Friday, February 11, 2011

Sociology and the Climate Debate

Over at the European branch of the Breakthrough Institute, there is an exciting debate about the role of sociology in the climate change debate. Our klimazwiebel author Reiner Grundmann  and Nico Stehr make an argument for social constructivism and make a warning to the sociologists in the field: "the inherent alarmism in many social science contributions on climate change merely repeats the central message provided by mainstream media."  Here you find an excellent summary of their arguments, as well as a link to their article "Climate Change: what role for sociology? An answer to Constance Lever-Tracy".


Stan said...

"By this we mean the concern
that anything that could be seen to cast doubt on the ‘integrity’ of the climate scientists has to be avoided in order to protect the political impetus behind it. There seems to be the curious conviction that lest you want to be accused of helping the fossil fuel lobbies and the climate sceptics, you better keep quiet."

Pretty much nails everything that is wrong with academics in the world today. Political correctness trumps truth.

Anonymous said...

@ Werner

"More progress could be made by a re-framing of the issue, not as an issue of human sinfulness, but of human dignity"

How about a re-framing of the issue, neither as an issue of human sinfulness, nor as one of human dignity - but as a major and clearly scientific problem in the first place?

And how about sociologists (and some climate researchers) accepting the issue to be far away from being solved in terms of a scientific (physical) point of view?

Hard to see how (physical) "truth" could be found through a dialectic debate.
Just an example of what we are talking about ...

The contribution and the discussion are well worth reading - for sociologists too ;-)


Hans von Storch said...

I would presume that the reason why we engage in the debate here is closely related to the postnormal situation, the climate issue is discussed (negotiated) in. Climate is a scientific issue, more specifically: climate dynamics, climate statistics, envisioning future climate, climate processes and others specifics. But climate is also an issue of everyday perception, of everyday talk by - everybody. Since a decade, or so, climate is also a significant issue in the political realm - in terms of environmental policy possibly the most significant. Finally climate has become a cultural issue, which helps people to interpret their world and environment consistently (not necessarily scientifically "correct").

The idea that a meaningful policy, and a debate about such a policy, needs to await clarification of the scientific issues is not meeting the socio-cultural reality. If people adopt concepts like the precautionary principle - and that is a value decision, nothing else, thus something equivalent of choosing one's own religion! - then they will correctly and legitimately argue that not the certainty is a key argument but the possibility/plausibility. ("Correct" for themselves.)

Werner Krauss said...

Well put, Hans. And we should not forget that the scientist, the ordinary citizen, the politician and the journalist all breathe the very same air and share the very same climate envelope.
No one is outside of it; we have different takes on climate, but we all share the more or less vague idea that there is 'something in the air' and that we from now on have to take climate into account. It is no longer 'just there' (and will never be again 'just there', maybe).
The point I want to make here is that it is not the sole privilege of the citizen, the politician or the journalist to be concerned; the scientist is, of course, concerned too. Climate science is not "just science", nor has it ever been.

Anonymous said...

@ Hans & Werner

I agree with you that climate is also an issue of everyday perception and everybodies talk and interest.

But - especially under post normal conditions - shouldn't it be allowed and essential to point out and make clear that above all of all the questions discussed there remains a scientific problem in the center?

Another important issue of course is to study the sociological background of research and researchers on the field and the sociological background of media work and media workers as well, - not to mention politicians.

Here's what happens when psychologists take care of the issue, far away from from being specialists on the field and without having a closer look on its uncertainties and problems, ignoring completely the hard work that is done to solve these problems ...


Mathis Hampel said...

Weather has first of all been a 'non-scientific' issue, then science appropriated climate. Compare: A photon is a scientific creation, then it becomes a 'non-scientific' cultural issue

Some find it hard to accept climate in the hands of cultural authorities other than science thereby forgetting that climate science' epistemic authority is also a cultural product. Science can indeed speak authoritatively about climate but is by no means the only authority in town. What about Allah?


Anonymous said...

"Science can indeed speak authoritatively about climate but is by no means the only authority in town"

Sort of a Fatwa against empirical adequacy?

"climate in the hands of cultural authorities"?!

Climate is in no ones hands, fortunately not even in those of people believing in 2° targets.

No difference between the methodical observation and analysis of a natural phenomenon - and everybody's talk about climate impacts, the social and economic aspects? To speak with Müller Milch: "Alles Klima, oder was?"

A photon, by the way, is a photon ... neither a scientific creation, nor a cultural issue. If it was, everybody would be able change its natural properties. The fact that it remains difficult to explain and to describe doesn't make it an artificial construct. You might just give it another name if you wish to.


Werner Krauss said...

Ralph, I am afraid that Grundmann / Stehr would not agree. Do you, Reiner?

Zajko said...

This response was a real pleasure to read. Lever-Tracy's article was one around which my thinking on this issue first started to come together, and my dissatisfaction with it led to me to go looking elsewhere.
How exactly were we as sociologists supposed to carry out this proposed programme (I thought), even if I accepted Lever-Tracy's claims? I couldn't simply forget the lessons of constructivism (the useful ones anyway), and Jared Diamond's Collapse simply wasn't going to do as a model.

Grundmann/Stehr lay out my main objections better than I could, and also list a few others.
Seems to me the Lever-Tracy piece (and John Urry's address) were really a product of their time (2007-2008), and this response is likewise timely. The call-to-arms has not had much success, both within sociology and in the broader battle vs dangerous climate change. Failures like these need to be explained by something other than "merchants of doubt", and our failure as sociologists to come to grips with the situation is due to more than just a predisposed reluctance.

If we are going to take climate change seriously we need try something else (and we do need to take it seriously). Sociologists need to stay attendant to nuance, question simple narratives and easy explanations - finding society's blind spots is what the discipline has always been effective at, and an aspect "lay sociologists" often miss.

On revisiting Lever-Tracy however, I did notice her taking Beck to task for his failure on this issue. While the Breakthrough Institute gives a link to Beck's recent contribution, I agree with her that climate change is at odds with a number of Risk Society's paradigmatic formulations (just different ones). I plan to have a piece on this ready in a few months.


Anonymous said...

@ Werner

A lot of confusion here ...

Grundmann/Stehr, answering Lever-Tracy's framing attempt: "Why has the time frame of 10 years been given? Doesn't this sound like an estimate based on political expediency? Who has come up with this formula of 'we just have 10 more years to act before it will be too late?"

These are obviously and at the end scientific questions rather than sociological ones.

Let me put straight and in a simple row:

1. Sociology (and whatever other academic discipline) is not going to answer the basic scientific questions concerning the climate processes (sensitivity, natural cycles, human contributions to change etc.)

2. Who ever is talking about climate in an academic or political approach, should refer to the scientific debate on the issue, reviewing its actual state, its open questions and uncertainties.

One of the interesting questions is why this plausible "rule" is ignored by many of the academic and political contributors to the public debate.

3. AR4, report of working group I, does not offer some kind of an 'everything goes' biotope for what ever views, opinions, ideas might be presented in the field of climate science (there is enough space for fantasies in WG II and III).

4. Science does not speak authoritatively about climate issues in general (impacts, policies etc.), but of course it owns some authority in all scientific aspects of the issue.


Anonymous said...

Let me add a statement of a philosopher missing distributions of his own scholar:

"Those deliberations will require a new synthesis that involves scientists, social scientists,
historians—and others, too. It is an embarrassment (at least for me) that philosophers have not contributed more to this necessary
conversation. We might clarify some
of the methodological issues—for instance, those concerning the variety of risks involved
in model-building. Perhaps more important, we could use recent ethical work on responsibilities
to future generations and to distant people to articulate a detailed ethical framework
that might help a planet’s worth of policy-makers fi nd their way to consensus."

(Philip Kitchen, The Climate Change Debates)


Anonymous said...

Oops, typo: Philip Kitcher is the philosopher's name.


@ReinerGrundmann said...


It is an astonishing feat that scientists have convinced everyone else (well, those who care to listen, I guess most people don't) that photons exist "out there". By this I mean that photons have not been "found" or "discovered". They are the result of a research process in which theories and hypotheses were tested experimentally. This requires a research community which works on the basis of theoretical assumptions. After such a community of researchers are convinced that their experiments proved that "photons" existed, they were given the epistemological status of being real entities.

This is social constructivism in a nutshell and has nothing to do with the common caricature that we could construct anything we wanted or "change the natural properties" as you put it. What the natural properties are is established in the process of establishing photons as real entities, as "facts".

@ReinerGrundmann said...


I admit I am confused reading this comment of yours:

'Grundmann/Stehr, answering Lever-Tracy's framing attempt: "Why has the time frame of 10 years been given? Doesn't this sound like an estimate based on political expediency? Who has come up with this formula of 'we just have 10 more years to act before it will be too late?"

These are obviously and at the end scientific questions rather than sociological ones."'

How can science answer these questions? Please tell me.

Anonymous said...

@ Reiner

(first post)

"photons have not been "found" or "discovered"

... neither has the wheel, the bow and the arrow - or Beethovens symphonies e.g.
And - photons can be detected by quite a number of methods. I don't think that "social constructivism" makes part of them.
Or shall we ask for "social constructivism" behind electricity? mechanics? mathematics?

(second post)

"How can science answer these questions?"

Who else will? Please tell me.
The question "Who has come up with this formula ..."
leads to the question "where are the grounds for the assumption?"

Instead of wasting time with the narcissistic view in a rather blind mirror, sociology could shed a light on the sociological background of climate research and scientists - thus, staying on solid ground.

Trying to illustrate what we are discussing here, I have posted two links (see post N° 2 and 5). The first of them giving an idea of the solid work that is done in (climate) maths, the second one leaves an impression of what you call "social constructivism" or people making their own beliefs to what should be understood by "science".

One of the really interesting sociological and psychological questions: why most of the climate scientist don't/didn't stand up against this kind of exaggerations and the ones spread around by colleagues and famous representatives?
They prefer to keep quiet, like nothing happened: "nothing to see here, folks, just move along"

"Climate Change: what role for sociology? "
A good question indeed.


Hans von Storch said...

you may have misunderstood the term "social construction!" (or I may have so). The issue is a certain duality (multiplicity) of concepts.

One concept of a photon would be technical-mathematical, just to attach a label to it. You may argue that this is simply an object, which has been detected by a number of people in different ways. In a sense, objective. You may wonder, however, what type of "model" (now the physical meaning; concept, pre-form of a theory) would have been formulated in a different cultural setting? IfIf modern physics would not have been formulated in the first half of the 20th century not Göttingen but Qingdao? Anyway, I would call this the scientific construction.

The other, the social construction, is something else - it combines the scientific construction with meanings for our life; for doing so, the scientific construction undergoes metamorphoses; it becomes a symbol, for instance for progress, scientific objectivity, of the superiority of non-sociology. You yourself demonstrated it - the photon was in your case an argument, and you used it not because of its specific properties but because of its argumentative utility. In this form, it is a social construction.

The fundamental error we natural scientists often make is to understand that there would be a claim that the mathematical-technical description should itself be a social construction (when we take into account the cultural conditioning, it is true to some extend) (and thus arbitrarily be defined by house-wifes and carpenters). No, the issue is that we have different constructions of issues, done in different cultural and social spheres of our societies.

I started this business almost 20 years ago, when I met Nico Stehr - the result of our meeting was the understanding of the duality (or multiplicity) of words (and constructions), which compete with each other - and that a practical climate science must deal with these different knowledge claims, must become transdisciplinary. Some of our papers/books on this issue are:

Stehr, N. and H. von Storch, 1995: The social construct of climate and climate change. - Clim. Res. 5, 99-105
Stehr, N. and H. von Storch, 1997: Das soziale Konstrukt des Klimas. In: VDI-Gesellschaft Energietechnik (Ed): Umwelt- und Klimabeeinflussung durch den Menschen IV, VDI Berichte 1330, 187-197 (ISBN 3-18-0913304)
Stehr, N. and H. von Storch, 2010: Climate and Society. Climate as a Resource, Climate as a Risk. World Scientific

Limiting "climate" and "climate change" to a natural scientific view, is fine as long the whole debate remains within the realm of natural science (Elfenbeinturm), but as soon as practical considerations come into play, conclusions about meaning and policy are drawn, then the social construct is taking over more and more.

I can not say this in English - "Die strategische Frage ist die Deutungshoheit über die Kanzeln, die Stamm- und Küchentische".

In your case, Ralph, I would say, you speak about the social construction of sociology, not about the scientific construction of sociology, how active scientists in that field would define it.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


There is a rich literature on the social construction of technologies (see W. Bijker, Th.P. Hughes and T. Pinch eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems) and of science (B. Latour and S. Woolgar, Laboratory Life, or A. Pickering, Constructing Quarks).
It is interesting that you seem to think mathematics is a solid case for realism: but it is not a science (in the sense of natural science) rather a Geisteswissenschaft based on axiomatic assimptions. And it works similar like all other sciences in that mathematical claims are accepted or rejected by a social community (of mathematicians). What emerges if a claim is accepted is a proof, like a fact. This gives the impression that the world "is" mathematical.

Your second reply evades the question by saying there are more interesting ("solid") things behind these sociological questions. Nice trick, and social constructivist, too!

Anonymous said...

@ Hans & Reiner

I don't think my negligible contribution to the debate deserves that much of attention and an broad excourse in social constructivism (I do not ignore the issue), but anyway, thank you for taking time to answer.

It all startet with the sentence "How about a re-framing of the issue ... as a major and clearly scientific problem in the first place?"

This wasn't even an advice, just - and after reading the Grundmann/Stehr paper - a "freeloader's" ;-) thought or the conviction that the interpretative authority ("Deutungshoheit") at the core of the controversies (climate sensitivity, natural cycles, CO2, human contributions to climate change etc.) remains a scientific task.

Grundmann/Stehr: "Might it not be that the political and social forces have become so strong that the very principles of the field of science studies have taken a back seat?"

That's what I tried to point out. When sociologist, other humanities researchers and political representatives call for action, they should have a regular look in the kitchen of science instead of simply believing in what they think to be given and unchangeable facts.

On the other hand and considering a reform of the IPCC: politicians and bureaucrats should be kept as far away from the scientific process as possible.


"Stammtisch" by the way, seems to be translated as "crackerbarrel" sounds quite onomatopoeic, doesn't it?