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April 11, 2005

STS Contrarianism

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science Policy: General

One of the great ironies of our recent debate with climate scientists at RealClimate over the possibility of cleanly separating science and politics in efforts to connect science with the public, policy makers and journalists is that there is a vast amount of peer-reviewed literature that says such separation is impossible. The irony of course is that a big part of RealClimate's activities have been to correct the misguided views of the so-called "climate skeptics" or "climate contrarians" who are at odds with more "mainstream" views on climate science. RealClimate's commitment to the primacy of mainstream, peer-reviewed knowledge seems to be fairly narrow in scope as they are perfectly comfortable and confident in dismissing the "mainstream" views of the field of science and technology studies (STS). In jest I wonder if we should we call them "STS contrarians"?

Consider the following excerpt from Shelia Jasanoff's excellent book, "The Fifth Branch: Science Advisors as Policymakers", (at pp. 230-31). In her 1990 book Jasanoff, a leading voice in the discipline of STS, focuses on science advisory bodies and organizations that bring science to decision makers and the public, and I think in 2005 it is fair to include as advisory bodies weblogs seeking to communicate science to decision makers, even though weblogs didn't exist as a means of providing scientific advice in 1990:

"Although pleas for maintaining a strict separation between science and politics continue to run like a leitmotif through the policy literature, the artificiality of this position can no longer be doubted. Studies of scientific advising leave in tatters the notion that it is possible, in practice, to restrict the advisory practice to technical issues or that the subjective values of scientists are irrelevant to decision making."

She also writes (at p. 249) "The notion that scientific advisors can or do limit themselves to addressing purely scientific issues, in particular, seems fundamentally misconceived ... the advisory process seems increasingly important as a locus for negotiating scientific differences that have political weight."

STS contrarianism is of course not limited to the climate debate (though, interestingly, it does seem to have a stronger presence in the earth and environmental sciences than in fields of the life sciences or engineering). But some in the STS community are not particularly concerned. For example, last year with Steve Rayner I guest edited a special issue of the journal Environmental Science and Policy that focused on the efforts of scientists to engage in a political battle over the implications of Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist implicitly through science and not overtly through political or policy debate. In the process of putting that issue together a reviewer commented (I can't remember for which paper) that the various papers seemed to be revisiting the now thoroughly discredited notion that science and politics can in fact be separated. This reviewer was of course from the STS community and simplistic notions of separating science and politics and to him was obviously no longer interesting from a research standpoint.

But this reinforcing set of circumstances - scientists who dismiss or unaware of STS and STS scholars who may be more in interested in the intellectual rather than practical aspects of their field - raises some interesting questions about the role of STS in the sciences, and its own political orientation and agenda. In other words, the same sort of questions that STS often targets at other scientists and disciplines are also applicable to STS.

Michael Guggenheim and Helga Nowotny ask these sort of questions in their excellent essay (PDF) critically assessing the current state of STS.

"STS likewise has never established its own research agenda of unresolved problems. Yet, if it does not want to become trapped in an unending present of joyful repetition, albeit in the guise of rebellion, it will have to create a future that is neither Sisyphus-like, and therefore closed, nor utopian or dystopian, as so many future expectations of other actors in society are when assessing the benefits and burdens of science and technology. In a caricature of its own theoretical stance that scientific problem choice is not the outcome of an inherently rational selection process within science, nor that Nature whispers into the ears of scientists which problems to choose, STS hardly ever showed interest in the functioning of its own processes of problem selection or which issues, originating in wider societal developments, it did take up or not. Nor did it delve into the processes through which contrasting theoretical positions within STS are negotiated or eliminated. What, if anything, did Society whisper into STS ears? If problem choice within STS is at least partly seen to be the outcome of larger societal processes, then a vision of the future would be needed which takes into account the processes of its own professionalisation and its likely effects. This implies the capability to select problems for their own - scientific and intellectual - sake and to transform them into research priorities which are seen as a collective, and not simply as an individual task. It also implies the willingness and capability to transmit the relevance of scientific activities to a wider audience and perhaps even to one's 'clients'."

Important questions for scholars of STS (and its close cousin, science and technology policy or STP, to which I am more closely aligned) are raised by the current state of STS coupled with the presence of STS contrarians in important positions on issues of significance to society. Among these questions:

1. Is it even worth engaging scientists on knowledge of STS? Our dialogue with RealClimate has taken place at the highest levels of professionalism, but my experience suggests that the professionalism of the RealClimate folks is not always the case in such dialogues. Raising issues of science and politics, science and society can be threatening to some scientists and downright offensive to others. At times such dialogues can devolve into ad hominem attacks of one sort or another. I have numerous colleagues who simply choose not to work with or debate scientists on such topics. It is probably no surprise that the areas in science which STS has the most traction happen to be those in which scientists are most open to STS perspectives, such as is the case in bioethics and the life sciences. It should come as no surprise (as Guggenheim and Notwotny observe) that many STS scholars converse among themselves and have little stomach for engaging with practicing scientists, particularly those who practice STS contrarianism. (G & N also raise the possibility that STS can become "captured" by its clientele.)

2. STS requires greater reflexiveness in its studies. This is a point that G & N make well. If STS scholars see their job as simply producing knowledge to be added to the great reservoir of knowledge (i.e., basic research in STST), are they then just buying into the linear model of knowledge production and use that they so often critique as neither descriptively accurate or normatively desirable?

3. STS has an overt political agenda, which is typically some form of the democratization of knowledge. But within STS there are many narrow and wide political agendas (as is present in any area of expertise). If separating science and politics is impossible, as STS scholars have shown, then this must also be the case in STS as well. How does STS handle this reality? (I'd argue that STS scholars need to serve as honest brokers on policy just like other experts.)

Our recent engagement on STS issues with climate scientists should be viewed thus as an experiment. How might we communicate the scientific community the knowledge and lessons learned from those who have expertise in STS (and STP)? Is it worth engaging with rank and file scientists or should the focus of such dialogues be on the scientific elite? What about the public and elected officials? The answers to these questions are not straightforward, and the actions that best serve common interests are not immediately clear.

What is clear is that the STS community has only begun to explore its own significance for science policy and as it broadens its reach, it is surely to continue to prod and provoke scientists who remain comfortable in their outdated views.

Posted on April 11, 2005 01:01 AM


Interesting. I must tell you in all good faith that I find it rather bizarre that I'm on the side of this argument on which I find myself. As I alluded to earlier, I'm actually rather well versed in the literature of STS (though I admit to not having read much of this stuff in about 10 years), and I'm by no means a contrarian about it (at least, not consciously). The problem I have with your argument, as applied to RealClimate, however, is that I really do think there is a big difference between what we do and the "science advising", of the sense Sheila Jasanoff writes about. After all, the "Fifth Branch" of government refers to the various advisory panels, boards, and agencies whose job is explicitly advise on policy. Indeed, Jasnoff's book takes its examples from case studies of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, not from, for example, the National Academy of Sciences.

Now, I am sure it is fashionable (and undoubtedly correct) in STS circles to consider the NAS itself unable to separate science from policy, and I don't have the arrogance, I hope, to suggest that we at RealClimate are "like the NAS." But surely you must agree there is something of a continuum here, and that there really does exist something called "science", which studies the natural world and makes discoveries about the "real world", and which we can agree on at least in a theoretical sense. Surely you must not be arguing from the extreme, Feyeraband branch of postmodernism, which holds that science is indistinct from religion in its ability to tell us about the world.

So I continue to wonder: what makes what we are doing so clearly categorizable in your mind? You have referred to your "empirical" evidence about RealClimate. But if I may turn this around on you: isn't your "empirical evidence" just dismissable as "advocacy in the guise of science" -- i.e. what you claim RealClimate to be?

An aside to this thread... You say that
"RealClimate's [has a] commitment to the primacy of mainstream, peer-reviewed knowledge...." I want to make it clear from my perspective at least, that I don't hold mainstream, peer-reviewed knowledge on any pedestal. Indeed, I have serious concerns about some of it, in particular the way that the topic of "abrupt climate change" is discussed. In my view, the "mainstream" is far too sure of itself on this topic, and very much out on an intellectual limb at the moment. But that doesn't
change the fact that there IS a mainstream, and surely it is valid to try to communicate what the mainstream is saying. Nor does it change the fact that the mainstream is a sensible place to look, if you are a layperson or a policymaker trying to make decisions on behalf of society.

Posted by: eric at April 11, 2005 08:23 AM


Good comments. Soon I'll provide (what I hope is) a more substantive response to some of these issues in a post on the main site. But let me quickly say that I don't see much meaningful distinction between formally organized advisory bodies and less formally organized bodies. The relevant common characteristic is the goal to explain science or its significance to the public or decision makers. And no I'm not much of a postmodernist (some of my philosopher friends actually complain that I am too modernist). As far as my philisophical grounding for thinking about science in society, I find much to agree with in Philip Kitcher's excellent book Science, Truth and Democracy (2001, Oxford) and more generally, I am a student of American pragmatism (see, e.g., Pragmatism: A Reader, L. Menand, 1997, Vintage). I do see a continuum here, but it is not between science-politics, it is between issue advocacy-honest brokering. Here at Prometheus we are unabashed issue advocates for a few things, such as Mode 2 science and the importance of "honest brokers." On a few other efforts at our policy center we are experimenting with honest brokering, such as in our SPARC research project. But more on all of this soon. Thanks again!

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 11, 2005 10:21 AM

Eric claims "...that doesn't change the fact that there IS a mainstream, and surely it is valid to try to communicate what the mainstream is saying."

Is there? The notion of where the mainstream exists is itself entirely subjective. My subjective notion of the "mainstream" is bimodal:

1) of most of the atmospheric scientists and climatologists I know holding the attitude, "this might be bad, ummm, probably might be bad, but, uh, well I guess we really aren’t sure yet, but hey, maybe it’d be better to worry rather than not, but hey, let’s keep researching and publishing and discussing this and geez, well, we’ll just tell the politicians what’s going on...."


2) of everybody else in somewhat related fields outside of atmospheric science and climatology (paleo-x, ecology, forestry, etc.; researchers that therefore have credibility with the general public and decision-making community, but of whom I consider to be possibly talking out of school) being much more willing to say, "this is a huge problem and we have to deal with it right now."

And I expect my reading of the "mainstream" to be entirely different from my peers' reading. That's what makes Roger's read-between-the-lines point about RealClimate's claim on objectivity. To wit: RC is claiming that it knows where the mainstream is and can represent it faithfully. (You need look no further than the URL to see that, but it's also in bold on the right frame on the main page.) I'm not in any way trying to attack Eric personally, but this notion is intellectually dishonest. You can't lay claim to the mainstream and to being an honest broker/distributor of the mainstream with any more credibility than a political commentator can lay claim to representing the "silent majority of America."

Posted by: kevin vranes at April 11, 2005 11:01 AM

While I actually agree with your general take that the paleoclimate community tends to be a bit more "alarmist" in their writing, they do have much to contribute to the science. On RealClimate, I have been careful to restrict my writing to things in which I am an expert. The same goes for the other contributors I am sure. So I think your comment about our credibility is rather off base. And your suggestion that the mainstream is not an identifiable thing is just plain silly. That's the kind of thinking that allowed the South Africa n government to ignore the overwhelming, mainstream view that HIV causes AIDS. Thankfully, most doctors in S. Africa did not adopt this relativist position, but listened to the clearly mainstream.

Posted by: eric at April 11, 2005 11:59 AM

First, I meant no slight toward the RC contributors with my use of the word “credibility.” I was trying to be as broad as possible, and had nobody specific in mind – and surely was not using it to imply that some researchers have no scientific credibility.

I certainly would not argue that a mainstream position(s) on anthropogenic climate change cannot be found. It would not be that difficult (and has been done to some degree) to interview the thousands working on the problem and work up the statistics. But I would argue that:

a) RC has not done that, yet still makes the implicit assumption that, “we know what the mainstream is, we are certainly in the mainstream, and so we’re posting mainstream views on climate change.” (My quotes, not theirs.) I think this is a specious assumption.

b) My guess is that the confidence limits around the mainstream “mean” would be huge, perhaps so large to diminish the notion of there being an identifiable hard and fast “mainstream.” To go further, even if there is a precisely defined mainstream in one aspect of the very broad, complex and multidisciplinary science of climatology, certainly there is none in other aspects. (Failure at finding a cure notwithstanding, HIV as a natural phenomenon doesn’t even come to climatology in complexity.)

All this is not to say that it is inappropriate to try to find a squishy middle of consensus, but perhaps it isn’t the job of climatologists themselves to do it. We don’t allow intellectual self-policing in publishing research results (hence peer review), so why would we allow a researcher to claim that their own views are “mainstream” when what might be at stake is “credibility” in the consequences debate?

Posted by: kevin vranes at April 11, 2005 04:17 PM

One way to guage how mainstream we are is by the responses we get from other scientists. For example, while my post on glacier retreat did elicit some claims to the effect that "actually, glaciers worldwide are advancing", I got no such claims from anyone who actually studies such things as a profession. Rather, I received very positive feedback from other scientists, including at least one atmospheric scientist of stature. Hypothetically, there may be a more mainstream mainstream out there that has substantial disagreement with what goes up on RealClimate. If there is though, we've not heard from them. This is either because a) they don't believe that the Blog format is the appropriate place for such discussion or b) they don't find anything much to disagree with.

As to the variance about the mean of the mainstream, your "guess" may well be as good as mine, but at least one historian/philosopher of science has actually looked into this with some care, and has concluded it is relatively well defined. See:,;

Personally, I can't distinguish Oreskes's definition of mainstream from RealClimate's definition. Of course, as I've pointed out numerous times, none of this proves that the mainstream view is correct. Nor does it prove there isn't some vast leftwing conspiracy, of which I am an unwitting part. But it is really stretching it to suggest that there IS no mainstream. As I've said before, I don't agree with the mainstream on everything -- in particular on the subject of "abrupt climate change". But I don't try to claim that there isn't a mainstream view of this subject. Nor do I present my own view as equal in stature or credibility to those mainstream views. If I did, I would rightly be called to task, because I have not articulated my views very well, least of all in a peer-reviewed setting. It would be nice if everyone had the same forbearance.

Posted by: eric at April 11, 2005 07:52 PM

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