Uncharted Territory

January 18, 2011

On Hulme on Science

This post is an addendum to my previous musings on Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change. In particular I want to respond to Paul Hayne’s comment that:

“Mike Hulme’s argument is not relativist. He is arguing that there really is no argument that can leverage action, which seems pretty true.”

OK, I suppose – after re-reading Chapter 3 of Why We Disagree – my claim did go a bit far. However, I’m not sure I want to concede the point fully.

First, I’m not the only one who’s confused. What was uppermost in my mind I think were the comments about Why We Disagree made by Peter Kircher in Science (pdf), to which Hulme refers on his website, as detailed in my original post.

I concur with Kircher’s view that “Hulme’s book invites misreading” and his disquiet over Hulme’s infamous passage (p.80-2) discussing how science “must concede some ground to other ways of knowing.” There is, though, a way in which this makes sense, which Hulme doesn’t identify and which doesn’t in any way undermine science.

Second, any critique of science must always address the fundamental precept that science is about testing theories against reality. It either describes the world or it doesn’t. There’s no room for compromise with “other ways of knowing”.

There’s one little fly in the ointment, though, which is very apparent in the social sciences. Concepts are not always easy to define. What is “poverty”, for example? Before you can study “poverty” you have to get out there and translate what people mean by “poverty” into something or things that you can actually measure.

Hulme refers to “local tacit knowledge”, which he patronisingly suggests is “not conventionally classified as scientific knowledge”. He muddles strategies for coping with climate conditions with describing “environmental change” and weather-forecasting, but certainly some of what he’s driving at very much is scientific knowledge – climate science relies on interpretations of subjective historic anecdotal evidence in diaries, ships’ logs and so on.

The issue is merely about communication between scientists and those affected. In the case of climate change, science may need to translate its scientific predictions – expressed in terms of directly measurable parameters – into language that relates to people’s day to day experiences. But those experiences are not “other ways of knowing”.

Let’s take the example of “severe winter weather” in the UK, since “here’s one I prepared earlier”! As I explored recently – there is no direct correlation between measurable parameters and the common perception of, in this case, what constitutes a “cold winter”. No-one writes books about, say, February 1986, which was exceptionally cold, whereas (slightly) milder conditions with more snow, such as the Winter of Discontent (1978-9) and perhaps December 2010, linger much longer in the collective memory.

Science could, in principle, develop a “severe winter” index which included temperature extremes, averages, snowfall, lying snow days and so on. Trouble is, different people would want to constitute the index differently. Hence we all have to refer to the same variables if we want to make comparisons. This is what science is. It doesn’t stop us all making our subjective judgements, though.

So, there’s an inescapable conclusion: we have to agree on a framework, on what we can measure in order to make objective comparisons.

And this is the real weakness of Hulme’s work. In terms of both the science and making decisions on emission trajectories, we need a quantitative framework. Or we simply can’t reach any sort of agreement. It’s all very well to note that people have different values, but we can’t conceivably ever agree what is an acceptable level of climate change based on religious and political views. It is irrelevant on one level that the media distort the debate as Hulme goes on to discuss in Chapter 7, The Communication of Risk. This doesn’t alter the consequences of different courses of action and therefore the optimum path by one iota.

It might also be worth noting, en passant, that it is in fact historically somewhat unusual for public opinion to greatly matter in decision-making. The reason the media has influence is a result of our current political system. At most other times in history a ruler, or elite would simply make the decision. The long-term interest of society as a whole was the responsibility of a small group and not something actively contested between different interests. Maybe, as a civilisation, we need ways of making a clearer distinction between the general interest and the individual and sectional interests that drive our political processes. Tricky stuff!

Nevertheless, just as we can only meaningfully discuss and quantify the physical phenomena of climate change within the agreed framework that we call science we can only decide on a course of action in response to global warming by agreeing a framework that permits quantification.

And that framework is called economics.

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