Funny weather, funny feelings and what we expect from scientists

March 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

Last week government chief scientist John Beddington stepped down with words similar to those of the ‘perfect storm’ speech with which he took office in 2009. Then he warned that the threats of climate change combined with food, water and energy shortages would converge in 2030 in a storm of social and political upheaval. This time, in an interview with John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme his time frame had shifted. Although he made the usual caveat ‘We can’t attribute any one event…’ Beddington was clearer than many scientists who appear on radio or TV that the strange weather the UK has experienced over the last 18 months is the effect of a changing climate. Unusual drought, followed by unusual rain, followed by unusual cold is the kind of unpredictable variability that the science would predict, he said.

Beddington was unusual in making such a clear statement. Why don’t more scientists do so? Why are they so reluctant to describe current events as due to climate change? Often they cling to words like risk, bias, probability and uncertainty, which have quite different meanings in science and in ordinary language. They explain this as scientific rigour. They emphasise that they are not crystal gazers but rational men (they are usually men) offering the best opinion from what they have discovered. Science, they say, must stay neutral if it is to retain the confidence of the public. It must not get mixed up in policy or politics. It must not overstate the case.

Mixing science and politics

In other fields however scientists are not so modest, nor so careful. As Hilary and Steven Rose point out in their book Genes, Cells and Brains , some geneticists, pharmacologists and neuroscientists are keen to promise the moon, on the flimsiest of evidence, when there’s an investment opportunity in the offing. They are happy to be mixed up in techno-scientific entrepreneurialism.

The truth is that the mix-up has always been there. Science developed in lockstep with capitalism. Its discoveries fuelled the new technologies that transformed the world from the mid 18th century onwards. Profits from these successful enterprises were funnelled back into universities and research departments, resulting in new discoveries and new opportunities for capital to exploit. For the most part, scientists have thrived in this relationship.

What is different for climate scientists is that their research – if they follow through on its implications – places them out of kilter with those who might previously have seemed their natural allies. The news from climate science suggests that late capitalism with its endless pursuit of growth and its ruthless exploitation of natural and human resources is the problem. It has to change. Industrialists, financiers, politicians and the public all need to be challenged about their stake in a system that has become unsustainable.

Implicatory denial and psychic gymnastics

It is hardly surprising that climate scientists have been reluctant to be the bearers of this particular piece of bad news. In a recent post on the Climate Psychology Alliance website Paul Hoggett makes the point that implicatory denial – the term is the late Stan Cohen’s – is our common heritage when it comes to any distressing event. It is not the choice of a crazy minority but the default position of most of us and I include myself here. Most of us acknowledge briefly the truth of the news from Syria, statistics on child poverty or climate change. But we would rather not follow through with the implications. We don’t want to connect world events to our own actions. We don’t want to acknowledge our complicity in the disasters that befall others, the relationship of our comfort to their suffering or the need for our lives to change and for us to become politically engaged. In order to stay sane, we turn the page quickly.

We each have our own particular version of the psychic gymnastics that achieve this, our own way of holding incompatible facts in separate compartments of the mind. For scientists, turning away from the social and political implications of their knowledge can be achieved by stressing scientific doubt, concentrating on the uncertainties and reminding us of their objectivity. We shouldn’t be surprised when they do this: they merely demonstrate a defence that they share with the rest of us. But we should applaud when they break clear and speak out.

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