The “ClimateGate” affair – the publication of e-mails and documents hacked or leaked from one of the world’s leading climate research institutions – is being intensely debated on the web. But what does it imply for climate science? Here, Mike Hulme and Jerome Ravetz say it shows that we need a more concerted effort to explain and engage the public in understanding the processes and practices of science and scientists.
“ Practising scientists know that they do not simply follow a rulebook to do their science, otherwise it could be done by a robot ”
As the repercussions of
reverberate around the virtual community of global citizens, we believe it is both important and urgent to reflect on what this moment is telling us about the practice of science in the 21st Century.
In particular, what is it telling us about the social status and perceived authority of scientific claims about climate change?
We argue that the evolving practice of science in the contemporary world must be different from the classic view of disinterested – almost robotic – humans establishing objective claims to universal truth.
Climate change policies are claimed to be grounded in scientific knowledge about physical cause and effect and about reliable projections of the future.
As opposed to other ways of knowing the world around us – through intuition, inherited belief, myth – such scientific knowledge retains its authority by widespread trust in science’s reassuring norms of objectivity, universality and disinterestedness.
These perceived norms work to guarantee to the public trustworthy scientific knowledge, and allow such knowledge to claim high authority in political deliberation and argumentation; this, at least, is what historically has been argued in the case of climate change.
What distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge?
On what basis does scientific knowledge earn its high status and authority?
What are the minimum standards of scientific practice that ensure it is trustworthy?
For an open, enquiring and participative society, these are questions that have become much more important in the wake of ClimateGate.
They are also questions that scientists should continually be asking of themselves as the political and cultural worlds within which they do their work rapidly change.
Doing science in 2010 demands something rather different from scientists than did science in 1960, or even in 1985.
How science has evolved
The understanding of science as a social activity has changed quite radically in the last 50 years.
The classic virtues of scientific objectivity, universality and disinterestedness can no longer be claimed to be automatically effective as the essential properties of scientific knowledge.
Instead, warranted knowledge – knowledge that is authoritative, reliable and guaranteed on the basis of how it has been acquired – has become more sought after than the ideal of some ultimately true and objective knowledge.
“ The public… may not be able to describe fluid dynamics using mathematics, but they can recognise evasiveness when they see it ”
Warranted knowledge places great weight on ensuring that the authenticating roles of socially-agreed norms and practices in science are adequately fulfilled – what in other fields is called quality assurance.
And science earns its status in society from strict adherence to such norms.
For climate change, this may mean the adequate operation of professional peer review, the sharing of empirical data, the open acknowledgement of errors, and openness about one’s funders.
Crucially, the idea of warranted knowledge also recognises that these internal norms and practices will change over time in response to external changes in political culture, science funding and communication technologies.
In certain areas of research – and climate change is certainly one of these – the authenticating of scientific knowledge now demands two further things: an engagement with expertise outside the laboratory, and responsiveness to the natural scepticism and desire for scrutiny of an educated public.
The public may not be able to follow radiation physics, but they can follow an argument; they may not be able to describe fluid dynamics using mathematics, but they can recognise evasiveness when they see it.
Where claims of scientific knowledge provide the basis of significant public policy, demands for what has been called “extended peer review” and “the democratisation of science” become overwhelming.
Extended peer review is an idea that can take many forms.
It may mean the involvement of a wider range of professionals than just scientists.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, included individuals from industry, environmental organisations and government officials as peer reviewers of early drafts of their assessments.
More radically, some have suggested that opening up expert knowledge to the scrutiny of the wider public is also warranted.
While there will always be a unique function for expert scientific reviewers to play in authenticating knowledge, this need not exclude other interested and motivated citizens from being active.
These demands for more openness in science are intensified by the embedding of the internet and Web 2.0 media as central features of many people’s social exchanges.
It is no longer tenable to believe that warranted and trusted scientific knowledge can come into existence inside laboratories that are hermetically sealed from such demands.
A revolution in science
So we have a three-fold revolution in the demands that are placed on scientific knowledge claims as they apply to investigations such as climate change:
To be warranted, knowledge must emerge from a respectful process in which science’s own internal social norms and practices are adhered to
To be validated, knowledge must also be subject to the scrutiny of an extended community of citizens who have legitimate stakes in the significance of what is being claimed
And to be empowered for use in public deliberation and policy-making, knowledge must be fully exposed to the proliferating new communication media by which such extended peer scrutiny takes place.
The opportunity that lies at the centre of these more open practices of science is to secure the gold standard of trust.
And it is public trust in climate change science that has potentially been damaged as a result of the exposure of e-mails between researchers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and their peers elsewhere.
The disclosure and content of these private exchanges is only the latest in a long line of instances that point to the need for major changes in the relationship between science and the public.
By this, we mean a more concerted effort to explain and engage the public in understanding the processes and practices of science and scientists, as much as explaining the substance of their knowledge and how (un)certain it is.
How well does the public understand professional peer review, for example, or the role of a workshop, a seminar and a conference in science?
Does the public understand how scientists go about resolving differences of opinion or reaching consensus about an important question when the uncertainties are large?
We don’t mean the “textbook” answers to such things; all practising scientists know that they do not simply follow a rulebook to do their science, otherwise it could be done by a robot.
Science is a deeply human activity, and we need to be more honest about what this entails. Rather than undermining science, it would actually allow the public to place their trust more appropriately in the various types of knowledge that scientists can offer.
What should be done?
At the very least, the publication of private CRU e-mail correspondence should be seen as a wake-up call for scientists – and especially for climate scientists.
The key lesson to be learnt is that not only must scientific knowledge about climate change be publicly owned – the IPCC does a fair job of this according to its own terms – but that in the new century of digital communication and an active citizenry, the very practices of scientific enquiry must also be publicly owned.
Unsettling as this may be for scientists, the combination of “post-normal science” and an internet-driven democratisation of knowledge demands a new professional and public ethos in science.
And there is no better place to start this revolution than with climate science.
After all, it is claimed, there is no more pressing global political challenge than this.
But might this episode signify something more in the unfolding story of climate change – maybe the start of a process of re-structuring scientific knowledge?
It is possible that some areas of climate science have become sclerotic, that its scientific practices have become too partisan, that its funding – whether from private or public sectors – has compromised scientists.
The tribalism that some of the e-mails reveal suggests a form of social organisation that is now all too familiar in some sections of business and government.
Public trust in science, which was damaged in the BSE scandal 13 years ago, risks being affected by this latest episode.
A Citizen’s Panel on Climate Change (CPCC)?
It is also possible that the institutional innovation that has been the IPCC has now largely run its course.
Perhaps, through its structural tendency to politicise climate change science, it has helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production – just at a time when a globalising and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.
The IPCC was designed by the UN in the Cold War era, before the internet and before GoogleWave.
Maybe we should think about how a Citizen’s Panel on Climate Change might work in today’s world, as well as a less centralising series of IPCC-like expert assessments.
If there are serious ecological and social issues to be attended to because of the way the world’s climates are changing – as the authors of this article believe – then scientists need to take a long hard look at how they are creating, validating and mobilising scientific knowledge about climate change.
Climate science alters the way we think about humanity and its possible futures.
It is not the case that the science is somehow now “finished” and that we now should simply get on with implementing it.
We have decades ahead when there will be interplay between evolving scientific knowledge with persisting uncertainty and ignorance, new ways of understanding our place in the world, and new ways of being in it.
A more open and a better understood science process will mean more trusted science, and will increase the chances of both “good science” and “good policy”.
“Show your working” is the imperative given to scientists when preparing for publication to peers.
There, it refers to techniques.
Now, with the public as partner in the creation and implementation of scientific knowledge in the policy domain, the injunction has a new and enhanced meaning.
Mike Hulme is professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change
Dr Jerome Ravetz is an independent scholar affiliated to the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) at Oxford University