Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Earth to Scientists

I recently stumbled across a thought-provoking book titled The Politics of Pure Science. Written by a journalist named Daniel Greenberg, it was originally published in 1967. After going out-of-print, it was re-issued in 1999 with two introductory essays by third parties and an afterword by Greenberg himself.

In his opening essay Steven Shapin, a historian and science sociologist, observes that:

…the credibility of scientific claims is never a matter of pure evidence or pure logic (that is, it always involves rhetoric and persuasion and is, in this sense, rightly called political).

In other words, as I’ve argued elsewhere, science is done by human beings who make judgment calls. When we accept that certain scientific facts are true, we’re placing our trust in the judgment of other people. This is why it matters whether scientists who insist the planet is imperiled behave professionally or not. It provides an important clue as to how wise it is to trust them.

Shapin argues that scientists, because they are funded with tax dollars, must be accountable to the public:

…if we exempt the scientific community from normal patterns of accountablity, we compromise democracy through a tyranny of the experts, and ultimately create the conditions in which the scientific community comes to be resented and mistrusted.

It Shapin’s view, Greenberg was the rarest sort of science journalist because he wasn’t merely a cheerleader:

…while the traditon of science journalism was to see its role as a cheering section, Greenberg reckoned that the proper place of science in a democratic polity could only be served if science was, and was seen to be, called to account in the same way as other recipients of public largesse. No one has ever performed that function as well as Dan Greenberg, and depressingly few science journalists have even tried. [bold added]

In the final pages of the book, Greenberg recalls that his work was not well received by scientists or the scientific press. He recounts how, back in 1967, just prior to its publication, a physicist who’d read an advance copy asked to meet with him:

Informing me that he had been commissioned as a reviewer by Scientific American, Victor Weisskopf, a revered figure of the physics establishment, asked me to meet him in Cambridge…When I arrived, he waved a sheaf of proofs and, with the assertivness of a prof turning back a deficient term paper, declared that changes would be necessary. If not carried out, he intimated, his Scientific American review would reflect that failure. Had he found errors? I asked. No, he acknowledged. Rather he wanted the work “toned down” because “it makes us look bad.” Science is a politically delicate enterprise, he explained, and might be harmed by the book’s description of its inner workings. At that time, with six or seven years of experience in reporting on the scientific community, I was familiar with what I faced: the belief that anything but reverence for science and its practitioners constituted hostility. The conversation essentially ended there. [bold added, page 301]

Forty-four years later, little seems to have changed. Anyone who expresses concern over the behaviour (not to mention the judgment and conclusions) of climate scientists now gets dismissed as anti-science. Activist scientist Joe Romm, for example, makes a habit of this. And Chris Mooney – a journalist who’s supposed to be helping scientists hone their communication skills –  isn’t much much better. (See also here, here, and here.)

Earth to scientists (and their cheerleaders): these are childish arguments. They are also ineffective. You’re supposed to be some of our finest minds. Isn’t it time to try a different approach?

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