I’ve been reading a recent paper by Sujatha Raman and Warren Pearce called Learning the lessons of Climategate: A cosmopolitan moment in the public life of climate science. I’m always a little uncomfortable writing about climategate, partly because it’s been blown completely out of proportion and should probably be mostly ignored, and partly because – having watched last year’s BBC show about it – it’s clear that it was a rather traumatic experience for some of those involved.
Although I don’t want to delve into what was presented about Climategate, I thought I would just present some quotes from the paper that my readers can mull over.
…and alleged data manipulation by the scientists to “hide the decline” in global temperatures.
Conventionally, policy is meant to follow from science that has been validated within the scientific community alone and authorized by a passive and trusting public.
Second, while the scientific norm of openness has been re-established, and extended peer review become more accepted, there could be greater openness about the inevitable flaws and limitations of scientific knowledge about climate change.
The legacy of Climategate may be mixed….
What I thought I would briefly discuss instead is what was presented in a section titled The promise of cosmopolitan knowledge. Now, I realise that scientific knowledge alone cannot tell us what we should do; there are many other factors that play a role in establishing how we should respond to information. However, the ideas presented in this section seem to be going beyond just suggesting that broader views should be taken into account when considering the implications of some scientific knowledge
Importantly, this means not just paying attention to attitudes, opinions, or even values, but to how different cultures, professions, movements, and faiths “know” the world.
To be clear, I don’t think that research should only be undertaken by those employed in formal research positions; there are plenty of examples of people who’ve made positive contributions even though they don’t hold a traditional research position. I also think there are plenty of examples where the general public have been involved in helping to undertake research. There are also examples where science has ignored something culturally relevant that should really have influenced how some evidence was interpreted, or how some research should have been undertaken. Science also has lots of issues with diversity and inclusion that we should be dealing with and taking much more seriously.
However, there’s a difference between the above and suggesting that our overall scientific understanding should incorporate other peoples’ knowledge of the world. I can see value in debating what we should do about sea level rise, but our estimates of sea level rise shouldn’t be influenced by those who think it isn’t happening because they haven’t noticed anything yet. We should certainly be much more inclusive when considering what to do about the possibility of an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, droughts, floods, tropical cyclones, or damage to ocean and land ecosystems. However, I don’t see any value in incorporating the views of those who think climate change can’t be happening because the greenhouse effect violates the second law of thermodynamics.
Maybe I misunderstand what is being suggested by a promise of cosmopolitan knowledge. If not, then I really don’t see how it really is something that would be of benefit to society. I don’t think we should put scientists onto pedestals and allow then to have undue influence over decisions that will influence society. However, I also don’t think we should elevate the views of those who don’t have the skills, or expertise, to develop reliable knowledge about a complex topic.
I do think that we have to do a better job of both interogating expertise so as to establish reliable “knowledge” and how to then incorporate this “knowledge” into decision making processes. In this context, there may well be a benefit to broadening who is regarded as providing relevant “knowledge”. However, understanding complex physical systems typically requires a skillset, and a level of expertise, that takes years to develop. This doesn’t mean that those who have developed this expertise are somehow special, but it does suggest that maybe we should be cautious of taking seriously views presented by those who very clearly have not developed the relevant expertise.