Thursday, November 25, 2010

Spencer Weart on the Climate Wars

In tribute to the anniversary of Climategate, Spencer Weart (author of The Discovery of Global Warming) placed the events into a larger historical context. Here is what he said:

The controversy was one more step in the trends we have seen operating since the mid 20th century. First, the decline in the prestige of all authorities and would-be authoritative organizations. Second, the great expansion of the scientific community coupled with an increasing interdisciplinarity: strengths which brought a weakness in that that there were no longer any universally respected spokespeople (like Millikan, Einstein, or even Sagan); it is characteristic that the spokesman for the I.P.C.C., Pachauri, was unknown before he took the position, was not even a scientist, and indeed was accepted for the post by the Bush administration precisely because of these deficiencies. Third, the decline of science journalism; where Walter Sullivan and his like had admired the scientific community and were respected in turn, many of the media people who now attempted to explain science, such as the “weather” reporters on television, scarcely understood what they were dealing with.

These trends had been exacerbated since the 1990s by the fragmentation of media (Internet, talk radio), which promoted counter-scientific beliefs such as fear of vaccines among even educated people, by providing facile elaborations of false arguments and a ceaseless repetition of allegations.

The scientific community — for it was not only the I.P.C.C. but the entire scientific community whose reliability was now called into question — was unprepared for the attacks they now faced. We can easily speculate about the personal and social characteristics that to this day make many scientists unfit for aggressive personal controversy. But it will suffice to point out that unlike, for example, any political organization or business corporation, the I.P.C.C. lacked a well-funded and expert public relations apparatus. Even the universities, notably East Anglia, showed a complete lack of understanding of the basic need to respond promptly with a coherent statement of the full factual history of their problems.

To make matters worse, some scientists, and still more people among environmental and other organizations, made statements not supported by what was reliably known. An example was implicit or explicit claims that hurricanes were increasing as a result of human interference with the climate. There was no way for the general public to know whether scientists actually made such claims, still less whether the claims were made honestly or disingenuously. Thus a single error, such as the obviously wrong claim that Himalayan glaciers would vanish within decades, could be suspected to be a deliberate falsehood.

That said, the media coverage represented a new low. There were plenty of earlier examples of media making an uproar without understanding the science (recall, for example, how the director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory was forced to resign because of a leakage of tritium with a total radioactivity less than that in a theater exit sign, see p. xxx). But this was the first time the media reported that an entire community of scientists had been accused of actual dishonesty. Such claims, if directed for example at a politician on a matter of minor importance, would normally require serious investigation. But even in leading newspapers like The New York Times, critics with a long public record for animosity and exaggeration were quoted as experts. As we know, the repetition of allegations is sufficient to make them stick in the public’s mind, regardless of whether they are later shown (or could easily be shown at the time) to be untrue. Thus one more step was taken toward the disintegration and disasters of the late 21st century. … um, just kidding… I hope…

While Weart does a good job of placing the events in a larger historical context, he still seems render these processes (e.g., decline in the authority of scientists, the rise of media promoting 'counter-scientific beliefs') as distinct elements rather than multiple parts of a basic cultural transformation .... i.e., postmodernism.


  1. Hi, Mike Hulme's reply gets closer to describing the transformation, no?

    "I think Spencer is helpful by suggesting there is a much bigger story happening in the world of science, knowledge and cultural authority of which the climate change incidents of this moment are just part. These are going to be increasingly difficult challenges for many areas of science in the future – how is scientific knowledge recognized, how is it spoken and who speaks for it, and how does scientific knowledge relate to other forms of cultural authority. It’s not just about the politicization of public knowledge, but also about its fragmentation, privatization and/or democratization."

    And so, what type of 21st c. transformation would offer effective legitimacy to both expertise and to extended publics?

    Is this the "problem of extension" described by Harry Collins and Robert Evans?

  2. I like your site, work on your spelling.

    Spencer's last name is spelled with an "a." Spencer Weart.

    Dennis Dimick

  3. Thanks for noting that Dennis. I've made the correction.

    On the upside, I could have dropped the 'e' rather than the 'a'. That would have made him Spencer Wart!