Climate science and the trial of the Danaids

This morning’s news about a new survey of the global temperature record raises a question that seems sacrilegious to many scientists but needs asking more than ever. Dan Sarewitz has raised this question again and again. And I’ve discussed it in the past. But it bears repeating. Do we need more climate science? And if we do (I think we probably do) what sort of science should it be?

I come from the field of Science and Technology Studies, as does Sarewitz. We are used to taking chunks of science to bits to see how they really work and sometimes, for the more policy-oriented of us, trying to put them back together. The more policy-focussed end of STS has historically strong connections with environmental movements. For this reason, and because of the rather complicated and polarised political debate about climate change, climate science has tended in the past not to have not been given the same amount of scrutiny as other areas. Deconstructing climate science doesn’t seem helpful at a time when so many others, for very different reasons, are trying to do the same.

In the last few years, however, we’ve seen the climate science debate become more nuanced. We have managed to move beyond the Manichean view that anyone who asks questions about global warming is somehow ‘anti-science’. We have had interesting contributions from Sarewitz, Roger Pielke, the Hartwell Group and Mike Hulme, whose book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, I would recommend to anyone. These analysts and others have argued for the need to talk openly about uncertainty, the need to engage with sceptics and the need to disconnect the scientific consensus from a single policy prescription.

Many climate scientists present their project as purely epistemological. They are interested in identifying and filling gaps in knowledge, increasing the resolution of our climate picture and narrowing our uncertainties. They demand more research, more thermometers, bigger computers, better satellites. When we look at the politics of climate science, however, we can see how doomed these efforts are. The climate debate is a political tussle masquerading as science. A central lesson of STS is that science does not solve political problems. For climate deniers whose minds are already made up, more science is just more evidence of a conspiracy. An early lesson from sociologists of scientific knowledge like Harry Collins was that experiments will convince only those who are bought into the idea of the experiment.

Climate change denial, like creationism, should be seen more as a moral project than an epistemological one. Indeed the great victory of both climate- and evolution-deniers is to tempt scientists into their spurious scientific discussions.

That said, another lesson of STS is that science is itself political, in all sorts of ways. And climate scientists no doubt appreciate this, if not before Climategate then certainly after. The process of discovery matters, the facts do not speak for themselves and the truth will not out without a lot of work.

No doubt this is why the Berkeley group decided to do their work as transparently as possible, bringing in scientists untainted by association. The study also enrolled the deniers: the Koch brothers contributed funding for the study. The explicit recognition was that the way climate models were being built and communicated, as revealed by the Climategate controversy, was no longer sufficient given how high the political stakes had become. Scientists often believe that problems are like empty vessels, to be filled with knowledge. Climate change increasingly looks like the trial of the Danaids, forced to spend eternity in Hades filling a perforated barrel using water carried in sieves.

The Berkeley project looks politically sophisticated. It should help advance the debate. And yet their efforts are being reported in a rather depressing way. Science journalists are calling this ‘the definitive answer’. My guess is that James Delingpole, Nigel Lawson and friends will be unconvinced. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported the launch of the study with the journalistic trope of question-to-which-the-answer-is-very-definitely-no: “Can a group of scientists in California end the war on climate change?



About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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8 Responses to Climate science and the trial of the Danaids

  1. klem says:

    For the public, belief of anthropogenic climate change remain primarily intuitive; deep down inside we have this belief or gut feeling that if we put our crap into the atmosphere there will be some sort of payback in the future. We do not know what it will be. When the public first hears about ACC suddenly they feel this is the payback, the feeling is strong. The deniers then produce studies refuting it but alarmists do not believe them, their alarmist belief is based on a gut feeling not science. The alarmists remain unmoved. There is also this belief among deniers that there is an urban heat island effect, it is intuitive as well. Studies which show that this is not true will not be believed equally. So even though the heat island effect is now dead, the deniers remain unmoved. In the end nothing has really changed. Faith is faith.

  2. hilarywoof says:

    Helpful post Jack and thanks for showcasing this excellent initiative. As far as I understand it, the public at large in most countries does not fall into the category of denier, perhaps ‘in denial’, but that’s not the same thing! So as with other areas of science, are we in danger of aggrandising the deniers and giving them much more power than they deserve by worrying too much about what they think. They are a vocal, but not that influential minority as far as I understand it. Let’s get on with the job of finding the evidence and information we need unencumbered by their scepticism, but also mindful of their perspective and not dismissing it. The recent discussions I have been involved in about ‘how to tell a nutter from an early warning’ means we have to take all opinions seriously in case we miss something, but don’t have to let their influence derail the central purpose.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Forced to spend eternity carrying sieves to fill a leaky barrel — what a great metaphor for the role that science so often seems condemned to play in climate debates. Here’s another illustration of your point, from a March 2011 U.S. public opinion poll: “greater awareness and understanding of the global warming issue do not necessarily result in greater concern about it. The two moved upward in the mid- to late 2000s, but in recent years, concern has fallen as Americans’ self-professed understanding has held steady or increased.”

  4. Mathis Hampel says:

    great blog!
    this might be of interest – on BEST’s boundary drawing:


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