13 September 2012

The Power of Scientific Knowledge: A Guest Post

NOTE: This is a guest post by Reiner Grundmann and Nico Stehr on their new book, The Power of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

In this book we examine the relation between knowledge and decision making, more precisely, the practical effectiveness of scientific knowledge in political contexts. We do this through the study of three cases, Keynesian economics, race science, and climate science. In all cases there it is policy relevant knowledge which has been taken up by policy makers to greater or lesser degrees.

We use the conceptual distinction between knowledge for practice (politically relevant knowledge) and practical knowledge (knowledge which can make a difference in practice). This simple difference allows us to emphasize several points which all too often get neglected in studies of a similar kind. First, some knowledge (perhaps much knowledge) does not intend to be practical, or does not lend itself to practical applications. Second, knowledge that has practical implications is not always practical, because it does not recognize, let alone specify the levers for action. Practical knowledge is knowledge that contains realistic assumptions about its own implementation within specific socio-political contexts. And third, whenever knowledge is produced which has practical implications the knowledge producers are drawn into the policy making process. If they fail to specify the tools for implementation their knowledge will be ineffective.

These are necessary, not sufficient conditions for knowledge to become practical. Policy proposals that are based on such knowledge still need to find support by political coalitions, stakeholders or social movements. We show in the book that the cultural and political resonance of knowledge claims and ideas matters very much.
Our findings in the book may surprise. Keynes, who developed his theory while advising the British government, made several practical policy suggestions but did not prevail at the time. His policy was taken up later in different countries (arguably through processes of diffusion and changing perceptions). He famously stated that what matters for practical knowledge is not a theory which mimics complex reality but a theory which contains those elements which can be manipulated by decision makers.

Race science developed tools for the classification of races and individuals who were then identified for specific "treatment." This knowledge was keenly taken up by several governments. In Germany these policies were taken to the extreme with the extermination policies in the Holocaust. In this sense race science was extremely powerful in practice. Due to this history, it is quite common for commentators to deny the contemporary scientific status that was held by eugenics and race science. In our view this is little more than wishful thinking.

Climate science has made the case for anthropogenic global warming and spent much energy on providing proof in this respect. The debate has been immensely politicized but with little practical effect. GHG emissions are not falling in line with the scientific recommendations. In this sense, climate science has proven ineffective for policy making. It failed to identify the levers for action which could make a difference in practice.

There is an eerie similarity between race science and climate science in that both see their services as essential for solving pressing social problems.

The use of science by the Nazi regime has been described as follows:
‘The Nazis took major problems of the day—problems of race, gender, crime, and poverty—and transformed them into medical or biological problems. Nazi philosophers argued that Germany was teetering on the brink of racial collapse, and that racial hygiene was needed to save Germany from ‘racial suicide.’ Racial hygiene thus combined a philosophy of biological determinism with a belief that science might provide a technical fix for social problems. Harnessed to a political party mandated to root out all forms of racial, social, or spiritual ‘disease,’ the ideology of biological determinism helped drive the kinds of programs for which the Nazis have become infamous.’ (Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene).
This could serve as a cautionary tale when considering other, more benign cases of public policy, such as climate change. Here, too, some climate scientists and their supporters have defended specific courses of action with reference to scientific truth, disregarding the fact that it is largely a public choice to identify and implement sound and just policies.

Let us quote from our book here:
What follows for climate policy? Let us tackle this question indirectly, starting with the conclusion just reached, and asking: Can policy-makers appeal to a body of scientific knowledge and authority? And what non-scientific principles could be used to reach sensible policies? While there is a robust consensus among scientific authorities regarding detection (and perhaps also attribution) of anthropogenic global warming, this does not tell us what to do. To be sure, some scientific authorities demand cutting CO2 emissions radically within the next decades. But this may be an ‘impractical’ strategy, so to speak. In the short term, levers for action in this regard have to be seen with pessimism, as argued above. What is more, if society were prepared to take preventative and/or adaptive measures with regard to climate change, it would not need to wait for scientific studies to deliver the foundations for this belief. And if climate change were seen as a risk we want to avoid, we should try to reduce our vulnerability and take adaptive measures (coastline protection, increasing agricultural and infrastructure resilience). As in other policy fields, we face the prospect of acting on the basis of limited information, where Lindblom’s principle of incrementalism should be followed. Social and economic policies are prime examples of areas where we do this all the time, mostly without waiting for yet another improved report on the state of knowledge (bearing in mind that such reports, if available, will in all likelihood be used as ‘trump cards’ if they fit the proposed policy option—otherwise they will be ignored).

About 100 years ago, the great Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath expressed the hope to unite society through science, to solve political conflicts through rational scientific argumentation. He said: ‘Metaphysical terms divide; scientific terms unite.’ If we interpret the ‘metaphysical’ to comprise ideological and political aspects, we arrive at a truly astonishing conclusion. In the example of Keynes, the practical policies and agreements that were implemented were first and foremost based on politics. Keynes himself may have subscribed to a technocratic (and elitist) world view, but he practiced differently. His economic policy proposals were based on the recognition of the ‘stickiness of wages’ and a respect of trade union power. He developed his policy in opposition to neoclassical market equilibrium models. With regard to racism, we realize that the Nazis used an ideology to unite a majority of the German people and enrolled race science to bolster additional support for the extermination programs. So what happens in the climate discourse? Again, we see a widespread political agreement about the serious implications of climate change. But when it comes to action, ironically, science has been used to divide, not to unite. Because of a misunderstanding of the relation between authoritative knowledge and political power, a battle has been waged for the ‘correct’ understanding of the climate system as a precondition for action. This has alienated many citizens who would be prepared to discuss preventative policies (as expressed in opinion polls). Many perceive that they are expected to subscribe to a platform that is either beyond their grasp or suspicious. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the science war about climate change has all the overtones of a religious war.

We do not claim to provide a general theory of how knowledge becomes practical and effective in policy making. Even if knowledge has the hallmarks of being practical, this does not mean that it will be implemented and thus automatically become effective in practice. Too many factors influence policy making and the unpredictable nature of historical processes inevitably thwarts any kind of determinism. The many different possible combinations of policy streams, windows of opportunity and active policy entrepreneurs lead to different policy outcomes, over time and in different jurisdictions.

But even where practical knowledge is developed, this does not create the conditions for its own practical success. Political and cultural forces are usually far more important for decision making. So does our study on the Power of Scientific Knowledge end with the conclusion that it does not yield any? It certainly does not in the literal sense of the term. However, scientists can act as agenda setters, influencing the belief systems of decision makers and provide legitimation for decisions taken. A science push model is highly improbable. As the cases of Eugenics and Keynesianism show, even the most practical knowledge does not create the conditions for its own implementation. And the case of climate change provides another lesson, the futility of trying to influence policy making without practical knowledge.

17 comments:

TheTracker said...

This kind of rationalization of the political status quo is neither practical nor useful.

One might say this effort to recast the science in terms of the authors' political goals bears an "eerie similarity" to the Nazi policy of reworking entire fields of study in line with Nazi principles and goals.

Ignoring the aggressive, nakedly political work of the deniers, the authors resort to a passive (or passive-aggressive) construction to blame the victims of the smear campaign: "science has been used to divide, not to unite."

Science is science. It is often "divisive" from the perspective of those that feel threatened by reality -- be they anti-evolution or anti-heliocentrism or anti-AGW.

The idea that reality is coercive because it constrains our choices is literally childish. Demanding scientists distort their findings in order to "create the conditions for . . . implementation" is simply dishonest -- "Tell us what we want to hear or it will be 'divisive,' i.e., we won't listen."

Bob91827 said...

Tracker: I guess self-awareness is not your strong suit. It also appears that you lack even a basic understanding of what science is and is not. Finally, your use of the word "denier" rounds out a pretty good self-portrait. Why so much hate?

Joshua said...

"This has alienated many citizens who would be prepared to discuss preventative policies (as expressed in opinion polls). Many perceive that they are expected to subscribe to a platform that is either beyond their grasp or suspicious. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the science war about climate change has all the overtones of a religious war. "


Ah yes, the ol' "many citizens." And "many perceive."

No attempt at quantification. No attempt to control for variables - such how many is "many," and how many of those "many citizens" who "perceive" what they're "expected" to do are influenced by strong predispositions related cultural, political, or social identification.

I guess I'm just old fashioned - because I always find it odd when I find unquantified and vague assertions in the middle of what is presented as a comprehensive analysis.

Not to mention the basic intellectual laziness of analogizing people to Nazis.


Sad.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Joshua

this may be a speculative and unquantified comment -- would you dispute it?

where do you think we "analogized people to Nazis"?

Joshua said...

Reiner -

I think that the speculative nature isn't appropriate.

I don't see how I could answer whether I agree with your speculation because it is poorly quantified.

Yes, of course, there are some who probably fit your description. But we do have solid evidence, both direct in research looking into the climate debate and in terms of what we know generally about the cognitive and psychological attributes in how humans reason on these kinds of issues, that your description is likely those of who are outliers in the full context of the debate.

I don't see the tone as being one of a "religious war" any more than many political debates. So again, I don't find the description to be meaningful. At what point does a political controversy become particularly similar in tone to a religious war? Would that not be true of debates about taxes, war, foreign policy, a social safety net, same-sex marriage, (let alone abortion)? Aren't those all fights largely between "true believers" on both sides?

As for analogizing to Nazis - am I wrong in my understanding that you are comparing the "consensus" science in climate change to the "consensus" of race science/Eugenics? Do you not know that analogies to Eugenicists, Lysenko, etc. are a dime-a-dozen in the climate wars? Why isn't the comparison to the "consensus" science in myriad other issues? Why select that particular example of consensus science for comparison, given that it is an outlier and not a representative example?

Reiner Grundmann said...

Joshua

You did not read the book, did you?

The quotes which you dislike are from the conclusion. The nature of a conclusion requires a certain style and it would be odd to include quantifications or detailed arguments.

The chapter on climate change does contain references to public opinion and peoples attitudes.

The reference to religion is very specific -- to an argument made by Otto Neurath about the conflict solving potential of science.

We do not "analogize people" (climate scientists) to Nazis. What we argue is that the view we could develop science based policy (in the sense of: the science dictates what we need to do) can be found in different areas, propagated by people of different persuasion.

Joshua said...

Ranier -

Sorry - but in my view these two statements are simply not compatible.

This:

==]] There is an eerie similarity between race science and climate science in that both see their services as essential for solving pressing social problems. [[==

and

==]] We do not "analogize people" (climate scientists) to Nazis. [[==

You are certainly entitled to argue otherwise, but IMV, that is to your discredit.

No - I did not read your book. I read this post that contains unqualified speculation stated as clear-headed analysis. Regardless of what is or isn't in the book, posting unqualified speculation stated as clear-headed analysis doesn't seem appropriate, IMO.

I'm not intending to read your book, but I would be curious to hear how you controlled for motivated reasoning among those "many people" about what the are "expected to subscribe to,"; the evidence I've seen shows that those who fit your description are significantly likely to be predisposed to the sorts of beliefs you reference, and independently of anything related to the facts about climate change.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Josh

of course you may not wish to read the book -- the way you state it makes it look like you are trying to score some cheap points, with no interest in discussion and exchange of ideas.

So why don't you tell me something?
You say "the evidence I've seen shows that those who fit your description are significantly likely to be predisposed to the sorts of beliefs you reference, and independently of anything related to the facts about climate change."

Perhaps you want to elaborate a bit further? What is the evidence you have seen? And what do the following sentences mean?

Mathis Hampel said...

let me just add that what we like to call 'the Science of climate change' are in fact 'the many sciences of climate change' whose content varies. These sciences co-produce different 'open situations'- on different temporal and spatial scales.

ad open situation, I quote Grundmann&Stehr from a paper published earlier this(?) year: “the probability of implementing knowledge as the capacity to act in a particular social action is an essential consequence of the correspondence between the type and content of knowledge and those elements of the situation that can be conceived of as open, i.e. controllable or manipulable by actors, and that can actually be influenced”).

I d argue that different 'open situations' can be influenced/controlled/manipulated according to the content of respective science, for example, quantified narrow uncertainty is more likely to serve technocratic policy than large uncertainty or ignorance. A global temperature index is not the same as scientific knowledge about the rapid climate change or the extent of the enigmatic Medieval Warm Period in the Rocky Mountains.

looking forward to reading the book!

Joshua said...

Reiner -

No. I am interested in dialog on these issues.

As a good place to start in discussing the evidence of what I mentioned - have you seen these?:


http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1871503&http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1871503

And this:

http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/Climategate_Opinion_and_Loss_of_Trust_1.pdf

In more specific terms of what I was talking about, I think quoting from the abstract of that second link will help:

==]] The results demonstrate that Climategate had a significant effect on public beliefs in global warming and trust in scientists. The loss of trust in scientists, however, ****was primarily among individuals with a strongly individualistic worldview or politically conservative ideology.**** Nonetheless, Americans overall continue to trust scientists more than other sources of information about global warming. [[==

In other words, of those "many" people - there is clear evidence that a large % started out "suspicious" because of political, cultural, social, or personal identifications. Their suspicions were not merely a product of what they were being "expected to subscribe to." I would also add that w/r/t that second link - I would guess that there is a methodological problem with how opinions were validated. My guess is that many of the participants who expressed loss of trust due to Climategate likely overstated the impact of climategate. The before/after quality of their opinions were not validated in any way, and certainly people predisposed to distrust climate scientists would be likely to exaggerate the impact of climategate. In that sense, I would say that the study may very well overestimate the overall impact of climategate.

Anyway, that phenomenon is why I objected to your unquantified and unvalidated speculation.

So now maybe you could answer my question?:

How could saying the following **not** be analogizing people to Nazis?:


==]] There is an eerie similarity between race science and climate science in that both see their services as essential for solving pressing social problems. [[==

Certainly, you might have picked many other kinds of scientists who see their services as essential for solving pressing social problems? Why, of all scientists who see their role in such a fashion, would you pick people who exterminated people in ovens as the object of comparison?

Have you not read the ubiquitous comparisons in blog comments at "skeptical" websites between climate scientists and eugenicists and Lysenko? Didn't you read the WSJ editorial where leading "skeptical" scientists compared the climate debate to Lysenkoism?

Certainly, it is possible to discuss the potential problems of scientific over-reach, or mixing science with advocacy, without turning to comparisons to Nazis?

Reiner Grundmann said...

Joshua
Thanks for clarification, I now understand where you are coming from. We did not include references to this specific cultural theory inspired research, partly because it was not available (at the time of writing the manuscript).
We tried to make the more general point (a la Breakthrough) that a majority of citizens in most countries is concerned about climate change and that it is ironic that climate policies did not manage to translate this concern into effective action. Our explanation for this failure is the elevation of science to an arbiter in a political controversy.

However, I am also a bit reluctant to put too much faith into the studies you quote. The main reason is the rather static nature of the framework. WHat interests me is the change over time. Many individualists will not speak out with regard to climate change, but then suddenly might. I am not sure the research you are pointing to would be of much help in terms of explanation. It is also entirely US based.

In Germany we saw the emergence of a climate sceptical discourse for the first time. It would be implausible to assume that the proportion of individualists has increased in a matter of months.

Regarding the analogizing to Nazis, I think you refuse to see the plain fact that in both discourses eminent players from science and politics have argued that it is science that dictates our course of action. This does not mean that climate scientists (or politicians calling for aggressive GHG mitigation strategies) are like Nazis.

The reason we come to this comparison is the selection of cases. Note: The protagonist of our third case, John Maynard Keynes, did not argue his policy on the basis of scientific imperatives.
We also note that fascist and welfare states alike used Keynesian economic policies. Again, it would be a fallacy to say that therefore Keynes was a fascist.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Mathis #9
"looking forward to reading the book!" :-))

Not sure though if I agree with your take on the openness of situations. You seem to say that it is science which defines it as open (or uncertain, etc) and therefore malleable. This may be sometimes the case, for example when science acts as an agenda setter and is able to frame the problem in a certain way (as to pre-define the range of possible solutions). But this need not always be the case. Often politics is in the driving seat from the start.

You say: "quantified narrow uncertainty is more likely to serve technocratic policy than large uncertainty or ignorance."

We have seen a lot of technocratic policy-making with high levels of uncertainty (economic, financial, climate, etc.). This, of course, also begs the question if we can ever agree on there being high uncertainty (as opposed to a normal 'risk').

Mathis Hampel said...

I think science co-produces open situations.

mitigation: scientists find the absorptive capacity of carbon dioxide...and models help define climate change as global phenomenon for politicians to tackle via commodification/regulation. here we have an open situation than can be influenced/controlled/manipulated via treaties/acts/an enlightend despot.

adaptation: scientists know the climate of the past at a particluar location and this knowledge feeds into decision making. scientists outline future risks of climate extremes to which we 'must' adapt. Id argue that worries about future climate risks used to be reserved to the agricultural sector rather than private property owners (risk society!). the open situation can be influenced/controlled/manipulated via 'climate services' for eg private property owners.

science co-produces both open situations of which adaptation policy more easily follows a linear model – in particular if knowledge from other but scientific sources adds to the portfolio.

such 'linear' implemetation very difficult on a global scale. mitigation based on a predominantely science framed open situation (commodification/regulation) wont work smoothly – there is no democratically elected global representative to control it. here relatively large scientific uncertainty may actually be bliss.


Joshua said...

Ranier: Part I

==]] We did not include references to this specific cultural theory inspired research, partly because it was not available (at the time of writing the manuscript). [[==

What was unique with the literature I referenced was the specific application to the climate change debate. Research into cultural cognition and motivated reasoning has been around for a while, and it is just plain common (skeptical) sense to ask the question of who has what opinion on climate change, to dig beneath the surface as to why. The correlation to political and other identifications are strong, and the climate change debate is not unlike many other, similar debates in that regard. Again, IMO, your speculation as stated in the excerpt is not accompanied by an examination of obvious counterarguments - of the sort that should be included in a comprehensive analysis.



==]]] We tried to make the more general point (a la Breakthrough) that a majority of citizens in most countries is concerned about climate change and that it is ironic that climate policies did not manage to translate this concern into effective action. Our explanation for this failure is the elevation of science to an arbiter in a political controversy. [[==

Here again, there is a lot of literature out there examining possible causal factors there. For example, we can see correlation with the health of economies. We can speculate about the influence of partisan media that attack scientific expertise for political purposes. We can examine the impact of short-term weather phenomena. To not examine these issues fails a basic requirement of proving a hypothesis.



==]] However, I am also a bit reluctant to put too much faith into the studies you quote. The main reason is the rather static nature of the framework. [[==

Perhaps you could elaborate on what you see to be the methodological or logical flaws. I already suggest one that might lead to an underestimation of the influence of cultural cognition.


==]] WHat interests me is the change over time. Many individualists will not speak out with regard to climate change, but then suddenly might. [[==

Here, again, the "many." What is "many." A tiny % of the world's population is a very large number of people.

==]] I am not sure the research you are pointing to would be of much help in terms of explanation. It is also entirely US based. [[==

Certainly, motivated reasoning and cultural cognition are not unique to Americans. These phenomena related to underlying mechanisms of our cognition, and how all humans reason, particularly in the face of controversies that overlap with cultural, political, social, and personal identifications.

==]] In Germany we saw the emergence of a climate sceptical discourse for the first time. It would be implausible to assume that the proportion of individualists has increased in a matter of months. [[==

This looks like a logical fallacy. There is nothing to assume that people who weren't already individualists might trend in one direction or another specifically because they are individualists. That cultural cognition would play a significant role would in no way suppose an increase in individualists. Look at the climategate example from the study I linked. No rapid increase of individualists over a short period of time was necessary.

These phenomena are pretty well established in a fairly comprehensive research literature. It would seem highly imprudent to just dismiss it based on a rather casual examination.

Joshua said...

Part II:

==]] Regarding the analogizing to Nazis, I think you refuse to see the plain fact that in both discourses eminent players from science and politics have argued that it is science that dictates our course of action. [[==

Please read, again, what I said. I haven't "refused" to see what you are describing. Of course climate scientists say that their science dictates a course of action. But that is not unique to climate science. And it is not unique only to climate science and race science.

==]] This does not mean that climate scientists (or politicians calling for aggressive GHG mitigation strategies) are like Nazis. [[==

Sorry - but if you aren't arguing that they are like Nazis, then IMO, you should not compare them to Nazis.

==]] The reason we come to this comparison is the selection of cases. [[==

That seems like a tautology.


==]] We also note that fascist and welfare states alike used Keynesian economic policies. Again, it would be a fallacy to say that therefore Keynes was a fascist. [[==

Of course it would. This point does not seem germane to mine. I would never make such an argument. That point is completely independent of the point I was making. I'm not saying that you are arguing that climate scientists **are** Nazis. You are arguing that they are **like** Nazis. That's an argument that I think is entirely unproductive. Again, it is entirely possible to argue that you think that they are guilty of over-reach, or overconfidence, or of mixing too much advocacy with their science, w/o comparing them to Nazis. The Nazi comparison is, entirely, unnecessary. As such, I would argue that it is also counterproductive. It adds nothing of positive value to the discussion. It doesn't illustrate anything more clearly than you might be able to illustrate in other ways. On the other hand, it does justify the kind of partisan vitriol that characterizes the climate change debate and other, similar debates.

I've enjoyed our discussion. I suspect from your last post - which seemed to avoid addressing the actual points I made - that we may have reached the end of a fruitful discussion. I did repeat my points once again, so if you address them I will be interested in responding.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Joshua

we certainly would have to agree to disagree.

However, I am still puzzled by your strong view about the parallel between race science and climate science and the way they see themselves in policy making. You say such a comparison would be entirely unnecessary and also counter-productive.

Let me tell you that we came to see this comparison as a result of our study, not as a preconceived idea. At least I was not aware of the sources you mentioned in a previous post (Nico would have to answer for himself). It therefore strikes me as very peculiar that you would want to exclude our insight as unnecessary or unproductive. Do you see it this way because you think it harms the political cause?

Joshua said...

Reiner,

==]] Let me tell you that we came to see this comparison as a result of our study, not as a preconceived idea. [[==

That is interesting. Yes, I hadn't thought about the sequence. My guess is that there is a reason that among all the possible examples that you chose to highlight the particular parallel you highlighted. That would speak to motivated reasoning very directly. It is not necessary for you to have started out trying to find that parallel - which would speak more to motivation than to motivated reasoning. There is a distinction between the two which is often conflated.

==]] At least I was not aware of the sources you mentioned in a previous post (Nico would have to answer for himself). [[==

I did speak to that before - but let me be more explicit. It seems to me that taking a comprehensive approach to outlining cause-and-effect between the work of climate scientists and the reactions in the public to the work of climate scientists would necessitate the exploration of various possibilities. Certainly, political or other identifications of the various reactants would be a rather obvious path to explore. From an academic approach, one could not look at the dramatic correlations between political ideology and views on climate science and just assume it to be coincidence. Likewise, one could not reach cause-and-effect conclusions (as those you suggest) without exploring obvious counterarguments. In my view, one cannot prove a thesis if one has not explicitly dealt with obvious counterarguments.

==]] It therefore strikes me as very peculiar that you would want to exclude our insight as unnecessary or unproductive. [[==

I don't think that any particular viewpoint is unnecessary. I am being very specific that drawing parallels between climate scientists and the science of Nazis is unnecessary to explore the interface between climate science and public opinion, policy formation, politics, etc. I still don't see where the parallel you draw is in any way uniquely or even particularly instructive. This is particularly the case because I see those very same parallels drawn very frequently in the climate blogosphere. It strikes me as gratuitous.

==]] Do you see it this way because you think it harms the political cause? [[==

Not really. Because those types of parallels being drawn are so ubiquitous, I don't think that one more instance has much substantive impact.

But I also think that drawing those parallels harms the goal of productive dialog, and in that sense undercuts the political process of developing well-considered policies. I feel this way about the use of over-the-top (or gratuitous) analogies on both sides of the debate.

Here is something that might help explain my perspective in that regard:

http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2012/02/01/summing-up/#comments

In particular, please note the exchanges I have in the comments.



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