I ended up in a brief discussion on Twitter with Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, and Sander van der Linden, Professor of Social Psychology in Society at the University of Cambridge. Matthew Nisbet has been quite critical of consensus messaging and also of John Cook’s recent contrarian claims paper.
During the discussion, Matthew Nisbet suggested those involved in consensus messaging work needed a deeper understanding of climate history, science, social, political, cultural dimensions, and, in particular, should engage with the Science and Technology Studies (STS) literature and with post-normal science. Sander responded with
I find it hard to take some STS articles and arguments seriously. Some of it is just apologetics for outright climate denial, esp the anti-consensus stuff.
Although I appreciate that STS is quite a diverse field, I do largely share this view and thought I would illustrate why using one of the STS/post-normal articles highlighted by Matthew Nisbet. The article, stop treating climate denial like a disease, is by Dan Sarewitz and appeared in the Guardian.
I’m going to mostly ignore the author’s suggestion that [t]he effort to provide a behavioural explanation for why people might not accept the opinions of experts strikes me as not entirely dissimilar in its implications from the early ambitions for eugenics. However, I will say that this reminded me of Reiner Grundmann suggesting an eerie similarity between race science and climate science, and maybe also of Matthew Nisbet’s own suggestion that climate emergency thinking is enabling totalitarianism.
Let’s, however, get back to what I was trying to illustrate; why are STS articles and post-normal science arguments sometimes regarded as endorsing, or excusing, climate denial? Consider the final part of Dan Sarewitz’s article where he suggests that
much of science is on the verge of a crisis that threatens its viability, integrity, legitimacy and utility.
There are clearly many issues with how science is done today, and there are certainly some fields where there are concerns about the reliability of some studies and about the ability to replicate what’s been done. However, to suggest that much of science is on the verge of a crisis seems a bit of a stretch, and claiming that this threatens its viability, integrity, legitimacy and utility certainly seems to play into the hands of those who promote science denial.
However, it’s the suggestion that follows that mostly illustrates my point. The author argues that, since much of science is on the verge of a crisis,
[m]aybe a little science denial is actually in order these days?
So, Matthew Nisbet thinks that scholars who are actively trying to counter misinformation and science denial should engage more with a literature that literally suggests that maybe some science denial is actually in order.
Even if you happen to agree with the basic arguments being made in Dan Sarewitz’s article, it can’t be that difficult to also work out why some scholars might be reluctant to engage more deeply with disciplines that imply that their work is akin to eugenics and that suggests that maybe we should have more of the very thing they’re trying to counter.
I’ll finish by saying that I also find some of this a little ironic. It’s essentially critiquing the manner in which science communication is sometimes undertaken, but doing do so in a way that seems similar to the style they seem to be criticising. Also, if we’re at a stage where facts become soft, and values hard, have they considered that those they’re criticising have already made their value judgements? Similarly, if most of science is on the verge of crisis, why doesn’t this also apply to STS work and to post-normal science? Are they somehow immune?
After writing this post, I came across a blog post by Sylvia Tognetti called Revisiting Post-Normal Science in Post-Normal Times & Identifying Cranks. At the end of the post is a link to a much longer article which discusses how post-normal science either appears to have been made for the denialist crowd, or has been hijacked by them. It presents a number of examples where post-normal scholars seem to have either promoted arguments that are similar to those being promoted by the denialist crowd, or where post-normal science has failed to distinguish between those engaging in good-faith disagreements and those acting in bad-faith.
I don’t think this means that all of post-normal science is doing such things, but just that there seem to be examples where this is the case. Also, it’s clear that since science alone cannot tell us how to make societally relevant decisions, some kind of other framework is probably needed. However, this doesn’t mean that such a framework should be free from criticism, or that care shouldn’t be taken when thinking about how to utilise such a framework.