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