Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Consumer Science

We live in an age of consumerism. A basic idea is to sell goods, goods and more goods. Could it be that some aspects of science have bought into this? Science is though, somewhat of a strange market model. As far I can ascertain, it is the only entity that produces goods (journal articles) to either give away or even pay to give away (publishing costs). And it is not often, to my knowledge, that a presentation by a scientists receives the same fee as say a presentation by Bill Clinton or Al Gore. So could it be, admittedly tied up with recent rage to ‘communicate’ science, that scientists have devised (likely unknowingly) a new currency on which to judge success in a world gone mad with consumerism? Has climate modelling transmogrified from a science to a technology, shifting the tendency even more towards consumerism?

Is the currency of science status, fame and/or notoriety? Is this what is hoped to be received from the ‘consumers’ of science for payment of goods Is there a quest to produce science ‘good, goods and more goods’ for the consumer? Also, is there a tendency to package consumer science in ever more attractive packages? Has there not been the creation of marketing departments - i.e. science-stakeholder communications groups or institutes? Is this blog a form of marketing? These, of course, were all probably created out of good intention, but, nonetheless, if we view science as being on the consumerism band wagon, these are marketing branches of science, ‘selling’ the wares of science.

There is one more thing that might be an indication that perhaps consumer science is coming in vogue. This is what (some) science does. There has always been a tendency for technology to lend to the consumer market. What is invented or developed usually finds its way to the market place. This is (very often at least)the purpose of the process: from automotive to pharmaceutical. There has also always been distinctions between science and technology. Without going into a long diatribe, one distinction has been between decoding and encoding. Science decodes, technology encodes. Very, very, simply, science seeks the finite principles of a complex whole. Technology rearranges, combines, etc., the principles in the production of a product that has utility.

Now let’s take a look at climate change. In the early days there was Arrhenius and Brueckner for example. They lent themselves, if not completely then almost completely, to decoding aspects of climate phenomena. A hundred or so years later modellers began to encode, they started to put the pieces together, they made models. The question is, does this encoding smack of technology? The model is a tool, is it not? The output of the model, if viewed in the light of consumerism noted above, is a product, to be marketed by various strategies and to be consumed by a public.

Now, if we accept Foucault’s definition of technology, referring to the ‘technologies of the self’ then we are talking about the methods and techniques (‘tools’) through which human beings constitute themselves, through which we define and produce our own ethical self-understanding. Technologies of the self are the forms of knowledge giving rise to strategies that 'permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality' (Foucault, M (1988) Technologies of the self. In L H Martin, H Gutman and P H Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press). Isn’t this what the output of climate models eventually leads to?

So I ask once again:  Does climate modelling produce a consumer product? Is climate modeling science or technology?


Bob Brand said...


Nice post. I'd say that consumerism also concerns the selling of services and of ideas, next to goods.

Obviously scientists (in all disciplines) need to "sell" their ideas and findings. Published articles and ISI journal citation counts are important means to achieve that.

Is it automatically true that more citations means better science? Not always - but one needs SOME metric to measure how widely read and used one's ideas are.

Climate science has become considerably politicized (maybe even a new kind of semi-religious battlefield), which means there is a large market/audience for climate scientists of all ilk...

eduardo said...

products have a price tag

"Requests regarding speaking engagements must include date, place and conditions offered."

Dennis Bray said...


How much is the price tag for the products of your efforts? I mean during regular working hour efforts.

Dennis Bray said...



Date: August 28
Location: Copely(sp?) Hotel, Boston
Conditions: you pay all expenses (including mine)
Topic: eating nachos

ghost said...

I like the post.

hm, the models are both science and technology, i think. I think, the investigation of interactions between different processes and parts of a model are science, too. I think during modeling and testing parts in interaction you can find out new points about the single processes, too. Just my imagination.

I mean, the combination of radiation models and a convective model by Manabe (and Wetherald) was a milestone, it brought a first more or less realistic model. That is science in my point of view. I could imagine, there are similar things today.

And they are technology: a model is used not only for prediction, but also as tool for new ideas, for testing of reconstruction methods, for testing of new processes, for instance new ideas of the influence of the sun. Etc. Of course, never forget the reality. ;) Models are all wrong, but some are useful.

So, IMHO, climate modeling is both: technology and science.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Technoscience is a term intoduced to describe the close interaction between scientific theories and observations which could only be made with the help of technical apparatus. Mario Biagioli's study of Galileo's use of the telescope comes to mind as one of the classical examples. Here is a link to one of his papers which might be of interest.

Unknown said...

I feel the general trend of commercialization of science, but the field of climate science seems to be less commercialized than others.

The infrastructure of meteorological observations and forecasts has been developed mainly by national governments (with international collaborations), and climate science is built on the heritage. The history is recently summarized in the book:
Paul Edwards, 2010: The Vast Machine. MIT Press.

In "Western" countries, there are people who promote small governments and insist that scientific information should become intellectual properties. But concerning climate data they (at least some ot them) strongly promote public goods. I am not sure whether they recognize that sustained production of public goods almost always require active participation of governments.

But in the broader world, some governments which have mixed policy of capitalism and socialism tend to see weather and climate data as state-owned intellectual properties (maybe capitals). Whether the data become globally open, held within the national boundary, or only sold to those who pay, is at the discretion of those governments. Supplyer's initiative is stronger than consumerism here.

By the way, I think that we should strive for making information/knowledge products about climate more friendly to the end-users. We need collaboration between various end-users, climate scientists, and operational data providers (usually governmental agencies).

eduardo said...

I am not sure that it is always the case that science predates technology. In some cases technology was developed earlier and then science manages to explain or to formulate the basic principles on which the technology was operating. Examples that come to my mind are metallurgy - a very ancient technology, the science of which only developed with the advent of chemistry and more recently material sciences, which a lot is based on quantum physics. Other example is the vapor engine, which later lead to the formulation of thermodynamics and even to the 'discovery' of one the of the most basic principles of science - the conservation of energy. Selection of crops and animal traits for farming has been conducted for thousand of years before the formulation of the concept of gene and later with deciphering of the genetic code. So I think that often science and technology are so entangled that it is difficult to tell them apart.

In the case of climate modelling, they both growth together. There are very few governing principles in climate science because for some components of climate, e.g. turbulence there is still no valid theory, only heuristic approaches. This together with the impossibility to conduct experiments places the models in very central position, the substitute for a laboratory. This is in some sense awkward - the test bed for theories are also constructed realities