interpreted. The hypothesis has been falsified, and the interpretation wrong. While this outcome is rare or absent in geochemical exploration of anomalies, it is all too frequent in geophysical exploration.

What this does not mean is that in the future the target may appear in the ground and thus in time prove the hypothesis correct. Yet this is precisely the explanation used by climate science when no rise in global temperature is measured with a measured rise in atmospheric CO2 for the same sampling period.

In mineral exploration, if the drill testing falsifies the hypothesis, the hypothesis is rejected, the theory thrown into the dust bin, and the next target tested.

In climate science, and gold-struck prospectors, while they ‘know’ the theory is correct, in time with enough digging or measuring, the hypothesis will end up being correct; just not in the present. This is called prophesy and pseudoscientific application of the scientific method.

About Louis Hissink

Retired diamond exploration geologist. I spent my professional life looking for mineral deposits, found some, and also located a number of kimberlites in NSW and Western Australia. Exploration geology is the closest one can get to practicing the scientific method, mineral exploration always being concerned with finding anomalous geophysical or geochemical data, framing a model and explanation for the anomaly and then testing it with drilling or excavation. All scientific theories are ultimately false since they invariably involved explaining something with incomplete extant knowledge. Since no one is omniscient or knows everything, so too scientific theories which are solely limited to existing knowledge. Because the future always yields new data, scientific theories must change to be compatible with the new data. Thus a true scientist is never in love with any particular theory, always knowing that when the facts change, so too must he/she change their minds.
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