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Ozone Depletion: Science and Scientific Assessments

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Francis Pope.

The way scientists of the 1970s and 80s learned about ozone depletion is often presented as a rational model for developing a knowledge base about the sweeping questions raised by global change. The creation of the ‘ozone regime’ is also offered as a classic example of how science worked and informed decisions that turned out to be sensible and effective. Specifically, the interaction between science and policy in the ozone example, mediated by assessments, is presented as a model. Despite the fact that some analysts, such as Edward Parson and Karen Litfin, have highlighted the crucial role of scientific assessments in this history, little study has been made of the assessment process (as opposed to the policy negotiation process).

As a historian of science, I believe that a historical analysis of ozone depletion science and the ozone assessment process is important, because to the extent that science is a progressive undertaking with a generalized methodology, then studying past scientific episodes can yield lessons applicable to future scientific endeavors. Accordingly, my project is focused on both the learning process for individual scientists and the group judgment process embodied in assessments. Some of the issues that arise are: How do scientists decide what particular research opportunities to pursue, in a field where observations are often sparse, models are often difficult to validate, and laboratory experiments can be extremely challenging? Why are certain routes to knowledge adopted while others are not? How do assessments weigh the various types of evidence when one or all three of these components (modeling, observation, experiment) is lacking? One avenue I intend to pursue in researching these issues is the discovery of the importance of heterogeneous chemistry in ozone depletion. What factors led to its being put on the back burner in early assessments, and what factors led to the later understanding of its importance? This seminar will be an open discussion of these and other questions about the science, and scientific assessment, of ozone depletion.

My work is part of a larger project in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science, and my colleagues (Jessica O’Reilly at the University of California, San Diego, and Will Thomas at the American Institute of Physics), are studying the scientific learning and assessment processes surrounding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

This talk is part of the Centre for Atmospheric Science seminars, Chemistry Dept. series.

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