November 7, 2013, by Warren Pearce

Mike Hulme: What Do Citizens and Scientists Expect of Each Other?

Knowledge of Velocity, Gianpiere SotoThis 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.


Posted in Climate ChangePublic educationpublic engagement with scienceScepticismScienceScience CommunicationTrust