Stoat has a new post called climate science identifies the problem – it can’t tell us what to do in response and – as he says – this is pretty bleedin’ obvious. Science can clearly provide information as to how a system might respond to various changes, but it can’t really tell us whether or not we should do anything to avoid these changes, and – if we should – how we should do so. Evidence can – and should, in my view – inform decision making. It can’t, however, define the actual decision that are made.
Stoat’s post, however, lead me to a recent Nature Geoscience Comment by Reiner Grundmann called Climate change as a wicked social problem. If I was being charitable, I would say that Grundmann’s article is essentially saying the same as Stoat’s post, but that would be incredibly generous. What it’s really arguing is that climate change has been mischaracterised and that it is not a scientific but a social problem, even going as far as to say
If social scientists had been involved significantly and from the beginning, this crucial error in categorizing climate change might have been avoided.
I find it hard to believe that if there had been more involvement from social scientists who had managed to define climate change differently, that we’d somehow have achieved more in terms of addressing climate change than we currently have. I can well believe that we might have convinced ourselves that we had – while being in the same position as we are now – but that hardly seems an improvement. Also, as far as I can see, there are lots of social scientists involved in addressing this issue already, many of whom are doing very interesting and worthwhile work. What was stopping others from getting involved; were they wanting some kind of special invitation?
He then says
The key issue lies with the fact that scientific insights are being used to derive policy. If climate policy is justified with science, opponents of the policy will attack the science.
Well, yes, this does indeed seem true. I, naively, had assumed that one role of social scientists might be to address this problem, not suggest that [t]his line of argument also highlights that the climate problem is not a scientific problem, but a social problem: one cannot derive climate policies from climate science. So, rather than helping to find ways to addres this issue, Grundmann argues that we should simply accept that climate change is really a social, not a scientific, problem. In other words, if any evidence suggested that we should consider policy options that might be inconvenient to some, they can simply attack the evidence, and we should then say: “fair enough, let’s treat this problem differently”. Seems pretty much guaranteed to ensure that evidence-based policy making will be the exception, rather than the rule.
The article then suggests that climate change is really – as the title suggests – a wicked problem, not a tame problem. The argument being that climate change doesn’t have a stopping rule:
We do not know when we have succeeded solving the problem, because we do not have an agreed metric.
Well, this seems rather confused. I don’t think there is much dispute as to what it would take to address climate change; reduce emissions and eventually get them to zero, or close to zero. Doesn’t seem too wicked to me. The difficulty comes in deciding whether or not to do so, how to do so, how fast to do it, and whether or not to possibly bank on technologies we have yet to develop. Of course, we will also have to adapt to various changes, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some kind of stopping rule.
Having said that, addressing climate change is not easy, the available evidence does not define what we should do, and clearly many different disciplines will inform the decision making process. That doesn’t mean that
climate science provides no help to meet this challenge, once it has been acknowledged.
There are still many policy relevant aspects to climate science, even once the science has been acknowledged. For example, how do we plan for sea level rise, if we don’t have any idea of how much sea level rise to expect?
The article ends with Grundmann arguing that there are potentially serious consequences to the various policy options and that the social sciences can play a crucial role in understanding these consequences and helping to inform policy. Well, this seems pretty obvious and, as far as I can tell, is already taking place. What’s odd is arguing that we should essentially now dismiss the scientific evidence, while focussing only on the evidence from social science. So, only evidence-based when the evidence suits you?
The crux of the article appears in the final sentence:
[i]t is high time the expertise of the social sciences is recognized and assembled.
My impression is that a lot of good social science is already recognised. In my opinion, one way to ensure that more is recognised would be to write stuff worth recognising, rather than simply insisting that people do so.