16 Mar 2007

The Social Limits of Truth Seeking

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Melanie Phillips points out a Guardian book review by “Mike Hulme, professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research — a key figure in the promulgation of climate change theory,” which inadvertently spills the beans about which comes first from the eco-leftie point of view, the facts or ideology.

Too often with climate change, genuine and necessary debates about these wider social values – do we have confidence in technology; do we believe in collective action over private enterprise; do we believe we carry obligations to people invisible to us in geography and time? – masquerade as disputes about scientific truth and error…

The danger of a “normal” reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow…

If only climate change were such a phenomenon and if only science held such an ascendancy over our personal, social and political life and decisions. In fact, in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre stage…

This is not a comfortable thing to say – either to those scientists who still hold an uncritical view of their privileged enterprise and who relish the status society affords them, or to politicians whose instinct is so often to hide behind the experts when confronted by difficult and genuine policy alternatives.

Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking, although science will gain some insights into the question if it recognises the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science. But to proffer such insights, scientists – and politicians – must trade (normal) truth for influence. If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth seeking and reveal fully the values and beliefs they bring to their scientific activity.

It is always hilarious when the mask starts to slip.

Hat tip to Bird Dog.

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