Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Climate Scientists In The Scheme Of Science

This brief commentary has its origins in the work of Steve Fuller in a short book called ‘Science’ (Open University Press, Buckingham, 1997.) Fuller asks ‘What is the image of social order appropriate to democracy and how is this image best realized...’ (p 4-5). He defines two types of democracy. Here I look at the type of democracy and ‘type’ of science as favored by the sample of climate scientists in the ClilSci2008 Survey of Climate Scientists.

Fuller goes on to claim ‘The main virtue of Little Democracy is that its members hold a sufficient number of beliefs and values in common to agree on courses of action ...’ (p.5). Big Democracy, on the other hand, is said to be ‘a dialectic of countervailing interests’ (Fuller p. 5) ‘Consensus is a key issue in the climate debate and countervailing interests are often ignored or discredited, putting climate scientists, not all by any means, in the camp of Little Democracy.

According to Fuller, the Little Democrat tends to worry that a lack of consensus acts to undermine the sense of solidarity needed to collective action, and this definitely appears to be the case. The Big Democrat, on the other hand, worries that a lack of open-mindedness leads to authoritarian tendencies.

The debate between Little Democracy and Big Democracy, Fuller points out, is analogous to the debate between Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, as to whether science was a closed or open society. In Kuhn’s Little Democracy science presents its claims of self contained expertise to a public and the public should defer to this expertise. Popper, on the other hand, sees science as somewhat more participatory, where the expertise of science might be modified or resisted by other communities.

Figure 1. Climate Scientists’ Perceptions of Participatory Action

Q30 - Q33 refer to questions concerning adaptation to climate change, Q31 - Q33 refers to questions of mitigation of climate change. The Y axis, number one to seven asked where priority should be given in the issue of decision making, A value of 1 refers to political opinion, public opinion or the opinion of industry and commerce. A value of 7 refers to scientific expertise. As the figure indicates, a majority of climate scientists tend to think that in the decision processes concerning the adaptation to or mitigation of climate change, priority should be given to scientific expertise, definitely the camp of Little Democracy.

One point for Kuhn.

From a sociological perspective, science is sometimes seen to gravitate towards two polar ideologies, namely the Enlightenment and the Positivist traditions. The philosophical stance of those following the Enlightenment tradition is ‘falsifiability’; the sociological function, ‘deligitimization’, and; the opposite of science is seen as, ‘unquestioned’ prejudice. The positivist endorses ‘verifiability’; ‘legitimation’ and’ perceives the opposite of science as ‘unruly opinion’. So where do climate scientists fit on these accounts?

Climate Scientists and Kuhn vs. Popper (or Enlightenment vs. Positivist)

Figure 2 Q68. The main activity of science is: to falsify existing hypothesis; to verify existing conditions; other

The obvious majority claim here is that the main activity of science is ‘other’. The verification of existing facts has a slightly higher number of adherents than does the falsification of existing facts.

Score one point for Popper.

Figure 3. Q69. The role of science tends towards deligitimization of existing facts; legitimization of existing facts; other

Here we the deligitimization of existing facts taking a back seat to the legitimization of existing facts. However, ‘other’ is perceived of by a significant number of scientists as being the role of science.

Another point for Popper.

Figure 4. Q70 The opposite of science is unquestioned prejudice; unruly opinion, other

Here, it is obvious that a large number of scientist perceive the opposite of science as being unquestioned prejudice.

Another point for Kuhn

The score then seems to be 2-2 in the Popper vs Kuhn debate. But what of all the ‘other’ responses? One possibility is evidence of Ravitz’s Post Normal Science, driven by concerns extraneous to the ‘logic of puzzle solving’. Or is there perhaps a new variant in the making?

Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

cm said...

There is no such such thing as truth at least as long as somebody is involved in an experiment (which is to an highly aggregated way the fact with our experiment with the world). Well, this is trivial as it comes from the very center of quantum mechanics.

Anyhoo, I think I can grasp your meaning. If things are meant that have an effect on history (and a lot of people being involved) I think we should switch to more openess (hope there is a road map on hand to handle the process within a meaningful span of time). If it comes to make a decision what menue my group is going to have tomorrow for lunch it might be fine (for me) to just let them know what they are going to have (as I want them see work and not reading the card). Don't take that too serious ... it's Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all!