Reiner Grundmann has a new paper on The rightful placeful of expertise. It’s rather long, but there were a couple of things I wanted to highlight, and it gives me chance to try and stress something I was trying to get at in this post.
The paper has a section where it defends of Science and Technology Studies (STS) against it’s critics, but then goes on to say Social scientists and especially those working in STS have long argued that facts and expertise are socially constructed. This is essentially an illustration of why STS gets criticised. If this doesn’t mean that there isn’t really an objective reality, then what does it mean, and why does it matter?
However, the bit I wanted to focus on was the discussion of Tame and Wicked problems. The idea is that there are some problems that are tame; we can find solutions, and we can implement them. Barring unforeseen circumstances, these problems can be solved. There are others for which there aren’t simple solutions; we can maybe influence them, but we can’t really solve them. Examples might be unemployment, public health, education, crime, etc. There aren’t really simple, or necessarily obvious, ways to address these issues, and we can never really get rid of them completely.
As you might imagine, climate change is also provided as an example of a wicked problem. The paper actually goes so far as to say [w]hat if the climate system is like the world economy, which is growing and shrinking independent of governments’ interventions?, which rather makes it sound like a suggestion that we can’t really influence the climate. I’ll assume that this isn’t actually what is being suggested, but it would be nice if this were clearer.
However, there is a fundamental difference between climate change and the other type of issues that might be wicked problems. While we continue to emit CO2 into the atmosphere, it will accumulate, the climate will continue to change and the impacts will likely get worse. Barring some kind of as yet unknown technological fix, the best we can do at any time is stop it from getting worse. This would require us stopping emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. To use one of the examples in the paper, it’s a bit like unemployment increasing and us only ever being able to stop it from increasing further; we cannot get it to go back down again.
So, if we treat climate change as some kind of wicked problem that we can only ever manage and that will always be there, we’re essentially suggesting that we will continue to emit CO2 into the atmosphere, that the climate will continue to change, and that the impacts will continue to get worse. That seems like a very unsatisfactory way to deal with this issue, especially as there is actually a solution; stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere!
This is not to suggest that addressing climate change is going to be easy, and that there aren’t major political, societal, and technological factors that need to be considered. However, we do know how to stop anthropogenically-driven climate change; reduce our emission of CO2 into the atmosphere and ultimately get net emissions to zero. This may be difficult, there will be all sorts of hurdles in the way, but that doesn’t change that there is a way to address it. Arguing that we shouldn’t actively do so is essentially arguing for simply accepting that the impacts of climate change will continue to get worse.
I don’t really know where to go with this. This just seems to be another social scientist who doesn’t really understand that they’re discussing and hasn’t really bothered to spend much talking with those who do1. This is an important issue, and it’s clear that there are many factors to be considered. This will involve people from many different disciplines, with a range of different expertise. However, it’s still important that those who regard themselves as in a position to give advice as to how we should be dealing with this issue, at least have a decent understanding of the basics. Why should people take their advice seriously if it seems clear that they don’t?
1To be fair, it’s not just social scientist who can discuss, with confidence, something they don’t really understand.
It seems that some have interpreted my last paragraph as implying that social scientists, in general, don’t understand this, which wasn’t what I was intending (even though I can see why it might be interpreted that way). I do think this is a topic that should involve many different disciplines and that social, as well as physical and natural, scientists should be playing an important role. However, this still requires some understanding of the basics of this topic, which seems to be lacking in some cases.