Thursday, October 1, 2015

Climate Change: a clash of epistemologies

Guest post by Elisa Vecchione.

Elisa is currently Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (UK) and Associate Fellow to the Groupe of Sociologie Pragmatique et Reflexive at EHESS (Paris). She is interested in any normative aspect of scientific uncertainty, especially in policymaking, dispute settlement, and also economic modelling of climate change. 

In a post published earlier this year, Ugo Bardi explains that the debate on climate change is going nowhere due to a fundamental incommunicability – or a ‘clash’ as he calls it – between different types of epistemologies over climate change. In his post he refers to some exchange between scientists and a newcomer – not any newcomer, actually the vice-president of the Italian Coal Industry Associations –which happened on the blog of the Italian Society of Chemistry (SCI). The newcomer used this section to attack climate science and climate scientists. The latter fully felt the attack and reacted as if their own persona had been aggressed. Apparently, the exchange degenerated in assorted insults and personal smears.

Quoting Ugo, “stiffen up and look offended when someone belittles climate science is not useful." Indeed, it is not. But as I dare reading through the lines of Ugo’s post, the reason why it is not has nothing to do with the consequences of such insulting exchange – certainly the newcomer has not changed his mind on climate change; it has to do with the reasons of such incommunicability between different categories of individuals, one which raises conflicts rather than mere disagreements. To understand such conflicts Ugo mobilises the idea that the two groups – the scientists and the newcomer – are endowed with opposite epistemologies, that is, opposite ways of knowing and believing the world. The discrepancy goes beyond differences in perceiving the world and understand it accordingly; the discrepancy concerns the way the world is analytically constructed and given a sense.

I am sure that Ugo would have appreciated the concept of ‘epistemological rationality’ used by Alban Bouvier, a French social epistemologist, with reference to discursive exchanges between reciprocally suspicious interlocutors, in which each party considers that the arguments of the other rely on false or unreliable knowledge. This seems indeed a good description of the situation described by Ugo. One could then ask how to make the two groups coming to terms with each other’s knowledge. However, I suggest not underestimating that a conflict is a conflict, involving issues of power, defence and control of territory. I am unsure whether these issues precisely correspond to a conflictual parent-child relationship in which scientists try to patronise climate change as their own field of epistemic authority, or to a war between royal families to be possibly settled through some marriage agreement. Probably, there are even more typologies of relationship accounting for that situation of conflict. I would suggest we investigate them indeed, starting by the position of scientists whose claims to knowledge are, by default, epistemologically more powerful. I have not known Ugo for long, but I am quite sure that at least he does not belong to the first category I mentioned. Other hard scientists like him, however, do belong to it and try to patronise the climate change debate. I am sure that Ugo, with his post, is trying to suggest the danger of such practice.

Ugo knows what he talks about. He points to the resentment that many scientists feel when they are challenged by any people claiming some legitimacy in debating climate change and along with it, some authority and power. This is equivalent to have scientists empowering someone else over climate change. That’s exactly where scientists may fail as either authoritative fathers or monarchs. Many scientists do not accept that the debate can be other than scientific and at the same time they are unconscious that their language talks social or political or cultural, even though it speaks science.

Like other colleagues, Ugo knows how facts stand over climate change. However, differently from other colleagues, he acknowledges some humility in his knowledge as he recognizes that ‘facts’ do not speak themselves. There is no supreme language to speak for everybody, not even that of science. The way he knows facts comes from an epistemological process of knowledge selection, construction and conclusions, a process that, simply said, builds some story. For instance, he knows facts of climate change through his own story about the depletion of natural resources in the past, in the present and the future. Certainly his story is a scientific story, following the scientific rules of writing: how to select and collect data, how to put them into some logical sequence, how to elaborate them through a language – supposedly that of modelling –, how to read them, and how to extract their sense. However, the last passage is the less scientific one. Ugo Bardi seems to know that the sense of scientific stories cannot be universal. I will suggest why. Scientific stories do not simply terminate but are brought to some conclusion by the scientist at work. Such conclusion binds together the whole sequence of the story by endowing it with a sense and a morality.

Now, as I have already said, I don’t know Ugo so well, hence I cannot tell the morality of his own story of climate change. However, I suggest he reflects on it like many other scientists committed to promote awareness and action on climate change. The conclusions brought to the sequence of facts of climate change contains the logic of the whole sequence – its epistemology - and also its ontology. It contains the reality which each scientist refers to while he is trying to cope with the unknown. Science does not exhaust the latter nor the reality we create of it; therefore, settling the conflict between different epistemologies would not solve the communication problem between the scientists and the rest of the world. However, investigating epistemologies could be the first step to access ontologies along with their ‘realities’, made of rules, norms, visions of the word and, especially, relation with any form of authority.

Should climate modelers be subjected to some psychoanalysis in order to realise what society they are talking about when they speak science? James Hillman, initiator of the movement ‘archetypal psychology’, suggested that the practice of story-telling could heal better than interpretation can do. If we are not ready to go that further, however, Hayden White, philosopher and theoriser of the idea of ‘meta-history’ as historical imagination, suggests that story-telling is a form of consciousness of the story-tellers connected to the urgency of the moment he or she lives in. We shall hope that scientists are conscious of their own power along with its modes of exercise and its limits, which epistemic preparation can only partially account for.


  1. Very nice and interesting post. Here are some comments:

    Probably various different “disciplines” all can be considered to have their own somewhat different “epistemology”? Science -and natural and physical (and climate) scientists- having theirs, rhetoric and polemicists theirs, and politics and politicians theirs. And economics and economists and different other types of social scientists theirs. A few years ago (in 2001) a very interesting book came out by the title “One Culture? A Conversation about Science” came out with a long series of articles by different physical and social scientists dealing with the debate within the so called “science wars” going on at the time. Various scientists in the “two camps” discussed in depth their philosophies and their perspectives about science. I remember finding myself most in agreement with Steven Weinberg. Though I also liked what a number of the sociologists had to say.

    I don’t think most average people know very much about epistemology, nor ontology for that matter. It may or may not help to go up to higher and higher meta levels to seek better explanations or to try to communicate to one another better to seek that ever elusive consensus. Sometimes we can just go with “common sense” and just keep trying to communicate. Realizing that various interlocutors may have different epistemologies may help but I think very few would be able to put themselves in the shoes of the other guy and talk from his or her perspective. Even scientists of different varieties i.e. physical scientists and social scientists end up in “wars”. And incidentally is it really necessary to obtain widespread consensus for something to be done about climate change? Nations often go to war without there being any popular consensus for the war. So perhaps various so-called “leaders” could decide to do something more meaningful about climate change even if full consensus does not yet fully exist? Since they often do plenty of other things about which consensus also does not exist.

    Alternatively we may end up having to psychoanalyze climate modelers, deniers, politicians, scientists and many others . Of course the psychoanalysts if they are any good have already been psychoanalyzed. And so have those who have psychoanalyzed them. I am not sure infinite reflexivity gets us anywhere but maybe it can help unmask “real” motives up to a point. Though probably all those different types of people might learn something useful about themselves.

    I would distinguish between scientists and science this way: Science is whatever that thing is that many scientists (and perhaps some philosophers too) over a long period of time have managed to agree on. And scientists are those who are using the methods of science developed over time earlier plus some newly invented methods or techniques. Both in terms of methods and in terms of results. At least as far as experimental sciences are concerned. So if 97% or 99% of all scientists have agreed that climate change is “real” (even if maybe they don’t know what ontology is all about) then most people would agree that it is a result or a finding of “science”.

    Naturally this does not do away trying to cope with the unknown. (continues below)

  2. What today seems still potentially not very well known or “unknown”, tomorrow may simply “feel to be” better known thus requiring less discussion.

    For instance let’s take climate change over which I think there is now little uncertainty regarding its existence or reality or ontology even though many aspects of the phenomenon still remain not that well understood and form part of the big unknown.

    Let’s say that we could agree that climate change is due to ever increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Of course many other things are involved as well and some may also think that it is due to these or other things and not to the CO2 which man (and woman) has emitted into the atmosphere. So that it then can legitimately be called “anthropogenic” climate change.

    Some may have doubts about such “climate change science”. But I think few today would have doubts about what is CO2. But before chemistry and the periodic table and etc. became well established some could have said that the idea that there are such things as atoms and that one atom with a rather mysterious sounding and un-measurable atomic weight of 12 would somehow bind with two other ones with an atomic weight of 16 to form a single molecule with properties different from the two, that this really needed to be questioned and studied much more and that the whole thing sounded pretty complex and ontologically “unreal” and perhaps also epistemologically unknowable. And some would be convinced that the whole notion was wrong. After all can anyone see or touch a molecule of CO2? And that those who went around asserting such “out-of-this-world” things might benefit from psychoanalysis to see whether they were only saying such stuff to assert their own power or egos or “authority: This notwithstanding Democritus.

    But now when one reads that Mauna Loa just measured 397.33 particles per million of CO2 on Sept. 20, 2015 and 376.03 ten years ago on the same date, nobody bats an eyelash. It is now a measurable “fact”. If the preceding is the case then perhaps ontology makes progress and then obviates having to understand and deal with different personal or disciplinary epistemologies and allows us to use “common sense” to talk about and to “communicate” about CO2. A consensus about such a strange and unlikely thing is then reached? Then we can of course talk endlessly about a next step in either the positivist or the “duly constructed and deconstructed” “progress” of science, namely what an increase of about 20 ppm in ten years may or may not have done to climate, or to the weather, or to the oceans or to the coral reefs off of Eastern Australia. So perhaps it is only a matter of time before climate change too will become accepted as a “fact”. And then based on that accepted fact, we can then perhaps measure if it has increased or not over the past 10 years and try to guess by how much it will increase in the next ten…. without anybody batting an eyelash?

  3. Most of us are denialists of one kind or another. In this week’s “Engineering in an Age of Limits” post — Bright Green Denial ( — I suggest that denialists can be divided into three groups:

    1. True (dis)believers;
    2. Cynics; and
    3. Bright Green deniers.

    The people in the first group treat their denial as a faith or ideology. Hence there is little point in discussing these issues with them using the language of science. However, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the world is changing — the long-term drought in California is an example — they may face increasing backlash, even anger.

    The second group — the Cynics — offer the most hope because they are the ones most likely to come up with creative solutions because they want to make money.

    The people in the third group, the Bright Green deniers, are the greatest concern since many of them assume that relatively modest lifestyle changes such as driving a small car or growing organic vegetables are all we need to do to continue business as usual.

    I conclude the post with two well-worn proverbs:

    • You cannot have your cake and eat it
    • Necessity is the mother of invention

  4. I like #3.

    Could you add a #4?

    People who think we need to destroy civilization in order to save it? People who think that we need to roll back the clock by stopping energy use and economic development.

    If we shrink the economy, there won't be taxes to pay for food, healthcare and medical research.

  5. James B -- is it possible that this particular civilization has gone so far down the wrong path that it can't be saved?

    1. Keeping it going could kill everyone James. There are scientists who say it will. Even if we had clean energy this will happen given our numbers. It's not a technological problem - it's too much technology and industry and too many people.

      Humans could be among the victims of sixth 'mass extinction', scientists warn

      ""If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on," lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico said."

      Humans face extinction if plant destruction continues: 'Laws of thermodynamics have no mercy'

    2. I really enjoy this blog and it's commenters.

      My concern with a voluntary cutback, let's say we stop burning fossil fuel and do our best with solar and wind as the technology stands today, is that the gap in economic activity between where we are today and this new world will result in a great deal of death and dislocation. We won't be able to feed everybody and the 3 billion people currently on the verge of dire poverty will simply perish. If nothing else, the food systems required to feed everyone require energy, and I don't think we can feed 7B people with lots of small organic farms.

      There was a good posting on sewers on Effetto Risorse the other day, and I think the outcome was that we either need to spend more money on sewers or we need a lot fewer people -- otherwise the sewers are overwhelmed and they pollute the local water supply. You can't reduce the need for sewers by increasing human efficiency (haha). It's nice to wish that there were fewer people, but the only way to have fewer people is for lots of people to die -- something I don't think is a good idea.

      I wish that there were fewer people and I wish the solar and wind could sustain 7B people. I also wish that driving a Prius would save everybody. But I don't think that it is true. For me, the shocking reality is that the only way forward, is to go forward. It is scary and it might not work. But it might work.

      But to me, going backward is guaranteed failure on a global scale.

      I would like to hear other people's thoughts.

  6. I would like to take this opportunity to remind people reading at least this blog of Marshall Mc Luhan!s wise words, THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. Watching television, going online on one's computer to answer emails or to watch you tube channels or to go into chatrooms or read alternative media sources and do whatever else on the Internet, or going on to Facebook or other related such platforms, or reading or doing blogs or doing or reading posts or comments on them are all interesting and fun things to do. However unfortunately their medium is ALSO their fundamental message. All these virtual media also WITHDRAW the human communities who use them or participate in them from the real world. While they.can help they can also severely hinder the political organization in the real world required to bring about real change with respect to all the issues being observed of discussed "of participated in" through these various media. Participating or organizing on Facebook is not a substitute for political organization and action. A clear illustration of this was the "Arab Spring" ( a term and analytical construct manufactured by the Western media and the array of "thinkers" that feed analytical and interpretative constructs into it) . The Opposition to "Mubarak" (meaning to a single representative of the Egyptian deep state) was divided very roughly speaking into two main camps each with different components and elements. The secular opposition who used Facebook and Internet media to bring demonstrators into Tahrir square. And the Moslem Brotherhood which had a large and underground political organization in Egypt for decades. Who won the day and then was kicked out and repressed by the Egyptian deep state and the army which had NOT been removed and defeated neither by the Moslem Brotherhood nor certainly by the FACEBOOKERS? I think everyone knows the answer to that question. So am I trying to say through this example that television, the Internet, Facebook, YouTube, Blogs, Alternative Media and other forms of media involvement or participation cannot be useful ways to raise consciousness or organize politically virtually? No. But they are certainly not sufficient nor a replacement for real world political organization and action. And these media can easily lull people into a comfortable and detached false feeling of doing something about the issues they care about. Whereas what they are really doing is sitting on the couch or in a chair in front of their computer precisely because the medium IS the message. The BAU opposition knows this perfectly well. Facebook and smart phones are a great business opportunities for them while also helping to withdraw and remove increasingly large communities from the field of real political organization and action. I would argue that blogs, posting and commenting do precisely the same thing. And naturally I include myself in this observation. My own excuse for not engaging in real world political organization tis that I live in a foreign country where I don' t speak the language and where I. am a guest and whose politics do not interest me. And it's just as well. What is the excuse of those who live in their own country? That it's more fun and more comfortable to be only an online activist? Or that they don't understand the above? The world needs urgent real world political organization and action and real new political forces on the ground if anything practical is going to be done about climate change, transitioning to renewables, or transitioning to a new worldwide political, economic, social , cultural and institutional order to replace the BAU and that can practically deal with the entire Limits to Growth large spectrum of issues. Are Facebook and Blogs helping or hindering? My own answer is that they are doing a significant amount of both.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)