Saturday, December 26, 2009

Science Wars revisited

Remember the science wars in the nineties? Facts or fiction: on the one hand the scientists who defended scientific facts as objective and representations of truth; on the other hand interdisciplinary science studies (anthropology, sociology, cultural studies etc) arguing that scientific facts are relative, relational and constructed.

Science with a capital S was not amused about science studies and insisted on the 'scientific fact' as not constructed but instead as being a mirror of reality. Even today, the natural sciences mostly accept their counterparts of the social sciences only in form of data gatherers for their models, or as translators of scientific findings to the public via the media; they still don't like the talk about the social construction of facts. But the virus lives on and has affected climate science from within. The hardcore climatologists insist that global warming is an indisputable 'scientific fact' and blame those who lay open the cultural construction of this truth and its inherent uncertainties.

The current debate about 'climategate' reflects this strange divide neatly: both the writers of the CRU emails and those blamed in these emails believe in global warming. The dispute is not about the reality of global warming; instead, it is about the nature of scientific facts. The group of alarmists (or the climate cartel, as HvStorch calls them) argues that the insistence on global warming as an indisputable fact is necessary in order to inform and advise politics in an effective way. In their opinion, the fact of global warming determines political action - 2 degrees limit, emission reduction, global agreement etc. The position that sees global warming as a more or less exact constructed fact avoids those one way conclusions and opens up diverse possibilities how to act such as regional strategies, adaptation measures, decarbonization strategies etc. Mostly, it is left to the politicians how to (re-)act. Both parties take a political stance; the hardcore climatologists resemble Stalinists (sometimes you have to lie to the people in order to make them do the right thing), while the constructivists resemble social democrats (political negotiation instead of war).

In any case, the contemporary science wars are not about the reality of global warming, but about climate politics and the role that science plays. It is about the hegemony in climate discourse, about science funding and power. There is no way back to a safe place beyond politics or society; instead, it is the other way round: there is only the choice of which science, which society and which politics you want in times of climate change.


Hans von Storch said...

... nobody commented. Does it mean nobody is interested in this perspective? Are we more partisan than we had hoped for? That we prefer to think interms of pro and con, of false and accurate - instead of seeing actors in a social and cultural environment?

I thought this type of analysis is what we need more, to overcome the limitations of our conditioning, to open up for different views and options.

TCO said...


It's a good topic, but somehow the post, despite showing work and all, did not entice me. I think there was something off in the writing.

Also...I pretty much get that you and EZ are honest brokers. And so am I. And Mann etc are not. Neither are McI. both being sort of silly and warped in their ways...and neither one would I trust to dig for (or show) analyses that cut AGAINST their biases. But real scientists will. It's just...I get it already.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know why this isn't attracting interesting commentary, it could have to do with the insinuations that the 'cartel' (who is that precisely?) are Stalinists bent on lying to the people in order to enforce their political agenda. A starting point that, I might suggest, is not conducive to opening up dialogue. (Do you really think disputes over a couple of tenths of a degree in a paleo-reconstruction is equivalent to mass-murder and gulags? Really?)

In fact the whole conflation of the existence of global warming (which as you say is undisputed here), and preferred political outcomes is very dubious. Where is there any evidence that disputes over the magnitude of the medieval warming or approaches to tree ring analyses is driven by a desire to see the COP process adopt a 2 deg guardrail or for a preference for cap-and-trade over a carbon tax?

It is clearly true that the vast majority of climate scientists want to see 'something being done' about emissions - but they do not generally have any great insight into the global negotiations and are mostly not involved in the political process at all. Your apparent conflation here of scientists who think that reducing emissions is worthwhile to avoid risks to society with 'a virus' infecting the whole field is insulting.

If you want to contribute to constructive dialogue, might I suggest that you don't call people you dislike names and attribute political motives to every little scientific disagreement.

It would be nice to have more voices in blogosphere who are informed about the science and who don't simply use their blogs for self-aggrandizement or the settling of scores.

That would be something worth aiming for.

Hans von Storch said...

No. 3- "If you want to know why this isn't attracting interesting commentary, it could have to do with the insinuations that the 'cartel' (who is that precisely?) are Stalinists bent on lying to the people in order to enforce their political agenda."; well, if you find this insinuating, why don't you say so right away? Tell the author that you find the usage of the term insinuating?

Do you find it it possible that the term may be a bit more generally used than you do it? Do you find it possible that other people may perceive social and cultural dynamics differently than you do it? What do you think the author referred to, when he used the term "Stalinist"?

For the discussion on the Klimazwiebel it would be good if we can agree on the meaning (or the spectrum of meanings) of words, because different understandings of the same word is in many cases at the root of conflicts. So, why not asking - "Werner, what exactly do you mean with 'Stalinist'"?

Anonymous said...

H Hak
As a lay person with some science background I get very confused by the various "discussions" going on on various websites, even the good discussions. A lot of it is attempts to discredit other people , and most confusing is the way people interpret the same data sets.
How can anyone make up one's mind on this? By listening to "the experts" ? Is that "the real experts" or "the independent experts" or "the skeptic experts" ? The spin goes in all directions.
I guess part of the problem is that our climate is such an astoundingly complex system and our good data are very recent only; and even the interpretation of those data is problematic (UHI
etc). So paleo climatology comes in and explanations as to what happened in the past gets thrown in as evidence for this or that. This only increases the confusion as reports explaining mechanisms of change in the last 650,000 years don't seem to fit with reports on situations 500 million years ago. And than all the "yes-no" type of arguments whether some data apply locally or globally.
So is it surprising that most of us lay people
are becoming cynical about this whole game? And don't tell me it's the "deniers'" fault or RC or "Climategate". And then the IPCC . All that shows is that scientists have become very polarized and politicised and are resorting to not-so-acceptable ways to try and prove their points and exert influence. And many of us are totally fed up with this.
I am not sure how we can get out of this mess. But first of all science needs to be done and reported in an entirely independent way. There needs to be complete acess to data, data adjustments, codes and methods of investigation.
Maybe naive on my part, but this is pretty normal stuff in other sciences.
Thank you Drs Zorita and von Storch for setting up a blog that tries to steer away from all the politics. That means -as you have done- recognising that the politics exist. Hope you will succeed.

Reiner Grundmann said...

There is much in Werner's blog to agree with.

Many people in the social sciences had a hard time in the 1990s when they were attacked as irrationalists (other labels were used as well).

Then some of the same social scientists discovered climate change as an important issue. What happened next is still a mystery to me. Following Bruno Latour, one of the protagonists of the science wars, one would need to open the 'black boxes' of scientific facts in order to show how they were constructed.
Others seemed to embark on such a project, for instance Aant Elzinga who coined the term of the 'orchestrated consensus' of the IPCC.

However, if you thought that Latour was unpacking the black box of climate change you will be disappointed. Rather, in 2004, he (in)famously posed the rhetorical question 'Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can't I simply say that the argument is closed for good?' (Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?, Critical Inquiry 30,2)

I know there a many possible readings of this, some of which I would perhaps agree with. But the point is that he left open what he meant by this rhetorical question. And he did not provide an empirical study of 'climate science in the making' in order to reconstruct the social construction of climate change.

Here Werner's conclusion is well-taken: the political discourse has become so overbearing that even the staunchest social critics forget their methodological principles.

Werner Krauss said...

thanks, anonymous, for your engaged comment. I am sorry that my posting obviously caused misunderstandings. So here some clarifications:

Of course, there are climate scientists who not only want to 'see something being done', but who are indeed actively involved in the 'global negotiations' and the 'political process'. Take for example Schellnhuber from PIK and many others in Copenhagen, or the authors of the 'Copenhagen Diagnosis' and related political activities of 'popular' climate scientists. Furthermore,each government has its scientific advisors. None of them is naive in things political.

I am convinced that it makes a difference how you present the climate problem: If you present it as an indisputable fact and call others who still want to argue 'deniers', 'skeptics' or 'smearer', you present science in an authoritative way. For example, if you state that raising the issue of adaptation to climate change distracts people from the necessity of mitigation, you are already deeply involved in politics; in fact, this is already a political statement.

The 'virus' I mentioned is the virus of 'uncertainty' and 'relativism'. My context were the 'science wars' of the nineties and the question whether scientific knowledge is culturally constructed or a representation of objective truth. The discussions over the medieval warming and the intensity of this debate are an example how sensitive this question still is. Those who critiqued the hockey stick were blamed as 'skeptics' by those who said the case is closed. It would be naive to negate that the authority of many (climate) scientists still rests on the idea that their findings are not constructed but a revealing of an indisputable truth (no stains on their white coats); it is something that is permanently defended against critical colleagues, self-acclaimed lay experts, the stupid people 'out there', the media and the ignorant politicians.

I call those scientists 'Stalinists' who state that the facts are on the table and that the case is closed. I do so in a polemical way. I did not think of Gulags; sorry, this was not my intention. (but it is a fantasy in many activist's heads that maybe first a huge catastrophe with thousands of deaths is necessary in order to make people listen more closely to the science prophets.) Instead, I thought of the attitude to legitimize political interventions on the basis of fake science (five year plans or 2 degree limits). Stalinism is the perversion of a maybe good idea (Marxism), that's why it fits well for some hardcore climate scientists: their intentions to do something about climate change might be good, but talking of the nearby apocalypse (or tipping points or fixed degree limits, for example) in order to force politicians to agree on a specific treaty is misusing scientific authority.
'Social democrat' I call admitting uncertainties, opening up possibilities (instead of presenting doom scenarios), having insight in the cultural process of the construction of scientific knowledge etc; we would (maybe) discuss climate change in more productive ways when we would see science as an integral part of the democratic process instead of as a churchlike institution outside of society, with scientists as prophets who already have seen the future.
But I do not insist on 'Stalinist' and 'social democrat' in an all to literal sense; I used it polemically. Polemics sometimes help to clarify a point; sorry in case this did not work.

Hans von Storch said...

3 - Now, No. 3, is your turn. Werner has explained what he meant with "Stalinist". Would you accept his view, or do you understand climate scienge and its role in present policy-making differently? - Hans

Georg said...

Sure enough even fascist, nazi and SS-member has a wide spectrum of meanings and social background no such thing as any insulting intended. One should just take them as a slightly polemical starting point for controversial discussion.

This article is just dump by any standards, with or without the insultings and even if the text wouldnt just give an example that Godwins law must be extended to all forms of totalitarism.