Monday, December 21, 2009

Doing science in a greenhouse


The recent furor surrounding the hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University has died down a good bit, but the effects of it will reverberate for a long time The e-mails reveal a good bit of small-minded belligerence toward some scientists whose views depart from the consensus position, and speak of excluding some of their work. The director of CRU, Phil Jones, has stepped down pending an investigation of the episode. Pennsylvania State University said it would review the work of Michael Mann, a faculty member cited prominently in the e-mail messages, to assure that it meets proper academic standards. Climate change skeptics have seized upon the disclosures as demonstration of what they have been saying all along, that the science behind the claimed anthropogenic changes to climate is dubious at best. Republicans in Congress are calling for investigations into the work of US scientists any way connected, inasmuch as they are likely to be supported by federal funds.

What can this episode teach us about the nature of scientific authority? Clearly the authority of many scientists identified in the e-mails has been substantially weakened, and, by association, that of the climate science community more generally. Analysis of this particular case can help us understand more clearly the boundaries between science and other social sectors, and point to how scientists should behave to sustain science’s proper societal roles (See Steven Shapin’s excellent essay on this subject, and the discussion in Imperfect Oracle).

Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post on December 11 about the melding of science and politics. In the interests of advancing the case for urgent responses to the threats represented by climate change, some prominent climate scientists “..appear to exaggerate their public certainty on disputed issues, shade the presentation of information for political effect, tamper with the peer-review process, resist reasonable requests for supporting data ..” He speaks of the insularity of the climate science community: “Climate scientists are clearly accustomed to deference. Theirs is a community coddled by global elites, extensively funded by governments, celebrated by Hollywood and honored with international prizes. But outside the Copenhagen bubble, the field of climate science is deep in a crisis of professional credibility, which many scientists seem too insular to recognize.” Gerson is not a climate change skeptic. His concern is that scientific objectivity seems to have been compromised by a drive for political and economic change: “But without trust in disinterested, scientific judgments on climate, most non-scientists will resist costly, speculative, legislative actions. When the experts become advocates, no one believes the experts or listens to the advocates.” He concludes that the climate scientists involved in the episode have diminished the authority of science more effectively than anyone else could have.

But Gerson’s position borders on saying that scientists’ expert authority is compromised whenever they move beyond the boundaries of their expert, or epistemic, authority to argue for what should be done in a given situation, as opposed to what is simply the case. In fact, there is a hierarchy of positions involved. At the first level the scientist is an expert, and exercises epistemic authority by reporting as objectively as possible on the scientific results. In the present case, climate scientists might offer expert opinions on the potential for climate change based on vast amounts of data accumulated on various aspects of the climate, and with the aid of extensively tested computer modeling of what future climate will look like given particular scenarios of fossil fuel use. If those opinions are a realistic representation of what the science community holds to be the case, we have a straightforward example of the exercise of epistemic authority. Beyond this a scientist can exercise moral authority, by moving beyond offering an expert scientific opinion to advise that a particular course of action be taken; in the present instance, to advise that certain policies should be established to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. This effort to exercise moral authority presupposes the epistemic authority of the scientist. The scientist’s expertise plays a role, but in the broadest sense of making a moral judgment the scientist is no better positioned than anyone else in arguing for what actions should or should not be taken. A non-scientist acquainted with the results of the scientific studies might argue that, assuming a doubling of the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere will result in an increase in the Earth’s surface temperature sufficient to cause much human travail, we should stop burning fossil fuels quickly as possible. In advancing the same argument, a climate scientist's view should not count for more than the non-scientist’s, since both are premised on the same scientific considerations. It's not that the scientist’s expert authority has been weakened, it is simply not the driving influence; in making the moral judgment the science is taken as a given, equally available to both scientist and non-scientist. Beyond this, the scientist and non-scientist alike can move to active advocacy in the public domain for the particular actions that were advised in the exercise of moral authority. In moving into this kind of advocacy, the scientist surrenders her credentials as a scientist; those have already been cashed out.

This of course all seems quite reasonable in the abstract, but when the topic is as huge, urgent and plagued with manifold complexities as climate change, distinctions become blurred. The differences between these different stances with respect to an issue of such wide social importance are not sufficiently appreciated, particularly by scientists. There is nothing inherently wrong in scientists getting caught up in political advocacy for causes that grow out of their scientific work. When they do so, however, they must reconcile themselves to the loss of much of their scientific expert and moral authority. When the arguments are flying back and forth as to what should be done, advocacy for particular courses of action is already premised on knowledge that is taken as a given. If the scientific basis for the argument is contested, we are back at the stage of shoring up expert authority. In the case of climate change, Senator James Inhofe, Glenn Beck and their ilk keep wanting to return the argument to that first stage. It has been tempting for climate scientists to depart from norms of objectivity and disinterestedness in the interest of protecting and enhancing their epistemic authority. But doing so has proven embarrassing for some, and damaging for science’s image as a reliable, trustworthy source of knowledge. Disagreements within the climate science community over data interpretations, adequacy of the models and the reality of human effects on climate are being thrashed out in a glass house. A lot of people are watching; science’s epistemic authority is being determined by what non-scientists can see of how science moves toward increasingly reliable knowledge. Climate scientists can help keep the focus where it should be by not providing further unfortunate diversions.

38 comments:

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    ReplyDelete