March 16, 2011

[Strategizing] Fighting Sarah Palin's Conception of 'Sound Science'

In December 2009 Sarah Palin wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post titled "Sarah Palin on the Politicization of the Copenhagen Climate Conference", where she basically argued that the USA should boycott the international climate change negotiations because the science on climate change wasn't 'credible' (she doesn't deny the existence of climate change; she merely doesn't believe humans play any role in exacerbating these changes). She claims that we now have 'proof' that the science isn't credible because of the so-called 'Climategate' email scandal at the University of East Anglia.

Now, there are a number of ways to respond to Palin, aside from just tuning out and avoiding her annoying hypocritical political diatribes. For one, it's not difficult to demonstrate how insignificant the East Anglia email 'scandal' is in the context of the overall global scientific effort to understand the human contribution to climatological change (see the Huffington Post's article about this here). Nor it it difficult to identify numerous problems of logic within Palin's reasoning about why Copenhagen should be boycotted (a good response to Palin's op-ed can be found in Marc Ambinder's annotated rebuttal in The Atlantic Monthly).

However, some might say that a more successful critique lies in exposing Palin's understanding of science as some totally objective, apolitical monolithic 'truth' that exists out there devoid from prevailing social relations and politico-economic realities. In other words, the response to Palin should not be to bombard her (and her throngs of misguided followers) with more of the very scientific evidence that she's bound to find faulty regardless of its 'prestige'; rather, the best response to Palin is to acknowledge the obvious nature of her statement that the science is in many ways political, while at the same time making efforts to exemplify how this 'knowledge' about the anthropogenic influence on climate change, while imperfect, is still pretty darn good! It's actually the best we've got. It's good enough, we might add, to do something about it (including sending our political leaders to international conferences).

I believe this is what the constructivist geographer David Demeritt would argue. In a 2001 article in the Annals titled "The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science," Demeritt calls for "a more reflexive politics of climate change and of scientific knowledge based on active trust" (307). He makes quite a complicated argument; at first he comes across as a skeptic as he highlights numerous flaws with the way climatic models provide numerous venues for scientists to hide the complicated web of social politics and relations that shape their very models.  But then he comes around, showcasing his broader purpose in exposing the political nature of climate science, and how he believes we should respond to skeptics who view science as solid gold (I quote at length from p. 329):
The proper response to public doubts is not to increase the public's technical knowledge about and therefore belief in the scientific facts of global warming. Rather, it should be to increase public understanding and therefore trust in the social process through which those facts are scientifically determined. Science does not offer the final word, and its public authority should not be based on the myth that it does, because such an understanding of science ignores the ongoing process of organized skepticism that is, in fact, the secret of its epistemic success. Instead scientific knowledge should be presented more conditionally as the best that we can do for the moment. Though perhaps less authoritative, such a reflexive understanding of science in the making provides an answer to the climate skeptics and their attempts to refute global warming as merely a social construction.
Had this advice (which it should be noted was available a whole 8 years before the so-called 'climategate' scandal) been followed, it is possible that we could be a whole lot more productive at these international negotiations. The science is never going to be perfect, and the scientists need to be blatant about this fact. And yet, after four assessments by the IPCC and other research units, some absolutely impressive work has been done. In the face of this impressive work (despite all its flaws and imperfections) there lies plenty of good reason to confront the issue of climate change and tackle some of the ways in which we know* that human activities are exacerbating/influencing some of the processes of the Earth system - even if, through democratic political negotiation, we decide that our confrontation efforts should be more reactive (through adaptation) than preemptive (through mitigation).

* Of course we'll never 'know' anything with 100% certainty, but for all intent and purpose, the certainty we do have is enough to warrant action.

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