Sheila Jasanoff on Climategate, Climate Science, and Civic Epistemologies

The following post is based on a talk given by Prof. Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard University) titled ‘Planning for Uncertain Futures: Science, Expertise and Political Culture’ (May 13 2014, The Hague, The Netherlands)

In 2009, the so-called Climategate affair took place. During this controversy, e-mails exchanged among climate scientists were illegitimately acquired and subsequently made available to the general public on-line. Tendentious interpretations of conversations between climate scientists convinced many that climate science was a conspiracy. Climate scientists were not engaged with ‘proper’ scientific conduct, but were supposedly only trying to secure their own positions through the acquisition of research funding. What does this event (and climate science more generally) tell us about decision making under uncertainty and the political cultures that shape scientific inquiry?

During her PBL Academy lecture on May 13, 2014, Sheila Jasanoff (Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University) proposed to take the controversies known as ‘Climategate’ as a starting point to think about how science and policymaking shape each other in so-called ‘science-policy interfaces’. Jasanoff argued there is no such thing as a single science-policy interface. Rather, specific institutional and socio-political contexts give rise to a variety of science-policy interfaces. Although science-policy interfaces are not homogenous, Jasanoff argued they can be understood by studying the various ways in which science and policymaking are intertwined. Studying science-policy interfaces leads to an understanding of how we imagine the future and how we cope with uncertainties, and ultimately leads to an understanding of ourselves.

A main tenet in the Climategate controversy was the issue of trust: why should we trust the scientific community of climate scientists? The foundations of this trust consist of four layers. First, it may turn out that the findings of climate scientists correspond to nature, which would imply that their theories and models can be corroborated by empirical observations. Second, the scientific community of climate scientists is tightly knit and can display strong consensus. Third, the supposed scientific integrity of climate scientists guarantees disinterestedness. Fourth and finally, climate scientists and climate science as a whole can feature democratic virtues, such as transparency (openness of process and the public availability of documents) and accountability. Should any one of these four elements of trust come under scrutiny, the trustworthiness of climate science as a whole will be put in doubt. So what went wrong in the case of Climategate?

In her discussion of the Climategate affair, Jasanoff drew on her previous work on ‘civic epistemologies’: just as cultures have collective ways of understanding social lives and proper conduct, we have developed epistemological schemes and ways to cope with uncertainties. These epistemological schemes entail the elements of public knowledge-making or scientific procedures, public accountability, preferred modes of expertise, and ways to restore reason in case consensus is lacking. Jasanoff showed how these four elements of civic epistemologies recur in the Climategate controversy that led to distrust in climat, and its aftermath. She made use of her earlier results on civic epistemologies which are shown in the following table.

civic epistemologies table

In the case of the United States, emphasis was put on the process of knowledge production and ensuring that a model of how to build reliable science was put in place. There was a tendency to focus on producing the ‘right’ knowledge, which was supposed to keep science free from politics and make the issue of science communication a mere matter of bringing one’s message across. Thus, there was no concern with society and culture, nor with how science and culture are related. In Britain, the assumption was that scientific facts are ‘out there’, and can be seen unambiguously by observers, provided they have the right knowledge and expertise to do so. The good faith of the scientists involved was assumed, making mistakes an epistemic rather than normative matter. Finally, in Germany, inclusive debates that feature convergent rationalities are seen as the best basis for policymaking. Although economic rationality is not seen as the sole basis for policymaking in Germany, there is a tendency to exclude dissenting voices. Risks preside over potential benefits (e.g. in the case of technological innovations that may have dangerous repercussions, such as nanotechnology), and there tends to be limited interest to include ‘civil society’ in policymaking.

This brief description of Jasanoff’s far more detailed and erudite empirical analysis of civic epistemologies indicates that political cultures shape ideas about what knowledge is considered to be objective, and what normative commitments and administrative practices need to be adhered to. For example, in the United States, the nature of objectivity concerns a transcendental ‘view from nowhere’, while Britain and Germany feature a more inclusive ‘view from everywhere’ that also provides space for broader consensus-building and co-production of knowledge. Such differences point out what authority is given to science in relation to other institutions, what should happen if the concord between science and society breaks down, and how local concerns should be extrapolated to global concerns.

In his commentary to Jasanoff’s presentation, Rob Hoppe (Professor of Policy and Knowledge at the University of Twente) problematized the notion of ‘political culture’ by pointing out the heterogeneity of political procedures, discussions, and arrangements in one particular political culture. Rather than presupposing a ‘political culture’, Hoppe argued, a multiplicity of heterogeneous political cultures needs to be studied. Jasanoff responded by admitting that after she had done that earlier over the years her intellectual interested has shifted more towards articulating general patterns, under the awareness of the dynamics that are present.

Ultimately, Jasanoff’s empirical project opens up a space in which the constitutional role of science in society is made amenable for debate: what science-policy interface do we prefer, and what are the repercussions if we construct it in a particular manner?

More details on the Climategate affair
Prof. Jasanoff’s personal page