November 7, 2013, by Warren Pearce
Mike Hulme: What Do Citizens and Scientists Expect of Each Other?
This is a guest post by Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College, London:
Over the last couple of weeks I have found myself in three very different settings in which challenging questions have been asked about the relationship between scientific knowledge and personal belief and social behaviour. Each time this has been in the context of climate science and how responses to climate change are debated and enacted in public life.
“We need the known facts…”
The first event was a two-day inter-disciplinary workshop on climate change hosted jointly by the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Wilfred Laurier University at Waterloo in Canada. Simon Dalby and Dan Scott invited a set of eight panellists—of whom I was one–to reflect on and discuss, first, ‘What is climate change?’ (Day 1) and then ‘What should we do about climate change?’ (Day 2). The panellists came from a range of disciplines–geography, mathematics, political science, philosophy, energy engineering, health science, public education–and a rich, if not always converging, discussion emerged over the two days.
The most challenging moment came when the chair of one of the Day 2 sessions asked—looking at me–why didn’t climate scientists stand up in public and explain more clearly and definitely ‘the known facts about climate change’—and then suggested a list of what some of these ‘known facts’ were. The implication of his challenge was that getting the facts straight about climate change—something climate scientists should do–would make public and policy decision-making around climate change much easier.
…but there are no known facts in climate change
My response was to say two things. First, that there are no ‘known facts’ about the future. There are predictions, projections and scenarios based on observations, scientific theory and different levels of understanding about how the physical world works. But all such future-oriented statements come hedged with uncertainties. Second, and following from this, I suggested that what science is uniquely positioned to contribute to public life is simply to give a defensible account of physical cause and effect; when applied to the future such knowledge can offer statements about a range of possible physical effects with differing levels of confidence. What science is not able to do is to tell us what these statements mean, nor what we should do in response. For these questions, other forms of public reasoning, deliberation and judgement must take centre stage.
When applied to climate science and climate change the implications of my position seem obvious. Two people may be exposed to exactly the same set of scientific statements about future climate projections and they may equally accept, cognitively, the veracity of these claims. And yet they may very well choose to interpret and act on those knowledge claims in very different ways. We disagree about what to do about climate change not necessarily because of some deficiency in our cognitive reasoning, but simply because we hold different values and preferences.
Interpreting evidence: it’s not just values
The second event called ‘Truths, Beliefs, Convictions’ was run last week at King’s College London (KCL) by The Tipping Point organisation under the auspices of the King’s Cultural Institute. It was a small workshop consisting of academic researchers and creative artists and those working in the creative industries and was led by Kris De Meyer, a Research Fellow in neuroscience at KCL. In the workshop Kris asked the question, ‘What are the processes which lead person A genuinely to believe something which person B considers to be contrary to logic and insane?’ This is a question that lies at the centre of the difficult and antagonistic nature of the climate debate.
Kris led the group through current findings from neuroscience and psychology that provide insights into how people become certain of what they believe and also about how people see themselves and how they perceive others with whom they disagree. Through reading the work of people like Dan Kahan, Jonathan Haidt and Cass Sunstein I was familiar with quite of lot of this science as it applies to climate change. It also reminded me of the ABC Tv documentary screened in Australia in April 2012: ‘I can change your mind about climate change’.
What struck me forcefully from this workshop, however, was the close relationship between the weight people give to (scientific) evidential claims about some phenomenon and the nature of the relationship they have with that person or that person’s network of affinities. Trust is at the centre of these relationships and so trust—or lack of it–seems to be at the centre of disagreements about interpreting climate science. The notion of trustworthy witnesses in science was wonderfully developed by Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their 1985 book Leviathan and the Air Pump and so again this insight is not new—but simply one that is continually worth repeating.
And so this would lead me to qualify my earlier statement. We may disagree about what to do about climate change not only because we hold different values and preferences. We may also disagree because we are interpreting the veracity of the same body of evidence in different ways according to the nature and strength of our affinity(ies) with the scientist(s) offering the evidence.
Citizen scientists…and scientists as citizens
The third encounter got me thinking about the inverse of this conclusion. Rather than thinking about how citizens make sense of climate science, how do scientists understand the social status and public impact of the knowledge that they create and how are they educated and trained to think so? This third encounter was an interview with education researcher Dorothy Smith from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. It was for a research project into how scientists understand the relationship between science and society, funded by the Australian Research Council. The aim of the project is to develop some principles that can inform the secondary school education of intending scientists and of all school children. The interview required me to reflect on my education and career in (climate) science and also on how my own understanding of the relationship between climate science and public life had developed.
It was only after the 90-minute interview that Dorothy shared with me one her earlier papers which laid out some of the background to the study: ‘Science curriculum in the market liberal society of the twenty-first century: ‘re-visioning’ the idea of science for all’, which was published in the journal Research in Science Education in 2009 with her colleague Richard Gunstone.
In the paper, Smith and Gunstone develop the argument that science education in schools as currently practiced in most cultures is deficient. But it is deficient not for the reasons that those advocates of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education might propose: poorly trained teachers, lack of lab resources, unmotivated students, rote learning of science, etc. Smith and Gunstone argue the deficiency is that those students of science at school, many/some of whom then develop a professional career in science, are not introduced to “any sense of the complexity and social embeddedness of the work they are about to undertake”.
Science studies »»» science education
Their advocacy of the idea of ‘Science for All’ argues that previous ambitions to ‘educate citizens as scientists’ needs to be replicated in the ambition—largely unmet—to ‘educate every scientist as a citizen’. All learners of science, especially those who will become professional scientists, need to appreciate that (and I paraphrase): (a) science has limits—it cannot predict and explain everything; (b) science is done by people—it is a human pursuit and is not infallible; (c) scientific evidence is not always conclusive in political life—decisions are not made on scientific grounds alone; (d) science changes over time (albeit slowly) and also across cultures or nations; and (e) science proceeds in a social, moral spiritual and cultural context.
These are all insights about science as practice that have emerged from nearly half a century of social studies of science. Smith and Gunstone are correct in arguing that these characteristics of science need to be taught in the high school classroom. Failure on the part of scientists to understand these characteristics of science helps to perpetuate the deficit model of science communication and the linear model of science-policy interaction.
Smith and Gunstone conclude their 2009 paper: “At present, the education that inducts an intending scientist into his or her new community, also acts to remove the child from the responsibilities of an ordinary citizen. We do not claim that this separation is intentional, but we do claim that it happens: it is a consequence of the dualistic thinking that has, at key times, prevailed in science education. The dualistic thinking that separates the education of future scientists from that of future citizens itself draws from the dualism that sees science as separated from society.”
This is a most important insight and points to a crucial adjustment to be made to the way in which scientists are educated (at school) and trained (later). I will be interested to see in due course the results of their new empirical investigation into how practising professional scientists understand this issue.
This conclusion (italicized below) is so weird that I went back to the original article to ascertain its context.
“At present, the education that inducts an intending scientist into his or her new community, also acts to remove the child from the responsibilities of an ordinary citizen.”
It’s not obvious that this extraordinary statement has any justification in the context of an argument in the rest of the article. Rather astonishingly it is referring to school level education, and seems to be asserting that children with a particular interest in science and taking (in the UK) A level (or Scottish Higher) Chemistry, Biology and Geography (say) are going through a process of “induction” during which their citizenry responsibilities are somehow being stripped away.
Isn’t this simply a stupid notion? Its adoption seems to require that school children either don’t experience a broad and enriching environment (in and out of school) that contributes to their development as individuals and citizens, or that the very act of taking science courses drains them of the ability to develop responsible attitudes within their societies.
The students that leave this apparently denuding school environment and that we encounter as undergraduates, seem extraordinary responsible to me. They learn the limitations of scientific knowledge, are encouraged to take a critical attitude to the material they encounter, take part in courses and debates on ethics in relation to issues of science, engage in voluntary community work (far more than we ever did in my time as a student) and seem to be rather delightfully rounded individuals. Many of them end up not being scientists (they become teachers or management consultants or chefs or journalists, or work in the voluntary sector or in forest management or the other countless things that science graduates end up doing). I expect the knowledge and critical abilities they learn at school and at university not only enriches their lives but actually makes better equipped to engage with their communities as responsible citizens.
The most dismal aspect of Smith and Gunstone’s thesis encapsulated by their sentence is it’s apparent lack of recognition that scientists are people. They finish work and go home to their families and engage with their communities much like everyone else.
We could also notice that the list of things that all “learners of science” are supposed (by Smith and Gunstone) to appreciate are so obvious that one wonders at their presumption that these are not rather well appreciated by scientists.
Who on earth are ‘scientists’? I don’t recognise the term.
The ‘scientific method’ is shorthand for a particular way of addressing problems. Teachers or management consultants or chefs or journalists can all use that methodology – indeed, they probably all do at some point in their lives. Are they ‘scientists?
In our society, we pay some people to spend many of their working hours considering problems using this methodology. One might hope that they would get rather good at it, though I have seen many who regularly break the basic tenets of the method after years of experience. Are these ‘scientists’? I tend to call them ‘paid researchers’.
There is absolutely nothing special about the scientific method that means that only approved people can practice it, and that only those approved people should be allowed to have opinions on technical matters. And yet I meet this assumption regularly when I examine Climate Science. We appear to be busy building the ‘scientific-technological elite’ that we were warned about half a century ago…
DG, I think we can all distinguish between scientists and those that aren’t scientists. A scientists it quite likely to define herself as a “Research Scientist” or “Physicist” or “Government Microbiologist” or suchlike on their census form, whereas a teacher, management consultant, chef or journalist (to use your examples) isn’t! I’m using the term much as Smith and Gunstone (referred to in the last section of Mike Hulme’s article at the top of the page) use it.
Of course you’re absolutely right that we are all scientists in the sense that we try to make sense of the world through our experiences and address problems using logic, experimentation in the broadest sense of the word and our accumulated knowledge and understanding. That’s part of what it means to be human. However your suggestion of an assumption that “only those approved people should be allowed to have opinions on technical matters” in a particular arena surely isn’t correct (and why oh why do discussions of science and its place in society always have to gravitate to climate science!?). After all you don’t have to spend much time on the internet to find a mass of opinions on climate science, and in my experience the poor old climate scientist gets hardly a look in when opinions on climate related matters are discussed/presented on TV.
I would have thought climate science and its impact on policy is much the same as in all issues with a strong scientific input. After all if society has an issue with the MMR vaccine, one hopes that the scientific evidence as expressed by scientists with an expertise in the subject has a strong input into policy even if the unhelpful opinions of journalists might have a large effect on public opinion. Likewise when hospital scares involving (say) hospital acquired bacterial infections (“superbugs”) arise the views of microbiologists would be expected to be sought. In Europe we have strong regulation against using antibiotics as growth promoters in feedstock in response to some rather objective scientific understanding of the problems with respect to the development of antibiotic resistance, whereas in the US there is little regulation even though the scientific argument is no different. It’s just that outside opinion (economic and political pressure from lobbying for example) overrides the scientific evidence/opinion.
Is climate science very different? I don’t think so. Policy (partly) in response to the clear scientific evidence on anthropogenic contributions to climate change is being enacted throughout the developed world to greater or lesser extents, but this is being done within a virtual whirlwind of competing “opinions”. I expect what climate scientists (and me too!) would say is that it would be good if the scientific evidence wasn’t subject to a virtual industry of misrepresentation.
What I find a little troubling with the social science perspectives on the role of science in society in general, and the Smith/Gunstone thesis in which they assert an apparent lack of learning (amongst school children) or perception (amongst scientists) of some rather obvious “characteristics of science”…is that these ideas seem banal or unhelpful and even false when considered in the light of real world examples.
So for example when considering the current bovine tuberculosis (TB) problem in the UK and the strategy of badger culling to reduce the problem, I don’t think anyone DOES consider that (a) science doesn’t have limits or (b) science is infallible or (c) scientific evidence is conclusive in political life or (e) science doesn’t proceed in a social/cultural context. The Smith/Gunstone thesis seems to be both claiming insight and then admonishing someone (teachers; scientists???) for apparently lacking something that we (public and scientists) have all internalised anyway.
After all it’s obvious to any sensible UK citizen who chooses to watch the news that we don’t know whether a cull will be effective (science not infallible). We’re pretty sure that the best way of dealing with the problem from the cows point of view would be to vaccinate them. However we can’t because we then couldn’t sell the products abroad (non-scientific considerations strongly influence decision-making). The decision making is complicated by the considerations of the farmers (who bear some of the costs of addressing the problem) and other members of the public (who don’t like the cruelty inherent in the chosen culling approach) (science proceeds in a social/cultural context)….and so on.
And one could look at any other specific problem with an important input from science to see that it’s pretty unlikely that public/scientists are unaware of the “characteristics of science” that Smith/Gunstone presume to assert that we lack.
Interestingly the example that I used in my post of Nov 11 above (antibiotics as
growth promoters in US animal feedstocks and their influence on generation of antibiotic resistance in human bacterial pathogens)…is addressed in tomorrows Science mag:
from a Donald Kennedy editorial speaking of up-til-now-useful antibiotics (Science 15 November 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6160 p. 777):
Kennedy goes on to describe efforts that may help address this practice in the US: “Accordingly, the FDA issued in April 2012 a preliminary regulatory proposal to finalize “Food and Drug Administration Guidance #213.” The guidance would end antibiotic use for growth promotion and “unnecessary disease prevention”: i.e., prophylactic administration to animals whose health is threatened by crowding.”
Again this illustrates the tensions between very straightforward scientific evidence and economic and other interests, that means that the science is only one of several competing inputs into policy (The situation in this particular example (antibiotics as growth promoters in animal food) is different in the EU, where the scientific evidence has a stronger influence on policy in this case). In many cases the scientific imperative tends to prevail, but often only after some considerable damage and delay in “accommodating” other interests. The policy response to the science on anthropogenic global warming is probably no different in this regard.
We could use this example to address the question posed in the top article; i.e. “What Do Citizens and Scientists Expect of Each Other?”.
The answer might be that citizens expect scientists to provide evidence on causal relationships on subjects of relevance to personal, collective and economic health and wellbeing. The scientist might expect of the citizens that their evidence and its consequences is portrayed faithfully and taken into consideration in policymaking.
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