Joe Kaplinsky, who is a biophysicist just completing his PhD at Imperial College, gave a talk on the state of the climate issue at Christian Michel’s salon the other evening. His main point was that there has been a shift in the debate between the 1990s, when the environmentalists were down on the supposed uncertainties of science, and today, when their refrain is “the science is settled”.
Correspondingly it is the sceptics/deniers/denialists/contrarians who now harp on the theme of the uncertainties of science. Joe wants to damn both their houses, but I was not very clear why from his talk, and I think the same went for most of his listeners. I got a better idea of what he thinks when I found a review of his book, which I mention below.
Joe quoted from a wide range of writers. There was one amusing episode that I had not known about. Frank Luntz, an adviser to Bush, was reported as saying that:
“the scientific debate is closing against us.” His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,” he writes, “their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”
Bruno Latour, distinguished Gallic “theorist of science”, was disconcerted. He had been arguing all this time that the notion of science as an objective and impartial process of discovery is bogus, and now that self-same thesis was being used by a hated Bushist to draw entirely the ‘wrong’ conclusions. “Was I wrong?” he asked himself. I have dug up his self-flagellation – in an article called “Why has critique run out of steam?” This is rather a long quote, but it is too good to miss:
Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent sometimes in the past trying to show the “lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?
… entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not?
… Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but I am worried to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland, many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trade mark: MADE IN CRITICALLAND.
Hilarious. But, I am sorry to say, Joe countenanced this stuff, while not actually endorsing it. He came across as surprisingly pomo-sounding for a practising scientist. As you can imagine, he got plenty of opposition from the more vocal members of the gathering (though there was one audience member – there is always one – who dragged in Kuhn, and the Uncertainty Principle forsooth, in support of the claim that the objectivity of science is an outmoded notion). I said that all my Enlightenment instincts were brought out by some of the things in Joe’s talk. And I found myself siding with remarks made by, of all people, Lord Robert May, former Chief Scientific Adviser, emphasizing that scientists pose options, others decide policy.
Joe’s suspicious of scientists “framing the debate” in this way. I said that provided there were economists there to expand the scientists’ perspective, having them lay out the options was pretty much the way things should be. I do not believe in the “democratization” of science… I believe in the scientists living up to their own well established standards.
But though I found what Joe said radically ambiguous, he is gratifyingly pro-consumerist, pro-technological-progress, pro-energy-consumptionist. With James Woudhuysen he co-authored a book called Energise!: A Future for Energy Innovation, about the problems of providing the energy we need to bring the world average standard of living up to that of the average Californian – and beyond. I actually understood more about his position when I found this account of the book by Ian Abley on Audacity.org. I recommend Abley’s rhapsody – it will inspire you to read the book itself.
Kaplinsky and Woudhuysen, as paraphrased by Abley, claim that neither the environmentalist nor the sceptic…
…argues for the need for an industrially productive transformation of every country and every region on Earth.
Unfair to a lot of us sceptics, but you can see that their hearts are in the right place.
The voice in the debate that Joe most likes is Freeman Dyson, who apparently does not think that civilization should be rebuilt for the sake of modern notions about distantly possible risks. Good.
I do not think that talk of the construction of science, or of “prematurely naturalized objectified fact” helps anybody; what does help is a clear sense of the good old Enlightenment distinction between the “is” that climate science strives towards and the “ought” of policy. And while I am open to the adaptationist, geo-engineering thrust of Kaplinsky and Woudhuysen, I do not want to sidestep the question of the truth or otherwise of global warming. I am still going to keep on harping on the uncertainty of the science – not to perpetually throw contrarian spanners in the works but because the science at this moment is lousy, and can only be improved when the scientists get their house in order.