How climate science and philosophy learn from each other

Philosopher of science Claus Beisbart is intrigued by how research is done using computer simulations. His preferred object of study? Climate research. He believes that philosophy and science can find inspiration in each other, and that the attraction is completely mutual.

What is it that draws a philosopher to climate scientists? Claus Beisbart’s answer is fast and crystal clear: “What interests me about climate research? It’s up to date and has a political dimension. The question of how politics influence the research is something I find extremely exciting.”

The fact that Claus Beisbart, as a philosopher, feels at home among scientists has to do with his own background. In Munich and Tübingen he studied not only philosophy, but also physics and mathematics. After earning a PhD in physics, he worked as a research postdoc in cosmology at Oxford and wrote – back in Munich – a second dissertation, this time in philosophy. Title: “Reasons for Action. Motivation, Rationality, Normativity.” After various stations of academic wandering between Dortmund, Reykjavik and Pittsburgh, he was appointed Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Bern in 2012. For his habilitation thesis, Beisbart concerned himself with, among other things, the validation of computer simulations. “For climate science in particular, this is an important issue because the results have great implications for politics and must be credible or valid.”

In Bern he soon had his first contact with members of the Oeschger Centre, of which Claus Beisbart is now a so-called adjunct researcher. Together with the group for Earth System Modelling – Atmosphere Ocean Dynamics, he organised an international conference in 2013: Probabilistic Modelling in Science and Philosophy. As part of an SNF project, Beisbart is currentlysupervising a dissertation in the field of climate ethics. It’s about the precautionary principle and will provide a framework in which this can serve as a fitting and sensible basis for climate policy action.

Theory, experiment, model and simulation

But it is not merely timeliness and political relevance that account for Beisbart’s affinity for climate research. As a philosopher of science, he examines how knowledge is generated, and investigates the relevant methods. Beisbart explains that his discipline has been studying the roles of theory and experimentation for a long time, but that the interest in computer models and simulations – which play an extremely large role in climate research – is new. The question of how a model can represent a natural process is not trivial, especially if it is based on uncertain or even false assumptions. In addition, how measurement data is handled must be critically discussed, finds the philosopher. “What we call data doesn’t just come from nature; it’s prepared by human hands. Besides, many model assumptions go into it. The epistemic difference from simulationis often very difficult to distinguish.”

The interest that philosophy and climate research take in each other is quite mutual, finds Claus Beisbart. He sees several reasons for this. For one thing, scientists often lack “reflection opportunities” – like the chance to think about how big the significance of their models actually is. Also, the researchers think about questions from climate ethics, because they realise that their results – although politically relevant – may not lead to effective measures to protect the climate. “Philosophy provides the framework in which to think about such questions.”

Philosophy for climate students

The philosopher is interested in dialogue not only with seasoned researchers, but also with students from various disciplines. In 2015, for the second time already, he and other researchers are offering a seminar called “Philosophical issues in understanding global change”. The seminar was jointly designed with climatologists and will take place in collaboration between the University of Bern and ETH Zurich. The interest among climate master and doctoral students is “very high”, says Beisbart. Up for discussion: issues at the interface between research and society, for example, “Can the uncertainties of climate modelling be adequately expressed in probabilities?” Or, “Can the results of climate simulations actually be used to calculate expected utility?” Very fundamental questions that are hardly ever covered in a climate studies master’s or doctoral thesis.

These discussions are exciting not just for the young climate scientists, but also for the philosopher. “I want to be able to get the perspective of the researchers that I engage with as a philosopher of science. I want to understand how they see and express themselves.”

Claus Beisbart is even more eager to track how modellers develop their tools. For example, what do they pay attention to if they make changes to their models? In a case study with a climate research group – one of his project ideas – he wants to find out more about the “dynamics of modelling”. At the OCCR, there should be an abundance of material for fruitful debates between philosophy and science.