Sunday, January 30, 2011

the ends should never justify the means

In her comments on a recent workshop in Lisbon, Judy Curry notes that:
  • "Climate scientists seem frustrated by an apparent inability to communicate effectively to the public.  They seem to think that knowledge speaks to power: if we communicated better, people would do what is needed."
Does anyone else get a sense of irony from the fact that so many involved in climate science are either (a) educators or (b) government employees?  Both constituent groups would appear to have as a prerequisite good communication skills.  Is it then the skill that is lacking, or the will?  

Is the explanation indeed in the latter part of the quote, the presumption that knowledge is power and that the science when applied to climate is less about the understanding of fundamental truth for enlightenment and more about the imposition of power to direct behavior towards a presumptive end? 

I will suggest further that the understanding of science, post-normal science and the politicization of science as exemplified by environmentalism (including climate) is enhanced by an appreciation of the ideology guiding the politics that direct the science through its funding.

Reduced to a simple sound bite: the political interest in climate is a contrivance, an excuse to mandate presumptive political controls.  The science is used selectively when it supports the political agenda of economic intervention by government and behavior modification consistent with the mantra of the  environmental ideology seemingly made imperative by the selective science employed.  There is no pervasive interest in "truth", only in the science that provides the convenient answers: the control over funding and the predominance of the IPCC process, are the tools through which the conduct of science is thus "guided".  Self interest and wise career management tend to further correct the system, which is further reinforced by the normal processes of academia.  For example, personalities are enveloped into the system, as we do not do a good job of differentiating ideas from individuals.  This has the effect of furthering tribalism as individuals perceive themselves to be under attack whenever the ideas they have been promoting are queried, scrutinized or "attacked".
Thus, rather than extend a discussion about the relative merits of scientific method and PNS, I would suggest that all recognize the influence that both politics and ideological goals have on both the conduct of science, the framing of the questions asked of the science and the manner with which the findings of science are then communicated and received by different audiences.  The corollary is that those who engage in the debate on climate do so for a wide range of reasons: some as "pure" scientists seeking just the "truth", some as scientists seeking a particular truth, some as political activists seeking to use either sets of knowledge as an appropriate contrivance to some ends and others simply because it is the highest profile (best funded) are of research open to them: no labels, that only serves to obscure the variety of motives and activities that do exist.

My point is that we can either continue to identify when, where and why people agree on our understanding of the science; or we can continue to differentiate what our preferred adaptive strategies are and when, why and how they differ.  To continue to conflate the two, is to continue to confuse the primacy of the science with the exigency of the politics.  To my mind, reconciliation of the science (the means) is not possible without first neutralizing the politics (the ends).  At present, too much of the discussion of climate is characterized by the political ends justifying the scientific means.

much of the above commentary stems from my own reflection on this wonderful post by Ben over at Climate resistance.  He states:
  • The mistake Nurse makes in his treatment of the climate debate is to imagine that it is divided over a simple claim that ‘climate change is happening’. It is this polarisation of the debate into simple categories — scientists verses deniers — which obscures the real substance of debate, its context, and its nuances. The reality is that climate change is a matter of degree, not a matter of true versus false. From this question of degree emerge points of disagreement about the likely material consequences of warming, each of which are also questions of degree. And from these consequences emerge debates about how these Nth-order effects of Nth-order effects of global warming are likely to cause problems for humans. There are then yet further debates about how best to respond effectively.
  • Nurse might argue that this reorganisation of political life around environmental issues comes with the blessing of scientific authority, and that it is science which identified the need to adjust our lifestyles and economy. But the greening of domestic and international politics preceded any science. The concept of ‘sustainability’ was an established part of the international agenda long before the IPCC produced an ‘unequivocal’ consensus on climate; the IPCC was established to create a consensus for political ends. Nurse, nearly recognising science’s role in the legitimisation of such political ecology, worries about loss of trust. If scientists are not ‘open about everything they do’, he says, ‘then the conversation will be dominated by people driven by politics and ideology’. But it is already ‘driven by politics and ideology’... it’s simply that Nurse does not recognise environmentalism as political or ideological, and he does not notice himself reproducing environmental politics and ideology. The loss of trust he now observes is not the consequence of politics and ideology, but the all too visible attempt to hide it behind science and highly emotive images of catastrophe.