|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Friday, March 19, 2010
Our fourth Social Session last week went well: the audience of thirty or so, a good proportion of which was from the natural sciences, almost packed out the room. The presentations were clear and the discussion lively. Thanks to all the participants, to the audience, and to Margaret Rennex, Jo Law, Emma Capewell, and Clare de Mowbray for making it all work.
As chair I welcomed everyone and made some opening remarks:
Last November one sentence from a hacked email by Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia from ten years earlier went around the world.
"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."
These words have been and no doubt for a long time will be endlessly quoted and misquoted to suggest that climate scientists are conspiring to hide a recent decline in global temperature, and that global warming is a hoax. The saying that a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on has seldom been so brilliantly confirmed.
When I looked into this and other supposed scandals in the hacked emails - about peer review, refusal to release so-called raw data, and badly-designed computer code - and especially when I compared what the scientists and their defenders had to say with what their critics said - from the most fervent doubters of global warming to George Monbiot - I began to suspect that lots of people have a completely false and idealised view of how science is actually done and what scientists are like. Now I knew a bit about that from my own experience as a postgrad, from talking to scientists, and also from some of the science studies literature that I've had a chance to look at over the past year or so. My initial pitch for this session was ‘Can Science Studies Save the Earth?’ but we decided to go for the populist version.
So tonight we're going to ask whether and if so how the messy, human and uncertain practice of science can deliver reliable knowledge, and how and whether this knowledge should be used to inform policy.
I then introduced the speakers:
Simon Shackley - School of Geosciences
Colin Macilwain - Nature columnist
Ben Pile - Climate Resistance blog
Colin Campbell - EaSTCHEM Research Fellow, School of Chemistry
Steve Sturdy - Genomics Forum Deputy Director
Here are some reconstructions of what the speakers said, taken from my scrappy notes. If anyone feels they've been misheard, please let me know.
Simon Shackley began by referring to the widely held ideal of science summarised as Robert K. Merton's CUDOS principles: communism (in the sense of no private property in ideas), universalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism. These work fine in normal science, but in post-normal science, where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent" , not so much. In normal science it would be quite acceptable not to provide algorithms and program code, but in post-normal science the only course to follow was complete openness. The CRU people were still doing normal science, when they should have realised that their situation was post-normal and that everything they did and said - not just their published work - would come under scrutiny from other interested parties, not just other scientists. Put it all up on the web!
Colin Macilwain pointed out that the public needed more than raw data on a website. A crucial mediating role was played by science journalists - Ben Goldacre is a good example. Colin argued that the CRU scientists had been harassed, including with FOIA requests, and that it was obvious that the 'trick' was not deceit. But he added that climate models - as distinct from climate observations - could very well be queried, and that in the models there was indeed much to be sceptical about.
Ben Pile insisted that the climate change issue was centrally about moral and political, rather than scientific, claims. Statements such as: 'We have just ten years to save the planet', or the comparison of fossil fuel use to slave-owning, are (overstated) moral claims. In the absence of clear sources of moral authority or political principle, 'the science' of climate change has served as a source of 'cheap moral realism'. ('Realism' in the sense, I think, of moral principles as existing independently of, rather than arising out of, human concerns.) The CRU had to carry the weight of being at the centre of all those moral arguments, thus making it, naturally, the focus of hacking attacks.
Colin Campbell, coming from a less publicly contentious field, allowed that some poor research gets published in the less prestigious journals, but that in science it's only possible to get away with 'low-impact lies'. He agreed that sometimes a scientific orthodoxy can shut out minority views, but not indefinitely: Peter Mitchell's chemiosmotic hypothesis was not at first well received, but eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and is now in all the textbooks. One advantage of doing normal science is not having to deal with the coupling of scientific debate and moral norms.
Steve Sturdy argued that scientists are seen as trustworthy not because the general public can independently assess their work - we can't, without being scientists ourselves - but to the extent that they live up certain expectations and ideals, which the Mertonian norms (referred to by Simon at the start) express as well as any. Scientists need to be completely open about the scientific process and about uncertainties. Science journalists are guilty of not engaging with the actual arguments of 'climate sceptics', preferring to expose their funding and political affiliations - which are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the content of their arguments, which have to be met.
The discussion that followed ranged over science journalism - with Colin Macilwain sticking up for the profession - science education, with some in the audience arguing that it had all gone downhill in the past forty years or so - and the politics of the climate debate. Curiously enough, despite the differing perspectives of the panellists, what emerged was something like a consensus - that whatever may have been the case in the past, the only way forward for climate science was for every step of the process to be out in the open.