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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)