The IPCC debate: of science and politics
THE public debate on the IPCC report in India has not gone beyond what I would call page three social science. It has remained obsessed with the politics of personality and hence it is time it were rescued from this obsession and given some academic sobriety. I have flagged five themes in my attempt to do so. Stating them upfront, they are, (i) the relationship between science and politics, (ii) the relationship between parts and whole, (iii) the perils of a derivative discourse, (iv) the role of champions, and (v) the conflict of interests. For this article I can only discuss them very sketchily. They evidently need more expansive treatment but flagging them here will, I hope, at least, make them available for the larger discourse.
Let me begin with the large theme of the relationship between science and politics. If we comb through the vast body of literature, which stretches all the way from the philosophy of science to the sociology of science and then to the political economy of science, we can find at least four issues that merit attention. These have been much debated and have marked the debate in the last four decades and so, discussing them here is in some ways a repetition of what is well-known but, in the context of the IPCC report, insufficiently examined. Let me, therefore, set them out sequentially in terms of what one can call the ‘increasing infection’ of the practice of science by the subtle and the overt processes of politics.
The first is the issue of ‘Objectivity’. Modern science, more than most other systems of knowledge, claims to be the true standard bearer of ‘objectivity’, conforming to the rule that anyone performing the same experiment, anywhere, with the same protocols would arrive at the same result. The ‘protocols of knowledge production’ are therefore of importance and must be adhered to. What is also of equal importance is the existence of a consensus on these protocols by the practitioners. If there is no consensus then the knowledge produced does not have the same air of certainty as one in which there is a consensus as a result of which either more scientific research would be required to tilt the balance, or an alternative set of protocols presented to explain the condition.
For example, the differences between Allopathy and Homeopathy can be explained by different protocols of knowledge production. On the issue of more scientific research, the Large Hadron Collider experiments taking place in Geneva can be regarded as trying to produce the evidence that will further illumine the different conceptions of the laws of nature held by Einstein and Niels Bohr. This is how modern science is practiced. Uncertainty begets more experiments, which begets less uncertainty, which begets more experiments, which begets even less uncertainty. And so on.
If this practice of science is understood in terms of what Kuhn refers to as the two distinct periods of normal science and that of revolutionary science, then the evolving climate science, as obtained in the various IPCC reports (1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007), can be seen as being at the cusp between these two periods. In the normal period it has produced hundreds of hypotheses, drawn from peer reviewed and grey literature, which can and need to be tested by the protocols of normal science. The provision to revisit the findings and report the new assessments every six years is, in fact, a reflection of this uncertainty. Thus on the question of the date by which the Himalayan glaciers would fully melt, the IPCC report certainly slipped up on the protocols of evaluating the claim and has rightly been strongly criticized for this lapse. This is the normal practice of normal science. Nothing to get so worked up about since that is the history of scientific evolution. But this should not make us lose sight of the big picture that the report is portraying and that also gives it a claim to revolutionary science.
The IPCC report promises to transform the way in which we explore and exploit nature. It promises to introduce a disquiet into the way in which we conceive our relationship to the physical world. (In an earlier time I would have written natural world but now, because of this challenge which sees humans as part of nature, the nomenclature has had to change from ‘natural’ world to ‘physical’ world). The IPCC report will, therefore, cause worldviews to change, establishing a much closer relationship between science and ethics, almost like a double helix, where science would not be divorced from ethics as has so far been the case in the project of modern science. The relationship would be something similar to what it is in the worldviews of indigenous communities. This may sound overstated, but I believe that the IPCC report on the state of climate science, and its impacts on ecosystems and lives, will have to be assessed in terms of its location at the cusp between normal science and revolutionary science.
This brings me to the second point: the theoretical framework within which the facts that are being produced have to be placed. We know by now that there are no ‘facts’ floating about independently in the air. We know that all facts acquire significance only within a theoretical framework. These frameworks determine whether a fact is relevant or irrelevant, valid or invalid. Facts are therefore theory embedded. When we have contending theories more research is required to see which of the contenders can accommodate the new data. While the climate change protagonists have produced voluminous data, the climate change deniers have neither given us a comprehensive theory, with which to view the data produced, nor have they given us extensive data which controvert that produced by the IPCC. The various reports of the IPCC, in contrast, offer a clear warning that the planet is in danger unless we change our personal and industrial lives. This has come from a list of scientists whose institutional addresses are impressive. And so what are the climate deniers saying? Are they recommending a business as usual attitude? Do they think that raising the issue of the sustainability and survivability of the planet is being unnecessarily alarmist?
Having flagged the issue of ‘objectivity’, and the ‘theoretical embeddedness of facts’ of science, let me now turn to the third issue that the climate change deniers have overlooked – the nature of the scientific establishment and the nature of its funding. Most scientific funding comes from only two sources, government and corporate. Most of the scientific activity in the western world is funded by corporates who give their scientists rules about what can be published and what cannot, what can enter the scientific world and what cannot. So not only are the problems that are being studied determined by the funding available, but the knowledge produced by the skewed funding pattern is also not immediately available in the public domain since it is governed by IPR considerations and the commercial reasoning that is connected to it. The first seven space shuttle missions, I believe, were fully booked by the US military. It is worth doing a quantitative study to see the quantum of funds from corporates and from government that is going into scientific research. My hunch is that you would see clear dominance of corporate driven research in the western world. The priorities of scientific research are, therefore, not being set by the curious scientist, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise, but by the government or by the corporate, by the state or the market. The age of the independent scientist is over. Today one cannot walk out of one’s lab without one’s computer being checked by the company’s security system.
Which brings me to the fourth issue: Should science recommend? Is it within its internal logic to recommend? The answer is at two levels – the epistemic and the ethical. At the epistemic level the answer is a definite no, an unambiguous conclusion that science cannot recommend one value over another in a situation of competing values. I cannot tell which goal is preferable to another, which conception of the good superior to the other. Science can only demonstrate the consequences of a particular choice that has been made. It can only show that if one prefers a certain conception of the good, then that preference will have certain consequences. Science can only describe the outcomes of a choice. It can demonstrate the costs involved. It cannot, however, tell you which choice to make. It cannot answer Tolstoy’s question: What should I do and how should I live? This has been eloquently argued by Max Weber in his classic essay, ‘Science as a Vocation’.
The IPCC reports have described the consequences of the choices we have made in the past and warned that the planet is crossing its sustainability threshold and hence we can either choose to be lemmings and commit mass suicide or pull back and choose to survive. More recently, the IPCC has, however, also got involved with ethical issues since it has chosen to recommend actions and policies. These recommendations must be read as not the logical corollary of the science, but the consequence of the ethical culture in which the scientific findings are located. The recommendations come not from science but from the ethical concerns of our age. We do not want to be lemmings, we want to live.
Recognizing these ethical concerns the IPCC can be seen to be saying that if we want to live we must do the following things. Commit ourselves to limiting global warming to just a two degree rise and through this commitment rebuild the way we live. The IPCC argument should not be read as: ‘Since this is what the science tells us, we should change our lifestyles,’ but rather as, ‘If we want a certain quality of life, the science tells us that it is not possible at current levels of consumption, so we should change our lifestyles.’ The sequence of the reasoning is as follows: normative goal, scientific findings, normative judgment.
This is how one reads Einstein’s remorse, and his subsequent active campaign for nuclear disarmament. His nuclear science did not make him a peacenik. His fear of the consequences of nuclear weapons did. It is interesting to note from the ‘Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ website that they are concerned by three threats to humanity: nuclear weapons, technologies in the life sciences, and climate change. The doomsday clock now reads six minutes to midnight. The website notes: ‘The decision to move the minute hand is made by the Bulletin’s Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.’ Climate change is a concern of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. How do we argue with all those Nobel laureates? Or have they too got their science wrong? By placing the above four issues, on the relationship between ‘science and politics’, on the discussion table, I hope that now at least we can move the debate beyond its page three social science location.
This brings the discussion to the second theme: the relationship between parts and the whole. It is particularly relevant to the public debate on the 2007 IPCC report because the media hype seems to have lost its sense of proportion. Before we even reach the point of exclaiming on the validity of the report, we need to answer the following questions. (i) How many sections does the report have? (ii) How many distinct conclusions, such as the one on the Himalayan glaciers, are there, which present falsifiable findings of the impact of climate change on ocean systems, forests, polar ice-caps, atmosphere, soil, desertification, rivers, cities, fresh water availability, etc? (iii) How many scientists were involved in evaluating the data that went into the report? (iv) From which institutions were they? (v) How were they chosen to be a part of the process? (vi) What were the protocols of agreeing on the data to be reported? (vii) How many meetings of the scientists took place, both of the small groups and of the larger groups, which ultimately produced the consensus on oceans, forests etc?
The IPCC secretariat must now give this quantitative data to the public to help the lay person get a sense of the consultation process. We need to be informed about the arguments that took place since arguing about interpretation is part of good science. The public discussion, especially in the media, seems to have lost its sense of proportion since it is making the part look larger than the whole. This is irresponsible. There was definitely a goof up on the date of the Himalayan glaciers melting and that goof up has been accepted and meaculpas have been expressed. This controversy could have been handled better by the IPCC, but to convert that lapse into a page three type report is quite mindless. Most of the media has magnified the lapse to give the impression that the whole IPCC report is weak with respect to its conformity with scientific protocols. I have seen no reports either on TV or in the press making the case that the Himalayan glacier conclusion is just a small part of a big report, that it is just one hypothesis among X number of hypotheses. Interestingly this sense of proportion has come from some environmental activists who have in fact stood up against this campaign of discrediting the IPCC report and pleaded for us not to lose sight of the larger picture. I recognize that getting the data, processing it systematically, placing it within a complex argument of error and truth, is a laborious and painful process. And who wants the pain.
Which brings me to the third theme: the perils of a derivative discourse. Reading, and listening, to the India media, on the controversy around the IPCC report error on the Himalayan glaciers, I am quite saddened by its inability to take stands that are independent of those taken by some of the media in the West. They seem to have chosen to endorse the reporting of these media groups in the West, without either independently researching the claims, or exploring the forces behind the reports, or exploring its implication for the larger concern with climate change, or even of seeing its implications for countries of the global South, as if when it comes out in London it is the unvarnished truth that has been scientifically researched.
To focus their reporting on the slant given by the western media which focuses on the opinions and personality of the Chair of IPCC, as if this line of investigation is so vital for the ‘truths’ of climate change, seems to confirm once again that we still do not seem to have emerged from what Ashis Nandy referred to as the colonization of our minds. The West sets not just the questions that we have to investigate but also the tools by which these questions will be investigated. Partha Chatterjee aptly describes it as our derivative discourse. The hoopla in the media seems to be another confirming instance of this derivative discourse.
When I was a student in the ’70s at JNU, Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth was compulsory reading. The media hype made me painfully recall the opening lines in the Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre: ‘..the European élite undertook to manufacture a native élite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture, they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country, they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed. From Paris, from London, from Amsterdam we would utter the words ‘Parthenon! Brotherhood!’ and somewhere in Africa or Asia lips would open ... thenon! ... therhood!’ Harsh words. Painful judgment. I hope I am wrong.
And now let me move to the fourth theme in the debate that begs for attention: the role of champions. As improbable as the hypothesis may appear, that champions have a role in promoting scientific ideas, this is most certainly the case on the issue of climate change. The IPCC is such a champion. Its reports have to be complimented for making climate change a commonsense. So when the rhododendrons bloom in Shimla in January (they normally do so in March), the locals explain it by referring to climate change. When one’s daughter has to write an assignment in school about soil erosion and climate change, then you know that there is some hope for the planet for the attention of the young has been captured. The young are questioning. They are growing up looking at the world differently from the way that we have done and that the climate sceptics would want us to. The ordinary folk of the planet are seriously talking about the effect of climate change on their livelihoods.
And this has not come about because of a set of scientific articles published in Nature, but because a group of people, pre-eminently environmental activists and public intellectuals, have taken these scientific findings and made them a part of public discourse. They are the champions. This has not happened, for example, with respect to the scientific knowledge being produced by the Hubble telescope or the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), or even the Human Genome Project. We are not debating the consequences, in the media, of the advances in astronomy on our belief in God the Creator, or of the search for the god particle (small g) by the LHC scientists and its implications for our understanding of the invariant laws of nature, or the impact of genetic engineering on future generations. Because they do not, as yet, have significant champions. And, therefore, credit must go to the IPCC and its public face, the Chair, who has championed the cause of climate science. People in Shimla are worried about climate change. The rhodendrons have begun to bloom on Potter’s Hill.
And finally I come to the last of the five themes for discussion: the conflict of interests, the theme that has dominated the public discussion so far, blanketing out the previous four. The ethic that underlies the principle of a conflict of interest, that we hold so important, is an ethic which demands that a person act in good faith because acting in good faith is basic to human society and necessary for societal survival. This may sound bombastic but good faith produces trust and interpersonal trust is necessary for societal interaction. Niklas Luhmann laboured this point extensively, and so if one acts in good faith, even if it produces error, it is acceptable since such error can be attributed to either the exigencies of the situation or the inefficiencies of the system within which the actor is located. To therefore determine whether or not a person has acted in good faith requires a careful sifting of evidence.
Thus, it is necessary to see whether there was mala fide, whether the benefits that accrued were planned for, even though they were unmerited. Hence, before making the charge that a person has not acted in good faith, one must be convinced beyond reasonable doubt, as any student of jurisprudence will tell you, that there was mala fide and not just human error. But this has not been done by most of the media in the IPCC debate on the Himalayan glaciers. Of course, with a few honourable exceptions. The growing practice of mixing up investigation with judgment seems to have become a habit.
The more one thinks about the charge of ‘conflict of interests’, the more one is reminded about the biblical story, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. The media would melt away if it were asked to meet this test. Contrary to media ethics where avoiding a conflict of interest is a core value, to ensure that what is reported is in good faith since millions base their opinions and decisions on the information that comes to them through such channels, our media is riven through with conflict of interests.
It can be seen to have the following characteristics. Some media groups are owned by politicians. Some groups control both the print and visual medium. (This is a cardinal sin in media ethics since it concentrates too much power in a single group and therefore makes independent reporting very vulnerable.) Some groups have business interests outside the media. This makes them so infected by conflict of interests that to expect them, with a pure heart, to cast the first stone is quite naive.
Added to this grim picture is now the recent embarrassment of ‘paid news’ and ‘coverage packages’. P. Sainath in his ‘The Medium, Message and the Money’ of 26 October in The Hindu reports that ‘The deals were many and varied. A candidate had to pay different rates for "profiles", interviews, a list of "achievements", or even a trashing of his rival in some cases. (With the channels, it was "live" coverage, a "special focus", or even a team tracking you for hours in a day.) Let alone bad-mouthing your rival, this "pay-per" culture also ensures that the paper or channel will not tell its audiences that you have a criminal record.’ So much for conflict of interest.
It appears that many, if not most, of the scientists involved with the IPCC benefited from funding that came to their institutions because of their expertise in climate science research. Is this a conflict of interest? This is an issue that needs further discussion. To me the jury is out. For the public, however, to continue to have good faith in the IPCC, this concern of ‘conflict of interest’ must be addressed. Internal procedures must be made more robust (if they are not already) and the norms must be clear to all involved.
The above five themes, and the sub-issues discussed in each theme, are the ones that should be preoccupying our public discourse. I called the discussion that is taking place ‘page three social science’, because it has remained at the level of personal accusations and gossip. But climate change is too important for the debate to remain at this level. It is an opportunity for both scientists and philosophers to argue about the core concepts that undergird their theoretical framework. These must be explored.
Peter Ronald deSouza
* The views expressed are personal.