When Does Science Go Beyond Hypothesis Testing?

Professor Martin Manning at the Holt Planetarium, Chambers St, Napier

Thursday 12 February at 7:30 pm

martin-manningProf. Martin Manning represented New Zealand on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He spent five years in Colorado managing the recent IPCC assessment of the physical science of climate change and was a member of the IPCC that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He is now responsible for establishing an interdisciplinary New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute hosted by Victoria University.

Prof. Manning delivered an excellent presentation questioning traditional science approaches based strongly on hypothesis testing. He noted that scientists working in the physical and natural sciences are often told that they should propose a hypothesis and test it thoroughly.

This relates to classic works by statistician Ronald Fisher in the first half of the twentieth century that moved away from subjective forms of inference and focussed on explicitly formulating and testing hypotheses.However, another leading statistician, George Box, showed that some forms of subjective judgement will always be involved. Then German climate scientist, Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, noted that “hypotheses about global change are the less falsifiable the more they are relevant to humanity”.

An example: A new and very detailed model for the Antarctic ice sheets now explains why sea level was 20m higher in the past and implies that it could increase by as much as 2m in the next 100 years. But do we really want to test that model by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and what would it mean for the Hawke’s Bay coastline and flood plains? If not, at what point does, or did, further testing of climate models become unnecessary to scientifically justify radical changes in our use of fossil fuels?

Prof. Manning was in Hawke’s Bay to present at “Future Directions of Rationalism and Humanism“, a three day conference for New Zealand Rationalists, Humanists, Skeptics.