Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Post-normal science," global warming, and the implications for journalism

After William Broad's silly and unsophisticated "hit" on Al Gore in Tuesday's Times, it's refreshing to read something really thought-provoking about climate change — and the very nature of science itself: this column in the Guardian by Mike Hulme. A professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, Hulme is the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK.

Hulme comments on a new book by Fred Singer, a well known global warming skeptic, and Dennis Avery. The authors argue that a 1,500-year cycle in Earth's climate, driven by changes in solar energy, are largely responsible for the warming of the last 100 years. But Hulme does not take on the science offered in the book per se. Instead, he uses it as a jumping off point to discuss what has been called "post-normal" science.

Scientists traditionally are supposed to separate their work from values and cultural context. They work in tightly circumscribed disciplines, with little or no interaction with outsiders, most especially non-scientists. And the entire enterprise is "binary" in nature: With enough investigation, it can be determined whether a scientific claim is right or wrong. When enough research is done to whittle away the uncertainties, the answer can be found. If policy makers want to do something with this information, fine. That's their business. But ultimately, the purpose of the exercise is not to produce policy-relevant knowledge. It is to create new knowledge for knowledge's sake.

But with complex global issues such as climate change, Hulme and others argue that a different approach — post-normal science — is necessary. With these issues, uncertainties are great, values are absolutely relevant and in dispute, and the stakes are very high.

As a briefing paper from the Tyndall Centre puts it, action on complex, multi-dimensional issues such as climate change depends "on many value-driven decisions made in the face of uncertainty. It moves beyond traditional research, where 'truthful output' is everything to a method where the quality of the process of research is paramount." With issues like this, action has to be taken before a full understanding is gained. Research must be directed not simply at creating new knowledge but expressly to guide action. Consequently, the research must be conducted jointly by scientists and those who will have to carry out the actions. This means both experts and stakeholders work together.

The IPCC is a classic example of post-normal science. Although much of the heavy lifting is done by scientists, experts from government, business, and the policy world become involved in the process too, and ultimately the assessment reports are handed off to government officials for comment and amendment before the final drafts are published.

Singer and Avery clearly believe in the normal science paradigm. If only policy makers would pay attention to the correct science, then the proper descisions would be made — meaning policy makers would not waste time and precious resources trying to stop climate change. They, along with their opponents on the other side of the issue, frame it in this simplistic way. Pure Enlightenment science has provided an answer to the "global warming: yes or no?" question. The problem, of course, is that they have reached opposite conclusions.

William Broad's story naively fit this mold — from the journalistic perspective. Give readers enough information about the science on both sides of the debate, and they will eventually reach the right conclusion. Broad's story was an attempt to correct the scientific record by bringing to light the alleged distortions made by a politician.

Yet the debate is not driven simply by scientific facts and observations. Most important are the underlying values of the debaters. Hulme writes: "Too often with climate change, genuine and necessary debates about these wider social values - do we have confidence in technology; do we believe in collective action over private enterprise; do we believe we carry obligations to people invisible to us in geography and time? - masquerade as disputes about scientific truth and error."

A more fruitful public discourse about climate change would focus on these issues, not just the data. And when appropriate, I think journalists should take every opportunity to reframe climate change in these terms.

Hulme says that "in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre stage." And "if scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth seeking and reveal fully the values and beliefs they bring to their scientific activity."

Journalists should push them to reveal those underlying factors. But that's exactly the opposite of what William Broad did in his story this week — no doubt because of his own undisclosed values and beliefs.

-- Tom Yulsman


Sylvia S Tognetti said...

Blogger isn't letting me add a link but I commented on this here at The Post-Normal Times and added you to the blogroll, which I have been meaning to do. A few weeks ago we posted a pre-publication version of Mike Hulme's article that you reference, that is now in the Guardian. PNS is also the main inspiration for the PNT blog. Soon I will say more about the "news that didn't fit" in Broad's NYT piece, and the broader pattern it does fit into.

CEJ Admin said...

Thanks Sylvia! I read Hulme's post on the Post-Normal Times last night, and I should have added a reference to it. I look forward to reading your posting on the 'news that didn't fit.'

-- Tom

Steve Bloom said...

I'm not sure how useful it is to take people like Singer and Avery at face value. It seems unlikely that they believe their own material.

CEJ Admin said...

Whether we take Singer and Avery at face value is kind of beside the point.

We still seem to be in the grip of a simplistic framing of the issue, one that has been aptly described as 'global warming: yes or no?' In arguing over that question, many people still try to show how their science is better than the other guy's. Meanwhile, there's such a rich field of stuff to consider and write about, including the underlying values that are now coming to the fore in the battle over policy responses.

Don't you think we need to move beyond the yes or no debate to talk about things like ethics, intergenerational responsibility, the precautionary principle, and even — perish the thought — adapting to the changes that we all know are coming no matter what we do now?

We are not having those conversations because we — myself included — are still so obsessively hung up on arguing over the yes or no question. Heck, shouldn't we be talking about the impact on petroleum and even coal reserves of a 3% per year growth in energy use globally? — growth that could lead to depletion of oil much more quickly than anyone is talking about? Why don't we talk more about the other environmental impacts from increasing fossil fuel use?

-- Tom

pat joseph said...

Hi Tom, I been meaning to tell ya: Nice blog, man! As it happens, I chimed in on this essay over on the Sierra Club Compass blog. I'd be interested to hear what you and your readers think.


Steve Bloom said...

You're right on one level, Tom, but part of the problem is that about 30% of the U.S. population seens to be bought into climate denialism. Interestingly, that's about the same percentage as the diehard support for Bush and the Iraq War. I also remmeber seeing some polling a few months that identified a similar percentage of the populace as relying substantially on the Fox/Limbaugh axis for their information. Not to use Occam's Razor as a meat axe, but are these perhaps mostly the same people? If so, they're definitely a minority, but OTOH there are enough of them to have formed a majority of the former Republican majority and perhaps to do so again. In that context, is it useful to discredit the Averys and Singers of the world so thoroughly that they lose their exposure in the wingnut media? To the extent that those media remain important in terms of providing the needed political cover to politicians (not just Republicans, of course) who still resist serious action on climate change, perhaps so.

CEJ Admin said...

When Rush Limbaugh and others in the "wingnut media" talk about climate change, it's not really about science. It's all about politics. So showing how the science offered by people like Avery is "wrong" is pointless. Limbaugh and company are not going to be swayed by science. They are going to use — and abuse — science to achieve their own political (and mercentary) aims. And their audience probably is not open to scientific persuasion either. Because they view science through a powerful philosophical and political screen.

It gets right back to Hulme's points about values. Scientific right or wrong matters here much less than those underlying values.

So I'd save your breath. Don't bother with trying too hard to counteract the Singers of the world. Playing in their ballfield puts you right where they want you — in a position where they can show that their science is just as legitimate as yours. This was shown in dramatic fasion the other day when Gavin Schmidt and two colleagues agreed to take on Richard Lindzen, Michael Crichton and Pillip Stott in an Oxford-style debate in New York. The debate question was whether global warming is a crisis. The majority of folks in the audience went in to the event inclined to think that it most definitely was. A majority came out thinking the opposite. For a good description of what happened, see Pat Joseph's blog at the Sierra Club.

-- Tom Yulsman

ankh said...

If by "show" you mean "fool people" yes.
Public debate is about all the anti-evolution folks have been able to manage for decades now, in the absence of any science. It's their last refuge.

As others have pointed out, this may also be the explanation of the Fermi Paradox (why there's no sign of intelligent life in the universe).

Steve Bloom said...

I think I didn't make my point very well. I agree that there's no value in debating the likes of Avery and Singer (or Crichton, Lindzen and Stott). What I am suggesting is that it's worth removing their public platform in order to eliminate the appearance that there's still a debate. People like Limbaugh are the rotten core of the onion and certainly cannot be gotten at directly very easily, but the outer layers like Fox and AEI are a different story. Once those layers are peeled away, I think we'll see even Limbaugh's tune begin to change. Preliminary efforts already seem to have net with a degree of success. For example, recently a blogger named Spocko used clip's from Disney-owned KSFO to convince advertisers to boycott the station. He had some success, following which Disbey sicced their lawyers on him, following which Disney ended up in a deeper hole than they had started out in. Similarly, recall the pressure put on ExxonMobil to at least pretend to drop its support for CEI et al. Could a more comprehensive effort substantially reduce the funding and thus the profile of the delusionists?

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