The Role of “Complex” Empiricism in the Debates About Satellite Data and Climate Models

  • Elisabeth A. Lloyd


Climate scientists have been engaged in a decades-long debate over the standing of satellite measurements of the temperature trends of the atmosphere above the surface of the earth. This is especially significant because skeptics of global warming and the greenhouse effect have utilized this debate to spread doubt about global climate models used to predict future states of climate. I use this case from an understudied science to illustrate two distinct philosophical approaches to the relations among data, scientist, measurement, models, and theory. I argue that distinguishing between “direct” empiricist and “complex” empiricist approaches helps us understand and analyze this important scientific episode. I introduce a complex empiricist account of testing and evaluation, and contrast it with the basic hypothetico-deductive approach to the climate models used by the direct empiricists. This more developed complex empiricist approach will serve philosophy of science well, as computational models become more widespread in the sciences.



I am indebted to climate scientists Caspar Ammann, Jim Hurrell, Jeffrey Kiehl, Ricky Rood, Ben Santer, Peter Thorne, Kevin Trenberth, and Tom Wigley for their assistance. I thank philosophers Ron Giere, Peter Gildenhuys, Alex Klein, Steven Lawrie, Helen Longino, Gordon McOuat, Rudy Raff, Paul Teller, Trin Turner, Sean Valles, and Eric Winsberg. Bas van Fraassen and Isabelle Peschard organized “The Experimental Side of Modeling” workshop at San Francisco State University (March 2010), where this paper got its start, and I thank them, as well as the attendees, for their guidance and comments on this project and its issues.


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elisabeth A. Lloyd
    • 1
  1. 1.History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine DepartmentIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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