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Is Meteorology a Science?

  1. Oct 28, 2008 #1
    When I read a report on an UFO siting, I like to read it as reported. It may be a load of old rubbish, or delusion, but it may also be true. At that time, I do not need to apply scientific proofing.

    Let's take an established science, one that has passed all of the tests, and is an undisputed science. Meteorology.

    So what is the weather going to be like tomorrow? Nobody really knows if it is going to rain. One TV channel tells us that it will be 'sunny with perhaps the occasional shower' while the other side tells us it will be 'intermittent showers with the occasional bright spell.' I am surprised that there are enough English words to juggle around so that whatever happens, they can say, 'We were right.'

    Despite the fact that almost all of the weather reporting and forecasting comes from Bracknell (in the UK), with their 200 million pounds computing equipment, all the meteorologists can tell us is (a) what the weather is right now, and (b) what will probably happen tomorrow - but no guarantees.

    One of the purposes of this science called meteorology is to forecast - and it cannot do it with any degree of accuracy. ...so, is meteorology a science at all?
     
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  3. Oct 28, 2008 #2

    ZapperZ

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    You seem to not understand the difference between "pseudoscience" and "complexity".

    And for some odd reason, you are also confusing "anecdotal evidence" with complex systems. Meteorology IS science, and a very complex one too. The FACT that they can predict things very well considering all the complexities of the dynamics they are trying to predict, shows that it is a valuable field of study.

    At the very essence of meteorology is classical, non-linear mechanics. And unlike "UFO" and other pseudoscience, the field of study has evolved over time, gaining more and more knowledge of its subject matter, as opposed to the pseudosciences that are STILL struggling to show that the phenomena they are studying really, truly exist after all these years.

    Zz.
     
  4. Oct 28, 2008 #3

    CEL

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    Unlike TV forecasts, meteorologists assign probabilities to what the weather will be. As ZapperZ said, weather involves several non-linear phenomena, so small perturbations at one location and time can lead to enormous changes in other place in the future.
    An exaggeration of this is the classical example of a butterfly beating its wings in India and causing a hurricane in Florida.
    Of course, not all perturbations lead to big deviations. Most of them don't change significantly the overall pattern, that's why meteorologists can assign probabilities for the future weather.
     
  5. Oct 28, 2008 #4
    I apologise for the UFO reference that I made at the beginning of my original question - I had been participating in a different topic prior to laying this one before your consideration.

    To a layman such as I am, my question should perhaps have been this: meteorology produces 'best guesses' or probable predictions.
    ... Mathematics, for example, gives the product of two plus two as four; no approximates, no probables, but a definite outcome. This, to me, is a science.
    ... Not so with Meteorology. I appreciate it is a vast and complex study, but the outcome is not precise. Surely a true science would not use such words as probably in its answers?

    OK, so Calculus being an analogue science gives an infinitesimal answer, and it is still regarded as 'precise'. Evolution, on the other hand, is based on many assumptions being made my scientists (?) who are back-engineering. Did the Tyranosaurus Rex run or walk? It depends who you ask.

    Incidentally, I have never subscribed to the theory that a butterfly beating its wings on one continent leads to a Floridian hurricane. This will no doubt result in my being pushed even deeper into the mire.
     
  6. Oct 28, 2008 #5

    ZapperZ

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    Then you should also look at physics as also not being a science. Why? Because that Ohm's Law that you have been using in your electric circuit is an APPROXIMATION! That's true! It's born out of the Drude model of charge transport in a conductor, and it is a horrible approximation under certain circumstances where it fails miserably.

    And if you're afraid of probabilities, then you should also be very afraid to depend your life and the lives of your loved ones on modern electronics, especially when you drive and fly in an airplane. Why? Because it is built on quantum mechanics.

    Almost all of science involves "back-tracking"! Why? Because progress in science is done via experimental discovery! No one predicted superconductivity, CP violation, fractional quantum hall effect, etc.. etc. They all came out of experimental discovery, and theoretical description and advancement came AFTER the fact. So if you have issues with Evolution simply because it is trying to explain what has already happened, then why aren't you questioning the rest of physics as well? Yet, you continue to use it.

    Zz.
     
  7. Oct 28, 2008 #6
    I really don't have a problem with Science (at least I didn't think I had), but over the last couple of weeks I have been reading various topics on this site where I see so much dogmaticism by purists.

    Science to me involves the current concept of scientific method:

    1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
    2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
    3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
    4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

    I have read quite a few people who describe unlikely events or conditions, and are immediately squashed by people on the grounds that they are being unscientific. There appears to be so much refusal to even consider situations that do not fit neatly into the established sciences. Shouldn't we all be seeking the truth by observation (including listening), evaluating, and making unbiased evaluations? Maybe the other guy is a raving loony, but he may have a point.

    It is interesting, for example, to read that Ohm's Law is not an exact law. I have always had reservations about that - it seemed too convenient. On the same lines, may I also assume that e=mc2 is also an approximation? (No, I really am not being facetious).

    Now that I am aware that science doesn't necessarily have to be 100% accurate, I can rethink my position. I have always accepted the medical profession as being scientific even though I know it is an incomplete science, likeways with atomic theory (ie what the heck is an electron made of?).
     
  8. Oct 28, 2008 #7

    vanesch

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    In a certain sense, mathematics is not really a "science". It depends on your definition of science of course, but usually, for something to be called a science, it needs to have an experimental or observational part to it. You seem to equate science with "precise, accurate". That's not it. Science is about trying to formulate theories that can explain observable phenomena. Or that can explain aspects of observable phenomena. That means, that if you don't have any explanation, it is not science. If the explanation doesn't explain observations, you have no science. And if you have no observations, you have no science. And then there are domains where we have extremely accurate explanations of certain phenomena (many parts of physics), and then there are domains where we have much rougher explanations, like meteorology. Probably a hallmark of a healthy science is that there is progress: that explanations get better and better over time. That they become more accurate. That their predictive value improves over time.
     
  9. Oct 28, 2008 #8

    mgb_phys

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    I don't think we have a poorer explanation of metereology it's just that we have a very a very accurate understanding that it is hard to predict.
    It's like billiard balls, we have a very good understanding of the physics of their collisions, but you still can't predict where a ball will go after a few collisions.
     
  10. Oct 28, 2008 #9

    D H

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    Mathematics, for the most part, is not science. Mathematics is a branch of applied logic. The heart of mathematics is the concept of proof based on inductive and deductive reasoning starting from a set of given conditions. The mathematical theorems developed by the Greeks over 2000 years ago are true today -- and they will be true 2000 years in the future. The heart of science is the concept of the scientific method based on accumulated evidence. The reasoning technique at the core of the scientific method, abductive reasoning, is not used in mathematics because it is not valid logic. Science and mathematics use different terms for their most prized results: science has theories while mathematics has theorems. Theorems can be proven to be true. Theories cannot. Scientific theories are always provisional explanations. All it takes is one lousy experiment to throw a cherished scientific theory into the dustbin of falsified theories.

    This site is first and foremost a teaching site. Students have a hard enough time understanding what they are being taught as is. Letting people tout concepts that are known to be false would only serve to confuse.

    Secondly, there is only so much time in the day. Most of the people on other sites who hawk "alternative explanations" are complete loons and are hawking complete garbage. Spending time to argue with them (a lost cause, as they know they are right) detracts from more meaningful pursuits. There is a difference between being open minded and being a fool. Thirdly, most of the people who are hawking a new "alternative explanation" are in fact hawking a very old concept that has been shot down again, and again, and again. It gets old after a while. While nothing in science can be proven correct with certainty, things can be proven to be false with one lousy experiment. Those hawking a falsified alternative explanation do not seem to grasp this concept.

    You should rethink that position. No science is 100% accurate.
     
  11. Oct 28, 2008 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    It seems that you should review the definition of pseudoscience.

    It seems also that you know very little about the subject of UFOs. The question is not whether this or that exists, the question is whether all UFOs can be explained with prosaic exlanations or not. Clearly we cannot at this time account for all reports.
     
  12. Oct 28, 2008 #11

    ZapperZ

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    You will notice that I did NOT lump "ufo" inside "pseudoscience"! If I did, then it would have been redundant for me to mention UFO and pseudoscience in the same sentence. The rest of my statement pertains to pseudoscience.

    So I'm terribly sorry you wasted your lecture on me.

    Zz.
     
  13. Oct 28, 2008 #12

    Ivan Seeking

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    You said did say "UFO and other pseudoscience". But, fair enough.

    I have spend five years here trying to make the distinction between observations, and pseudoscience.
     
  14. Oct 28, 2008 #13
    I thank you all for the clarification regarding science. I shall ponder these points at leisure.

    One question that comes to mind though. Could a legal judge said to be working within a scientific area?
     
  15. Oct 28, 2008 #14
    Your first problem comes with relying on TV weatherman for forecasts. A lot of TV broadcasters do not have the NWS seal, so they are just TV weatherman, and not meteorologists. There was a study that showed NOAA to have less variance and more accuracy in their extended forecasts than a random group of TV stations. That comes as no surprise to me.

    As pointed out before, the fact that they can predict the weather, precipitation accumulations, temperature, wind etc. with very good accuracy despite all of the complex dynamics of the atmosphere makes it a very useful field of science. Despite what the general public wants to think, it isn't blindly throwing darts at a board.

    Yes, meteorology is a science, and yes, they can predict the weather with a very good degree of accuracy. Now if you're talking about more than a week in advance, then you're right, they can't predict it with any degree of accuracy.
     
  16. Oct 28, 2008 #15

    vanesch

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    Granted. But at what point does the complexity of elementary interactions become too overwhelming, and is in fact a new layer of effective knowledge necessary ?
    This is like that infamous remark from I think it was Dirac: "given that we understand quantum electrodynamics, all of chemistry is known now" or something of the kind.
    It is the ultimate reductionist's credo. Of course, in a way we "understand" things when we know the basic processes. But if we didn't derive the effective laws in the next layer of complexity, this "understanding" is purely academic (and for holists, even an illusion).
     
  17. Oct 28, 2008 #16

    mgb_phys

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    I'm not an expert on chaos but I imagine there could be a fundemental limit - such that knowing what weather will do 'n' days ahead is unknowable, just like planet positions or billiard balls. Of course this doesn't make it not science - we can't know what happens inside an event horizon for instance.

    On a side note - the majority of metereologists don't work in forcasting. A lot work in permitting and local goverment advising what level of emmissions from a plant would be acceptable for given weather conditions.
     
  18. Oct 28, 2008 #17
    There is a fundamental limit for weather forecasting, you cannot forecast the weather with a high degree of accuracy beyond 7-10 days in advance. Accuracy drops off even after a few days in advance, but it's still fairly accurate.
     
  19. Oct 28, 2008 #18

    mgb_phys

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    I wondered if there is a real limit defined by thermodynamics/chaos theory that says weather has a 'knowability' < 0.0 in 'n' days irrespective of how much satelite data and super computer power you have?

    I suppose if a weather pattern takes 10days to develop and cross the atlantic then the weather in the UK is not knowable >10days in advance, simply because that weather didn't exist.
     
  20. Oct 28, 2008 #19
    Model data is not very useful beyond 3 days which is why accuracy drops off a few days in advance. There's still a good level of accuracy in the 3-7 day range, but it's not as high as the 1-3 day range. You'll experience a lot of variance in the forecast when it's 10 days out, and what you pointed out is a big reason for it.
     
  21. Oct 28, 2008 #20

    CEL

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    There is a fundamental limit: the Uncertainty Principle.
    To know the output of a System, you must have a good model and a good measure of its initial conditions.
    In linear systems, if you know the magnitude of the error in the initial conditions, you can estimate the magnitude of the error in any future instant. If the system is stable you know that a finite error at the input will result in a finite error at the output.
    This is not true for nonlinear systems. Stability of nonlinear systems depends not only of the dynamics of the system but of the inputs. For some values of the inputs the system is stable, for others it is unstable.
    Even if the input is at a point in the state space that leads to stability, a small deviation can lead to an unstable point and the probability of this happening increases with time.
    Of course we don't have a precise model for the weather and I don't think we will ever have. But even if we had, the Uncertainty Principle would not allow the knowledge of the future after some time.
     
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