Science is a messy, human affair

In my previous post I bemoaned the tone of voice in which modern textbooks are written, so it was only appropriate that in the week since I wrote that I have encountered three books that somewhat restore my faith. They are not exactly textbooks, but since I encountered them in my work and ordered them for the library so that students can access them, I think they count.

One of the nice things about being a university lecturer is that if I hear about interesting books I can just pop an order into the library and, hey presto, the books appear on the shelves. I even get a polite email from the librarian announcing their arrival so I can check them out (and check them out) before they disappear into the clutches of the student hoard.

This week I received polite e-mails announcing the arrival of Behringer’s (2010 translation) “A Cultural History of Climate”, Jouzel, Lorius and Raynaud’s (2013 translation) “The White Planet” and Broecker’s (2010) “The Great Ocean Conveyor”.


I should probably be annoyed by Broecker’s book, because the author steadfastly  declined to contribute to an edited volume of mine a few years ago on the grounds that he didn’t enjoy writing, yet this book, which must have been in gestation as my invitations were being rejected, demonstrates what a great contribution I failed to commission. I am not referring to the book’s content, the importance of which will already be well known to any climate scientist or oceanographer or indeed to any physical geographer interested in how the planet works, but to the tone in which it is written. Although it is written by a great and famous scientist, who might be expected – given what I wrote last week – to deliver us dry, austere and unemotional prose, Broecker’s  book breaks those rules that I wrote about previously and delivers an intensely personal story that gives us science without allowing us to forget that science is a very human endeavour. The result is a very readable form of science that reminds me of Alley’s “Two Mile Time Machine”, which in a similar way tells not only the science but also the human story of how the science was achieved. Alley and Broecker are amongst the best-known names at the pinnacle of current climate/environment science and I realise, thinking over what I wrote last week, that it is people at this level who seem more able, or more willing, to break those rules by which too many textbook authors seem to feel constrained.

Both Broecker’s book and “The White Planet” by Jouzel et al recount science as a story of people trying to solve puzzles. The approach reminds me of an even better-known big-name scientist, Richard Feynman, who was the absolute master of this kind of writing.

Describing his own science, Broecker writes:

“Rather than following a linear path, progress has been rather chaotic, involving false leads and blind alleys… Perhaps I should be embarrassed by the number of times I’ve had to change my mind, but I’m not. This is the nature of studies of our Earth’s history. It is as if we view things through a dense fog. Whereas the primary object is visible, all the secondary ones are pretty much obscured. So we make what we consider to be intelligent guesses as to what they are. A few guesses turn out to be correct but most turn out to be wrong. Should the guesses have been avoided? I don’t think so, because our attempts to check whether or not we’ve got the guesses right lead to new discoveries that put us back on the correct track.”

That description recalls something that Richard Feynman said in one of the many lectures that can now easily be found on You Tube:

“Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it, no, don’t laugh, that’s the truth. Then we compute the consequences of the guess… to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature or …to experiment. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.”

Science is a messy, human, figuring-it-out-as-we-go kind of a business. The believable scientists, and the believable science books, are those that acknowledge this, and tell their story of science in those terms.

Some Associated Readings and Watchings

Richard Feynman “First we guess” on You Tube

Alley, R. “The two-mile time machine”

Behringer, W. “A cultural history of climate”

Broecker, W. “The great ocean conveyor”

Jouzel, J. et al “The white planet”


Reading this through immediately after writing it I was reminded of something I wrote on the same theme many, many years ago for the journal “Progress in Physical Geography”. In fact I seem to have used almost exactly the same phrase about science being a “messy, human affair”, which is probably what brought this old essay back to mind. The full article, in case you want to follow it up is here: Knight, P.G. (1996) ‘Glaciers.’ PROGRESS IN PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY. 20 (3) 345-350. The opening lines went like this:

“Like most areas of science, progress in research on glaciers has been marked by controversy, dispute and personal rivalry. More than many of us might confess, the progress of science is a messy, human affair. The very idea of widespread glaciation was originally met with disbelief and confrontation, and every stage of our developing knowledge of glaciers has been accompanied by debates ranging from the constructive to the confrontational and from the amiable to the downright abusive. Perusal of the published literature reveals countless disagreements veiled to varying degrees in the language of scientific diplomacy, and the sociology of our discipline provides a colourful backdrop to the science. If one reads sequentially through the accumulated literature, personalities leap from the pages of the journals like characters from some epic romance: a pageant of stately dignitaries and rebel hordes; revolutionaries and statesmen; craftsmen and apprentices. The pompous and the wise are all thrown together into the plot, and personal triumphs and disasters that usually stay hidden between the lines occasionally break through into the visible world of text.  Sometimes minor skirmishes  decorate the correspondence sections of the journals. For example: Lliboutry’s  sparring over rock-glacier origins with Haeberli (e.g. Lliboutry, 1990); or Shaw’s  dogged jousting with Boulton on the influence of Goodchild on glacial geology (e.g.  Shaw, 1988). Sometimes the personalities of a debate have raised to prominence issues which might otherwise have languished as scientific backwaters, and personal rivalries have driven individual research strategies into strange corners.  Sometimes, the issues have transcended disciplinary boundaries and been of such importance as to make interdisciplinary heroes (and villains) of their protagonists…”


  1. This is interesting. In the social sciences we have ‘Science and Technology Studies’, started by Bruno Latour, which views the end results of science as messy, incomplete AND often politically-charged.

    • Yes, absolutely, and the same is true for sure in climate science! I’m writing a book about glaciers just now and only a few days ago in a chapter about art, science and environment I wrote: “At the start of the 21st century the art in which glaciers feature most prominently is art inspired by environmental concern. Some of this is by artists directly inspired by issues surrounding climate change and the melting of glaciers, and some of it derives from scientists choosing to communicate their messages more widely through the media of art, rather than confining themselves to the traditional media of science. In both cases, the art combines, in varying degrees, artistic, environmental and scientific sensibilities. Inevitably, as we will explore in another chapter, art, science and environment in combination often add up to politics, and a great deal of recent glacier art has been the art of environmental politics, often sponsored by environmental political organisations.”

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