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Dividing cognitive labor, sharing a world: the American public and climate science.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s not just scientists who think science is up to something important. Even non-scientists are inclined to think that scientific knowledge claims have a special grip on our world, that they are likely to give us information or insight that will help us move through that world more successfully.

But scientists and non-scientists alike recognize that we can separate the questions:

  1. What is the world like?
  2. What should we do?

The answer to the first question can inform (or constrain) our answer to the second question, but the common wisdom among scientists themselves is that the facts can’t tell us what to do about the facts.

While the public looks to scientific knowledge as a resource, though, most of the public is happy enough to let scientists do the heavy lifting to work out the details of how things are in the world. We do this kind of division of labor in societies; it’s how we avoid having to purify our own water supply, fight our own disease, fill our own potholes, and enforce our own traffic laws.

The problem arises in cases where the public, which has delegated knowledge-building to the scientists, then rejects the account of the facts that the scientists produce — or where the public can’t tell which putatively scientific accounts are actually reliable descriptions of reality. Today, we’re going to examine one such case, the American public’s relationship with climate science and climate scientists.

Last month, at the Third Biennial Meeting of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP) at the University of Exeter, esteemed philosopher of science Philip Kitcher delivered a talk entitled “Can We Sustain Democracy and the Planet, Too?” His answer, in a nutshell, was basically, “Not if we keep doing things the way we have been.”

I don’t want to do violence to the subtleties of Kitcher’s argument — if you’re interested in these subtleties, you may also be interested in his book Science in a Democratic Society, due out this August. But I do want to explore a particular recommendation he made for saving the planet and democracy, too. To do this, I’ll need to provide at least a sketch of his take on democracy and what we might want it to do for us. (In this discussion, I’ll explicitly note where I’m drawing on something Kitcher said in his talk. If I don’t mention Kitcher in a paragraph, assume I’m speaking on my own behalf.)

Kitcher identified some common ideas we have about democracy. One is that policies should be decided according to the will of the people. Another is that ideas should be freely debated — including the ideas connected to the policies to be decided by the will of the people. Ideally, such free debate would get all sorts of facts and interests on the table, and together the people could sort out what to do in response to the facts, how to balance various interests that might be pulling in different directions.

In practice, things get messier.

For one thing, on issues like global warming, the American public seems not to have found a set of facts upon which it can agree. Kitcher cited statistics indicating that while about two-fifths of the public believes most scientists think global warming is happening, nearly as many believe that there is lots of disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is happening.

The average American, of course, is not a climate scientist, which means that this average American is ill equipped to establish the scientific facts about climate change first hand. To the extent that most of us know any of the relevant scientific facts here, we “know” them on the basis of someone we take to be a scientific authority. We assume that scientist has access to relevant data, that he or she is working with measurement techniques, formulae, mathematical models, and the like that have been used with some success and carefully scrutinized by the scientists using them to make sure their limitations are well-understood.

We might not have the expertise to build the needed scientific knowledge ourselves, but we assume that the folks building that knowledge have that expertise. Otherwise, collectively, we may find ourselves on very thin ice.

This is where the public debate about global warming and what policies (if any) we should adopt to respond to it gets heated. There is no shortage of pundits arguing that the climate science describing (and predicting) a significant warming trend is faulty and that the climate scientists themselves cannot be trusted. It’s not clear that these pundits base their arguments in scientific facts, nor that they generally have the scientific expertise to do so. But the public doesn’t have the scientific expertise to evaluate the truth of the pundits’ claims, either!

All of this means that public debates on global warming policy are not the free and open encounter between truth and falsehood that we might expect in an ideal democracy. Rather, Kitcher argued in his talk, this is a situation where full-on involvement of citizens in debate and decisions about the matters that affect them does not enhance their freedom.

That’s a challenging claim, and since it’s Kitcher’s, not mine, I’m not going to try to mount a full defense of it here. But let me fill in a few more details from his talk to motivate it.

Kitcher’s view, as I understand it, is that democracy is not of intrinsic value. Rather, democracy is valuable because of what it does for us, what it lets us achieve, what it protects us from. A big thing we want from democracy is ways to enhance our freedom. Part of enhancing our freedom is protecting us from oppression (i.e., something or someone working to undermine our freedom). While the standard machinery of democracy — elections, constitutions, the law — can offer pretty good safeguards against identifiable oppression (e.g., some bossy king declaring that we get to pay taxes but we won’t be represented in the parliament), Kitcher says that this machinery may be less useful when we confront sources of oppression that are unidentifiable, or even unrecognized.

And, Kitcher suggests, this may be what we’re up against when a population of non-scientists is faced with wildly divergent claims about what the scientists even know, let alone what we should (or can) do about it. If the truth promises to set us free, the inability to identify that truth for ourselves sets us us to be dupes, at risk of being deployed to further someone else’s interests.

Addressing this vulnerability seems important.

Kitcher noted that, given the necessary timescale on which the public would have to get behind changes if those changes are to make a difference, we probably don’t have time to just raise a new generation of science-literate students and get them to voting age (and to vote). As well, he expressed pessimism about the internet as a channel for connecting the public with reliable information and helping that public sort the sound science from the spin.

Instead, Kitcher proposed that climate scientists take representative groups of citizens “behind the scenes” to where the scientific knowledge is made, acquaint them with the full range of evidence climate scientists have found (and rigorously evaluated) about what’s happening to our climate, and also acquaint them with the sources of “climate denial” (such as industry-funded institutes). Kitcher mentioned existing models for this kind of outreach, including deliberative polling and citizen juries.

Generally, I think that this is the right problem to target — breaking down the wall between the people building the scientific knowledge and the people relying on sound scientific knowledge to guide their individual and collective decisions. It would be good for people to understand where the knowledge comes from, how the knowledge claims are checked for error, how much uncertainty accompanies those claims. As well, it would be good for people to be able to engage in something like evaluation — if not of the credibility of the knowledge claims themselves, then at least of the scientists and institutions generating them.

But, I have worries about how Kitcher’s “behind the scenes with the climate scientists” proposal might play out given the charged political climate around climate science in the U.S.

Bringing groups of citizens into the research labs (or conference rooms, at any rate) for scientists to bring them up to speed on the evidence, how conclusions are drawn from that evidence, and who is making non-evidence-based noise on the sidelines is an activity that will require time and effort of the scientists. It will be work.

This raises the question of just who will pay for that work.

Many of the climate scientists who might make progress educating the public through an initiative like this rely in large part on grants from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy to support their scientific research. In other words, they are doing their science on the public’s dime. In part, this is a recognition that the public might benefit from having access to the knowledge the scientists are working to produce (or from having policies guided by this knowledge).

However, even in the best of times and especially in times of economic crisis, members of the public can get pretty cranky about how their tax dollars are being spent.

Consider, if you will, the tax payer who has already made up his mind that global warming is a hoax, a product of Al Gore’s fevered imagination. How will this tax payer react if a bunch of NSF-funded climate scientists start having open houses with representative groups of citizens? How quickly will this activity be judged a use of public funds (from those NSF grants that support the research) to promote a particular political agenda (i.e., that global warming exists and policy must respond to it*)?

Even if the scientists were scrupulous about doing this outreach “on their own time” (pace those who argue scientists have no claim to time that is their own), all it would take is a participating scientist whose post is at a public university or a government lab to raise the same specter of misappropriation of public resources to lobby for a particular point of view.

Here, if you find yourself hollering, “We’re not talking about a political view, we’re talking about the facts!” know that I am hollering with you. But pause to recognize that some members of the public are unprepared to trust “facts” from scientists who are not “on their side” (because the experts on their side told them that the experts on the other side are charlatans). And take another moment to consider that some members of the public may not even grasp that there is a difference between scientific knowledge claims and political opinions.

In some ways, grasping that difference may be nearly as important to our shared future as knowing the particulars of what the community of climate scientists knows about our changing climate.

We’re in an interesting bind here. Global warming is an issue where it’s clear that the public’s acceptance or rejection of the scientific knowledge could have a big impact on policy decisions, which in turn could have a big impact on the well-being of lots of people in lots of places. It is in issue, in short, where it is clear that understanding where scientific knowledge comes from and how to evaluate scientific expertise could matter quite a lot. So, it feels like this is as good a place as any to mobilize the scientists to help the public get right with science.

It’s hard to imagine getting sufficiently worked up about the public’s ignorance of quantum theory to mobilize a similar initiative among the physicists and physical chemists.

But precisely because the phenomena the climate scientists study have the potential to impact us so dramatically — and because powerful economic interests would prefer not to be constrained by policies aimed at addressing global warming — it’s hard to imagine a site of scientist-layperson engagement with more political baggage. We are, after all, talking about a scientific community at least some of whose members have been accused of scientific misconduct by members of the public — not because those members of the public were in possession of evidence of such misconduct, but because a pundit they trusted assured them that the evidence existed.

In this case, though, the stakes may be too high for us to throw our hands in the air and declare the situation impossible. For our own well-being, we need to find a way to untangle political aims from scientific knowledge here. We surely have many different interests, but if we are to share a world — and to engage in a democracy where what we can know about that world can usefully inform our decisions — we need to find a way to share facts and methodologies, too.

Practically, we can’t tie this to making every citizen a scientist, but we had better figure out how to make scientific method and the community interactions that test knowledge claims more transparent to more of the public. Otherwise, scientific knowledge claims may be drowned out by other claims much less grounded in reality.

*In some circles, even just claiming that global warming exists will be viewed as making a political claim.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Roboter 11:47 pm 07/6/2011

    The 1847 lecture that predicted human-induced climate change

    Link to this
  2. 2. Roboter 11:51 pm 07/6/2011

    This video does a great job: I’m A Climate Scientist

    Link to this
  3. 3. Gwinnevere 1:09 pm 07/7/2011

    Janet D. Stemwedel;
    As far as you (Scientific American) at all will accept this post on the matter:

    ”But the public doesn’t have the scientific expertise to evaluate the truth of the pundits’ claims, either!”.
    — If you are not to KILL me on this one, you must READ ME on this one:

    — It’s all familiar stuff, but presented in a way you most probably never have seen before, no difficult parts, all very basic (mostly on the level of a 4:th grader, not to say below), and as it seems, very connecting to your say (I’m honored). Please do not understand the referenced compilation to be anything else than just a compilation — a reference of the discussion here — of all the already known basics, however in a way (guaranteed) you never have seen before — pointing out an opening.

    ”It would be good for people to understand where the knowledge comes from”.
    You are TOO beautiful. (All the angels have already landed, apparently, the rest is just a matter of organizing the starting-up engines).

    wkg/Gwinnevere 2011-07-07 | Local YearMonthDayTime 7Jul2011

    Link to this
  4. 4. dbrown 2:12 pm 07/7/2011

    I am not a climate scientist (mathematician). But if I understand, the projections of future mean temperature increase are based on mathematical models, correct? And climate is a non-linear system, correct? How do you know that your models are correct? Misestimating a parameter (or having the wrong parameterization) could generate a wildly different answer.

    As an alternative, why not frame the discussion as a risk-reward question, something like: climate scientists believe there is a fairly high probability of future climate change. Here are the set of possible outcomes, some of which are catastrophic and some of which are unchanged from current conditions. Given the tail risk (and negative expected value), it might make sense for society to take measures – for example tax the externality of CO2 emission.

    I’m not trying to be contentious, but would like to hear your response if you have time.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Gwinnevere 8:59 pm 07/7/2011

    dbrown, excuse me;
    are you eventually addressing me? Could you please be more specific?
    wkg/Gwinnevere 2011-07-08 | Local YearMonthDayTime 8Jul2011

    Link to this
  6. 6. Roboter 8:30 am 07/8/2011

    dbrown, models do a relative good job predicting the trends, as you say they cannot account for abrupt changes. Also IPCC models and most other models do not account for methane, a potent greenhouse gas – which was identified as an agent to drive the last “major” abrupt climate change, the PETM Event.

    Dr. Lovelock wrote about non linear climate shifts in his recent book “The vanishing Face of Gaia”.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Roboter 6:54 pm 07/8/2011

    A recent nature study about abrupt climate change and modeling.

    Link to this
  8. 8. dbrown 3:18 pm 07/9/2011

    Roboter: thanks very much, this is on-point.

    I still believe climate scientists would be better served by acknowledging possible error in the models, and laying out the alternatives (from unchanged to catastrophe). It’s a much more realistic assessment, and I believe most people have a feel for insuring against catastrophic events (most people, not all.) Notwithstanding the two examples you posted, this “model error” presentation seems to be generally absent in the popular press (but perhaps I’m just missing it).

    Link to this
  9. 9. scotticus 9:49 pm 07/9/2011

    dbrown, You’re not looking in the right places, if that’s the case. I can’t speak for CNN/Fox/etc, but I see see discussions of uncertainty in lots of stories.
    Also, please note that the ranges of projected temperatures given in the IPCC report are mathematical descriptions of that uncertainty.

    Roboter, it simply isn’t true that climate models don’t include methane. I’m not sure where these rumors start- the other day someone told me they heard climate models don’t include sulfur dioxide or aerosols…

    Janet, thanks for the article. Some interesting ideas thoughts in there…

    Link to this
  10. 10. Roboter 10:31 am 07/13/2011

    Scotticus, “Roboter, it simply isn’t true that climate models don’t include methane. I’m not sure where these rumors start- the other day someone told me they heard climate models don’t include sulfur dioxide or aerosols…”

    Well then please point me to the model which includes methane :) For clarification, i meant “most” models.

    For example the MIT model:

    Climate change odds much worse than thought New analysis shows warming could be double previous estimates

    The most comprehensive modeling yet carried out on the likelihood of how much hotter the Earth’s climate will get in this century shows that without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago – and could be even worse than that.

    The study uses the MIT Integrated Global Systems Model, a detailed computer simulation of global economic activity and climate processes that has been developed and refined by the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change since the early 1990s. The new research involved 400 runs of the model with each run using slight variations in input parameters, selected so that each run has about an equal probability of being correct based on present observations and knowledge. Other research groups have estimated the probabilities of various outcomes, based on variations in the physical response of the climate system itself. But the MIT model is the only one that interactively includes detailed treatment of possible changes in human activities as well – such as the degree of economic growth, with its associated energy use, in different countries.

    “There’s no way the world can or should take these risks,” Prinn says. And the odds indicated by this modeling may actually understate the problem, because the model does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused a large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Including that feedback “is just going to make it worse,” Prinn says.

    Link to this
  11. 11. aidel 11:25 am 07/13/2011

    Thank you for this thought provoking post, Janet. A democratic society doesn’t work very well when the public is misinformed and/or uninformed. It’s a shame early education does not spend any time teaching students why we believe what we believe and how to fact check. Wouldn’t it be great if we could extend (free) education beyond 12th grade and let it continue over the course of an entire life time? I’m looking forward to reading Kitcher’s book — and your future posts, of course. You are a great asset to the Scientific American community!

    Link to this

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