I came across a paper that might be of interest to regular readers of this blog. It’s by Hans von Storch and is a Brief communication: Climate science as a social process – history, climatic determinism, Mertonian norms and post-normality. Before I start, there is some background. A few years ago, I had a discussion with the author in the comments of a Die Klimazweibel blog post. In one response, they stated: In other words: physicists (and other natural scientists), back into your baracks! The author of the post on which we were commenting also once suggested that [t]here is an eerie similarity between race science and climate science. In my view, some rather strange views about physical/climate science.
To be honest, I’m finding it tricky to develop a coherent comment on the paper; I found it all rather confusing. Maybe some commenters can develop more coherent responses, but I thought I would comment on some general themes.
- Post-normal science: The paper suggests that climate science is in a “post-normal” phase. Post-normal science is, supposedly, when “facts [are] uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent“. I think there are a number of issues with this. Firstly, I don’t see much difference between climate science and many other areas of “normal” science. Secondly, how does this account for attempts to manufacture uncertainty? Given the definition of post-normal science, one way to undermine inconvenient results from “normal” science is to argue that the “facts” are more uncertain than they actually are and, hence, that this “normal” science is actually “post-normal”. Finally, defining something as post-normal is meant to help when “facts [are] uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” but, despite numerous discussions with one of developers of this idea, I’ve no idea how this is actually meant to work.
- Mertonian norms: The paper also suggests that climate science has been taken over by physical scientists who have imposed a set of norms. These Mertonian norms are Communalism, Universalism, Disinteredness, and Organized Skepticism. They were actually first described by a sociologist, not by a physicist. Although I think most physical scientists would regard them as reasonable ideals, I’d be surprised if most were aware of the term Mertonian norms, and I doubt that most would only regard something as scientific if it satisfies them. Our confidence in something may grow the more it satifies these norms, but they don’t define what is scientific. I’d also argue that these are reasonable norms for any area of research, not just the physical sciences.
- Climate determinism: I do think this is something that is worth being aware of. We do have to be careful of suggesting that the climate, or some change in the climate, will determine some societal response. Clearly, how society responds will depend on many factors, and can be influenced by how resilient, and prepared, a particular society happens to be. However, physical scientists do tend to think in terms of all else being equal. This doesn’t mean that they think all else will be equal, but it can be a useful baseline against which to judge what might need to be done to deal with the impact of some change. So, I do sometimes think that some confuse climate determinism with suggestions that climate change could be severely disruptive unless we take action to minimise the impact.
This paper also reminds me of another paper by Reiner Grundmann which essentially suggested that there should be less science, more social science. My issue with these type of arguments is that they seem to misrepresent how research works in practice. When topics become of interest, more and more scholars will start to study it. If you don’t like the resulting focus, or the dominance of some scholars, the ideal would be to do the scholarship that you think is missing, and convince people of its significance. Suggesting that the problem is these other scholars who have somehow taken over, just seems churlish and – in my view – rather unconvincing.
Brief communication: Climate science as a social process – history, climatic determinism, Mertonian norms and post-normality – paper by Hans von Storch.
Climate change as a wicked social problem – Die Klimazweibel blog post by Reiner Grundmann.
Mertonian norms – my post about Mertonian norms.
Less science, more social science – my post about Reiner Grundmann’s paper.