Friday, August 6, 2010

Sustainable ... science?

Doing science, creating new knowledge, in German: Wissen schaffen, is a social activity. As all social activities, it can be done sustainably. Or not.


The Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations (UN) in 1983, used the term “sustainability” in its 1987 report as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Since then its use has been mostly used in he context of sustainable policy or sustainable use of natural resources – with a similar breadth as words like “ecological”, which are now common in the language of advertising. It was no surprise that I was confronted with opposition when I used the word in a somewhat different context, namely in the context of science and research. As scientists, I am interested that my profession is done “sustainably”. In Webster’s word-book a meaning of the word “to sustain” is given by “being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged” for the example of “sustainable agriculture”. Insert for the term “resource” the term “trust in the ability of science of generating reliable knowledge”, and the meaning of “sustainable science” becomes clear. Or, in a simpler manner: A scientific institution or a professor is doing science sustainably, when some decades later the public and stakeholders will assign to their former students the same authority for unraveling and explaining complex phenomena.

Studying classical Chinese language or the dramatic living of Abraham Lincoln is most likely done sustainably. Sustainability here means that the present science will have a bearing on future science, in an enriching way, but not in a limiting manner. The present science will not inhibit the legitimacy of future science. The public will be excited about future knowledge as it is about present newly constructed insights.

Research about the forest die back in Germany may serve as an example at the other end of the spectrum. This research was not done sustainably. The science of forest damages was in the 1980s heavily politicized, and used as support for a specific preconceived "good" policy of environmental protection. The resulting overselling and dramatization broke down in the 1990s, and news about adverse developments in German forests is now a hard sell in Germany. An observer wrote in 2004: "The damage for the scientists is enormous. Nobody believes them any longer." Of course, the damage was not only limited to the forest researchers, but also to other environmental scientists and politicians as well.

And climate research? Often it is done sustainably, but sometimes not. Some institutions and some publicly visible scientists are known for simplifying and dramatizing statements of what one would expect from NGOs, e.g., "Coal-fired power plants are death factories." A communication of drama is intended to "move", to initiate "action". The science is supposed to support a preconceived political agenda of something "good".

Overselling takes place in the triangle between policy, media and science. It goes with a risk : The risk for policy-makers is in the possibility that the goals set in this manner cannot be achieved, the ‘‘loss of legitimacy due to taking on too much.’’ The media primarily fear the ‘‘loss of public attention,’’ due to concepts and conceptual fields becoming worn out. For science, the principal risk is the ‘‘loss of credibility due to the particular dynamic of the catastrophe metaphor’’, or other characteristic misleading concept.

Exploiting short-term "advantages" in the public-political discourse by simplification and dramatization for furthering a pre-conceived agenda helps generating attention and short-lived support for this agenda. But this attention and support but can hardly be maintained for a long time as required in case of climate change policies. Attributing the hurricane Katrina to climate change made successfully headlines, and depicting global warming as an uninterrupted continuous upward trend made the understanding of the concept of global warming easier. But, later, we have to pay a prize. There were no more Hurricane-disasters like Katrina's since 2005, and warming is stagnating in the last years. Both facts are not surprising for the climate researcher. They are consistent with the scientific understanding of the phenomenon named "Global Warming". However they are at odds with the simplifying-dramatizing communication strategy and with the resulting medial construction.

The maximization of short-term utility goes with a prize: The public will understand that it has been manipulated, and that it had not honestly been advised by its publicly funded social institution "science". Admittedly, manipulated for something, which has been perceived by certain elites as "good" – but what is the principal difference in this respect between Greenpeace and Exxon? The dramatic decay of trust into the IPCC, following the illegal publication of e-mails at CRU in November 2009, the inacceptable sloppiness in preparing some statements, for instance about the future of Himalayan glaciers, in a report of the 4th Assessment report of the IPCC, was not really surprising.

The effect is twofold. First, the public will no longer believe in the "story", or consider it merely entertainment – and people will effectively become sceptics. Certainly the contrary of the originally intended effect! Second, the public will be unable to distinguish the social institution "science" and value-based NGOs – with the latter being considerably cheaper in delivering the same politically useful knowledge claims!

Thus, those institutions and individuals, who engage in unsustainably practice, cause damage to climate science as a whole - and the very good "product" of this science, which is scientifically solid and relevant for society, is devalued. It is the authority of serious scientists, their institutions and their work who is "depleted" or even "permanently damaged", to use Webster's characterization of "non-sustainabiliy".

20 comments:

Werner Krauss said...

Very interesting post, Hans! So many things to say...here just a few:

as far as I remember, the concept of sustainability comes from the science of forestry in the 19th century: it means cutting only as many trees for industrial use as the forest as a whole can stand (ehem, you get the idea...).

This is funny because you bring up the Waldsterben. As far as I know, the Waldsterben indeed happened. The problem was that it had not one cause (capitalism, the way we live etc), but many causes: the unfiltered emissions from industry for example in parts of the GDR; forest monocultures which were not adapted to the respective soils; or did not fit for meteorological events such as draughts; and other reasons I forgot. In all, due to many regionally and even locally specific factors, in sum there indeed was a Waldsterben - a multi-factorial one. Some scientists said otherwise and argued one-sided only. This mono-causal attribution was not sustainable for the science of forestry, maybe, but it had long term effects - such as the rise of the Greens, the environmental agenda, our general attitude towards the environment etc. This again had remarkable long-term (sustainable?) political effects: Our environment indeed is much cleaner today than thirty years ago, due to better legislation. The forest served well to transport the idea, because trees have a social life, especially in Germany. (they stand in rows like soldiers, and they are good for poems and for the German heart & soul etc).

Lots of similarities to the climate debate, indeed. Anthropogenic climate change is multi-causal etc.

Funny enough, the climate scientist Mojib Latif recently confessed at a talk show (Maybritt Illner) that he only drives 100 km/h on the Autobahn - which is an original semantic relict from the eighties, from the Waldsterben debate! That's a good example how cultural factors linger on in our minds and language...the science of forestry, by the way, recovered pretty well and is well-respected.

One last thing: how come you think that the science about Abraham Lincoln etc might be more sustainable than climate science? The truth about Lincoln was blocked for a long time because it was politically not correct (and not sustainable!) to say that he was a racist (he was for the abolishment of slavery for political reasons, not reasons of the 'heart'). This happens all the time. Thus, what happens in climate science is not unusual, I guess.

Science is dependent on resources, on alarming topics, on funds, on public interest - otherwise, it does not exist. 'Sustainability', 'Waldsterben', 'ecosystem', 'climate change' are key terms when you apply for funds; those phenomena get a social life of their own in science - as does scientific research.
Thus, sustainability in science is closely related to science policies, by the way. But that's another topic.

Hans von Storch said...

I have added a paragraph in the end - I found that people may read my post such that ALL climate science would be done in this way. Certainly it is not; most is not. Most is done sustainably, serious with robust results, mostly consistent with Merton's criteria.

Anyway, Werner - you may be right, but I wrote this post from the perspective of science and its functioning for society. When you say, forest science has regained its reputation in the public - what is this statement based upon? So, the hype may have caused all kind of positive things (for many people), but the prize for science was as I described. Read: Günter Keil, 2004: Chronik einer Panik. Ein Vierteljahrhundert Waldsterben - oder wie ein deutscher Mythos entstand, sich verfestigte und allmählich zerbröckelt. Beobachtungen aus dem Bundesforschungsministerium. DIE ZEIT 51/2004

Werner Krauss said...

I hadn't read the addendum. Sure, I agree. I indeed wrote from a different perspective, not from the inside but as an interested observer. And my post was not a critic, but an extended addendum.

My statement concerning the well-being of forestry is based on mere hearsay and Campus conversation with forestry students. Germany is still a forest country; the forests have to be prepared for future effects of climate change, for example (extended draughts? floodings? tornados?); there were also these incredible (and, as far as I know, successfull) experiments with ecological forestry in the Bayrische Wald, etc. - the science of forestry is still an important science in Germany.

I remember the ZEIT article, and I think they were perfectly right. Almost a case of Lysenkoism. Strangely enough, most of my friends and family (in general well-educated people, readers of Die ZEIT) still believe in the reality of Waldsterben and that it is based on scientific evidence - they are untouched by this wrong interpretation. And as I said before: the Waldsterben indeed happened. This is not a devaluation of your argument, but it is a disturbing element.

These similarities between the Waldsterben and the climate debates are indeed fascinating. Alarmists are maybe wrong in their mono-causal attribution (correct term?), but they are right insofar as anthropogenic climate change exists.

I absolutely agree: proper science has to correct the loudspeakers in order to keep science sustainable - even though they depend (or depended) on them to a certain degree.

Hans von Storch said...

Werner, sure there was a problem with the health of the forests, widely called Waldsterben. But what happened was - one explanation was prematurely declared to be "correct", and one "solution" to be the one only possible, because it carried some political utility (speed limit; change of attitude etc.). Would be interesting to have an impassionate analysis by people, who had no stakes in the affair. Maybe in 20 years time?

"Forestry" still an important science - I would guess so; Certainly, most of the sceintists involved are serious and honest scientists, but in large chunks of the interested public, the authority is "depleted" or "permanently damaged" (I presume).

- Hans

Anonymous said...

Hans von Storch,
A very interesting posting. I agree with almost everything. But I have som difficulties with "sustainable science" as you define it. No scientific theory is "sustainable" in that sense, since theories change all the time. A lot of them have had a concensus of sorts, but have had to yeald anyway to better theories.

Ingemar Nordin

The "sustainability" of science would be better defined as "in accord with scientific method", which has to be critical; being open to the possibility that you are wrong, listening to critical arguments independently of the person delivering it, taking falsifying empirical data seriously, etc.

As a collorary of this view of science: The Humean dictum that "ought" does not follow from "is" is of course true. There are always an infinite number of actions that could be done, given an "is". But we also have the Kantian view that "ought" implies "can", or equiviantly, you cannot be obliged to do what is impossible. From this it follows, I think, that the role of science is only to criticise political ideologies of various kinds because it is impossible to achieve their utopian goals.

The climate science is still a inmarture science. As long as we do not understand the role of clouds, the sun activity and the long term oscillations of the osceans one better keep ones mouth shut when it comes to politics.

ingno said...

Another reflection on your thought provoking post:

Should climate scientists speak out, as you do, and as Judith Curry does? Does not that undermine the authority of science even more? Maybe it is better to keep quiet about the sloppiness of scientific method and let the public be fooled?

Ingemar Nordin

P Gosselin said...

Excellent thought-provoking post. I've been wondering how sustainable climate science can be when new papers cite older papers that are not on a sound footing. Eventually the whole thing will collapse.
It is indeed difficult to separate science from political action at times. Take this, for eexample, where science is working jointly with Greenpeace:
http://www.ifm-geomar.de/index.php?id=537&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=607&tx_ttnews[backPid]=1&cHash=f7ad620637
There's so much to write about. My post tomorrow is an example of the mistrust the public has in the "triangle".

Hans von Storch said...

Ingemar Nordin/6 - depends on your perspective. From a political perspective you may be right - in the sense of getting a "good" result. For an open and democratic society it may be less good since it would "deplete" and "permanently damage" the trust into the democratic system to have a fair and open discoure about issues.

And finally, what would it mean for science? It would represent a blatant break with Merton's norms (or whomever you want to refer to). Would science "survive" such a redefinition of our own understanding of the institution "science", which shall generate and provide knowledge about complex phenomena and developments?

In historical times, we had a long period with your model. It was called church. Read the debate between the munk and the cardinal in Brecht's Galileo. -- Hans von Storch

Hans von Storch said...

Ingemar Nordin/5 - I do not think that the adjective "sustainable" can be used for specific "scientific theories". Actions and practices can be done sustainably but not a theory, which is a knowldege claim considered valid until falsified. The usage of a theory, though, could. -- Hans von Storch

P Gosselin said...

Other scientists have a different opinion about climate science's sustainability and its role in society. See the 3.46 mark of this video:
http://www.youtube.com/user/BundesstiftungUmwelt#p/u/15/25FUbzhb6RE

Here Prof Schellnhuber demands that (his) science be taken more seriously.

But have other sceptical views been taken seriously?

He is absolutely certain about what lies ahead and what has to be done with society.
That kind of authority is qualification for steering politics?
A remarkably unusual position for a scientist to take.

Nils Roll-Hansen said...

To Werner Krauss (7 August),
As an historian of science I have studied the history of "Waldsterben" in the 1980s, primarily in Norway but also other European countries, and to soem smaller extent in North America. It is clear that the scenarios of the mass media, supported by many scientists, of a wideranging catastrophic decline and death of forest trees due to "acid rain" did not in fact happen. On average forests in Scandinavia as well as in central Europe grow as well if not better than before. In this sense there was no "Waldsterben". And the reports in the mass media in the 1980s that "Waldsterben" was already happening were scientifically unsound. Thus I believe it is simply false and misleading to claim that "Waldsterben" did in fact happen.

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks for this information, Mr. Roll-Hansen. I am far from being an expert on Waldsterben. I just remember that in the East German 'Erzgebirge' there was a wide ranging damage of forests due to what I think was indeed 'acid rain'; and at the same time, there was damage in forest monocultures in the West of Germany due to a drought in the eighties.
I have no doubt that it was scientifically illegitimate to make up these unrelated events as 'Waldsterben'.
Instead, it was maybe one of those classic misinterpretations; Stehr and von Storch once wrote about such a misinterpretation in Switzerland concerning river floodings in the 19th (?) or early 20th century; the misinterpretations lead to positive consequences in the long run (reforestation in the mountains). Same with Waldsterben - I guess it had positive consequences for the environment in the long run (but not for the credibility of science of forestry, for sure).

Richard Tol said...

There are some who argue that climate change is so serious that we should do away with democracy; and some who argue that proper scientific conduct should be sacrificed for the greater good of environmental protection.

If you look back in history, you find that it took a long time to replace autocracy with democracy and religion with science (as the main description of how the world works) -- indeed, that transition is far from complete.

Abolishing these institutions would be high price to pay -- too high for me.

Nils Roll-Hansen said...

To Werner Krauss,
There is some important detail to add to the large picture I sketched. There was indeed extensive damge of forests in parts of the Erzgebirge. But this was due to direct toxic effects from SO2 in the air. Such effects have long been know in the vicinity of large emitters of SO2. Acid rain was supposed to work through the acidic substances transported through the air and then washed down by rain into the soild where it then affected the trees. There were also other notable forest damages ("neue Waldschaden") in Germany in the early 1980. Some of them were probably due to an extreme and quick fall in temperature at Christmas-time in 1980(?).
But a widespread forest death due to acid rain did not occur.

Anonymous said...

Hans von Storch/8 and Richard Tol/13

Good, se here are at least two persons determined to do a good and honest work with AR5. I am glad!

Ingemar Nordin

Werner Krauss said...

Richard #13,
I fully agree. The price would be too high, and the resulting climate politics would be too stupid.

Werner Krauss said...

to Nils Roll-Hansen

Thanks again for clarification. In terms of many articles by Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch, we have a phenomenon similar to the current climate change discussion: there is a 'societal construct' Waldsterben on the one hand, and there is the scientific analysis of different events which result in the insight that there was no Waldsterben due to acid rain.

Anyway, parts of the science of forestry fostered the idea of Waldsterben due to acid rain, for political reasons. Mojib Latif's recent interview in BILD (which we discuss in another post here) stands in the same line: he clusters diverse elements into one narrative of climate catastrophe.

It is still interesting to find out why that is. The idea that science is a cold and impartial arbiter seems all too easy; there are many reasons in history to distrust science. We should stick to the ideal, for sure, but we cannot explain phenomena like Waldsterben fully in separating the social from the natural, the symbolic from the analytical etc.

This is not an excuse for bad science and illegitimate use of cultural fears for political reasons; instead, I still see it as a challenge to think about the very nature of those phenomena. Climate is a hybrid as are the forests; thus, the respective sciences are analytical and interpretive at the same time.

We have no real concept yet for such a science. This is a major problem. Instead of distrusting each other of being not scientific, both the 'engaged' and the 'cold' should head for a new scientific approach beyond usual disciplinary divisions.

Or, maybe, this is only science fiction.

Zajko said...

von Storch/6: Science has a long history of breaking with Merton's norms in less-than-blatant ways - I think now it is simply easier to be more open and honest about it.
This is not to say that science should embrace activism, but is a redefinition that recognizes this potential really so dangerous? Perhaps science would survive ever-stronger if the public trust was not based upon the myth of detached purity.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for standards, but holding to a rigid Mertonian (or other similar) conception of science is itself unsustainable, because the violation of such norms by scientists has always been so routine.
I'm more interested in fostering a more sustainable understanding of science than encouraging more sustainable conduct by scientists. Climate science for one would have suffered less damage as a whole from recent events if they had not been seen as so aberrant to the myth of science.
Sure, let's encourage responsible and accurate presentations of scientific knowledge, but let's also expand our thinking about the role of science in society.

Chris Eastaugh said...

Speaking as a relatively young forest scientist from the New World (Australia), I must say that the Waldsterben episode didn't much impinge on my consciousness at all at the time. Now, working in Europe, it is something that I am intensely aware of. Perhaps it is presumptious of me to say it, but I would imagine that many honest scientists saw an oportunity to drag some much-needed funding into their field, and with the active endorsement of the Green movement the whole thing got a little out of control.
To be sure though, the episode was not a complete debacle. The Waldsterben spawned an interest in systematic, internationally coordinated (in theory) monitoring of forest health conditions. This is undoubtably of advantage to the science, and to society.
In terms of the similarities between the Waldsterben episode and current concerns about climate change, I can only say that from what I have seen and heard, experienced forest scientists are among the most likely people to express some quiet reservations about predictions of impending doom. But, funding is still funding, and not many governments spend significant amounts of money if there is no significant problem to address.

Nils Roll-Hansen said...

I agree Werner Krauss.(11. August)
There is urgent need of developing properly scientific studies of how common sense ideas about phenomena in nature develop in interaction between political and cultural input on the one hand and and the research of specialized sciences on the other. Science studies (philosophy, history, sociology) has so far done little to chart the processes and mechanisms by which relatively reliable (objective) knowledge is established in the public sphere in spite of all the forces that tend to derail it. Science studies of recent decades has contributed much to our perception of the derailing forces but little to our understanding of how reliable knowledge is nevertheless attainable. I believe in depth case studies of episodes with heavy entanglement of science with ideology and politics, like Waldsterben, Lysenkoism, eugenics, spontaneous generation (Pasteur etc in late 19th century),can help us form the general conceptual appartus and theories that we need in order to manage the present problems of climate politics and science. I have been working on this theme for a long time and would welcome some kind of cooperation and concertedc effort.