Political Science in a Climate of Skepticism

They are calling it ‘climategate’ – the hacking and leaking of some climate scientists emails at the University of East Anglia. Some may wish to believe these emails reveal a conspiracy by the worlds climate scientists to fabricate evidence of global warming. They will not of course, demonstrate that. But they do reveal, once again, how climate science has become a highly politicized field. Climate science is bound to become ever more heavily contested, as it covers an incredibly complex problem, where the knowledge is inherently uncertain, the stakes are incredibly high and the solutions costly.

Solutions to this problem have always implied a challenge to entrenched economic interests – which is why the dominant oil corporations initially responded to the findings of climate science by financing and orchestrating a campaign of denial. Since then, the dominant political powers and big business interests have accepted the theory of anthropogenic climate change.

This shift is bound to generate a growing skepticism amongst ordinary people who are rightly suspicious of governments and corporations, given our experience of the lies, exploitation, greed and cover-ups that seem endemic to capitalism. Furthermore, the ‘solutions’ proposed by the dominant powers do everything to avoid the changes we need. Instead they represent the hijacking of the climate change discourse to promote the interests and agendas of the dominant powers – who will make the masses of the earth pay the price – with increased unemployment, pay cuts, price rises. Other aspects of this new capitalist climate change agenda become manifest in ludicrous market ‘solutions’ like carbon trading, or crazy schemes like biofuels or agrofuels which will starve the poor, evict them from their land and destroy forests, and outdated deadly technologies like nuclear power  (and of course these responses may combine with climate change to make things worse).

Given its profound implications that challenge us in one way or another to remake our society, climate science was bound to be contested. However we now have a situation where this field of science, already one of the most complex fields of human knowledge, lies at the centre of the worlds biggest social and political controversies, one that concerns almost every aspect of human life and how we should live it.

These battles over climate science may shock those who still believe in liberal enlightenment fairy tales of a neutral and disinterested science that merely reveals objective facts about nature. Whilst climate science is an especially politicised field, the history of science shows that all sciences and scientists have their own politics and struggles. Anyone who has read the burgeoning literature of ‘science and technology studies’ will perhaps not be so easily shocked by the emails of climate scientists. Following from Thomas Kuhn‘s explanation of the rise and fall of successive scientific paradigms, emerged a sociology of scientific knowledge which looks at the relationship between society and its scientific ideas. Science is shown to be a human, social activity, whose ideas and practices bear the imprint of that society, and the social and material relationships within which scientists live and work. However, while science is a social activity that constructs partial and uncertain knowledge, this knowledge still has a relationship, through our practice, with a material world beyond our concepts.

Thus scientific paradigms are not mere ‘conspiracies’. If science was a ‘conspiracy’, something that could be bought and manipulated to serve the interests of  the state and capitalism, then the theory of anthropogenic climate change would not have risen to such prominence. It is not the most convenient theory for a system premised on competitive growth and the unlimited expansion of ‘built in obsolescence’ consumer commodity production, a system still dominated by entrenched fossil fuel monopoly power.

welcome to the age of complexity ...

In these complex times, ‘Science’ (with a capital ‘S’) seems to loose its cultural and political authority. This is not because of public ignorance, but rather is a result of an ever more educated and questioning population. Sometimes, the growing skepticism about the authoritative statements of scientific (and therefore political) certainty has worked for environmentalists. In the cases of nuclear power and GM crops, the uncertainties of the science could be used to challenge  platitudinous industry proclamations of  the safe and benign character of their operations. However, environmentalism itself risks becoming the next victim of this same trend, if it tries to push for social change ‘because science says so’.

Climate change is the classic example of what is coming to be known as a ‘wicked problem’ – a term originally coined by computer scientists, and taken to describe problems that are non- linear , involve complex feedback loops and multiple interactions with qualitative  changes.  Such problems do not have clear boundaries, and seem to involve everything, including those attempting to solve the problem. Uncertainty is not reduced by the production of new knowledge. Rather more knowledge generates more uncertainty.

The emergence of ‘wicked problems’ in our new epoch of complexity, reveal the limits of our dominant way of knowing – the limits of reductionist science. Since Newton, we understood things by taking them apart, by reducing them to their essential components, isolating them in laboratories from their surrounding factors. This reductionist science was a powerful tool, it was instrumental in making the industrial revolutions and transforming the world. But now we are faced with a new situation. As our productive powers and scientific senses have grown over the centuries – we have had both the increasing need and the capacity to measure and regulate our impacts on our environment. This is our contemporary ecological paradox, which needs new kinds of science – ones that can bring together many factors and follow their connections. These new sciences of complexity are at their beginning. What multi-centred, holistic and  dialectical ways of knowing will we need in this new situation?

Classical ‘climate science’ attempts to cover an awful lot – potentially everything on earth – the interaction of the earths atmospheric gases with its ecosystems and oceans, with all human labour and activity,  with history, with the solar system, and with countless other factors. Climate science and politics are therefore a strange mixture of humility and hubris. On the one hand we are humbled as we sense the possible limits and fragility of our industrial civilisation. On the other hand, the rise of climate science and politics reveals that our political systems are now contemplating the profoundly hubristic project of trying to regulate the global climate and human societies relationship with it.

We get a new reductionism – a technocratic and marketised carbon-ism – where all human and non-human life, all activity is measured by its carbon footprint.

Reduced into the one currency, all life can be traded. All politics, all the earths multiple ecological and social struggles become reduced into the question of two degrees centigrade. Thus abstracted, and removed from daily life and experience, we become ever more alienated from this issue, and skepticism grows.

To take a political stand suddenly raises questions well beyond even the largest assembly of experts. Should you drive less? This question, in the company of the pub bore climate-change-denier, suddenly requires you to have arcane  knowledge about distant ice ages, methodological questions of collecting data, the effects of solar storms, the history of Mars. An army of climate denialists, often strangely certain for professed skeptics, seem to inhabit every newspapers online commentary box. Once exposed to this, its easy to wonder how an ordinary lay person – myself included –  can now possibly feel they know enough to make a stand either way. Do I try to master and critically asses several vast interconnected fields of science for myself, or do I trust the mainstream scientists and their public statements? Or do I trust the seemingly expert array of online ‘skeptics’?

Climate change is sensed through an array of scientific instruments and theories,trying to make recordings and measurements across the whole earth, and back through its history. But can we sense it and know for ourselves? Sometimes we think we are experiencing warmer or wetter weather. Sometimes gardeners notice changes. Others who climb mountains speak of  the rapidly retreating glaciers. Yet all this feels anecdotal, patchy, it does not make us sure. When we are sure, it will be too late.

What else can we, the ‘fairly ordinary people’ know? We know that money talks and that governments lie. The climate change deniers or ‘skeptics’ now speak of a climate change industry. Scientists are in it for the money, apparently. While this sort of claim about scientific bias is more plausible when applied to molecular biologists connected with the GM crops industry, it seems harder to believe with climate change. And if there is a climate science industry, then surely there are weightier interests, ie the ‘industry industry’. If the world was indeed run by vast conspiracies, and if they could manipulate scientific consensus, the big, vested economic and industrial interests would rather have a scientific consensus that  said climate change was not happening.

Science is not ‘nature speaking the truth to mankind’. It is not the gradual accumulation of neutral facts. Science is a human practice, a social, cultural, economic and political activity. Scientific theories therefore are shaped by and partially reflect the society from which they come. But they also help that society manipulate and interact with the material world (this is their strength and weakness). Therefore, no matter how one sided it is, science is neither simply natures truth, nor simply the story made up by the dominant social actors.

This controversy forces all to recognize that science is often about complexity and uncertainty. Thats how its always been, despite government and industry attempts to placate us by reducing vast complexities into neat little certainties. But some people cling onto the childish illusions of an age certainty. They say they need certainty of anthropogenic climate change (a.c.c.) before they act. Probability or likelihood is not enough for them. Others put it like this: If we try to cut C02 emissions but a.c.c. is not happening, then we may risk severe economic dislocations, (although new industries could grow as well). If we dont try to cut c02 emissions, but a.c.c. is happening, then we face much more than an economic crisis. Learning to act in an uncertain world is learning to move beyond the politics of the playground.

Back to what we can know, you and me, in this age of skepticism. If you cycle, or struggle to cross roads with children, you can sense that the motor-car has passed its optimum use. We can sense in numerous ways the need for, and desirability of change.


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6 responses to “Political Science in a Climate of Skepticism

  1. Great points Barry.
    The idea that big S Science stands outide of the political dialectic as some sort of perfect island of academic objectivity is bunkum as you more elequently write.
    Thanks for this, reading Monbiot calling for Jones resignation has got me hopping about in anger, this has helped calm me down.

    All the best

  2. The emails do prove a conspiracy if only between the people they are addressed to. Indeed it is difficult to see how they could have proved a conspiracy beeyond the people they are addresed to. That does not disprove a broader conspiracy including, for example, the New Zealandrs also discovered to have been faking & the politicians who have been funneling such inordinate amounts of money at the conspirators. Indeed the fact that politicians have been funneling (£13.7 million to Jones alone) while doing everything possible to prevent all sceptical scientists get grants is either as statistically im[probable as Prof Jones winning the national lottery, or conspiracy.

    As regards catastrophic warming itself – the proper scientific paradgim under Occam’s razor & the principle of mediocrity is that it should be assumed that nothing spectacularly unusual is happening unless there is evidence of it. Qs you implicitly acknowledge, there is no such evidence of catastrophic warming, even after the figures have been “juggled”. The pretence that it is a real problem is thus nothing but an eco-fascist lie maintained only by politicians, journalists & as we see, a small number of pretend scientists in government pay who are all wholly & completely corrupt.

  3. barrykade

    Cheers Pete!

    Hi Neil,

    So you are indeed claiming that the successful rise of the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis to policy dominance is merely a ‘conspiracy’.

    You give this away when you claim it is:
    “an eco-fascist lie maintained only by politicians, journalists & as we see, a small number of pretend scientists in government pay who are all wholly & completely corrupt”.

    Of course groups do conspire – in the sense they consult each other on strategy, in all social situations, and some establish organisations and plans. But this insight becomes ‘conspiracy theory’ when it is used to suggest that the large scale movements of human history and society are the results of ‘conspiracy’. ‘History as conspiracy’ is obviously the paradigm example of ‘nutjob’.

    But the new craze is ‘science as conspiracy’.

    As I tried to point out in the article, sociologists of science have long been trying to work out a better language to describe what science really is. Obviously, science is not the simple and uncontested production of neutral ‘truths’ about our world.

    I tried to put forward a concept like ‘paradigm’ to help in this situation. But nothing so nuanced it seems, suits the partisans of ‘climate skepticism’. For them its not even a paradigm, its a conspiracy. Doh!

    While science is a social activity that constructs partial and uncertain knowledge, this knowledge still has a relationship, through our practice, with a material world beyond our concepts.

    Thus scientific paradigms are not mere ‘conspiracies’. If science could simply be bought and paid for to serve the interests of the richest – ie the state and capitalism, then climate science would say something far more comforting to the key interests of big business!

    The anthropogenic climate change hypothesis by and large contradicts capitalism’s interests in perpetual expansion and ‘built in obsolescence’ consumer commodity production. The hypothesis especially contradicts the interests of the dominant configuration of capitalism around oil that still marks our era. Capitalism has only reluctantly accepted the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. Undoubtedly they now wish to use that hypothesis to advance a rotten capitalist agenda. But if they had their way, the hypothesis would not have emerged to prominence in the first place. The conspiracists cannot explain this…


  5. RobM

    Its a crazy world, Barry. A couple of days ago a short article appeared on the (Tory run and highly obscure) Tamworth Blog which originated with the local Greens and alluded to a Tory councillor who doesn’t believe in climate change.
    Within a few hours the Climate Change deniers descend like mad beasts, this time with UEA ‘smoking guns’ in their arsenal.
    They have all the credibility, rationality and charm of Holocaust deniers, creationists and 9/11 truthers but, sadly, they have managed to generate enough doubt in the public mind as to the solidity of the scientific consensus.
    Equally sadly, most scientists just do science- they aren’t, by and large, pugilists or polemicists.
    What we need is a heavy hitter on ‘our’ side- something like a cross between Muhammed Ali and Richard Dawkins. Perhaps we could pump Derek Wall with steroids and put him in a Robocop suit.
    But, failing that, we need to build a truly mass, active, vibrant and lovely Ecosocialist movement…

  6. Pingback: climate denialism as hysteria? « Indications: Environmental Communication & Culture blog

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