Mike Hulme: ‘After Climategate … Never the Same’

Posted: August 8, 2013 by tallbloke in Analysis, books, climate, methodology, Philosophy, Politics, propaganda, Uncertainty

H/T @WarrenPearce
Mike Hume asks:

What has changed since Climategate?

(9 August) ‘The 97.1% consensus’. While I was away on holiday, my criticism at Making Science Public of the Cook et al. study in Environmental Research Letters attracted a fair amount of comment on several climate blogs (for example see here). In partial response I have posted here an extract from one of my new essays (‘After Climategate … never the same’) which appears in my latest book, published yesterday by Routledge (see below).

This is an extract from my new book : Hulme,M. (2013) Exploring climate change through science and in society: an anthology of Mike Hulme’s essays, interviews and speeches Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 330pp. These paragraphs are taken from a previously unpublished essay ‘ After Climategate … Never the Same ’ , Chapter 50 (pp.252 – 264)

One of the consequences of a public science controversy is to unsettle previously held convictions and certainties, beliefs which had been assumed but perhaps unexamined for some time. In the days immediately after the emails’ release I remember a professorial colleague in the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA came to see me in my office. Knowing that I used to work in the Climatic Research Unit he wanted my candid opinion about whether our colleagues working over the bridge in CRU could indeed be trusted. Had they been manipulating data? Was th e empirical evidence for global warming sound? He was being challenged to re – examine his assumed certainties; and this from someone who had worked for over 15 years in the same School as the scientists under suspicion.

This unsettling extended much more widely, although significantly it seems only to have affected certain Anglophone – UK, USA, Australia – and some northern European nations. Neighbours and friends of mine in Norwich started asking me questions about the validity of the criticisms being ma de. Assumed truths and certainties were being questioned. The UK environmentalist columnist George Monbiot was an example of a high profile public commentator whose beliefs were clearly challenged by the emails and subsequent allegations. “No one has be en as badly let down by the revelations in these emails as those of us who have championed the science”, Monbiot wrote the week following : “I have seldom felt so alone.”

In the weeks after Climategate evidence of the impact of the controversy on public beliefs emerged from public opinion polls on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, in the USA a poll taken six weeks after the emails’ release suggested that amongst those who had followed the story – just over half those surveyed – 47 per cent said it had made then more certain that ‘global warming was not happening’. (A slightly larger proportion said that they had ‘less trust in climate scientists’ as a result). Scaled up, this amounted to about 58 million Americans who had been influenced in this way by the controversy (Maibach et al., 2012).

Some have claimed that these effects on public beliefs about climate change would be relatively short – lived, but a large – scale survey in the UK conducted in March 2011 – 16 months after Climategate – suggests this may not be so (Shuckburgh et al., 2012). The overall levels of concern about climate change amongst the British public had decreased over five years, almost half the population felt that the ‘seriousness of climate change had been exaggerated’ and one – third of the public did not trust climate scientists to tell the truth about climate change.

I don’t think Climategate itself can explain all of these results and trends. Other factors such as the economy have intervened and trust across many UK public institutions and professionals has fallen, not just climate scientists. And yet what these results show is a changing and volatile public culture within which climate science is undertaken. Scientific knowledge is not created solely in the laboratory and therefore neither can it enter into public circulation simply stamped with the label ‘truth’. To claim, “I am a scientist, trust me” is no longer sufficient, even if it ever once was. For scientific knowledge to earn credibility as public knowledge scientists have to work as hard outside the laboratory as they do inside, through repeated demonstrations of their integrity, accessibility and trustworthiness. Only then will they be judged as reliable witnesses and their knowledge deemed credible (Shapin , 2010). This is not easy to do, as the events surrounding Climategate showed. What may be adequate in one culture at one moment, may not count as an adequate performance in a different context. Science is made in public as much as it is made in the lab oratory or in other arcane spaces of expert deliberation.

Understanding scepticism

One of the interesting responses from the academic community since Climategate has been a new interest in studying and understanding the various manifestations of climate change scepticism . One obvious reason for this interest is the evidence that voices sceptical of the standard climate change ‘plan’ (cf. Sarewitz, 2011) multiplied in the months following Climategate. This has been shown in the work of Painter and Ashe (2012) and Grundmann and Scott (2013) who followed media reporting of climate change around the world in the months following Climategate. Taking climate change scepticism as an object of study has engaged new scholarly communities – such as social psych ologists, rhetoricians and anthropologists – and a wider range of academics than the select few sociologists who had been working in this field before. By paying attention to the political and cultural values which shape the production, circulation and re ception of climate change knowledge a much richer and more helpful picture emerges. The populist notion that all climate sceptics are either in the pay of oil barons or are right – wing ideologues, as is suggested for example by studies such as Oreskes and Conway (2011), cannot be sustained.

There are many different reasons why citizens may be sceptical of aspects of climate science, certainly why they may be sceptical of knowledge claims which get exaggerated by media and lobbyists (see Chapter 38). This may be because of innate suspicion of ‘big science’ (which climate science has become, with powerful patrons in government and UN and international institutions) or because of a commitment to forms of data and knowledge libertarianism, as in the Wikileaks movement. Some of the individuals who pursued CRU scientists for access to data in the months leading up to Climategate may be seen in this light; they had no connections with the oil industry or conservative think – tanks. Other expressions of scepticism may result from issue fatigue, cynicism about a media who seek to sensationalise (as quoted above in the 2011 UK opinion survey quoted above) or the experience of cognitive dissonance. This latter idea captures the feeling of discomfort when someone holds two or more conflicting beliefs and Kari Marie Norgaard explores this in her ethnography of climate scepticism in a small town in Norway (Norgaard, 2011). Norgaard exposes the psychologies of climate change belief, doubt and unbelief embedded in local hi stories, cultures and community social practice.

But beyond these reasons for climate change scepticism, in the years following Climategate it has become more important to distinguish between at least four different aspects of the conventional climat e change narrative where scepticism may emerge. Trend scepticism would be disbelieving of evidence that suggested a change in climate was occurring, whereas attribution scepticism would be doubtful that such trends were predominantly caused by human agenc y. Impact scepticism would question whether the melodrama of the discourse of future climate catastrophe is credible and policy scepticism would query dominant climate change policy frameworks and instruments. When this more nuanced analysis of climate c hange scepticism is combined with a valorisation of the scientific norm of scepticism and the democratic virtue of scrutinising and interrogating vested interests, there becomes room for more respectful arguments about what climate change signifies and what responses may be appropriate. My contention is that the events surrounding Climategate in late 2009 have opened up new spaces for such agonistic democratic virtues to be exercised.

The evolution of science

There were a number of specific circumstances and broader cultural trends which enabled the phenomenon of Climategate to erupt in November 2009 and which also shaped the competing interpretative stories in the days and weeks following. The proximate circumstances were the refusal (later deemed ill egal) by CRU scientists to release climate data and the imminent COP15 climate negotiating meeting in Copenhagen. But the wider cultural trends included the growing use and visibility of social media, the Wikileaks movement, the intensification of America n partisan politics and the intractability of climate change negotiations.

Scientific controversies not only reveal intellectual arguments, struggles for power and human limitations within the practices and institutions of science, they also reflect t he dynamics of these exact same phenomena in the wider culture within which science takes place. And they also nearly always lead to changes in the way in which science is done as it seeks to retain its cultural authority. The nature and practice of science – how it makes authoritative knowledge about the physical world – is not defined in textbooks, least of all textbooks which are treated as timeless and universal. People have tried to define science in this way and failed. Science is like other human cultural institutions: it evolves to survive. And science controversies often become the necessary disturbances to provoke adjustment and innovation; the genetic mutations upon which processes of natural selection can operate. Whatmore observes that scientific controversies are “generative events in their potential to foster the disordering conditions in which reasoning is forced to ‘slow down’, creating opportunities to arouse ‘a different awareness of the problems and situations that mobilize us’” (Whatmore, 2009: 588).

This is certainly true of Climategate. Climate scientists, their institutions and their sponsors – i.e., climate science as an enterprise – were forced to stop and reflect on how they organised their interactions with the outside world , from data policies to language, modes of communication and forms of public engagement. The unthinking assumption that having gained broad public trust (after all the IPCC had been awarded a Nobel Prize!) this would automatically be retained, was sharply challenged. And more widely, outside science, there have been adjustments in media reporting of climate change and in the entrainment of climate science in policy deliberations, and a greater boldness from critics to challenge scientific claims and practices.

Has Climategate been a good thing? Probably not for some of scientists caught in the conflagration. There has been some reputational damage both to individuals and institutions. The real answer though depends on one’s beliefs about the nature of science and its place in public life. If one thinks of science as a pure disinterested pursuit of knowledge whose truths can then coerce social actors, whether individual or collective, into value adjustments and behavioural change, then one probably sees Climategate as a set – back. If however one understands that science only ‘works’ because it continually evolves norms and practices which can be rhetorically defended in public and its knowledge therefore becomes powerful through beliefs and behaviours, then Climategate should be seen as a creative episode. The lesson for scientists would then be this: “In the long run, scientists may be better served by greater openness with respect to the actual practice of science, rather than upholding the conventional image of cool, restricted display of instrumental rationality” (Ryghaug and Skjølsvold (2010: 304).

  1. Lance Wallace says:

    Hulme describes a “sociological” response to Climategate: studies of skeptics. Why no studies of believers? Indeed, why does Hulme not ask this question instead of me?

  2. Q. Daniels says:

    I take heart in this piece.

    If one thinks of science as a pure disinterested pursuit of knowledge whose truths can then coerce social actors, whether individual or collective, into value adjustments and behavioural change, then one probably sees Climategate as a set – back.

    The terrible reality is that all processes are undertaken by people.

    It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

    -J. Madison

    Nothing is so good, so right, or so pure that it cannot be corrupted. Test, doubt, and apply skepticism. That is essential to minimizing the corruption.

    If however one understands that science only ‘works’ because it continually evolves norms and practices which can be rhetorically defended in public and its knowledge therefore becomes powerful through beliefs and behaviours, then Climategate should be seen as a creative episode.

    That is not exactly how I’d say it, but it will suffice.

  3. Jaime Jessop says:

    Reductio ad absurdum – the pseudo-scientific study of those who question the pseudo-science of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. As Lance Wallace says above: why no comparable studies of that large slice of the population who have chosen to suspend their critical faculties and believe unquestioningly in the message coming down from CAGW Central that we are all destined for thermageddon if we do not stop driving around in 4x4s, insulate our homes and pay higher electricity bills? Far more grist for the social psychologists’ mill amongst that bunch I would imagine.

    Really, the rush to put sceptics under the microscope is a reaction to the fact that it is becomingly increasingly difficult for the scientific establishment to rebuff their claims on a purely factual or scientific basis. So, muddy the waters and shrinkwrap the enemy, dissect them, analyse them, elicit their deepest darkest fears and motivations and then you can discredit them, not for WHAT they are saying, but for WHY they are saying it. Nice try. It will keep a few social scientists very comfortable in the pay of those entrusted to keep the flame of CAGW burning long into the coming cold nights of our Winters of Discontent, but it is ultimately doomed to fail miserably at the feet of Mother Earth.

  4. oldbrew says:

    ‘After Climategate … Never the Same’

    One thing IS the same: the ‘mainstream’ approach of climate science still revolves around promoting and protecting the notion that certain trace gases dominate the Earth’s climate system.

    Result: paralysis as shown by the baffled response to the warming ‘standstill’ of this century.

  5. johnbuk says:

    Jaime Jessop, absolutely spot on. Additionally at Bishop Hill, Andrew was invited to a government committee set up to discover why the government was failing to get it’s CAGW message across to the public! The implication being the concept was beyond reproach but for some reason the message wasn’t being absorbed by the plebs. Problem; what was needed to get the CAGW message across. The possibility of the message itself being the problem wasn’t considered.
    And so it goes on.

  6. mitigatedsceptic says:

    Perhaps the greatest worry is the change on the nature of ‘science’ from empirical observations and submission of those for peer review and validation/refutation to feeding in what are taken to be laws of nature into mathematical models and producing fuzzy ‘projections’ that appear plausible but which cannot be falsified until too late.

    The precautionary principle cannot be applied because costs/benefits of various courses of action cannot be assessed.

    Add to this issue, the bringing down of the drawbridge to protect science from examination by the unqualified – as promoted by Nurse RA (BTW qualified as a microbiologist but is he qualified to speak on the philosophy and sociology of science?)
    Perhaps balance will be restored when satellite data are properly reported and given as much prominence as the stuff coming out of computers?

    Nurse asserted recently – forecasting the future must always be a subjective matter – implying shut up and listen to the experts! What he should have said – no on can foretell the future.

    Futurology is even more problematic than the problem of induction – if that were possible! Only naive fools assume that the physical world is so well behaved and so simple that we can predict future events with any confidence. Chicken’s entrails or Cray computers?

    Stop wasting money on futile research and stop the silliness of decarbonisation – ti is obviously crippling the economy and will cause poverty, misery and death – especially were there to be a Little ice Age and no fuels.

    Doing nothing really is an option.

  7. Tenuk says:

    I don’t think Hulme realises the level collateral damage Climategate has done to other sciences.

    Many people have lost their trust in the whole crumbling façade of scientific academia. The ‘good old days’ are well and truly over.

  8. Jaime Jessop says:

    There are still many good scientists out there who want to do good science. Unfortunately, many are trapped within institutions which have succumbed to the New World order of Advocacy Science.

  9. hunter says:

    Hulme, to a great extent, is kidding himself.
    The AGW promotion industry barely paused before circling the wagons and redoubling their efforts at desparaging skeptics. An AGW movement focused on integrity would have stopped supporting the likes of Mann, Hansen and Gleick. Instead, Mann was protected from even a cursory review of his work, hansen is still wandering blithering about earth turning into Venus, and Gleick got a promotion to the AGW organ on *ethics*.
    Climategate was not a moment for AGW opinion leaders to reflect and build their credibility. It was a call to war for the hypesters. It was the warning bell for the AGW movement to seek political victory by getting various science-ignorant political leaders to impose more ridiculous AGW policy demands, waste more money on windmills, block needed pipelines, call skeptics names, and other trinkets of political power.

  10. hunter says:

    AGW true believers and the industry they support are actually quite boring: they are just derivative manifestations so well described in books regarding the dangers of mob thinking, the madness of crowds, dangerous social movements, etc.

  11. Brian H says:

    A sociological study of the abandonment of self-challenge and welcoming of challenge as the basis for validation of hypotheses within the climate science community would be far more interesting than trying to relegate skeptics to the fringe.

  12. JPetch says:

    Hulme’s essay is presented with an aura of reasonableness and balance that is in itself welcome in climate debates but in reality it hides some serious and disturbing issues of understanding and of values that leave the whiff of whitewash.

    The lessons coming out of Climategate are articulated around the idea of scepticism . But, Climategate wasn’t about scepticism it was about dishonesty and corruption. Hulme tries to give us a mushy fog of sociological discourse to try to tell us that “it has become important” to distinguish 4 types of scepticism; but why? This is a red herring. Arguments about scepticism have been well developed since the ancients and this essay adds nothing. Already we have “space for agonistic democratic values to be exercised” and the real problem is that that space has become uncomfortable for some who have been shown to be dishonest.

    What lay behind the subsequent activities around Climategate wasn’t driven by scepticism it was driven by mistrust based on well founded suspicions of dishonesty, of partiality and of vested interests. Incidentally, Hulme ignores the motives of a key player in all this, the person who released the files. Were they exhibiting scepticism or another trait, disgust maybe?

    What all this is getting towards in Hulme’s argument is a rebuilding of trust. But this isn’t the real agenda. The real agenda is regaining the “cultural authority” of science. Strangely, Hulme equates the notion of the “nature and practice of science” with “how it makes authoritative knowledge about the physical world”. This seemingly innocuous equation is to my mind the sinister shadow of this piece. If science is about authority, then we need to re-examine what we mean by science and what we mean by authority. If we mean that scientists have authority because of their position of esteem in society then we have a problem. If we mean that it’s ideas have authority because they have withstood criticism then we have a chance of undertaking sound science in an open society.

    The idea that scientists build trust in order to gain authority is a dangerous oxymoron.

    Seeking authority damages trust.

    If it was only Climategate that was an issue it wouldn’t matter so much but the issue of authority and power and the use of science to demonstrate or argue for authority runs through the whole of the climate debate from top to bottom and beginning to end. We have to be alert to the dangers the idea of authority poses and to the misuse of the idea of science in order to gain authority. If there is a lesson of Climategate, it is that authority and the lure of authority corrupt.

  13. johanna says:

    Fine post, JPetch.

    I have no time for Hulme. He substitutes verbiage for honest analysis, and as I have remarked at Bishop Hill, is extraordinarily adept at sensing which way the wind is blowing and trimming his sails accordingly.

    Integrity, not authority, is what matters in science. Fair minded people do not blame a scientist for getting something wrong, provided it was done in good faith and their methods and workings are transparent. Everybody gets things wrong sometimes.

    But I think that the majority of people regard data manipulation, opacity and generating propaganda under the guise of science as something quite different, which necessarily reflects negatively on that “scientist” as an individual and on their other work.

  14. oldbrew says:

    ‘repeated demonstrations of their integrity, accessibility and trustworthiness’

    That’s the game of politicians. How’s their public esteem going?