Forcing – the subliminal context

Beloved of climate scientists, the term ‘forcing’, as in Radiative Forcing, puzzled me when I first started to read climate papers.  I really didn’t understand it, although I could see what it was supposed to mean. It just didn’t feel right.  It didn’t feel scientific and I still cringe every time I read it.  I thought it was just me, but a rant from anna v on a WUWT post, and comments from E.M. Smith and a few others show I am not alone. Phew!  Anna, a retired physicist, said:

“Forcing as used in climate “science” is not a physics term.
Force in physics is clearly and well-defined:

F=ma where m is the mass and a is the acceleration a body undergoes when interacting.

As a verb in physics it has no defined meaning.”

Forcing exists in mathematics, horticulture for example, and has very specific meanings. In climate science, do we actually need it? It is a term I would never think to use myself. I don’t need to. If I want to talk about changing climate, ‘climate change’ is fine; ‘warming’ and ‘cooling’ or just ‘change’; ‘feedback’ (positive or negative) is clear too and is used widely (e.g. in biochemistry); ‘amplification’ might be useful too and perhaps ‘drivers’. But I have no need to use ‘forcing’. Here’s how climate science defines it:

…[change in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere] has been evident as a consequence not of natural processes but of man-made pollution, through emissions of greenhouse gases. By altering the global energy balance, such mechanisms “force” the climate to change. Consequently, scientists call them “climate forcing” mechanisms. (Source: ACEIP – Climate Forcing)

My instinct would lead me to use “cause” in the first case, and “climate changing” in the second.  Nothing wrong with that. Both are neutral. You see my scientific training drummed it into me to use neutral terms where possible, to be non-judgemental with language.  “Phenomenon” was the preferred term unless your paper proved the mechanism and you could justifiably use a word that described it.  But of course “the science is settled” and we have already decided that man and CO2 are the cause of the planet reaching a ‘tipping point’ /sarc off.

Image from the Visual Thesaurus, Copyright ©1998-2010 Thinkmap, Inc. All rights reserved.

Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with coining a new term, we do it all the time, but this is an insidious term, cleverly chosen to deliver additional messages – that of unnaturalness, undesirability and single direction motion.  The word map shows a good half of the related words are linked in our minds to unpleasant things like violence or coercion.  Our unconscious minds tell us, ‘climate forcing’ is a bad thing, an unnatural thing. Yes, the word delivers all the right messages for the Climate Change Lobby and once again impartial, high-minded science is subtly subverted.

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6 Responses to Forcing – the subliminal context

  1. Bob Tisdale says:

    Verity: The word forcing to me has indicated that GCMs need some secondary input to cause them to react. Without that secondary input, the models would be stagnant. Since the GCMs relied on to make projections don’t model coupled-ocean atmospheric processes well, if at all, they need to be prodded with assumed responses to CO2 and manufactured anthropogenic aerosols data in order for them to do anything. In that respect, the word forcing indicates a weakness.


    • Verity Jones says:

      Thanks. When you look at a figure showing the relative magnitude of the different positive and negative effects of each atmospheric component it IS difficult to see how CO2 could be thought to have such a major effect without a secondary input as you say.

      Your suggestion that this indicates a weakness to you is an expert opinion; the typical lay person’s mind will be more influenced by ‘gut reaction’ and that does include the connotations of the words.

  2. Pascvaks says:

    Using ‘force’ as a verb seems quite natural in the rather confusing spiritual -ology world of climate today. I think the confusion has less to do with anything scientific and more to do with the gaggle of precepts of the New-Age touchie-feelie ‘politico-religious’ experience we’re observing; especially, when these are confused by real scientists with something they actually are not but were only meant to seem to be –hard core scientific facts. I’ve taken to using the term ‘Etamilcology’ (climate spelled backward) for the blind faith phenomena we’re observing. I encourage it’s use to differentiate between the ‘science’ of climate and the religion of Mann-made Global Warming and it’s political and socio-economic framework.

    PS: Picked up the term over at WUWT from a very quickwitted commenter.

    • Verity Jones says:

      Sigh – don’t we know it !

      PS. Good one, but wouldn’t ‘calamitology’ be even more appropriate? 😉

      [I knew I couldn’t be the first person to think of that one so I Googled it. 680 hits. I may even have seen it somewhere (the memory does play tricks these days).]

  3. Pascvaks says:

    Yep! That works;-)

  4. E.M.Smith says:

    Nice… I’d followed up Anna’s rant with a “me too” mini-rant. The word just reeks of agi-prop. I learned “driver” for strong actions but had it drummed into my head by my high school chemistry and physics teachers that you simply MUST use proper units and ‘solve the units problem’ first before doing any math (or you would make mistakes of relationships). And I find “forcing” to be devoid of units, so can give no valid answers…

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